At the end of the first season of Powell’s “monumental” novel, A Dance to the Music of Time, I stated that each book was getting better. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy At Lady Molly’s very much, and I’m going to try to pin it down. I believe the main reason is that Jenkins reverts back to his observer role, whereas he had finally become much more of an active character in the last book. Herein, everything revolves around Widmerpool’s strange engagement to a woman much older than him (and much more eccentric, if more of a “class” with their compatriots than Widmerpool). I am starting to fear that Widmerpool may be the single most important character in the novel, boding ill for my enjoyment.
The problem is that Powell’s humor centering around Widmerpool is akin to the humor of Seinfeld. Like the characters of that show, Widmerpool is often sailing amongst the people around him, steadfast in his selfishness, and then has a bowl of sugar unexpectedly dumped on his head. While you do not feel sorry for him–he is, after all, quite an ass in his egotistical way–the manner by which he gets his comeuppance does not put the other characters in all that favorable a light either.
Truth to be told, I was much more interested in Jenkins, newly ensconced in the world of British cinema screenplay writing, and engaged by the end of the book. Unlike his romance with Jean Duport, his wooing of Isobel Tolland occurs entirely offstage, and one wonders at whether it was a thing born of love or of that endlessly ticking biological clock. Stringham and Templar, so important at the beginning of Powell’s narrative, are little more than quick asides here.
Now that I’m a third of the way through the Dance, I’m committed to finishing its steps. I only hope that this current turn was simply a miscue on the part of my partner, Mr. Powell, and not a headlong fall into the bandstand.
[Finished 6 April 1998]