Gotham Diary:
26 August 2014

Last night, after dinner, I began reading The Kindly Ones, the sixth novel in A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell. It is in this book that Powell recurs for the first time to his childhood home, a bungalow on a hill overlooking Aldershot, the army town near Windsor. It is the season before World War I, a time that seemed placid enough to those whose comforts were well-arranged, but that in fact was pregnant with menace, nowhere more so than in Britain, with crises on the Irish Question and trade union fronts threatening serious disorder — both averted by the greater but externalized catastrophe of the war — and the widespread vandalism of the suffragettes, ladies who acted like gorgons. Albert, the family cook in Nick Jenkins’s household, calls suffragettes “Virgin Marys,” and Powell muses on the similar instinct that led the ancient Greeks to speak of the Furies as the Eumenides, or Kindly Ones. I will be taking the measure of the title’s irony as I read.

Did I read this book as a teenager? I know that I owned a paperback copy; I can almost remember the cover art. At the time, The Kindly Ones was the end of the line. The Valley of Bones had been published in cloth, in Britain at least, and perhaps even The Soldier’s Art, but they would not appear in paper for some time, and, when they did, I was no longer interested. Somewhere in the neighborhood of At Lady Molly’s and Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, the novel drifted over my head. From the very start, the cycle had been something of a disappointment: there was none of the jolly disaster of Decline and Fall and the other early novels of Evelyn Waugh. Powell’s writing was not only more richly upholstered but considerably more oblique, requiring, among other things, a greater familiarity with the mechanics of aristocracy than I possessed. I couldn’t seem to work out, for example, why Molly Jeavons was “Lady Molly,” while her sister Kathleen was “Lady Warminster.” I wasn’t sure that it mattered, either. For all the dense family interrelationships, there was little in the way of high-class high jinks.

I simply wasn’t old enough to appreciate the “small, violent drama” of the scene, in Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (that most fabulous of titles!) in which Charles Stringham, drunk and determined to be drunker, is foiled by his benignant jailer, Tuffy Weedon; nor could I enjoy the fun of the mock-seduction scene that precedes it, in which Stringham accosts the rebarbative Mrs Maclintick as “Little Bo-Peep,” transforming her from a harridan into a party animal. It was all much too grown-up. At some length, and with many interruptions, Stringham, harping on the unhappiness of marriage, describes the “passive resistance” with which his wife, Peggy Stepney, used to greet him in the morning, rather stiffly disregarding his presence next to her in bed. He would run through all the possibilities of having given offense.

“Well, or course, in the end you discover that all this ill humour is nothing to do with yourself at all. In fact your wife is hardly aware that she is living in the same house with you. It was something that somebody said about her to someone who gossiped to somebody she knew when that somebody was having her hair done. Neither less nor more than that. All the same, it is you, her husband, who has to bear the brunt of these ill-chosen remarks by somebody about something. I’ve talked it all over with Ted Jeavons and he quite agrees.”

This was too bleak to tickle my adolescent sensibility. It wasn’t at all funny, and I wanted A Dance to the Music of Time to be funny. I doubt that I read as far as the scene that I have just mentioned; my hunch is that I had given up on waiting for the book to be funny. The subsequent volumes, with their air of military tedium, promised even less in the way of amusement. Thirty years later, it was, as it certainly ought to be, a different story.

Even now, I can be a little slow on the uptake. When I read the following passage yesterday (also from Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant), I had no idea what Widmerpool was talking about:

There was no doubt he was pleased about something. He seemed uncertain whether or not to reveal the reason for that. Then, suddenly, his gratification was explained.

“I have been moving in rather exalted circles lately,” he said, giving a very satisfied smile.


“No exactly royal — that is hardly the word yet … You understand me.”

“I think so.”

I didn’t. Not until the following chapter, when Nick runs into Chips Lovell in the tube, did I get it. Now I saw what Widmerpool means when he said to Nick,

“A new broom will soon get to work. I venture to hope that I may even myself participate in this healthier society to which we may look forward.”

“And you think we shall avoid war?”

“Certainly, I do. But I was speaking for once of society in its narrower sense — the fashionable world. There is much in the prospect before us that attracts me.”

Of course! Widmerpool has worked his way into the Fort Belvedere set, and convinced himself that the new king, Edward VIII, will  be permitted to marry the woman he loves and keep the throne. Widmerpool even foresees a place for himself at the new court! What a cluck. “Please do not press me for details,” says the ever would-be enigmatic Widmerpool — and Powell obliges, excising such key words as “Mrs Simpson” and “abdication.”


When Ray Soleil described the itinerary that we had worked out for his trip to England with Fossil Darling, I was virtually envious. It would be very nice to see the sights that they will see. But sightseeing has become somewhat tedious for me, because my neck is permanently stooped forward, and in order to see anything but the pavement on which I am walking I must come a complete stop and stretch my back rearwards. tilting at the hip. Given the diet of almost exclusively British prose that I’ve been digesting since the late winter, however, the regular reader might be forgiven for imagining that I would very much enjoy an English vacation.

But the English vacation that I am already enjoying involves something rather dearer to me than charming towns and bucolic landscapes — the English language. If only I could talk about this without invoking the noxious concept of “purity”!