The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

A gentle man who has difficulty making choices in a chaotic universe, Anthony Keating almost seems to welcome the external constraints imposed upon him. Reared in a cathedral city and educated at Oxford, Anthony, as the son of a clergyman-schoolmaster, is at first more eager to escape the expectations of his father than to establish his own identity. He marries young, lives by “his wits,” and follows a friend’s suggestion that he get a job writing for television. It is not surprising that Anthony finds “incomprehensible virtues” in Giles Peters, the friend who tells him what to do: Giles can make decisions.

Outwardly successful, Anthony gradually comes to recognize that his marriage is a failure and his job lacks challenge. Just as Anthony is “ripe for conversion, to some new creed,” he meets “self-made” property developer Len Wincobank, who is devoted, “with a kind of blinkered faithful zeal,” to rebuilding the face of England. Margaret Drabble’s use of the language of religious experience is suggestive here. When the old faiths go by the wayside, energetic men such as Anthony will look for substitutes. In a society apparently ruled by chance, the preoccupation with property development and speculation, which is, after all, a form of gambling, seems appropriate.

Len’s example inspires Anthony, with the help of Giles and his money, to form his own property development firm, the Imperial Delight Company. The name is inherited from an archaic candy factory purchased by the new partners but, nevertheless, indicates the significance of the venture. Although Anthony believes himself to be “a modern man, an operator, at one with the spirit of the age,” his enthusiasm seems to belong to an earlier time, his “sense of empire” rather like that of a nineteenth century captain of industry. Characteristically, his greatest “pride” lies not, as in Len’s case, in his plans for new buildings but in the “possession” of a defunct gasometer “a work of art” that will ultimately “have to come...

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Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Anthony Keating

Anthony Keating, an unhappy, once upwardly mobile property developer in his thirties who made rash speculations at the behest of a business associate, Len Wincobank, who later was imprisoned for fraud. Keating, the impassioned lover of Alison Murray, attempts to understand how life went wrong for him. He had worked as a television producer, and in 1968, he interviewed Wincobank. The experience convinced him to go into property development. Now facing imminent bankruptcy, he hopes to be able somehow to keep his spectacular Midlands home and live there with Alison.

Alison Murray

Alison Murray, another protagonist. Beautiful, talented, and troubled, she is caught up not only in Keating’s plight but also in her own daughters’ problems. Daughter Jane has been imprisoned in the mythical country of Wallachia after having run over and killed a Wallachian peasant while on a tourist excursion; she faces a long term of imprisonment. Youngest daughter Molly suffers from the long-term effects of cerebral palsy and demands considerable attention and affection. Alison gave up a promising career as an actress to care for Molly. She is married to a successful but unfaithful actor.

Len Wincobank

Len Wincobank, a supremely self-confident confidence man who symbolizes the get-rich-quick London go-getter of the 1970’s whose greed and vaunting ambition lead to a downfall. Sent to prison for fraudulent dealings, Wincobank not only ruins his own life but also hurts others in the process, primarily Anthony Keating, his disciple. Wincobank, though highly intelligent, clearly lacks a conscience: He shows no remorse over his crimes against society and friends. He speculates that once released from prison, he can go back to his property development schemes.

Jane Murray

Jane Murray, the sullen, withdrawn eldest daughter of Alison Murray. She shows little interest in other people, even her own mother. Involved in what clearly should have been seen as involuntary manslaughter, she is treated by Wallachian authorities as a murderer and is therefore given a life sentence. Despite the drabness of prison existence, Jane spurns her mother’s offer of comfort and possible release.