Nick Jenkins is a privileged member of London society between the wars. It’s a good time to be alive in that milieu. The great depression rages around, but London is not much bothered. The parties and country house visits continue. There are still posh dinners to be had.
A Dance to the Music of Time is really a soap opera. That’s what hooks you in – the personal relationships, the snobbery, the whole human comedy. It’s a Dance because business partners, friends and romantic relations are contained within a closed group, as are the adulterous relationships . But the Dance is also the slow waltz of history, which Powell records sounding, faintly, in the background.
Nick’s interpretation of these events is not one you can find in the history books. He is really divorced from it all, but at the same time he is there as a witness. He observes the effects of political and cultural change on the lives of the people around him with a kind of bemused detachment. It allows you to relive history in a way that a history book or a biography could never do.
Nick is working as a scriptwriter now, and this allows him entry into bohemian London, whilst his family and public school background give the reader access to homes of the decaying upper classes.
He becomes increasingly entangled in the world of the landed gentry, visiting Lady Molly at her busy home in Kensington, where he gets news of Widmerpool’s engagement to Mildred, a rather fearsome woman with a rapacious appetite and a colourful romantic history.
Later Widmerpool confides in Nick, and seeks advice about whether to attempt to seduce Mildred before the wedding night. Considering Mildred’s personal history a sexual conquest would seem inevitable, but typically Widmerpool messes up. He is a successful business man by now, but is still socially inept, and a tragicomic figure. When the night comes, he is yellow with jaundice, and forced to retire due to illness. This seems to reflect Powell’s implicit view that life’s successes are as much due to fate or chance as to personal ability.
There is a wonderful scene in which Nick bumps into Jeavons, Lady Molly’s husband, in a nightclub in London. Jeavons, a former army captain, needs an occasional blow out and is drunk as a skunk. They meet Mildred, who turns out to have slept with Jeavons during the war, when she was a nurse. She is delighted by the reunion. Of course this whole episode throws an ironic light over Widmerpool’s failure.
This novel continues to explore Nick’s relationship with Quiggins, who has now become entangled with Erridge, Lord Westminster, and the stepson of Lady Warminster, Molly’s sister! It’s a tangled web that can be hard to follow at times.
Erridge is influenced by socialist politics, and not at all interested in the stately home which is going to rack and ruin. Quiggins is living in a tied cottage on Warminster’s estate with Mona, the beautiful model who used to be Stringham’s wife. Nick is invited down for the weekend, meeting Erridge and for the first time Erridge’s sister Isobel who will later become NIck’s wife.
The stately home is a ruin and the butler is a drunken thief, but Erridge is more interested in producing socialist literature, whilst Mona is quickly becoming dissatisfied with Quiggins and becoming quite amusingly grumpy.
It’s impressive that Powell can continue to interest the reader in what is now the fourth volume of this epic.