G. F. H. Shadbold is a professional man of letters, author of a slim volume of verses, mostly juvenilia; a play about his school experience, which exists in a limited edition tagged in catalogs “Does not turn up often”; two novels, long out of print; a critical study of the Cavalier poets; and two notebooks, one entry of which attempts to explicate Ophelia’s cry in Hamlet, “O, how the wheel becomes it!” in terms of the wheel of fortune. The titles and descriptions of the works are ample indication of the triviality of Shadbold’s literary efforts. He “keeps his hand in” primarily by writing reviews, notices, and obituaries of other writers.
Shadbold is not only the main character of this slight Powell novel; he is also its sole reason for being. The novel seems primarily to have been written to expose just the type of pompous literary drone that Shadbold is. From the beginning of the novel to its end, Powell mercilessly exposes him as a smug and self-satisfied old fool. Indeed, the novel is like an extended obituary of Shadbold, written by someone as smug as he; thus, it is a true case of poetic justice, for Shadbold is given to attacking his own literary enemies after their death.
The other characters in the novel fare no better. If they seem to be less the butt of Powell’s satiric joke than Shadbold, it is only because they occupy the center stage less often. Isolde Upjohn, for example, is another literary ghoul, who, like Shadbold, hopes to capitalize on the past and the dead Winterwade. The television interviewer, Rod Cubbage, is the classic example of one who feeds on the fame of others, for he makes his living digging up whatever gossip that will make his show a success. In the academic world, Horace Grigham, the jargon-spouting literary critic, is guilty of much the same kind of unearthing of the secrets of the creative and the famous and surviving on them. As is typical of satire, Powell’s characters function largely as representations of the subject of his barbs—in this case, all those who feed on the fame of others.