After the stress of trying to read a modern book(!) and not liking the prose at all, it was a great relief to return to Anthony Powell and his beautiful writing, strong characterisations and wonderful plot! “At Lady Molly’s” is the fourth in the “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence and therefore my April read, which I approached with delight!

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As I’ve now come to expect with Powell, the start of a new book means a whole new raft of characters and a setting that has moved on from the end of the previous novel. We are now into that difficult decade, the 1930s, and our narrator Nick Jenkins is 28 or 29 and working in the film industry knocking up scripts to meet the Quota (by which there had to be the same amount of films made in the UK shown in cinemas as were US produced ones). His affair with Jean Templar is over, and as we meet him again he is being taken to the eponymous residence by Chips Lovell, a co-worker at the studio.

Lady Molly’s house is a gathering place for a number of disparate characters, including the ubiquitous Widmerpool (who is now engaged to a rather formidable older woman, Mildred Haycock), Alfred Tolland, General and Mrs. Conyers who are old friends of Nick’s (plus Mildred is the General’s sister-in-law), and later on Mark Members. There are references to many past alumni in the books, like Sillery and Bob Duport, and in many ways although Nick will continue to meet new people, they all somehow seem to be connected to the old acquaintances who recur in his life.

The wonderful Quiggin also reappears, rather delightfully and randomly in a cinema queue, and invites Nick for the weekend to his cottage in the country. Quiggin and Mona are still together (just) and during the visit Lord Warminster, head of the Tolland family and known variously as just Warminster, Erridge, Erry or Alf(!), appears and invites them to dinner at his crumbling stately home Thrubworth. The dinner is disrupted by the arrival of two Tolland sisters, and Nick decides instantly that he is going to marry one of them, Isobel! There are cracks appearing in the Quiggin/Mona relationship and it is somehow not a surprise to learn later on that Erry and Mona have run off to China to ‘observe conditions’ out there.

Meanwhile, Nick bumps into Ted Jeavons, Molly’s husband, in a pub and ends up visiting a nightclub run by Umfraville. Mildred, Widmerpool and Templer materialise and there is drinking and merriment, particularly when Mildred realises that she had a brief liaison with Ted during the war.

Back at Lady Molly’s once more, to celebrate his engagement to Isobel, Nick finds out that Widmerpool’s forthcoming marriage has been called off. There are differing stories as to why, although the version told by General Conyers in a long, man-to-man session implies that poor Kenneth had fallen down somewhat in the bedroom department! (This is after a very funny section where Widmerpool asks Nick’s advice, in an almost aggressive way, about whether he should be sleeping with Mildred before they are married, etc.) However, Widmerpool appears briefly at the end, bouncing back as always, and seems rather unconcerned by the whole thing, actually feeling that he is able to give Nick advice on getting married!

Once again, there are so many joys in this book that it’s hard to know where to begin. Powell’s style continues to be slightly looser than initially, and is very readable and lovely: there are brilliant pen portraits of lively characters; atmospheric descriptions of place and setting; sharp, crackling dialogue and Powell’s trademark dry wit:

“It was impossible to tell from Smith’s vacant, irascible stare whether he had never before been asked for sherry since his first employment at Thrubworth, or whether he had himself, quite simply, drunk all the sherry that remained.”

The stitching together of the various plot elements leaves the reader gasping slightly with admiration, and AP loves to pop in unexpected appearances by his cast!

And the book is full of such wonderful scenes and vignettes that it’s hard to pick the standouts. One wonderful moment is when Nick is faced with Mildred’s intended for the first time, without any warning – his response is priceless:

“Life is full of internal dramas, instantaneous and sensational, played to an audience of one. This was just such a performance. The fiance was Widmerpool.”

And the first appearance of the wonderfully eccentric decaying nobleman, Erridge, is brilliantly handled as he shuffles into Quiggin’s cottage looking more like a tramp! His description of this character, whom he had been aware of at school, sums up amazingly well the effects of age:

“Now that his name was revealed, the features of the preoccupied, sallow, bony schoolboy, with books tumbling from under his arm, could be traced like a footpath lost in the brambles and weeds of an unattended garden: an overgrown crazy pavement.”

It was a joy to have the re-emergence of those two constants, Widmerpool and Quiggin. I’m particularly fond of the latter as he has such an irritant effect on the story, being such an opposite to some of the more upper-class characters, and demonstrating so much how the world of the early books has changed. As for the former, it’s obvious he’s going to be with us in the stories for some time:

“Widmerpool was a recurring milestone on the road; perhaps it would be more apt to say that his course, as one jogged round the track, was run from time to time, however different the pace, in common with my own. As an aspect of my past he was an element to be treated with interest, if not affection, like some unattractive building or natural feature of the landscape which brought back the irrational nostalgia of childhood.”

But there is so much packed into what is a relatively short novel. Despite once again taking place over a limited number of gatherings or events, as the story continues the connections Powell is so fond of drawing out of life are revealed. The revelation of Widmerpool’s part in getting Duport and Jean back together and therefore ending her affair with Nick is quite stunning, and revealed in an almost off-hand way during conversation. There is the usual focus on people, not events, though the political background of the decade, with its rumblings from Hitler and hints of war, is discreetly mentioned and colours the behaviour of the cast of this tale. Powell is often very subtle, and I wondered whether having his characters discuss Orlando by Virginia Woolf was trying to hint of the type of relationship between Norah and Eleanor? And the conversation between Nick and General Conyers about Widmerpool’s failings, scattered with psychoanalysis and discussion of complexes etc is screamingly funny, and very unexpected!

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My one disappointment with the book is the fact that Nick gives away absolutely *nothing* about his courtship of Isobel. Literally, they meet, he decides they will marry and then they are engaged! We learn little about her, only seeing her directly very briefly and I found this a little frustrating, particularly as Nick had begun to open up a little bit in the last volume. But I suppose we have become used to mostly seeing him against a background of social gatherings, very rarely at work and never in a domestic setting.

I always find Nick’s/Powell’s meditations on the dance of life, and the small, everyday coincidences we experience, very thought-provoking. He has the gift of putting into words emotions we all feel but cannot articulate.

“Everyone knows the manner in which some specific name will recur several times in quick succession from different quarters; part of that inexplicable magic throughout life that makes us suddenly think of someone before turning a street corner and meeting him, or her, face to face. In the same way, you may be struck, reading a book, by some obscure passage or line of verse, quoted again, quite unexpectedly, twenty four hours later.”

This is an excellent novel, and I’m once more looking forward to next month!