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Friday, 11 May 2018

A Dance to the Music of Time (4 of 12)

Anthony Powell’s fourth book in his series, At Lady Molly’s (1957) is set in the early 1930s. As before, the narrator, Nick Jenkins seems cold and detached. ‘I always enjoy hearing the details of other people’s lives, whether imaginary or not…’ (p211)
Nick has achieved some modest success with his writing: ‘Written a couple of novels, and moved from a firm that published art books to a company that produced second-feature films.’ (p16) Clearly heavily influenced by Powell’s own work at Duckworths, the publishers and his later stint as a scriptwriter for Warner Brothers in England. ‘I on what is called the “scenario side”. I help to write that part of the programme known as the “second feature”. For every foot of American film shown in this country, a proportionate length of British film must appear. The Quota, in fact.’ (p55)

When we last shared Nick’s life, he was romantically involved with Jean Duport. Now, that was over and he was ‘fancy-free’, aged twenty-eight or so, and open to his confederate Chips Lovell’s suggestion to visit his aunt –Molly Jeavons. Previously married to Lord John Sleaford, Molly lived in the mansion Dogdene; Sleaford died of Spanish Flu in 1919; she was now married to Captain Teddy Jeavons. ‘Molly remained a big, charming, noisy young woman, who had never entirely ceased to be a schoolgirl. When the Dogdene frame was removed, like the loosening of a corset of steel, the unconventional, the eccentric, even the sluttish side of her nature became suddenly revealed to the world.’ (p159)

Molly is quite a character. ‘… exceptionally kind-hearted. The house is always full of people she is doing good turns to. Children stay here while their parents are fixing up a divorce.. Penniless young men get asked to meals. Former servants are always being given help of one sort or another…’ (p164)

While at Lady Molly’s, Nick comes across Widmerpool who is in the company of an older woman, Mildred. Powell’s strengths are his character descriptions, such as this sighting of Widmerpool: ‘He was wearing a new dark suit. Like a huge fish swimming into a hitherto unexplored and unexpectedly exciting aquarium, he sailed resolutely forward.’ (p46)

In this fourth outing it is obvious that certain characters will continue to surface in Nick’s life. ‘Widmerpool was a recurring milestone on the road; perhaps it would be more apt to say that his course, as one jogged round the track, was run from time to time, however different the pace, in common with my own.’ (p47)

Nick is surprised to learn he is getting married to Mildred, which is quite shocking news…

Other news concerns the rumbling in Europe caused by the ascension of Herr Hitler. Widmerpool has a leaning towards the ‘socialist’ political spectrum. ‘People talk of rearming. I am glad to say the Labour Party is against it to a man – and the more enlightened Tories, too.’ (p66) This is another one of those lengthy speeches Powell’s characters indulge in. ‘What is much more likely to be productive is to settle things round a table…’ (p67) So, while the bohemians and businessmen enjoy their chatter over cocktails, all of Europe sleepwalks towards a world war.

Later, mention is made of the embargo on arms to Bolivia and Paraguay, the ‘Smash Fascism’ group, the worries about Mosley, and the independence of Catalonia, and free meals for schoolchildren. (p120) And, briefly touched on, the conflict between Japan and China (p203).

Again, Nick meets Quiggin and the Tolland family, notably Erridge. The arrival one evening of Susan and Isobel Tolland is quite seismic for Nick: ‘The atmosphere changed suddenly, violently. One became all at once aware of the delicious, sparkling proximity of young feminine beings. The room was transformed.’ (p136) Powell doesn’t go in for emotion. The books are observational, dealing with manners, pomposity, venality, and the narrator is virtually invisible. ‘Would it be too explicit, too exaggerated, to say that when I set eyes on Isobel Tolland, I knew at once that I should marry her?’ (p137) There’s much about marriage – and divorce, too. Nick’s friend Peter Templer said, ‘Women may show some discrimination about whom they sleep with, but they’ll marry anybody.’ (p187) And Nick himself contemplated that blessed union, too: ‘I, too, should be married soon, a change that presented itself in terms of action rather than reflection, the mood in which even the most prudent often marry: a crisis of delight and anxiety, excitement and oppression.’ (p201)

While there are no great laughs, despite this being described as a humorous novel, there are moments that raise a smile. One of these is Erridge’s butler, Smith. An alcoholic who imbibed from the cellar, he was shaken when asked if there were any champagne in the cellar.

‘Champagne, m’lord?’
‘Have we got any? One bottle would do. Even a half-bottle.’
Smith’s face puckered, as if manfully attempting to force his mind to grapple with a mathematical or philosophical problem of extraordinary complexity. His hearing suggested that he had certainly before heard the word “champagne” used, if only in some distant, outlandish context; that devotion to his master alone gave him some apprehension of what this question – these ravings, almost – might mean… After a long pause, he at last shook his head.
‘I doubt if there is any champagne left, m’lord.’ (p143)

Nick’s friend Stringham seems dominated in some manner by Miss Weedon, Tuffy, who may have designs on curing Stringham of his affection for alcohol. Nick ‘found her a trifle alarming. She gave an impression of complete singleness of purpose: the impression of a person who could make herself very disagreeable if thwarted.’ (p163) We shall see more of her in volume 5.

Molly’s sister Lady Warminster is a widow and a hypochondriac, and ‘awe-inspiring. Something of the witch haunted her delicate, aquiline features and transparent ivory skin: a calm, autumnal beauty that did not at all mask the amused, malicious, almost insane light that glinted all the time in her infinitely pale eyes. When young, she must have been very good-looking indeed.’ (p205)

The book begins with recollections of Nick’s family’s distant relation, General Conyers and almost ends with him in the flesh, paraphrasing Foch: ‘War not an exact science, but a terrible and passionate drama? Something like that. Fact is, marriage is rather like that too.’

If I’d been reading these books when they were first published, I may well have lost the thread and interest, waiting a year or more between each ‘episode’. Being able to read them in close proximity (even if interspersed with other books), the characters do tend to live – even if essentially uneventful lives.

The cover depicts Kenneth Widmerpool by Mark Butcher; a fleeting resemblance to Reginald Maudling (1917-1979), British politician.

Next: 5 - Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant.

Editorial comment:

Still huge unbroken paragraphs, also in speech, which is totally unrealistic.

Again, there’s not a great deal of description of the scenes that contain the characters, the reader can’t actually ‘be there’.

As observed above, Powell’s character descriptions are a delight.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

How do you pronounce Dogdene?