The Kindly Ones, the sixth volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, is quite different from the earlier novels. It’s the late 1930s. Munich is in the news and Nick and his compatriots are preparing for war.
Despite this the novel begins with a long retrospective about Nick’s childhood in the countryside near Aldershot. These reminiscences introduce us to a group of household servants, and to the intimate human relationships that take place below stairs. As a child Nick is able to witness these events, though he hardly understands them.
Dr Trelawney and General Conyers are prominent in this opening section. Trelawney hosts his disciples nearby and Nick often sees them jogging across the fields. They greet people with ritualistic phrases about enlightenment, though Nick casts doubt on how enlightened they are when he explains that one of the disciples ended up committing suicide as a result of Trelawney’s “ministrations”.
The themes of occultism and corrupted spirituality introduced by Trelawney are mirrored in NIck’s childhood home. One of the servant girls is in a state of nervous tension because she has been thwarted in her love for the cook, who has found a partner elsewhere. Believing she has seen a ghost in her bedroom, and in a fevered state of anxiety, she appears naked in the dining room during General Conyers’ visit. The General is quick to take care of things, carefully wrapping her in a blanket before ushering her to safety.
Later Nick attends a dinner party at Stourwater where Donners photographs the guests as they form tableaux relating to the seven deadly sins. Templer is at the dinner with his beautiful second wife, stolen from her first husband. Now he has destroyed her self confidence by cheating on her. Events come to a climax when Templer plays the part of lust with a woman we assume to be his current fling, as his wife runs off in tears.
The death of Uncle Giles brings us face to face with the former cook, who is running a down at heel seaside hotel. This is typical of Powell: his characters meet over and over again in their at times improbable Dance.
We know that Uncle Giles has dabbled in the occult from his previous appearances, and by coincidence Dr Trelawney is living in the same seaside hotel. Trelawney is a spent force, disabled by an asthma attack and stuck in a toilet. He is dependent on Mrs Erdleigh, the spiritualist we met in a previous encounter with Uncle Giles. She provides Trelawney with some mysterious white pills which seem necessary to his continued existence. It’s all very sordid.
Coincidentally another figure from Nick’s past is also at the hotel – Bob Duport, the former husband of Jean, Nick’s lover in a previous volume. Nick learns some interesting things about Jean’s betrayal not only of her husband, but of Nick himself. As it happens Duport is now working with Widmerpool, who has left Dupont in the lurch as the war begins.
It’s easy to see why, allegedly, Powell disliked FR Leavis. Leavis would have hated the role of coincidence in Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. For him the plot of a novel should arise from psychology and stay within the bounds of credibility. Powell does stretch belief at times like this, when so many characters just happen to appear in the same seaside hotel!
This novel ends with a section about the breakup of Moreland’s marriage to Matilda. She has gone back to Donners. Nick is searching for a regiment to join as the war begins,. Widmerpool, once seemingly doomed to failure, has already taken a post commensurate with his feeling of self importance. Nick though is sceptical of the true value of the military secrets Widmerpool claims to know.
This is my least favourite volume of A Dance to the Music of Time. Whilst there are amusing episodes and interesting characters, it does not have the same sense of cohesion as others in the series. The three main episodes – at Nick’s childhood home, at Stourwater and at the seaside hotel, are really just separate episodes jammed together.
One consistent thread though is the sense of emptiness and corruption. As we approach World War 2, the country does not seem to be in a great condition. It’s full of hypocrisy and sin, and really hardly worth defending, from what you can see in this book!