Message in a Bottle
A Dance to the Music of Time: A Question of Upbringing

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The first book of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time introduces us to narrator Nicholas Jenkins and a handful of his friends and relations. We meet Stringham and Templer, his roommates at school, and then their officious headmaster Le Bas, who becomes the subject of a prank orchestrated by Stringham. As the young men leave school and head into adulthood, they start to move in different directions, with the cynical Templer taking a finance job in the City. Jenkins summers in France, where he dabbles in unrequited romance and re-encounters another fellow student, the dogged but inelegant Widmerpool. Jenkins returns to England to take a place at university alongside Stringham, who quickly grows disenchanted with academic life and enters the business world with the encouragement of his glamorous mother, brusque stepfather, and Sillery, a don more interested in establishing social and political connections than in teaching. The novel closes as it began, with the appearance of Jenkins’ itinerant Uncle Giles, as ever obsessed with the imagined injustice he suffers at his family’s hands.

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Well, what did you think of it, fellow readers? Hope you liked it—I did. This is intended to be a forum for voices other than my own, so I don’t want to monopolize opinion, but I’ll get us started by sharing a few thoughts I had as I turned the pages.

The newest season of Downton Abbey began airing in the US just as I was reading the book, and it coincidentally takes place at almost the exact same historical moment that A Question of Upbringing does, the first years of the 1920s. The twin subjects of the television show are society’s elite and the servants who support them, so it was interesting that Powell’s novel mainly covered the experiences of the more middling classes, relatively speaking. It occurred to me that Jenkins, the narrator of QU, comes from approximately the same milieu as Downton's Matthew Crawley. Before the latter inherits vast wealth and a title, of course.

One of the things I most enjoyed about the book was Powell’s understated humor, as on page 21 when the narrator says, “I spoke more about Stringham, but Uncle Giles had come to the end of his faculty for absorbing statements about other people.” Such an apt, devastating way to sum up Giles’ solipsism. Even though QU is full of meditative insight about human psychology, it also contains many scenes of what could be played as broad, even slapstick, comedy, as when Jenkins misdirects a declaration of love toward his landlady instead of the sweet young thing he’s had his eye on. As Powell handles it, the description is dry and self-mocking, and all the more hilarious.

I’ll be curious to see how the series develops from here, and how many of the characters we meet in the first book reappear in Jenkins’ life. Clearly, some relatively minor figures will, and others who briefly play vivid, seemingly important roles won’t. That’s a very lifelike quality, I find. The odd, inscrutable Widmerpool will certainly be seen again. After he leads the Scandinavian tennis opponents to rapprochement for motives that are unclear to Jenkins, the narrator says, “Even then I did not recognise the quest for power,” and I noted, “More of Widmerpool anon.”

Jenkins himself is probably the most fascinating figure in the book despite how little we really learn about him. He’s at the center of all the action without taking the center of the stage, and is almost staunchly noncommittal in attitude throughout. He seems to have a chameleon-like ability to convince others he’s on their side even when their points of view are diametrically opposed. Is he of Stringham’s party or Templer’s? Or neither? Does he laugh along when Stripling concocts plots to torment Farebrother or frown? It’s hard for us to tell, and it’s hard to tell whether Jenkins knows his own mind about these things.

For me, the narrator’s most emblematic moment of detachment occurs on page 57, when he and Stringham discuss Templer’s suitability for domestic life. Stringham asserts that Templer has none, and asks, “You agree?” to which Jenkins merely replies, “I see what you mean.” It’s a very non-confrontational, Seattle-style response. Sympathy for everyone is ideal in a fictional narrator, but I suspect it’s a detriment in the real world.

But enough of what I think. It’s your turn. Do you agree or disagree? Don’t just say, “I see what you mean.” You can react to what I’ve said or raise a topic of your own. (Those of you who read these posts in your email will want to click the headline at the top of the message to go to our blog site where you can leave a comment.) As an incentive for you to participate, the generous people at University of Chicago Press have agreed to donate some copies of the subsequent volumes in the series. I’ll be randomly choosing winners from among the comments, so if you’d like a FREE BOOK, speak up. Comments will remain open until our next Dance to the Music of Time post (and beyond, if you want to keep talking), so keep the conversation going.

Next up: A Buyer’s Market on February 29th. Available as part of First Movement or separately as an ebook.

—James

Photo from Channel 4’s 1997 TV adaptation of A Dance to the Music of Time.