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Evelyn Waugh told Ann Fleming that ‘Tony Powell’s latest volume [Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant] is a sad disappointment — only three pages of Widmerpool’. That was in 1960. A few years earlier, my classics master, urging me to read Powell, said, ‘The pre-war novels; I don’t like this chap Widmerpool.’ Few Powell fans would agree. Most are on Waugh’s side, delighting in the monster.
Still, I’ve been thinking about a question posed by Colin Donald in a paper given at last December’s Anthony Powell Centenary Conference. ‘Does Widmerpool “add up” as a character?’ he asked. ‘He certainly has a varied career, progressing from awkward, unpopular boy to crazed, elderly hippy via stints as a solicitor’s clerk, bill broker, territorial officer, wartime major and DAAG, Cabinet Office military martinet, Labour MP, publisher, suspected Russian agent, university teacher, TV personality, Californian guru, trendy university chancellor and spectacularly embarrassing cult member’ — a list which omits only his time on Sir Magnus Donners’ staff.
A varied career, certainly, not necessarily an incredible one. A reading from the volume entitled Eccentrics in the collection of Daily Telegraph obituaries yields comparable examples of wayward lives. The question is whether we believe in Widmerpool right up to his last metamorphosis as a seeker of ‘Harmony’ in Scorp Mortlock’s cult?
There is another pertinent question. How much of Widmerpool’s career did Powell foresee when he introduced us to this figure ‘in a sweater once white and cap at least a size too small, on the flat heels of spiked running shoes’? Not necessarily a great deal. It’s unlikely that he knew then that Widmerpool would die shouting, ‘I’m running, I’m running, I’ve got to keep it up.’
For one thing, Powell told me he didn’t do ‘a lot of overall planning’. In this context he remarked that when Stringham says of Widmerpool ‘that boy will be the death of me’, he didn’t then know that Widmerpool would indeed be responsible for sending Stringham to Singapore where he died in a Japanese PoW camp. Stringham’s quip, which was ‘the sort of thing people said then’, was a happy chance.
One of the problems of Dance, read as a coherent work, is that Powell started writing it years before the time in which the last two books are set. Accordingly, though Jenkins is in a sense remembering the story, he starts telling it long before it is completed. In writing a novel over a period of 25 years, Powell responded to changes in what was acceptable, being aware also that, unavoidably, he himself changed too. Pamela Flitton, for instance, would have had to be treated differently but for the greater freedom granted a novelist in the post-Chatterley trial mood of the Sixties, though he did not doubt his ability ‘to have attacked her in a more roundabout way’.
This suggests that had Powell published a novel every year rather than biennially, bringing out the last volume in 1963 rather than 1975, Widmerpool’s end would have been different, perhaps less awful. His disintegration, recorded with appalling zest in the last two books, could not have taken just the same form before the Sixties.
Nevertheless, though Widmerpool’s final appearance as that ‘spectacularly embarrassing cult member’ is far removed from the stolid, awkward schoolboy we first encountered, the seed was indeed planted early, even if Powell himself did not know how it would grow. When Jenkins meets him at La Grenadière after leaving school he still thinks of him as ‘an ineffective person, rather a freak’; yet the reader is already aware of his strength of will and determination to excel — even if Jenkins thinks his expressed ambition to be ‘such rubbish that I changed the subject’.
It is Widmerpool’s determination to live by the will, to impose himself on others, insensitive to their feelings, indifferent to anything but his own interest, which gives unity to his life, making him, for all his erratic course, ‘add up’ as a character. Without imagination, in thrall to the ego, the failure of his respectable career brings this once so conventional boy (shocked to learn that Peter Templar ‘had a woman before he left’ Eton) to the point where he rejects ‘all bourgeois values’. There is nowhere else left for him to go.