At Lady Molly’s begins with Nicholas Jenkins, having broken off his affair with Jean and now concocting “scenarios” for the film industry, being introduced through a studio colleague to the slackly-run home of the titular Lady Molly Jeavons, where he meets various members of the sprawling Tolland family (of which Molly is a part) and hears the news of Widmerpool’s engagement to an older woman, Mildred. Jenkins later lunches with Widmerpool, who quizzes him awkwardly on the propriety of premarital intercourse with one’s intended. Quiggin invites Jenkins to weekend in the country with him and Mona, who have been cohabiting since she divorced Templer. While there, Jenkins meets Quiggins’ landlord, the wealthy but left-leaning eccentric Erridge, who heads the Tolland family, and his sisters, realizing instantaneously that he’s fated to marry the younger one, Isobel. Jenkins then dines at a night club with a group that includes a jaundiced Widmerpool and his fianceé. Mr. Jeavons confidentially reveals to Jenkins a long-ago connection he has to Mildred, and dances her off as Widmerpool retires from the scene because of his illness. Erridge travels to China to investigate the political situation there, bringing Mona with him and creating a minor scandal. Widmerpool’s engagement founders, and Jenkins’ is made public. During another party at Lady Molly’s, Mildred’s brother-in-law discreetly reports to Jenkins that she dropped Widmerpool after a fumbling failure in the bedroom, immediately followed by the appearance of the jilted fiancé, who offers Jenkins advice on marriage.
Either the books are getting better or I’m becoming more amenable to Powell’s style (or both), because At Lady Molly’s was probably my favorite in the series so far. Long out of school, the characters seem to be playing for higher stakes, and their gossip is juicier than ever. I have to keep reminding myself that the Dance was written well after the period that it describes, as it feels so authentically of that era. That’s why its fairly frank treatment of sexuality, especially alternative sexuality, is refreshing. Witness the interesting ménage that Norah Tolland and Elizabeth Walpole-Wilson establish. Powell is no radical, but neither is he judgmental, and I can think of few other novels of the 1930s that would have presented that sort of material at all.
Jenkins, as Powell’s stand-in, continues to display the same refusal to condemn anyone or anything completely. When interrogated by prospective in-laws about Widmerpool’s fitness for marriage, Jenkins conveniently and typically finds a way to politely duck the questions. Widmerpool, despite his obnoxiousness, is actually growing more respectable in Jenkins’ eyes, apparently because he’s so consistently himself. Jenkins even seems to be seeing Widmerpool as a kind of reverse doppelganger when he considers how the two of them have shared affection for the same women. I get a sense that Jenkins is wondering if there’s not something to Widmerpool’s forcefulness.
He’s not alone, either. I’m realizing that many of the most ridiculous, grotesque characters are the most strong-willed, while the ones with initially appealing personalities are vague and malleable, even unformed. Compare Widmerpool, Erridge, and even Gypsy to superficially better-mannered, socially-adept figures such as Stringham and Templer. The former achieve their desires more often than not, while the latter squander their promise and become increasingly confused about what they should be doing with their lives. Add Truscott to that list, too. Once pegged as an up-and-comer who would star in any field he chose, he still hasn’t accomplished anything and has now lost his business position. He’s the poster boy for what we talked about in earlier installments, the tendency of bright young things to fade and fall out of contact. You never know with the Dance, though—he may express some willpower and stage a comeback yet.
Speaking of the importance of will, what do you make of this from page 203, narrated by Jenkins on the topic of his own impending nuptials?
Marriage, as I have said, is a form of action, of violence almost: an assertion of the will.
How romantic. And I loved this bit from page 136 as well:
Would it be too explicit, too exaggerated, to say that when I set eyes on Isobel Tolland, I knew at once that I should marry her? Something like that is the truth; certainly nearer the truth than merely to record those vague, inchoate sentiments of interest of which I was so immediately conscious. It was as if I had known her for many years already; enjoyed happiness with her and suffered sadness. I was conscious of that, as of another life, nostalgically remembered. Then, at that moment, to be compelled to go through all the paraphernalia of introduction, of “getting to know” one another by means of the normal formalities of social life, seemed hardly worth while. We knew one another already; the future was determinate. But what—it may reasonably be asked—what about the fact that only a short time before I had been desperately in love with Jean Duport; was still, indeed, not sure that I had been wholly cured? Were the delights and agonies of all that to be tied up with ribbon, so to speak, and thrown in a drawer to be forgotten? What about the girls with whom I seemed to stand nightly in cinema queues? What, indeed?
You can’t say he’s going into this with his eyes closed.
One last quote from page 97, which I share only because I had trouble making heads or tails of it:
Later that evening, I found myself kicking my heels in one of those interminable cinema queues of which I have already spoken, paired off and stationary, as if life’s co-educational school, out in a “crocodile,” had come to a sudden standstill: that co-educational school of iron discipline, equally pitiless in pleasure and in pain.
“That co-educational school” would seem to be life, and as best I can tell, “out in a ‘crocodile’” just means “walking in a pair.” So the metaphor says that life is a way of proceeding into the world in gendered pairs, but it’s temporarily ground to a halt? A lot of weight being placed on waiting in movie lines in this book. I’m surprised Powell didn’t call it Standing Nightly in a Queue.
Oh, I almost forgot to give a prize. The winner of a copy of Third Movement, courtesy of University of Chicago Press, is Mary C. Mary, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to claim your book. We’ll take a hiatus from handouts next month, but resume the freebies in June.
Painting by Max Ginsburg from the cover of the 1980s Warner Books edition of At Lady Molly’s.