The Valley of Bones – Anthony Powell

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On into World War 2 with Powell’s saga of life in Britain in the twentieth century. It’s The Valley of Bones, and Nick has joined the army – a Welsh regiment. Powell also joined a Welsh regiment, and claimed he had a royal Welsh family history, so it’s hard not to see this as just more confirmation of the autobiographical nature of A Dance to the Music of Time.

Certainly The Valley of Bones gives Powell all kinds of opportunities to use Welsh cadences in his dialogue, and he’s very convincing in this respect when describing the barrack rooms, messes and hostelries he spends time in during the early years of the war.

Bithel, a fellow officer, claims a family relationship with a soldier awarded the Victoria Cross, and pretends to have been a rugby international, or at least of international standard. We meet him in the bar when blind drunk. His fellow officers rig his bed and watch the consequent shenanigans with amusement.

But rather than being shamed and undermined by the trick Bithel dances drunkenly around the bed as if making love to it. The officers are impressed by his ability to laugh off the unwanted joke by joining in so comically. But when Nick speaks to him the next day he realises that Bithel was too drunk to remember what happened, and clearly had no idea what he was doing at the time, in fact no idea at all that he had been the butt of a joke.

Bithel turns out to be a complete fraud and is terrified of the others discovering that he has no ability whatsoever as a rugby player, and no family links to a VC. He is just one of several new characters Powell introduces in this volume as he continues to explore the vagaries of human nature in many of its forms.

Nick’s commanding officer Gwatkin is an ambitious soldier. He wants to move on from the territorial regiment that they are currently in. But he makes a mess of a couple of things on manoeuvres when the company move to Northern Ireland for training, and his hopes take a crash.

Later Gwatkin falls in romantic love with a local barmaid. He confides in Nick and considers embarking on an affair, despite the fact that he has a wife at home. Gwatkin places the barmaid on a romantic pedestal, which amuses Nick, who thinks she is nothing to write home about. The reader is also amused when they bump into the barmaid having sex on a park bench with another soldier. Gwatkin comes down to earth with an amusing thud, realising he has failed in many military duties because he was busy dreaming about this girl.

Whilst most of this volume is set on army bases Nick does manage to get some leave, ending up at the home of one of his wealthy friends, and meeting various characters from his past including Jimmy Brent, a former lover of Nick’s old mistress, Jean. Nick listens with interest but does not comment as Jimmy spills the beans about his affair with Jean.

Odo Stevens, who makes costume jewellery, enters here, making a big impression on Priscilla, one of Nick’s relatives whose husband is away at the war. This episode echoes the recurrent theme of marital infidelity, as does the incident with Gwatkin. Indeed one of the sergeants in the regiment finds his life destroyed when he realises his wife has been unfaithful whilst he has been away. A neighbour writes to the regiment to divulge all, and the sergeant goes home to try to sort things out, but to no avail.

 

 

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