Jenkins receives a visit at his country home from a group of young people that includes Isobel’s niece Fiona. They are neo-nature cultists in thrall to Scorpio Murtlock, who is leading his party to some nearby standing stones called the Devil’s Fingers, evoking memories for Jenkins of Trelawney’s mysticism of fifty years before. Watching TV news that evening, Jenkins and Isobel see Widmerpool, lately returned to England after almost a decade in the US, being installed as a university chancellor; during the procession he is doused with paint by two students, the twin daughters of J.C. Quiggin and Ada Leintwardine. Some time later, Jenkins serves on the judging committee for the Magnus Donners Prize for biography, led by Gibson Delavacquerie, which selects Gwinnett’s newly published study of X. Trapnel as the winner. Widmerpool arranges an invitation to the award ceremony and attends with the Quiggin twins. The committee’s fear that he intends to confront Gwinnett about his affair with the late Pamela Widmerpool is not realized. Instead, the disheveled Widmerpool makes a speech about embracing the counterculture and rejecting all convention; his performance is interrupted by an exploding stink bomb set by the twins. Time passes, and Jenkins encounters Gwinnett near the Devil’s Fingers. The American academic has been documenting bacchanalian rituals enacted by Murtlock and his followers, now including Widmerpool, who has left the university. Delavacquerie sees his relationship with Polly Duport deteriorate as he becomes transfixed by Fiona while trying to extricate her from the cult. Despite his assistance, she rejects him and marries Gwinnett. Interest revives in the paintings of the long-deceased Deacon, and Jenkins attends a gallery showing of his work, there meeting the widowed Jean Duport Flores and her ex-husband. They are accompanied by the newly-married Polly and Delavacquerie. A drunken Bithel arrives with a valuable Modigliani drawing, snatched from a fire set by Murtlock to dispose of Widmerpool’s belongings. Bithel reports that Widmerpool, heavily stressed by various sexual degradations at Murtlock’s hand, has died while exerting himself during an ecdysiastic Trelawney-style morning run.
Three thousand pages ago, Nicholas Jenkins watched some workers warm themselves around a fire bucket on a street corner. The image of snow falling into the flames “brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons [in Poussin’s painting], moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.” Now, having spent a liftetime observing and participating in that tumultuous dance, he stands alone in front of a bonfire as stillness finally descends: “Even the formal measure of the Seasons seemed suspended in the wintry silence.” Powell completes his full circle so neatly that it seems almost blasphemous to break that silence, but I have to say something, so blaspheme I will. Closing the book, I can almost picture Powell as Christ on the cross, hanging his head and uttering, “It is finished.”
That’s also blasphemy regarding the Dance itself, I think. Though the whole project has a clear ending (as does each part within it—there are endings galore), beginnings are equally emphasized. Even as threads of plot are cut off, new ones become visible, so you can’t reach a conclusion without first talking about the latest novelties. And what could be more novel and unexpected in this series than hippies? I never imagined when I began it that Powell would, as Spinal Tap advised, listen to what the flower people say. He and his stand-in Jenkins certainly aren’t personally sympathetic to the counterculture, but it’s a testament to their artistic neutrality that they don’t judge the younger generation more harshly than their own. Outré fashion and rebellion don’t seem shocking to someone who remembers Victorian-era dandyism and pre-war licentiousness.
That historical perspective is nicely underlined in the scene at the gallery, when Henderson tries to explain Deacon’s importance but can’t process that Jenkins actually knew the man. The business of calling him Bosworth rather than Edgar is a typically deft Powell touch.
I must admit I don’t quite know what to make of Widmerpool’s involvement with the cult. In some ways he seems to have achieved an apotheosis of ridiculousness, but he may also have finally attained some enlightenment. Is his need to atone to Bithel and Akworth sincere? Are we to interpret all his prior actions as driven by repressed homosexuality? Is his death a self-sacrifice or a final failure?
The marriage of Gibson and Polly reminded me of Wuthering Heights, oddly enough, specifically the way Heathcliff engineers a relationship between his and Cathy’s offspring. I couldn’t help thinking of the practical-minded poet Delavacquerie as a younger incarnation of Jenkins, so it seems more than a coincidence that he’d end up with the daughter of Jenkins’ first love.
Gwinnett remains a fascinating puzzle. There’s more than a suggestion that beneath his superficial placidity he’s actually a necromancer of sorts. Though the Dance is primarily a realistic chronicle, there’s another fictional level on which the dark forces that Murtlock, Mrs. Erdleigh, and others are aware of actually function. Whether or not Gwinnett is an evil magus, I like him, largely because we currently share the same obsession: Jacobean drama. The allusions to Dekker, Beaumont and Fletcher, and their ilk are among the most apposite in the whole series. The references give me a chance to play the pedant, too. Although Gwinnett (and Powell) think that Cyril Tourneur wrote The Revenger’s Tragedy, today’s scholars know that Thomas Middleton was the true author. Drop that little fact at your next cocktail party and you’re sure to impress.
Speaking of literary references, the long quotation from Burton near the very end was absolutely marvelous, all the more so in context. It almost makes me think that works like the Anatomy exist only so they can have their meaning enhanced by being mined and repurposed in other books.
Can you tell that I really don’t want to end this? Even the internet doesn’t have room for everything I’d want to say about these books, so I have to wrap up somehow. I’ll give you a little more to read before I go, though, in the form of an interview Powell gave to the Paris Review. I can’t believe I didn’t run across it until now, partly because it introduced me to the useful concept of the Dance as prosopography—“the social and intellectual history of a loosely connected group.” That’s the only ten-dollar word in there, I promise. It’s actually quite entertaining and insightful.
To those of you who’ve made it this far, congratulations on your accomplishment and thanks for taking the trip with me.
Next up: I don’t know. Anyone want to tackle another big reading project in 2014?
- Book One: A Question of Upbringing
- Book Two: A Buyer’s Market
- Book Three: The Acceptance World
- Book Four: At Lady Molly’s
- Book Five: Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant
- Book Six: The Kindly Ones
- Book Seven: The Valley of Bones
- Book Eight: The Soldier’s Art
- Book Nine: The Military Philosophers
- Book Ten: Books Do Furnish a Room
- Book Eleven: Temporary Kings