‘It may be the moon had something to do with it.’
This novelette, like a Pavlova pastry, crisp on the outside, all soft and melting on the inside, goes well with an afternoon cup of tea and a sweet sprinkling of thoughtful reflections.
Young Sir George Blount is on his Grand Tour of Europe, looking for Englishness abroad, and finding very little of it. Thus he is anxious to return home to his English hounds and all the English foxes that roam his estate, but his tutor has taken ill with a fever and is confined to bed.
This leaves Sir George at a loose end in Paris with nothing but his incomprehensible French to accompany him.
He wanders into a garden, with the vague hope that it looks like an English garden—‘all shaggy and sweet’. (yes, the author informs us, it was in fact designed on the English model by an Anglophil uncle of the present Marquis, and then had been let run wild again…)
It is there he encounters an outdoor ballet in progress and is struck with his first sight of ‘the nymph’—a ballerina, the premiére danseuse. He falls in love, and makes a disastrous attempt to woo and marry her.
It’s disastrous because he was successful.
This unlikely whirlwind romance was powered by a graceful pirouette in a moonlit garden, the fact that the ballerina was dancing the role of Diana, the Huntress (Sir George was nothing if not a hunting enthusiast and the little darling was actually wearing a bow and arrow in her hair—!) and the subsequent fervent exchange in ‘execrable French’ with poor George losing himself in a stammer of infinitives and future tenses.
The young lady agreed enthusiastically to what she thought was an offer of abduction, only to realize, to her horror, it was a proposal of honorable marriage.
By then it was too late.
The Nymph–we never learn her name–soon finds herself in the ‘large and impersonal’, wet and dripping, English countryside, which was ‘looking its worst under a steady autumn drizzle‘:
‘This is better than Paris,’ thought Sir George.
‘At the end of the avenue his great house stood waiting for him solid, square and blacker than the night. Not a candle showed at a window, not even when his horses wheeled to a standstill before the unbarred door. They did not, it seemed, fear thieves at Blount Hall…’
Other residents of this great house include the indomitable Dowager Lady Blount who ‘kept the keys’, and a chilly butler named Tallboy.
The story is full of improbabilities, witticisms, Regency era melodrama, some Tennyson ‘Dying Swan’ allusions, and pert commentary on how the English/French cultural divide might have looked in the late eighteenth-century.
Sharp has deliciously captured the ‘flavor’ of Sir George as the boorish, rough country squire:
‘Young Lady Blount managed to check her tears; and not a moment too soon, for hardly had the mists cleared away when a spur clinked on the threshold and her husband came striding into the room. He was splashed with mud from shoulder to heel, and had evidently been pursuing, on horseback, some small native animal.’
He is not cruel to his wife, just clueless. After settling his new bride in comfortably with his mother—with orders that she should have chicken and a warm fire every day because that is apparently something that French People want—he then went on hunting with his hounds as before.
The malaise which falls upon the little transplanted exotic flower is swift, as is her brief moment of empowerment.
‘Just after the New Year, however, she experienced a return of health and spirits so bright and sudden as to resemble nothing in the world but the last leaping flicker of a candle; and it came about in this way that one morning, while alone in her chamber, Lady Blount was seized by an uncontrollable impulse to place her right foot on top of a high oak chest…She did so….a moment later she had found, to her delight and amazement, that she could still kick as high as her head….For about three weeks she was almost happy again…’
‘From that moment she had an object in life. Not to lose her skill; not to forget what the ballet-master had told her: to keep the knee straight and the elbows rounded; and presently, as her imagination kindled, another motive crept in.
‘By thus practicing the art of ballet she felt herself to be in some obscure way defending France against England, Rome against the heretics, a preserver of Gallic culture in the stronghold of the barbarian; and with these lofty thoughts in mind Lady Blount went daily through her steps.’
Eventually, beaten down by an English winter and her hearty husband’s cheerful neglect, stricken by the lack of a stage on which to dance and crushed by the absence of ‘amorous men’, Lady Blount takes to her bed and does not leave it again.
‘So Lady Blount continued to lie listless against the pillows; and Sir George came up with his favorite pointer and sat by her side for hours on end, usually in silence, but sometimes attempting to arouse her interest with anecdotes of the chase…’
‘He has a good heart,’ thought Lady Blount, ‘but I am dying all the same.’
Additional Notes, cultural cross-pollination probabilities, and ‘if-you-haven’t-already-guessed-the-ending’ possible spoilers:
The Nymph and the Nobleman was first published in 1932 by Arthur Barker, London
It was illustrated delightfully by Anna Zinkeisen
Later published as part of an anthology in Three Companion Pieces, 1941, Little, Brown of Boston
The Nymph and the Nobleman was performed as a ‘ballet with orchestra’ at the Tivoli Theatre, Adelaide, SA, 25 November 1947.
There is a melodramatic finish to The Nymph and the Nobleman, quite suited to a tragicomedy set in the eighteenth-century or early nineteenth century, (more on that aspect here); but it is possible there is an implied tribute to the final act of a real life ‘dying swan’—Anna Pavlova. (she performed The Swan over 4000 times!)
Born in Russia, the great ballerina had called London home since 1912.
In 1931—just a year prior to Margery Sharp penning The Nymph and the Nobleman— Pavlova was in The Hague performing, when she fell seriously ill with pneumonia. She was told that surgery was necessary to save her life, but that if she had the surgery, she would never dance again. Her response?:
“If I can’t dance then I’d rather be dead.”
Shortly thereafter, she died—just past midnight on Friday, January 23, 1931. Her last words:
“Get my ‘Swan’ costume ready.”
There was such an English outpouring of love and grief over Pavlova’s untimely death, that even though many felt the great Russian ballerina should be buried in her native land, or in Paris, her husband later wrote of his decision to leave her remains in England:
‘I know how much Madame is loved in England, and I know that, at least by the present generation, Madame will not be forgotten and will always have flowers on her grave. I do not doubt that Paris would have done her homage with a magnificent funeral, but I do not feel so certain that she would have been surrounded there, or for so long, with the same universal feeling of love and almost worship.’
Therefore, the final, tender dying scene in the Nymph and the Nobleman, written one year later, might be significant. Perhaps Margery Sharp was one of the admiring English crowd who wanted to pay tribute to the beloved dancer.
Young Lady Blount, knowing she is dying, dons her gauzy ballerina gown—the one she had been wearing in her last dance on a stage—painstakingly ties on her ballet shoes, then:
‘…she raised herself on her toes and like a blown and wavering leaf had fluttered half across the room when the door was thrown open and Sir George stood frozen on the threshold….’
‘The next instant he sprang forward as she fell swooning in his arms; but before he could speak to her, before he could call her name, a little dancer entered Heaven sur les pointes.’