Nicholas Jenkins is in school at Eton College along with three other youth, Charles Stringham, Peter Templer, and Kenneth Widmerpool. Jenkins uses his friendship with the other young men to cement his acquaintance with various areas of life: Widmerpool’s ambition, Stringham’s aristocratic connections, and Templer’s social ease and familiarity with sex. A visit from Jenkins’s scapegrace uncle, Giles, forecasts unstable elements in the adult world.
On a visit to Templer’s family, Jenkins meets Templer’s sister Jean, for whom he develops a crush. He then goes to France to practice the language in a French home, only to encounter Widmerpool, who is the object of jest and abuse on the part of the French people who know him. Jenkins also falls in love with the daughter of his host. Returning to England, he enters Oxford, where he becomes initiated into literary circles, meeting two young writers, Mark Members and J. G. Quiggin, who seem to have an odd love-hate relationship with each other.
Jenkins moves to London and works for a publisher of art books. He encounters a bizarre array of people ranging from the artist Edgar Deacon to the industrialist Sir Magnus Donners. He attends a whirl of parties and initiates several unsuccessful love affairs, encountering Widmerpool several times along the way. He spends a weekend at Peter Templer’s country house, where he once again meets Jean and begins a serious relationship with her. Jenkins decides on a career as a writer of fiction, even as Members and Quiggin vie for the patronage of a prominent novelist. Stringham, meanwhile, begins his descent into drunkenness and depression. Jean abruptly leaves Jenkins and returns to her husband, accompanying him to South America.
Jenkins begins encountering various members of the large, aristocratic, and quite eccentric Tolland family. Through the offices of Quiggin, he meets the family’s head, the left-wing gadfly Lord Erridge and, eventually, Erridge’s sister Isobel. Jenkins knows as soon as he sees Isobel that he will marry her, and indeed the two do marry some months later. Widmerpool also gets engaged, to an older widow, but the outcome is disastrous. Widmerpool emerges humiliated and chastened, causing amused comment on the part of Jenkins’s family friend, the octogenarian General Aylmer Conyers.
Composer Hugh Moreland is probably Jenkins’s best friend. Moreland’s wife, Matilda, is the former mistress of Donners, and she helps Moreland secure patronage in the aristocracy. Stringham’s mother holds a party for Moreland, at which Stringham momentarily shows some of his old vigor. The darker side of the Bohemian world, however, is revealed when Moreland’s friend, music critic Maclintick, commits suicide.
It is the late 1930’s, and war clouds are gathering. Jenkins thinks back to the beginning of World War I in 1914, when a disturbance in the...
(The entire section is 1188 words.)