Anthony Powell Powell, Anthony (Vol. 9) - Essay

Powell, Anthony (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Powell, Anthony 1905–

Powell, an English novelist and screenwriter, is the creator of the monumental "A Dance to the Music of Time," a twelve-volume narrative made up of four "movements" which correspond to the four seasons. Powell's work as a screenwriter and his sense of the possibilities of the moving camera led to his distinctive use of an important novelistic technique: the narrator character through whose camera-like eyes the reader views the world. Powell's theme of the disintegration of English social values during the years between the world wars is revealed through the lives of four men, members of the British upper and upper-middle classes, who grow from youth to maturity in the series. Time is the backdrop for all theme and character development in Dance, embracing all life and art in its control. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

It is by now a cliché to insist upon the melancholy and often the horror that underlie so much good comedy. Cliché or not, Powell's world—droll as it is—is shot through with pain. Apart from the external horrors of the war, which kills off a number of the … most engaging characters [in "A Dance to the Music of Time"], personal wretchedness of one sort or another is everywhere present and makes itself felt, despite the detachment, even flippancy, with which it is often presented. The inhabitants of Powell's world, whatever their age or sex, often give the impression of being lost or abandoned children putting on a funny or a brave or a goblin face in a dance that allows much display but only the briefest gratification.

Turning to the concluding measures of the dance, I find it impossible to imagine the experience of reading "Hearing Secret Harmonies" without an extensive, though not necessarily complete, familiarity with the style and content of its predecessors. The opening of the novel rings like a summoning-bell to the followers of Anthony Powell and a warning to all outsiders….

I cannot help feeling that Powell himself is uneasy with some of [the sinister] material [in this novel] and that his effort to be "with it" constitutes a weakness in the book. Still, viewed in terms of the sequence, "Hearing Secret Harmonies" can be judged as among the more successful of the last seven volumes. It is conceivable, though improbable, that it could stand on its own as a novel. Certainly it contains episodes that are alive and amusing within their own context. But so much would be lost without the others.

How successful, finally, is "A Dance to the Music of Time?" Fifteen years ago many of Powell's readers would have felt confident that the sequence, when completed, would stand as a major achievement of 20th-century fiction; by that time five volumes had appeared—from "A Question of Upbringing" through the brilliant "Casanova's Chinese Restaurant"—and had won a critical response ranging from the favorable to the rhapsodic. Comparisons were made not only to such British contemporaries as Evelyn Waugh but also to Proust. Then, beginning with "The Kindly Ones" and becoming more evident in the books dealing with World War II, an apparent flagging of the creative impulse manifested itself, a preoccupation with trivia and a tedium that had only partly to do with the overall dullness of the narrator's wartime experience. Other evidences of strain, as if Powell were driving himself, showed up in "Books Do Furnish a Room" (in my opinion the lowpoint in the sequence) and have continued to a lesser degree in the two relatively successful final volumes.

In his recent biography of Waugh, Christopher Sykes states that Waugh, though an ardent champion of Powell, felt that the sequence was in danger of becoming self-defeatingly long. I think Waugh was right. Though the later novels all contain splendidly entertaining sections that show Powell in top form, I suspect that many of his followers, while welcoming and enjoying the new book, will share a certain relief that it marks The End….

Although a number of the later characters—the composer Moreland, for instance—are more rounded, more subtly rendered, more "admirable," they never achieve either the brilliant fun or the pathos of the acquaintances of Nicholas's young manhood. A few, like the macabre American scholar Russell Gwinnett, who figures largely in the last two novels, seem to remain as unknowable to Nicholas as to the reader.

As he advances into the second half of the sequence, Powell goes out of his way to tax credibility. Comedy too often slips into contrived farce. Coincidences multiply. Characters are married to one another for no apparent reason other than the improbability of the match….

[This is] what seems to be Powell's final vision: that the Dance to the Music of Time has undergone metamorphosis into a Holbein-esque Dance of Death, that harmony has everywhere been replaced by strident discord. But this transformation, I feel, has been brought about too mechanically. (p. 2)

So we are left with a flawed achievement, a qualified success. Powell is not the English Proust nor even the comic Proust, though he perhaps recklessly invites the comparison through overtly Proustian references in "The Military Philosophers." The comparison can only diminish what is, after all, a notable accomplishment. Despite his weaknesses, Powell as a novelist has given—and will continue to give—much pleasure. He has created, populated and (with some weariness) sustained a raffish and eccentric world that is recognizably his own. There is now such a thing as "a typical Anthony Powell character" or "a situation right out of Anthony Powell"—no small achievement for a novelist. Certainly he ranks with the radically different Doris Lessing (even the linking of the two is a Powell-like incongruity) as the best of the novelists now writing British fiction. (p. 3)

Robert Towers, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 11, 1976.

Only after the publication of the twelfth and final volume in the fall of 1975 did it become possible to view A Dance to the Music of Time as a whole—to see the beginning and the middle in the light of the end—and to begin to assess Powell's achievement. It is important that assessment begin on the right foot and consequently especially unfortunate that the final novel, Hearing Secret Harmonies, is far and away the weakest of the dozen. It is painful for an admirer of the series to detail his disappointment over the book's shortcomings…. (p. 45)

The subject of A Dance to the Music of Time is a densely populated swathe of upper-class, upper-middle-class, artistic, and Bohemian life in England from the twenties to the seventies. The vehicle of presentation is the comedy of manners. Attention is consistently focused on the nuances of social behavior, the idiosyncracies of personal style, and the intricacies of sexual preference. All of the characters in the series, who must number well over one hundred, are seen strictly from the outside—that is, in terms of how they choose to present themselves to the world. Many pages of the series are devoted to gossip, inference, innuendo, and hypotheses concerning principal characters, and the great majority of the novels' scenes are of nonintimate social occasions: lunches, teas, receptions, dinner parties, evening parties, occasional dinners, dances, openings, conferences, weddings, funerals, gatherings in nightclubs, pubs, country houses, and so on.

In the third volume, The Acceptance World,… Nick Jenkins, Powell's narrator, finds his thoughts turning to fictional problems identical to those of his creator: "I began to brood on the complexity of writing a novel about English life, a subject difficult enough to handle with authenticity even of a crudely naturalistic sort, even more to convey the inner truth of the things observed…. Intricacies of social life make English habits unyielding to simplification, while understatement and irony—in which all classes of this island converse—upset the normal emphasis of reported speech."

In A Dance to the Music of Time Powell's solution to these problems is to eschew unmediated naturalistic reportage à la Galsworthy in favor of the re-creation of social life in the memory of a cultivated and discriminating observer. Nick's intense interest in visual art—real or imagined paintings are often used to comment on or define a character or a situation—is reflected in his careful composition of place and in his slowing down of the action of a scene (sometimes to a snail's pace) so as to create a tableau-like suspension of time that allows the reader leisure to absorb all of the scene's social detail and psychological nuance ("the inner truth of the things observed"). Evelyn Waugh found an excellent simile to describe this aspect of Powell's art when he wrote that his characters do not "exist fully, in the round. They can be observed from one position only. We cannot walk round them as statues. They present, rather, a continuous frieze in high relief, cut deep and detailed."

The verbal equivalent of such detail is the eschewal of understatement and irony (so effectively used in the novels Powell published during the 1930's) in favor of a leisurely, occasionally prolix, style…. [In] addition to its appositeness to the pace, the peculiarly ornate excellence of Powell's prose justifies itself, as in those places where it is played off against dialogue epitomizing the English fondness for understatement and irony (Powell has a fine ear) or in [virtuoso] passages…. (pp. 45-6)

Even Powell's narrator is no exception to the rule that a character's depths remain unplumbed. For all the wealth of animadversions, apercus and worldly wisdom he supplies over the course of twelve volumes, we learn very little about Nick's innermost thoughts and feelings. Though we come to know his fine mind intimately, his emotional and spiritual life remains shadowy, to say the least. Even concerning his relationship with his wife we are kept almost totally in the dark. Nick's consciousness, through which every scene and character in the series is filtered, registers aesthetic, not ethical discriminations (indeed, in the early volumes vice sometimes seems to lose half its evil through losing all its grossness). His social observations are never distorted by social criticism; and if there are any religious overtones in the series, they are provided by [other characters]….

Pattern, formal arrangement, nuance, and a character's "self-presentation" and "personal myth" are what fascinate Nick. (p. 47)

The Poussin scene [which gives the series its title] can no longer be considered the single dominating image in the series. It is only the alpha of A Dance to the Music of Time; the omega is the long quotation on the last page of Hearing Secret Harmonies, a torrential passage from Robert Burton's seventeenth-century compendium, The Anatomy of Melancholy, a work often cited by Nick in the series' closing volumes, which contain a number of variations of the disease…. The implications of this key passage, with its Ecclesiastian gravity and random chronicling of randomness and contingency, are antithetical to the harmonious implications of the Poussin scene but equally apposite to the series as a whole. It is true that the seasons of youth in the first six volumes do seem more harmoniously patterned than the years of war and the decades of aging in the final six. But even in the early novels undercurrents of melancholy and perceptions of transience and haphazardness were intermittently felt. They are present in the evocation of the Poussin painting, though it was only when well into the series that one remembered that the dance of the Seasons brought first to Nick's mind thoughts of mortality and realized that the harmonious implications of the image had been severely qualified by the passage in The Acceptance World concerning the haphazardness and determinism of "the formal dance with which human life is concerned … nothing in life is planned—or everything is—because in the dance every step is ultimately the corollary of the step before; the consequence of being the kind of person one chances to be."

In the middle volumes of the series … [there is] a shift in emphasis as the world of Nick and his friends moves from under the dominance of Poussin's image into the zodiac of the Burton quotation. (pp. 48-9)

By the time of Hearing Secret Harmonies, which opens in the late 1960's, the organizing magnetism of the Poussin image has become very weak. In the novel's last sentence Nick feels that "Even the formal measure of the Seasons seemed suspended in the wintry silence," and earlier in the novel he recognizes that "elements of the Seasons' dance were suggested in a perverted form" by the ritual dance—preparatory to multiple couplings—of a band of religious cultists, the descendants of Dr. Trelawney. The major reason for the somberness of the close of Hearing Secret Harmonies and its undercutting of the Poussin image is the inevitable diminishments of life as old age closes in on Nick and his circle, and death, bodily decrepitude, or madness claims more and more of the characters. This somberness had also been felt in Temporary Kings, the series' penultimate novel, which additionally featured an unprecedented emphasis (also present in Hearing Secret Harmonies) on the sordid sexual underside of several of the characters' lives.

But unlike Temporary Kings, which is one of the series' finest novels, full of stylistic vigor and fresh invention, Hearing Secret Harmonies shows signs of creative fatigue and a diminution of imaginative powers. Not that the novel is without its felicities. One of the more impressive aspects of the series has been the steady introduction of new characters of marked individuality who are assigned prominent parts. (pp. 49-50)

Another impressive feature has been the intermittent reappearance of characters from earlier novels, whose unfolding fates and ever-changing relationships to each other are central to the rhythm of the series and a principal source of its fascination. When these characters reappear in situations presented with sufficient slowness to allow us to recall analogous occasions from the past, the result is a frisson, a powerful aesthetic resonance. (p. 50)

For the most part, however, in Hearing Secret Harmonies the exciting interplay of past and present gives way to nostalgic recollection. One has the feeling that Powell is tidying up, touching familiar bases, rather in the manner of those old movies that run their credits against the background of stills from the just-screened film. (pp. 50-1)

[A] device suggestive of the tying up of loose ends is the thirteen necrological asides scattered throughout the novel, though it would be perverse to wish them excised from the text. One is glad to learn something of the circumstances of the deaths of [several characters] …, and thankful that Powell has devised a … seemly way of communicating such information….

It can of course be argued that the very thinness and perfunctoriness of these aspects of Hearing Secret Harmonies themselves reflect the attentuations of age and the withering of vitality. Certainly this view would be consonant with a number of Nick's reflections during the course of the novel…. To argue this way, however, is to risk a confusion of life and art and to settle for less than one has a right to expect from the concluding novel of such an ambitious series. (p. 51)

Despite its interweaving of three main story lines, Hearing Secret Harmonies is the least polyphonic and multidimensional novel in the series. Perhaps in compensation for the curtailed activities of Nick and his contemporaries, the novel's principal subject is up to date, not to say trendy: the doings of student radicals and religious cultists. (pp. 51-2)

In Hearing Secret Harmonies, however, not very much of an interesting nature can be done with the new Bohemians for the simple reason that Nick Jenkins, like his creator, is trapped on the far side of the generation gap. He is forced to rely for his information on a few first-hand impressions, some second-hand accounts, and in one instance a television news program. The dominant young character, Scorpio Murtlock, is new to the series but much less satisfactorily rendered than Fenneau or Delavacquerie, both much older. Murtlock is equipped with some sacerdotal gestures and a hierophantic manner of speaking, and there is much talk of the steely power of his will. But the closest Powell can come in bringing Murtlock to life is to have Nick elicit from Fenneau the gratuitously demeaning information that Scorpio's real name is Leslie, that his parents ran a newsagent's shop, and that he was once a comely choir boy who got the vicar in trouble. The other major representative of the young, Fiona Cutts, a niece of Nick's who has dropped out of society and joined Murtlock's cult, is even more in-substantially rendered; and the Quiggin twins, Amanda and Belinda, student hell-raisers who throw paint on their university chancellor and set off a stink bomb at a formal dinner, are quite unbelievable.

With the second story line of Hearing Secret Harmonies Powell is on much firmer ground. Events surrounding the publication of Russell Gwinnett's biography of X. Trapnel bring one periodically back to the London literary world—the major ambiance of the series' last three novels (Books Do Furnish a Room is the indicative title of the first of them). But even here there is a falling off in that Gwinnett is no longer the mysterious American academic with a necrophiliac past of Temporary Kings, the catalyst for the self-destruction of Pamela Widmerpool. He has become in Hearing Secret Harmonies middle-aged and dull and is present in the novel mainly so that he can dwindle into the husband of Fiona Cutts and thereby link the story line involving the young to that of the literary world.

The third story line concerns Widmerpool and involves his transformation from a life peer and university chancellor into a pathetically dominated member of Murtlock's cult. It is the boldest stroke in Hearing Secret Harmonies, but it fails to come off so completely that it forces one to reassess earlier novels from a point of view that leads ultimately to the most serious reservation I have about Powell's achievement in A Dance to the Music of Time.

Certainly Hearing Secret Harmonies clearly establishes the egregious Widmerpool as the central character in the entire series—not that many would have doubted this had it not been for Powell's complaints about the undue prominence that Widmerpool had assumed in the minds of his readers. The first scene in the first novel, coming just after the evocation of the Poussin painting, gives us Widmerpool at school, running through the December mists in training for races which he has no chance of winning. Fifty years later, in the last scene of the last novel (coming just before the Burton quotation) Nick learns that Widmerpool has died running—in effect fleeing the clutches of Murtlock. In between, Widmerpool had figured more or less prominently in every novel, enduring repeated public and private humiliations, as his ferocious will carried him steadily up the careerist ladder…. [We] are asked to believe that he has undergone a transformation from an arriviste pillar of the establishment into a hammer of the counter-culture and a willing participant in the ritual orgies of Murtlock's cult. It is as if Proust's Swann had been forced to play the role of his Charlus. The most telling indication of the violence of Powell's manipulation is Widmerpool's loss of distinctive voice. In Hearing Secret Harmonies he speaks in a disembodied way totally unlike his verbal signature in earlier volumes. In contrast, even when Stringham was discovered as a private soldier in a mobile laundry unit in The Soldier's Art—another startling metamorphosis—his superbly articulate, ironic mode of speech remained recognizably that of the Stringham of Eton, Oxford, and the London season.

Widmerpool's volte face violates Powell's own aesthetic dictum that every step in a character's dance be the corollary of the previous step. John Bayley puts as good a face as possible on this transformation in saying that "the needs of symmetry and symbolism do lead to [Widmerpool's] being pushed about rather unfairly in the last volume," and one wishes the matter could be left at that. But Powell's rough handling of Widmerpool has more unpleasant aspects to it which seem caused by his desire to punish and humiliate his creation. (pp. 52-4)

More than an aesthetic blunder, the treatment of Widmerpool is an affront to common decency that compels one to look back at his presentation in earlier volumes and to realize with a jolt one's complicity in and enjoyment of the abuse and humiliations inflicted on him for no other reason than he is unlike his more sophisticated contemporaries. To recall only the first two novels: while Stringham is presented as a Renaissance prince, his circumstances compared to Hamlet's, his step to Veronese's Alexander, his features to the faces in Elizabethan miniatures, and his general appearance to "one of those stiff, sad young men in ruffs, whose long legs take up so much room in sixteenth-century portraits," Widmerpool is depicted as loathesomely subhuman; his gait "like an automaton of which the mechanism might be slightly out of order," his stance "like that of an elderly lapdog," his countenance "like some uncommon specimen of marine life" or "a large fish moving slowly through opaque water to devour a smaller one," his way of speaking "as if holding a piece of india-rubber against the roof of his mouth."… His preposterousness seems clinched, as does Murtlock's, when his unseemly social background is discovered: Widmerpool's father had sold liquid manure. It is true that in subsequent volumes, as Widmerpool becomes a successful and powerful figure, he is no longer described in such subhuman similes and soubriquets; but again and again in the later volumes his sexual life is made the subject of cruel comedy, while the equally gamey bedroom lives of other characters are treated with tact and never exposed to ridicule.

How could one have failed to notice at an earlier stage the crudity of Powell's handling of Widmerpool and the violence it does to the aesthetic surface of his series? One reason is that in the early volumes it was clear that Nick was growing and developing, learning about life by trial and error and making mistakes in his assessment of people. At the same time, especially in A Buyer's Market, one was encouraged to feel that there was a symbiosis between Widmerpool and Nick; for Nick, also in love with Barbara Goring, could have been the recipient of the sugar she pours out [onto Widmerpool's head]; and, similarly seduced by Gypsy Jones, could have been the one dunned into paying for the pleasure. At that time one tended to assume that justice would eventually be done to Widmerpool and consequently enjoyed his discomfitures without twinges of guilt. This does not come to pass in the series, however, and one's retrospective judgment must be that the presentation of Widmerpool violates the aesthetic frame of reference within which Powell has chosen to create, with consequent damage to the unity and symmetry of his work, and that Nick's sophisticated consciousness is tainted by the most heinous form of snobbery: the refusal to consider those who are not in some way "one of us" as fellow human beings deserving of sympathy, charity, even of fair play. (pp. 54-5)

One had long hoped that in conclusion Powell would be able to raise his enormous work to a higher, more metaphysical plane and that the deeper philosophical lessons that seemed seminally present in the series would be brought to fruition. Similarly, having noted the increasingly explicit concern with artistic problems and with the nature of fiction in the tenth and eleventh volumes, one had come to think that the series was beginning in some degree to be about itself and had allowed oneself to anticipate that this reflexive probing of its own imaginative processes would become a central concern of the final novel and thereby enrich the series by including its own commentary within it. This too has failed to happen: there are only a few references to novels and fiction writing in Hearing Secret Harmonies, and these are rather run-of-the-mill or (to use a favorite word of Powell's) humdrum. (p. 56)

The crucial positioning of the antithetical emblems of the Poussin dance and the Burton quotation suggests that the basic organizing principle of A Dance to the Music of Time is the alternation of "now comical then tragical matters" (to use Burton's words), the counterpoint between a comedy of manners presentation of a large chunk of Vanity Fair and a more somber version of human life seen under the aspect of transience and mortality, against the force of which no transcendence through love, memory, moral rectitude, or supernatural belief is possible. As Evelyn Waugh has said "We know much more about [Powell's] characters' appearances than their souls. Indeed we have no confidence that the narrator recognizes the existence of the soul." Powell's series should not be compared to the fiction of Proust, Mann, Gide, or Conrad because such a focus can only serve to shrink A Dance to the Music of Time to a size too small to permit objective scrutiny. For the opposite reason it can serve no useful purpose to call Powell a greater Galsworthy or Snow. Powell is rather the peer of Thackeray, and Waugh's observation concerning the absence of soul in the characters of A Dance to the Music of Time is as accurate (and perhaps as inapposite) as the similar comments perennially made about Vanity Fair, another fiction without a hero. (pp. 56-7)

Kerry McSweeney, "The End of 'A Dance to the Music of Time'," in South Atlantic Quarterly (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1977 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Winter, 1977, pp. 44-57.

Powell's books … represent a solid, well-rounded body of work, complete with a unique flavour and easily identifiable approach. Powell has always been content to remain implanted in a particular world, in his case the world of upper and upper middle class Bohemia, that cross roads where Mayfair and the arts uneasily meet. Not for him the conscious experimentation or widening of creative horizons practised by Amis or even his friend Henry Green: at an early date he discovered his literary niche and never departed from it.

This is why Powell, already, has become, as Proust did before him, the centre not only of a cult but of a positive obsession. I remember some five years ago visiting an exhibition in a London gallery concerning artists and subjects who were either associated with or admired by Proust. There the girl in charge told me of two old men who the day before had arrived from different parts of the country (one from the west, the other from Scotland) and, discovering each other's enthusiasm and knowledge, had sat in enthralled Proustian conversation for some three hours before departing for tea. In the future the same scene might well be enacted under portraits of Lord Longford or Constant Lambert and delicate pastels of The Chantry.

To say this is not to compare A la Récherche du Temps Perdu to A Dance to the Music of Time. They are vastly different in conception and execution; yet both share the achievement of creating an entire, seemingly almost self-sufficient fictional world. Both also have a peculiar literary arrogance which invites either total acceptance or total rejection. Once immersed, no quarter is given by the narrator. Either you fall under the fascination of his approach, his friendships and the twists and turns of his life or you do not. There are no byways down which refreshment or momentary relaxation may be obtained, no Dickensian panorama of high, low and middle life, no almost casual flitting from perfumed prosperity in Cavendish Square to degradation in Wapping. In Powell or Proust the change of scene is viewed through the eyes of Jenkins or Marcel and is more remarkable for their reactions to it than for its own intrinsic horror or delight. Thus, the narrator acts as a filter, the unavoidable distorter of all that he transmits to the reader. (pp. 44-5)

[Occasionally] the early books are spoken of as having anti-Semitic overtones. I can find no evidence to suggest this; anyway Powell's satire is all-embracing and his work would be bound to reflect the flirtation that some pre-war occupants of Mayfair drawingrooms enjoyed with that disgusting and irrational creed….

Jenkins's supreme characteristic in A Dance is not his 'goodness' but his passivity, his Isherwood-like ability to record, without judgment or prejudice, the antics of those around him. A 'good' man [as Jenkins has been critically considered] would not be able to resist the desire to wade in, to substitute his own self-doubt or approval for description. This, happily, Jenkins does not do; indeed his lack of involvement invites the charge of excessive smugness, born of amused detachment, rather than excessive virtue. Herein lies the major contrast with Widmerpool whose lack of self-satisfaction, of contentment with his own character and condition, leads to desperate attempts to win power over others and admiration for himself. Widmerpool is a man driven almost to the point of mania by consciousness of his inadequacies. Jenkins has knowledge of and confidence in his talent and comparatively ordered private life. To Widmerpool an obviously successful career and public approbation provide a means of redemption; therefore he becomes acutely and appallingly involved in whatever momentary fad or fashion might be able to assist him towards these ends. Jenkins has no need of this. He can stand back and observe quietly, with time for balanced thought. This is the difference between the calm, almost cold, contemplative and the desperate, almost psychotic pursuer of that which certain grave faults of personality must make unattainable. Here we are concerned not so much with good and evil as with health and sickness….

In the last books, voyeurism, necrophilia and the occult loom like premonitions of some moral apocalypse. Perhaps in late middle and old age one's mind turns to such subjects. Certainly they are not out of place in A Dance and give to the crescendo of this great novel sequence sonorous notes of alarm and decay. (p. 45)

Max Egremont, "After the Dance," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Max Egremont 1977; reprinted with permission), January, 1977, pp. 44-5.

A Dance to the Music of Time seems far removed from violence. But through Kenneth Widmerpool, a minor yet important character who appears in all the novels as a foil to other characters, Powell makes it clear that he understands the nature of power and violence. Widmerpool during his school days is the victim of the power of others, a latter-day Rudyard Kipling. He understands his role of victim, and from the day he is hit in the face with an overripe banana by the captain of the soccer team, he cautiously buckles under to those who are stronger. His experiences lead him eventually to reject education and learning, and gradually he forsakes his role of victim for that of victimizer. His alliance with the side of power is associated with his philistinism. The fear that haunts Jenkins is that Widmerpool is the sign of the future, a symbol of those who control the world. It is not by chance that Widmerpool's transformation from victim to victimizer occurs during World War II. One scene that gives insight into his total role occurs in The Kindly Ones. Jenkins and other important characters of the series are gathered at a dinner party in the castle of Sir Magnus Donners. Widmerpool appears at the castle in the middle of a game of photographing the seven deadly sins: "A man stood on the threshold. He was in uniform. He appeared to be standing at attention, a sinister, threatening figure, calling the world to arms. It was Widmerpool."

The "sinister, threatening figure" of Widmerpool in his uniform is a fitting symbol for the entire period. The sense of power and potential violence that broods over the modern world is a force with which the modern artist must reckon. (p. 31)

Lawrence R. Ries, in his Wolf Masks: Violence in Contemporary Poetry (copyright © 1977 by Kennikat Press Corp.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1977.