In the same way that it had become an enjoyable habit to read another volume of Proust’s massive novel every few months, so it has also become a pleasure to intermittently return to Anthony Powell’s twelve-part novel A Dance to the Music of Time. His dry, subtle humour, his inimitable style, not to mention all those marvellous sentences, is always a treat to come back to. So it is with the sixth volume, The Kindly Ones.
The book begins with a flashback to 1914, when Nick is still a kid and his parents rented a furnished bungalow called Stonehurst. The title, we learn early on, originates from what Albert, their cook, called “The Virgin Marys,” an ironic name applied to The Suffragettes and his unreasonable fear that the women activists will somehow “[bust] in and [burn] the place down” (6). The incongruous name reminds Nick of that morning’s ancient Greek mythology lesson on Eumenides—the Kindly Ones—a similarly ironic name given to appease the Furies, those angry women and harbingers of war.
The opening chapter largely revolves around the day the Conyers came to Stonehurst to have lunch with Nick’s family, an occasion that is disrupted when Billson, a female servant whose nerves are deeply agitated by the ghosts that allegedly haunt the bungalow, comes in to serve lunch stark naked. Just as the Conyers are about to drive home, Uncle Giles shows up on foot, the two parties simultaneously crossing paths with Dr. Trelawney, a bearded, long-robed occultist, who happens to be out for a run with his disciples. (This instalment of the novel was written in the 60s, so maybe the spirit of that era has coloured the story.) Something of an ancient Greek himself, Trelawney haunts Nick’s childhood memories, in part because of his strange, oracular salutation: “The Essence of the All is the Godhead of the True.” But instead of the embarrassment this accidental confluence of wildly disparate parties would create, as Nick’s parents had feared, it turns out that General Conyers is already acquainted with Trelawney and even utters the appropriate response to his greeting: “The Vision of Visions heals the Blindness of Sight.” Meanwhile, Giles brings news of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, that casus belli instigating World War One.
Chapter II moves forward to 1938, not long after “Munich”—a reference to the Munich Agreement during which Great Britain, France and Italy effectively allowed for Hitler’s annexation of parts of Czechoslovakia. Like the first chapter, this one also focuses on the events of a single day, or, in this case, an evening when the Morelands (Hugh and Matilda) and the Jenkins (Nick and his wife Isobel) are invited for dinner at Sir Magnus Donner’s castle, Stourwater. Assigned to pick them up is Nick’s old friend from university Peter Templer, someone he hasn’t seen for years. Templer, you may recall from The Acceptance World, was married to the beautiful model Mona but who subsequently left her husband to briefly become involved with the literary critic Quiggin. In Book VI Templer is remarried now, this time to a woman named Betty, someone Nick describes as positively “dotty.” Also present at the dinner party is Dicky Umfraville’s former wife Anne, only now she has apparently left her husband and taken up the role of Donner’s latest mistress. (Incidentally, Hugh’s wife, Matilda, was also once Donner’s mistress.) When Donners mentions that he has recently taken up photography, his guests insist he photograph them in various tableaux depicting the Seven Deadly Sins, as represented in the tapestries hung about the dining room. Donners assigns each of them a “sin” that, in varying degrees, aptly suits the character: Peter Templer is lust, Anne is Anger, Matilda is Envy, Hugh is gluttony, Isobel is pride, Betty is Avarice, and Nick (appropriately enough as the writer, the daydreamer, the observer) is Sloth. When we see Peter Templer act out Lust, not with his wife Betty but with Anne Umfraville, we understand what it is that makes Betty so dotty: like the sin she’s assigned, she’s greedy for Peter’s love, and when she sees him lusting after another woman, she emits a painful howl and flees from the room, just at the same time that Widmerpool, in military uniform, appears at the door to talk business with Donners.
Chapter III progresses by about a year. Albert, who had quit working at Stonehurst long ago, now runs a seaside hotel called the Bellevue where the ever-shiftless Uncle Giles has been staying and—I was shocked to learn—where he also dies. I’d grown quite fond of the oddball uncle and his cameo appearances in each book, so I was quite surprised by Nick’s apparent apathy upon learning of his uncle’s death. And when he is deputed to make arrangements for Giles’s funeral, Nick does so begrudgingly. Coincidentally, Bob Duport is also staying at the Bellevue. (Back in The Acceptance World, Nick carried on a long-term affair with his wife Jean while she was still married to Bob.) Naturally, Nick hopes to avoid him, but Duport engages him in conversation and during a night of drinking Nick is certain that Duport will reveal knowledge of Jean’s affair with Nick. Instead what he discloses are the various other affairs that Jean has had and which apparently coincided with his own liaison with her. Although now happily married to Isobel and his affair with Jean ended long ago, it’s still a painful disclosure of information. Coincidences abound in Powell’s world, and it turns out that Doctor Trelawney, the old occultist of Nick’s childhood, is also staying at the Bellevue, and so is Mrs. Erdleigh, the fortune teller we first met in The Acceptance World. In that earlier volume there was some suspicion that Giles and Mrs. Erdleigh may have been briefly involved. Now, she appears to have taken up with Trelawney. Apart from Nick himself, she is the only other person to attend Uncle Giles’s funeral.
Chapter IV coincides with the beginning of World War II, a time at which everyone is seemingly displaced. Many of the men, like Widmerpool, are somehow involved in the war, while the women, like Nick’s wife Isobel, have relocated to the safety of the country; and places like Stourwater and Thubworth (the estate belonging to Erridge, Nick’s brother-in-law) have been turned into barracks or hospitals for soldiers. Nick himself has applied as a reservist but he wishes to see action. He goes to see General Conyers about fixing a commission; and although this proves futile, he learns that Conyers is engaged to Miss Weedon, Mrs. Foxe’s former secretary, the woman who also apparently cured Charles Stringham of drink. When Nick accompanies Widmerpool one night on a visit to the Jeavonses’ he finds his friend Moreland now living with them. Matilda, his wife, has left him for Donners once again. Meanwhile, Jeavons’s brother Stanley, a War Office staff captain, offers to get Nick a commission in the war.
So who are the kindly ones, the Furies, the title alludes to? Certainly the naked Billson is the first woman to have gone “mad” on the eve of the First World War, an event which effectively brings to a close Nick’s childhood at Stonehurst. There’s Templer’s wife, Betty, whose is also described as “mad,” and who certainly loses it prior to WWII when she witnesses Peter act out Lust with Anne—although what change this effects in Peter’s life we have yet to see. Though not actually present in the sixth volume, Jean too is something of a Fury as news of her infidelity also casts a painful cloud on Nick’s own life. Similarly, when Nick and Widmerpool are walking to the Jeavonses’ at the end of the book, they encounter that ever-furious woman, Gypsy Jones—Widmerpool’s former love interest—standing atop a soapbox, selling Communist newspapers as she did before, and shouting anti-war slogans. And of course Matilda, whose abandonment of Moreland causes the latter to become homeless.
But if these women—the so-called “kindly ones”—are the harbingers of war and catastrophe, what can be said of the men? In chapter II Moreland raises an issue that takes on a correlating theme: the notion of “men of action.” While out drinking with Nick one night, Moreland asks:
“Is it better to love somebody and not have them, or have somebody and not love them? I mean from the point of view of action—living intensely. Does action consist in having or loving? In having—naturally—it might first appear. Loving is just an emotion, not action at all. But is that correct? I’m not sure.” (79)
Later on in the book, Sir Magnus Donners is described as a man of action: a man who has clearly had many women, though whether he has loved them is less clear. He is also described as someone who takes no pleasure in reading: “No doubt that was a wise precaution for a man of action, whose imagination must be rigorously disciplined, if the will is to remain unsapped by daydreams” (95-96)—a statement that would clearly deny Nick that title, although not altogether unhappily, as we saw when he is assigned the role of Sloth. Another so-called “man of action” would be Widmerpool, a go-getter in his own right and now, in Book VI, an officer in the Army. And even though Widmerpool’s business decisions essentially forced Bob Duport into financial uncertainty, Nick describes the latter as also a “man of action. Ahead, I thought, lay plenty of opportunity for action of one kind of another. […] Indeed, his fear was really a sort of courage, fear and courage being close to each other, like love and hate” (203-204). And then there’s General Conyers who proved himself to be a man of action, once when he alone knew how to address the uncomfortable situation of a naked Billson, and again when he announces his engagement to Miss Weedon—evidently loving and living intensely, as befitting the criteria Mooreland outlined. Giles, Moreland, Erridge, and Stringham, on the other hand, all seem not just incapable of action but also emasculated as a result of shiftlessness, love, illness, or drink. And although Nick, as the narrator of the story, may not appear to be particularly discontent to not be such a man, Stanley Jeavons appears to hold the key that would fix Nick a commission that would see him become that man of action in the next instalment. Stay tuned!