Stringham and Templer manage to get their housemaster Le Bas arrested by impersonating him on the phone. It’s an amusing trick that epitomises this group of effete Englishmen.
We meet them in A Question of Upbringing, the first volume of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. These spoilt young men, at public school with narrator Nick Jenkins, are wealthy and pretty decadent, smoking in their rooms, cooking toast and sausages over an open fire and sneering at Widmerpool.
They will never make the cricket team. Only Widmerpool would want to. He is enthusiastic and useless, and was marked as an outsider from the first day at school, when he arrived in the wrong kind of overcoat. Stringham and Templar have more in common with Oscar Wilde than WG Grace. They are not the backbone of Empire, just the rotten fruit of the English upper and middle classes.
Powell’s choice of these characters is significant. He has written a comic novel aimed at the dark underbelly of English pretension. Nick observes this world without really partaking in it. He visits Stringham and Templar at their parents’ homes. One is a businessman living in a garish seaside villa. The other has inherited wealth, a house in Berkeley square and a stately home that is too cold to live in.
It’s like a darker version of PG Wodehouse. There are jolly hockey stick young girls, and impecunious uncles. There are servants and spinsters. They have boats and racing cars. There are military people with medals who play polo. There are divorced parents and tea planters in Kenya.
Nick’s father is involved in the Paris Peace Conference at the end of WW1, which puts him at the heart of the British establishment. These people go to university and work in the city. It’s a life of privilege with servants and foreign travel. Nick spends the summer in France so he can learn the language. This is an interlude in which we learn more about his nascent sexuality. We are treated to some beautiful portraits of French snobbery and arrogance. The women are dominating, like Wodehouse’s best, or they are delicate ciphers of unattainable female beauty.
At university he joins up with Stringham again. We meet a new range of characters, including Sillery, an obsequious and parochial don who lives for the connections he can make and the influence he can wield. He spins his web at Sunday afternoon tea parties where he shows off promising young poets or talented graduates taking the first steps in influential careers. They are like butterflies to add to his collection.
Quiggin is a scholarship boy from the midlands, and therefore an outsider, tolerated in their little world, but not really able to make a mark. Members, a poet who happens to come from the same town is embarrassed by this geographical connection which Sillers takes great pleasure in pointing out.
It is a snobbish and class ridden world. This is emphasised especially in an ill-fated car trip when the boys pick up two young women from the town. The gulf between them is immense. Apart from servants, these are the only working class people we see. It’s a closed and privileged world.
A Question of Upbringing is an episodic novel, moving from Nick’s school, to his friends’ houses, to France, and then on to university. It is a narrative approach that works really well because Powell never has to dwell too long on any one place or person.
This is not a novel that contains lots of action, but the cast of characters is varied and they are full of flaws and idiosyncrasies. We see some of the characters only during a few moments they spend with Nick, so they are stereotypes or caricatures, there simply for what they represent. There is the promising graduate off to work for a northern industrialist, the lower class outsider, the manipulative don. Powell uses them to lift the lid on English hypocrisy and on the hidden levers of power.
Powell has an interest in art and often uses paintings to evoke aspects of character or setting. I like this approach. At times he can be verbose and digressive, though not excessively so. Usually he is concise and to the point, precise in his evocation of character, and often quite funny.
I’m glad I read this book. It had been on my shelf ignored for years. A Question of Upbringing is part of a three volume section entitled Spring, so I have two other novels to look forward to. Great stuff.