Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The twelve volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time are usually grouped into four “movements” of three novels each. The first novel of the first movement, A Question of Upbringing, covers its narrator’s years at school and at the university (Eton and Oxford, in the early 1920’s, although Powell gives them no name). The action shifts to the social life of London in the late 1920’s in A Buyer’s Market, and The Acceptance World concludes the movement with a school reunion in the early 1930’s. Each movement and novel are, in their own way, independent fragments of the whole sequence, but as the sequence develops, the novels certainly become less meaningful for readers unfamiliar with characters and events arising in earlier volumes.

Typically, the novels that constitute A Dance to the Music of Time consist of about four fifty-page episodes interspersed and sandwiched by page-long reflective passages, such as the one that opens the sequence. These episodes, with their attendant reflections, generally revolve around a small group of characters and a single action, usually a party or an outing. The last novel of each three-novel movement usually serves as a kind of climax for the sequence to that point. The school reunion and its immediate consequences, which conclude The Acceptance World, draw to a thematic close the various matters of upbringing and initiation into adult society that have concerned all three novels of the first movement. The Kindly Ones, the sixth novel in the sequence and the final novel of the second movement, cuts across the whole period of the first half of the sequence. It begins with a flashback to Nicholas Jenkins’s childhood at the outbreak of World War I and ends with England’s entrance into World War II, chronologically bracketing the entire first half of the sequence.

The first three novels cover Jenkins’s life from age fourteen to about twenty-five, but readers learn less about him than about his school friends, Charles Stringham, Peter Templer, and Kenneth Widmerpool. Stringham and Templer, like the narrator, are sons of upper-or upper-middle-class families, although only Stringham has any links to the actual “aristocracy.” Widmerpool, the son of a Nottinghamshire liquid fertilizer dealer, is an outsider who is viewed as a humorless misfit at school, always training to run races in which he invariably loses. Throughout the sequence, Widmerpool cuts a ridiculous figure, but by the end of the first movement, Jenkins sees that others take the stolid, self-important, and strong-willed misfit seriously. During the intervals of time between Jenkins’s meetings with him after leaving school, Widmerpool becomes increasingly accepted in powerful business and political circles. Because their relationship is friendly but not intimate, their meetings are infrequent and usually coincidental. Yet these “Widmerpool scenes” are not only among the most comic in the sequence, but they also advance Powell’s social theme. With each encounter, Jenkins grows less and less inclined to trust his snobbish public school view of society, which led to his misreading not only Widmerpool but also, to a lesser degree, Templer and Stringham, for whom success in the world seemed assured when Jenkins knew them at school. Templer, whose main interests are business and women, fails with both. The charming and even better-connected Stringham seems destined for a brilliant career in anything that attracts him, but his interests are unfocused, and his talents are dissipated by alcohol, family troubles, and aimless distractions. He fails at everything, but with grace, good humor, and modest detachment. Widmerpool’s successes are accompanied by none of these endearing qualities.

By the end of the first movement, Powell’s narrator has lost most of his early illusions about upbringing, character, and success in a world that he discovers is changing more rapidly than establishment attitudes are able to comprehend, let alone control. Jenkins’s preoccupation with the loss of illusions is an even more pervasive theme in Powell’s second group of three novels—At Lady Molly’s, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, and The Kindly Ones—covering the ominous years between 1934 and 1939, through the Depression to the edge of World War II. As Jenkins observes in the first chapter of At Lady Molly’s, these are “times when the ice floes of life’s river are breaking up . . . to float down-stream, before the torrent freezes again in due course into new and deceptively durable shape.”

The fluidity of these times is suggested by the techniques, especially structural, of At Lady Molly’s. The action is concentrated into a few months of 1935, but there is no sustained focus on any of the major characters. The title, as well as the tone, of the novel derives from Lady Molly Jeavons’s household, the setting of many socially heterogeneous gatherings. There, Jenkins meets or hears about the two dozen or so new characters (largely friends and relatives of his friends and their relatives from the first movement) who will figure in the novels of this movement. Lady Molly represents the idiosyncratic mixture of several strains of English social life. Once the wife of a lord, she has been reduced since the end of World War I and the death of her husband to the disorderly life of her perpetual open houses.

The cultural confusion of English society between the wars is further suggested by the title of the second novel in this movement, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, which deals less with professional and high society than with the troubled domestic lives of Jenkins’s artist and musician friends. Tangled love affairs and intolerable domestic lives dog Powell’s men of the imagination more than they do his men of power, for whom failures with women represent no serious setback in their plan of life. Throughout A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell uses the instability of domestic arrangements to suggest the dissolution of society.

With The Kindly Ones, a novel suffused with the ominous and heedless atmosphere of England at the brink of World War I and then World War II, Powell concludes the second movement and his account of English social life in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The Kindly Ones contains the only flashback in the sequence, its first section concentrating on the young Jenkins’s boyhood on the verge of World War I. Hardly noticeable, because they are so completely integrated into the scenic structure of the novel, are Jenkins’s reflective passages, which move allusively backward and forward in time, enlarging and enriching the significant...

(The entire section is 2757 words.)