The first thing that attracted me to this book was the cover; I saw it on a vintage book website and fell completely and utterly into love with the artwork. There is something so natural and beautiful about the image, it is the essence of innocence, of fun, and beauty.
So, what’s the background of the image? Who are these young, carefree people swimming so leisurely in an alpine lake? They are the Sanger children, the brood of avant-garde composer Albert Sanger, and this is exactly the situation that their uncle finds them in when he comes to rescue them following the untimely death of their father. Swimming naked, like heathens, in the crystal clear water.
The Sanger children live in a quaint yet somewhat disorderly life in a small chalet in the Swiss Alps, surrounded by an ever moving stream of their father’s admirers, who come and go with ease. The family and their life are chaotic, full of arguments, quests for attention, childish follies and trips of pleasure, but each visitor to the strange dwelling falls under a kind of spell. Step foot inside the Sanger chalet, and all claims of respectable life or upbringing are sure to fall away, swept away by the beauty of free spiritedness, the alpine breeze, and the musical tolling of cow bells.
When I think of the Alps there are many things that come to mind – alpine milk, pine trees, lush green grass, snow capped mountains and the sound of birdsong to name but a few – but with individual characteristics set aside, I am left with an overall feeling that I find rather difficult to describe. Imagine trying to describe how it feels to fill your lungs with cool, crisp air, or to listen to the wind blow through the trees. It’s not just a sound, or a physical feeling, but something more. With The Constant Nymph, Margaret Kennedy somehow captures the emotion of a secluded Alpine dwelling, bottling the pure essence of the Sanger family’s existence and transporting the reader straight into mountains, to experience the sights and smells for themselves.
“They paused for a moment to look over the valley and saw empty air in front of them, and, far below, the tops of tree and little cows and their carriage crawling back along the valley road. Cow bells rose very faintly like single drop of music distilled into this upper silence.”
Within the chalet, life is less typically idyllic. Sanger is not what you would necessarily call a good role model – if fact, he’s a pretty terrible father. He neglects the children, leaving them to be brought up by their eldest sister, and to live more or less by their own devices. But with neglect comes an incredible amount of freedom, an experience unlike no other, the ability to do exactly as they like, and to live with almost no restrictions. The freedom and prosperity of the children is refreshing – they live a life of new age hippiedome, long before the swinging sixties.
“A large barn of a place with very little furniture… the entire wardrobe of the young ladies lay about the permanently in heaps on the floor amid books, music, guitars, cigarette ends, cherry stones and dust.”
The life of Sanger’s circus in the Alps is certainly unconventional, but it is the unconventionality of the situation that makes it so enchanting. It is untreated, natural, and unashamedly beautiful – I am almost sad to say that the book does not continue in this vain, but all things must end.
Sanger’s death, though a shock to the inner workings of the alpine household is not wholly unexpected on the part of the reader, as it is subtly foreshadowed by a sudden change in one of Sanger’s many children, Tessa.
“Teresa said nothing but crouched at the top of the stairs, brooding disconsolately, her thin arms round her knees. Suddenly she had become intensely miserable. She stared down into the darkness of the hall, cut in two by the moonlight which streamed in through the door. She could not bear it. She jumped up with a little cry of exasperation.”
Tessa’s sudden and intense misery is like a predomination of her life to come. After the death of their father, the children are thrown into disarray. With no money, no education, and no parents to support them, the circus is forced to split up and each, once carefree, affiliate to attempt a more conventional way of life. A once perfect existence stripped away, leaving nothing more than the bitter aftertaste of a life once lived.
As much as I loved the picture of the Sanger family up in the hills, it is the time that follows which really makes the novel – the characters are stolen from their isolationist existence in the mountains and plunged face first into a bitter, cold, hard reality. It’s difficult for everyone, but none more so than the delicate Tessa, the constant, once-carefree, nymph, for whom the bells tolls the sound of tragedy.
It’s difficult to put into words how I feel about this book. I could say that I liked it, or even loved it, but I don’t feel that adequately encapsulates the emotion behind reading a book like this. It is both tragically beautiful, and beautifully tragic, beginning as a carefree skip through a lush green valley, and culminating with a scene so gut wrenchingly tragic that it will give you a book hangover to end all book hangovers. Once nothing more than a captivating image on a computer screen, The Constant Nymph has made it firmly onto my shelf of books to recommend.