This book covers the period 1931-1933. Nick Jenkins begins with a visit to his Uncle Giles who is ensconced in a private hotel in Bayswater. The place is ‘tarnished by the years and reduced to ignoble uses like traffic in tourists, pilgrims, or even illegal immigrants; pervaded – to borrow an appropriately Conradian mannerism – with uneasy memories of the strife of men. That was the feeling the Ufford gave, riding at anchor on the sluggish Bayswater tides.’ (p7)
Here, we also meet Mrs Myra Erdleigh, another resident, who ‘seemed to glide rather than walk across the carpet, giving the impression almost of a phantom, a being from another world…’ (p12) Great description in these scenes, notably when she uses playing cards to look into Nick’s and his uncle’s future. And perhaps she has it right when she tells Nick, ‘You are thought cold, but you possess deep affections, sometimes for people worthless in themselves… You must try to understand life.’ (p21)
One acquaintance of Nick’s is the novelist St. John Clarke. Unlike we struggling authors, it appears that his ‘sales did not depend on favourable reviews, although, in spite of this, he was said to be – like so many financially successful writers – painfully sensitive to hostile criticism.’ (p29) Nick’s old school friend Manners was the novelist’s secretary.
Widmerpool, another school friend, crops up again; he’s changing jobs, becoming a bill-broker – joining the ‘Acceptance World’, possibly an early version of futures dealing. There’s talk of goods to sell to a firm in Bolivia, for example, but don’t touch the money until the goods arrive, yet certain houses will ‘accept’ the debt and ‘advance the money on the strength of your reputation’… Of course it might be shaky business, what with a vacillating exchange rate or even a revolution…! Thus, Nick can see that some old friends and acquaintances are moving on, while he isn’t…
Nick meets Jean again, having both been invited to the Templers’ house. Now, she’s married. ‘There was still a curious fascination about her grey-blue eyes, slanting a little, as it were caught tightly between soft, lazy lids and dark, luxurious lashes.’ (p64) He kids himself he no longer felt he would lose his head over her, as he had in the past; his observation and reignited memory give the lie to that belief. And when they’re pushed against each other in the back seat of the car on their way, he ‘took Jean in my arms.’ On arrival, they arrange a secret assignation in her room…
Mrs Erdleigh’s observation seems amiss: certainly, we’re not privy to any strong emotions from Nick: ‘… my own violent feelings about Jean which had to be reduced inwardly to some manageable order.’ Later, he observes, ‘There is always an element of unreality, perhaps even of slight absurdity, about someone you love.’ (p94) And he’s rather critical of the fair sex in general: ‘all that unreasoning bitterness and mortification to which women are so subject.’ (p108) And: ‘A measure of capriciousness is, after all, natural in women; perhaps fulfils some physiological need for both sexes.’ (p111)
On the other hand, when Jean opens the door to welcome Nick, she is naked: ‘There is, after all, no pleasure like that given by a woman who really wants to see you.’ (p145)
He is aware of a strange possessiveness. ‘When you are in love with someone, their life, past, present and future becomes in a curious way part of your life…’ (p150) And then he opines, ‘In love, however, there is no rationality.’ (p151)
Their group at the Templers’ is increased with the arrival of Quiggin, making up an ‘oddly assorted company’ (p91). After dinner, they indulge in an Ouija session, which turns awkward when Marxist sentiment intrudes in the esoteric messages!
Some days later Nick and Jean witness a ‘hunger march’ joined by St. John Clarke in a wheelchair accompanied by Quiggin and Mona Templer, the harbinger of a collapsed marriage. Nick learns of a number of marriages disintegrate and there’s a strong whiff of betrayal and dissatisfaction with women.
Powell’s descriptions of characters always amuse: ‘(Sir Gavin Walpole-Wilson) looked no older; perhaps a shade less sane.’ (p114)
At an old boys’ reunion Nick meets Maiden who ‘was in the margarine business.’ A short while later, Maiden ‘screwed up his yellowish, worried face, which seemed to have taken on sympathetic colouring from the commodity he marketed.’ (p189)
The reunion throws in the fact that one old boy had given a maiden speech in parliament, ‘tearing Ramsay MacDonald into shreds’, while another talked of India’s eventual independence, and another talked of Tanganyika. In short, the orbit these old boys covered encompassed the world painted pink.
The passion and ardour Nick experiences with Jean are muted; left to the imagination: ‘There was no sound except her sharp intake of breath… because passion in its transcendence cannot be shared with any other element, I could not speak of what had happened…’ (p146)
And yet he can capture an emotion sometimes. ‘I was myself overcome with a horrible feeling of nausea, as if one had suddenly woken from sleep and found oneself chained to a corpse.’ (p149)
Throughout, Powell exhibits gentle humour. ‘Coronets on the table napkins, but no kind hearts between the sheets.’ (p208) He could be alluding to the 1949 film or the Tennyson poem. In a closing scene where Nick is coping with a drunken Stringham, there’s an amusing interchange:
‘For your own good.’
‘I haven’t got my own good at heart,’ says Stringham.
‘We will get you anything you want.’
‘Curse your charity.’
The presumed forward planning of the series is worthy of note. Here, he writes, ‘Duport (who, as I was to discover years later, had a deep respect for “intelligence”)…’ (p149)
Towards the end he neatly links to the beginning, as he viewed a postcard of a hotel room: ‘Indeed, the style of furnishing was reminiscent of the Ufford.’
Despite the mention of the abandonment of the Gold Standard, the formation of the National Government, and the other references above, there was in my view little feeling for the period. Certainly, Marxism was raising its head – no doubt in the background, recruiting spies in the University cities. But I’ve still to perceive ‘a remarkable picture of the history of our times’ as espoused by the Sunday Times blurb. Maybe that will come after a few more books. This is not a criticism of the books, naturally, but of the blurb writers!
The cover sketch by Mark Boxer shows Mrs Erdleigh.
Next: 4 – At Lady Molly’s
When Nick witnesses a demonstration, he merely states: ‘a banner upon which was inscribed the purpose and location of the gathering.’ Why didn’t Powell write what the banner said? This is not good visual narrative.
Again: ‘Still only partly dressed, she took up the telephone and lay on the sofa.’ (p147) A moment prior to this she’d pulled on the other stocking; so we don’t quite get any visuals about how she appears on that sofa, yet if Nick was in love with her, it might be a cherished memory…
He describes the Italian Foppa with his ‘tiny feet encased in excruciatingly tight shoes…’ (p153) They might look tight, but Nick couldn’t know they were excruciating.