Well, I’m relieved to say that I *did* manage to get my June Powell read before the end of the month, although the review is a little late – life getting in the way of blogging again! However, this was a thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining and involving read so though late, very welcome!

First edition

First edition

“The Kindly Ones” is about the coming of War, and Powell wrong-foots us instantly by whisking us back to a time before the first book in the series “A Question of Upbringing”, to his life as a boy, living in a country house called Stonehurst. Once we’ve re-adjusted to the new setting (getting into a Powell book is never entirely straightforward!), we meet a whole new set of characters from Nick’s childhood – his parents, nurse and various very entertaining servants including the soldier Bracey, cook Albert and maid Billson. This eternal triangle provides one of the funniest sections of the series so far, when poor Billson has a nervous breakdown and appears naked at dinner. General Conyers, making an appearance in younger form, rescues the situation admirably but things are destined to change as on the same day news reaches Stonehurst of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the First World War is signalled. The title, incidentally, refers to a nickname given to The Furies, presumably in attempt to placate them!

“One of the worst things about life is not how nasty the nasty people are. You know that already. It is how nasty the nice people can be.”

During this first chapter, we meet the rather wonderful religious quack Dr. Trelawney and his followers, and he will recur throughout the book. The second chapter jumps forward to 1938 where we meet once again Moreland and his wife Matilda, now living in the country near Stourwater, Sir Magnus Donners’ country place. Nick goes for a visit to the Morelands and they are taken off for dinner at Stourwater, bizarrely being chauffeured by Templer. The night at Donner’s mansion is also bizarre, ending up with the somewhat risque-sounding Seven Deadly Sins tableaux. Bearing in mind the constant hints about Donner’s dodgy private life I guess we should not be surprised, but this is all too much for Templer’s highly strung second wife who also has a bit of a nervous breakdown – nerves being something of a recurring theme here.

We then move on to 1939 and one of the main regular characters in the sequence so far, Uncle Giles, makes his final bow. Although Nick claims not to have been close to his uncle, Giles turned up on a regular basis, and it is rather sad to see him go. Poor Nick has to travel off to the seaside, where his departed relative has been staying in a seedy hotel coincidentally run by Albert, the ex-cook. Here he re-encounters Dr. Trelawney and Mrs. Erdleigh – the constant, wonderful, unexpected juxtapositions of characters are just fabulous! Nick also runs into Bob Duport, who was married to his first love Jean Templar, and there are a number of painful and surprising revelations.

“One passes through the world knowing few, if any, of the important things about even the people with whom one has been from time to time in the closest intimacy.”

By the final chapter war has arrived, although it has not yet brought chaos, more a strange kind of calm. Nick is knocking about a somewhat deserted London, trying to gain access to the army as an officer, and tries to enlist Widmerpool’s help (to no avail). Our Kenneth has become even more insufferable and pompous – he was obviously made for army life and is really becoming more and more unbearable as the books go on! But we are soon steered back to familiar territory, at Lady Molly’s, where a number of characters reappear, there are more revelations and Ted Jeavons’ brother proves to be of great help to Nick.

kindly penguin

This volume in the “Dance” series really shows an author who has complete mastery of his material. The strand and complexities of everyday life are reflected here, with some characters making just cameo appearances (Quiggin and co), while others dominate the story. I was really pleased to see something of Nick’s childhood and family, and some of the sequences in this chapter were a hoot – particularly the appearances of Dr. Trelawney (as well as his later manifestations in the novel!)

This is a very atmospheric book – almost elegiac in places – as Jenkins and his circle face up to the forthcoming fighting. The two pre-war periods are contrasted in the early and later parts of the story, and I found it very surprising that Nick was so keen to enlist. Having seen the aftermath of WW1 it might be thought that he would be keen to avoid military action, particularly with Isobel expecting a baby, but not so. Powell is fair enough to acknowledge that there is an opposing view, allowing a memorable appearance by Gypsy Jones, campaigning against mobilisation; but his terminology when describing the protestors makes it clear where his loyalties lie.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a “Dance” novel without Widmerpool. And it’s fascinating to note how as the series develops the reader is able to look back over the characters, whom Powell has portrayed so consistently, and see how early characteristics (such as Widmerpool’s driven nature) develop as humans come to maturity. Kenneth is obviously a man who will flourish during the conflict. We see much of Moreland and Matilda, and also the wonderful Erridge!

“Erridge, a rebel whose life had been exasperatingly lacking in persecution, had enjoyed independent of parental control, plenty of money, assured social position, early in life. Since leaving school he had been deprived of all the typical grudges within the grasp of most young men. Some of these grudges, it was true, he had later developed with fair success by artificial means, grudges being, in a measure, part and parcel of his political approach.”

Powell is as always concerned with chance and destiny and the Dance. It is an apparently random meeting with Jeavons’ brother which will enable Nick to finally get into the army. Powell’s feeling is that there is an external fate which always takes a hand in life; and I often feel these books should be subtitled “the-seemingly-random-but-actually-not-random-at-all memoirs of Nick Jenkins”! This volume was one of the most moving and entertaining of the series so far, peopled with wonderful characters and marvellous writing – I can’t wait for the next, although I fear there may be sadness ahead…