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Friday 17 August 2018

A Dance to the Music of Time (6 of 12)

Anthony Powell’s sixth volume in his Dance to the Music of Time sequence, The Kindly Ones, was published in 1962 and is the best so far, covering the periods 1914, the late 1920s and the late 1930s.

Possibly it grabs interest because Powell begins by relating Nick Jenkins’s childhood in Stonehurst; this goes some way to personalise the first-person narrative, which hitherto seems to have been lacking in the earlier volumes.

We’re first introduced to Albert, the Jenkins’s manservant/butler, a fascinating creation, ‘an oddity, an exceptional member of the household’…’Albert shook off one of his ancient bedroom slippers, adjusting the thick black woollen sock at the apex of the foot, where, not over clean, the nail of a big toe protruded from a hole at the end. (p10)

Albert was not enamoured of the suffragettes, referring to them as ‘Virgin Marys’. Nick recalled his house tutor Miss Orchard telling him about the Greeks who feared the Furies, which they named the Eumenides – the Kindly Ones – using such ‘flattery to appease their terrible wrath’ (p6) and supposed Albert employed similar flattery, since he feared these emboldened women.

Other servants in the household include Billson, fostering unrequited love for Albert and young Bracey, subject to ‘funny turns’. Billson claimed she’d seen a ghost more than once, and Nick’s mother commented, ‘It really is not fair on servants to expect them to sleep in a haunted room, although I have to myself.’ (pp60/61) Later, Billson suffers a mental breakdown, partly due to the persistence of the ghosts and also due to the fact that Albert had declared his love elsewhere, to a woman in Bristol: she appeared nude in the dining room in front of Mr and Mrs Jenkins and their guests, General Conyers and his wife. This is a poignant scene, where Conyers acted swiftly and snagged a shawl and ‘wrapped the shawl protectively round her.’ (p64)

The interaction between the members of the household proves amusing and intriguing. ‘As a child you are in some ways more acutely aware of what people feel about one another than you are when childhood has come to an end.’ (p22) This is shrewd observation, and is emphasised by ‘I was aware that I had witnessed a painful scene, although, as so often happens in childhood, I could not analyse the circumstances.’ (p47)

We also get to know Nick’s father, at least a little. ‘For my father all tragedies were major tragedies, this being especially his conviction if he were himself in any way concerned. (p30)
Mr Jenkins made the observation, ‘I like to rest my mind after work. I don’t like books that make me think.’ (p40) He ‘really hated clarity.’ (p48)

What is surprising is how echoes from this period (in the novel) or from the time of its creation, there resonates observations that still hold true in the twenty-first century: ‘… the light of reason or patriotism could penetrate, in however humble a degree, into the treasonable madhouse of the Treasury, did not answer.’ (p58)

As the Conyers are about to leave Stonehurst, two individuals make their appearance, both unexpected: Uncle Giles who observes about the General’s automobile, ‘Not too keen on ’em. Always in accidents. Some royalty in a motor-car have been involved in a nasty affair today…’ (p72) The assassination of Franz-Ferdinand and his wife, no less... The other person arrived while running with his pupils, Dr Trelawney, who espoused that ‘The Essence of the All is the Godhead of the True.’ (p66)

We leap ahead in time, when Nick admits his ‘more modest ambition… is to become a soldier.’ This is quite a revelation, I don’t recall any indications of this before. He befriends Mortimer (who we have met in an earlier volume) and they have shared likes and dislikes: ‘There were also aesthetic prejudices in common: animosity towards R.M. Ballantynes The Coral Island…’ (P85) [Well, sorry, Nick or Mr Powell, I read this as a youngster and thought it was a gripping and exciting adventure story and hold no animosity towards it at all! It’s a book of its time.]

Later, when Trelawney is discussed, there’s an amusing aside: ‘… he must have moved further to the Left – or would it be to the Right? Extremes of policy have such a tendency to merge.’ Another shrewd observation! Lock up or eliminate the opposition… That’s why they’re extreme? At one point, he pontificates: ‘There is no death in Nature, only transition, blending, synthesis, mutation.’ (p197)

We’re in the time of ‘Munich’, the appeasement. And Nick’s wife Isobel ‘was starting a baby. Circumstances were not ideal for a pregnancy. Apart from unsettled international conditions, the weather was too hot…’ (p150) Strange, to take into consideration the international state of affairs when deciding on having a family; he’s being humorous, of course.

Fellow writers might be amused at Nick relating details about his career to Duport, a man he cuckolded: ‘writing; editing, reviewing… never, for some reason, very easy to define to persons not themselves in the world.’ (p169)  Nick learns that Duport’s wife Jean had not only cheated on her husband but also betrayed Nick as well… Certainly, one of the underlying themes in the books is the duplicitous nature of women and wives. ‘The remembered moaning in pleasure of someone once loved always haunts the memory, even when love itself is over.’ (p183)

As we approach the end of the book, we’re in the company of Kenneth Widmerpool and his mother again. Nick refers to Widmerpool as a Happy Warrior (p243), alluding to a Wordsworth poem; among other things, it’s also the title of an excellent graphic biography of Churchill drawn by Frank Bellamy.

Powell injects a number of enlightening truisms, usually through other characters’ speech, some highlighted already. Here’s another: ‘One of the worst things about life is not how nasty the nasty people are. You know that already. It is how nasty the nice people can be.’ (p247)

There were more humorous and poignant moments than hitherto in the series. And the neat ending, where it’s contrived that Nick will, against the odds, be signed up in the Infantry, works very well; so well, in fact, that the reader wants to move on to the next book (which must have been frustrating, since that – The Valley of Bones – didn’t appear for two years). I’m glad I’ve persevered with the series.

Editorial comment:

Sometimes, because the narrative is actually reflective, talking about the past, Powell slips into silliness. For example, ‘ “How much dos Mesopotamia matter?” enquired my father, unaware that he would soon be wounded there.’ (p56) Well, obviously he would be unaware, unless he was clairvoyant! Far better if this had been re-worded along the lines such as: ironically, he was wounded there…

‘Outside, the weather was sunny…’ (p202) Surely the word ‘outside’ is superfluous?

‘He grinned back happily at her through his spectacles…’ (p238) He must be wearing his spectacles over his mouth, then. We know what he meant, but he didn’t write what he meant. Visually, it’s absurd.

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