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This Week In My Classes: More Margaret Kennedy

We had another session on The Constant Nymph today, and I think it’s safe to say we are getting more comfortable with it–which is not to say we have worked out our interpretations of it, but that we have a sharpening sense of what is interesting about it, of what critical conversation to have about it.

Today, for instance, we focused a lot on art, or more specifically, music, in the novel. Kennedy said herself that she meant the novel to focus on the conflict between “art” and “culture.” In the middle section we’re reading, we see this conflict embodied in the characters of Lewis Dodd, a composer, and his wife Florence. Florence fell for Lewis in part because she knows and admires Lewis’s “Symphony in Three Keys.” But she doesn’t know Lewis as we know Lewis from the first part of the novel, when we seem him to be single-minded and cruel, and also in love (in a slightly creepy, slightly idealized and otherworldly way) with the eponymous “nymph,” 14-year-old Tessa. Lewis represents, or at least stands for, art as an end in itself. In a revealing exchange with Florence, who is trying to use her social connections to further his career, she challenges his “arrogant” attitude:

“Your attitude is completely wrong. You put the wrong things first. Music, all art . . . what is it for? What is its justification? After all . . . “

“It’s not for anything. It has no justification. It . . . “

“It’s only part of the supreme art, the business of living beautifully. You can’t put it on a pedestal above decency and humanity and civilization . . .”

“You want to use it like electric light,” Lewis scoffs. He abhors the very idea of music that is commercial, consumable, even pleasurable. “Why do you write music?” asks Florence; “Don’t you want to give pleasure to people?” “No,” is Lewis’s blunt response.

Florence, as this dialogue shows, stands up for what it seems Kennedy means by “culture” (“My father’s cultured,” Lewis says scornfully). She wants her art, and her husband, domesticated: a major part of this installment focuses on the suburban home she establishes for them, which means nothing to Lewis (who literally can’t find his way around the rooms and is unable to describe it to his friends) and everything to her.

It’s easy to imagine a novel in which Florence’s belief that art can and should be commodified and incorporated into a suburban lifestyle of concert-going and outreach efforts at “bringing music to the people” would be ridiculed as tediously bourgeois, and there is something off-putting in the conventionality of her ideas. But Kennedy hasn’t set us up for quite such an easy call. The first part of the novel takes place in the chaotic home of Albert Sanger, Tessa’s father, an eccentric musical genius who lives with his family not only outside of England but conspicuously outside anything like ordinary English (or just ordinary!) morality. It’s not a pretty sight! Though the entire family has an unwavering devotion to music, which “was a sacred thing; perhaps the only sacred thing,” it’s hard to see this as very much in their favor when they are otherwise undisciplined, amoral, and just plain mean.

We had quite an animated discussion about this particular dialogue and how its terms help us think about the other parts of the novel. We also considered it as potentially reflecting on the novel itself: apparently Kennedy was quite self-conscious about the status of her own novel, which was initially received as high art (compared to Forster, for instance) but downgraded critically as it became a commercial success, so it’s odd that her characters almost anticipate the conflict between different ways of valuing art. And we talked about Tessa and tried to figure out where, if anywhere, she fits into this particular conflict in the novel. One of my students plausibly suggested that she’s a muse figure to Lewis, and I think we mostly agreed that she is at the center of the storm but not herself a part of it. She starts to get “civilized” by her time in England, which bothers Lewis in ways that reminded us of his dislike of having music packaged for a conventional audience: he likes her hair loose and wild, not plaited, and doesn’t like the way she starts to seem “sturdier.”

My favourite scene from today’s assigned reading is one in which Tessa, given a little money by her uncle and told to buy herself “something pretty,” comes back with a bowl. This too offends Lewis. “Tessa doesn’t want a bowl,” he states; “she oughtn’t to want one.”

“Why on earth not?” Florence was indignant. “It’s really an exquisite thing.”

“She has no house,” explained Lewis, taking the bowl and balancing it on one hand. “People with no houses ought to know when they are well off.”

“Take care! You’ll break it!”

“Bowls lead to houses. Houses are mainly to keep bowls in. If Tessa had a house she could buy as many bowls as she liked. She’d be done for. As it is, she should beware.”

And then, of course, he drops the bowl: “the lovely, brittle treasure lay in shivers on the floor.” Florence is more upset than Tessa.