In Duncan McLaren’s latest posting, Anthony Powell joins the host of other writer friends of Evelyn Waugh who are either posthumously present or talked about at the recently postponed Castle Howard conference. In this case, Powell and several of his works are considered by Waugh and Nancy Mitford, who also knew both writers. After a discussion of the long and lasting friendship of Powell and Waugh as well as several of Powell’s pre-war books and the first volume of Dance to the Music of Time, Nancy and Evelyn have this exchange about two characters from the novels:
Nancy. “Do you recall reading A Question of Upbringing? It was in your library when you died, but not an inscribed copy.”
Evelyn.“Indeed. I read it soon after it came out.”
Nancy. “Were you impressed?”
Nancy. “Did it influence you in the writing of Men at Arms?”
Evelyn. “Why do you ask?”
Nancy. “Tony’s Question of Upbringing came out in January, 1951. You began writing Men At Arms a few months later. Both books share a philosophy that no plot is needed, just structure. And that events in our lives create sufficient structures. So Tony set his scenes at Eton, then in France in the year between school and university, and then at Oxford. Simple and satisfying. In Men at Arms, Guy Crouchback decides to join the army, he gets his officer training in the Halberdiers, and he goes into battle with his regiment. Again, straightforward, and following life closely. The devil is in the detail, of course. In the intimate following of characters as they go about their business over time, thereby revealing themselves.”
Evelyn. “That’s hardly a convincing connection.”
Nancy. “Wait. It was when I had just read a particular sentence in A Question of Upbringing that I thought of Apthorpe. Widmerpool is talking to the narrator, Jenkins. He says: “You must meet my mother. She is one of those rare middle-aged women who have retained their youthful interest in matters of the mind. If you like books – and you tell me you do – you would thoroughly enjoy a chat with her about them.” Something about the presumption, the inappropriate confidence, the air of absurdity that lurks just below the surface, made me think that sentence could just as easily have been spoken by Apthorpe to Crouchback.”
Evelyn. “You may have something there, young Nancy.”
Nancy. “Oh, thank-you, Professor Waugh.”
Evelyn. “Apthorpe nearly took over my book in the same way that Widmerpool nearly takes over Tony’s. And the battle of wits between Apthorpe and Brigadier Ritchie Hook over the right to exclusive use of the Thunderbox does bear some relation to Widmerpool’s modus operandum.”
This connection had never occurred to me and I don’t recall it being made by previous commentators, although Dr Christine Berberich may have alluded to it several years ago. Ironically, now it has been made by two Waugh admirers oceans apart within a week of each other. The other making the point was Australian journalist Greg Sheridan in a YouTube discussion mentioned in a previous post. Whether there may have been some cross fertilization when Powell came to write the war volumes of his novel might make an interesting paper.
Waugh was certainly interested in Widmerpool as he expressed in several letters to Powell over the course of the novel’s publication. Indeed, he downgraded one of the volumes he reviewed (Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant) because of the paucity of Widmerpool’s appearances. He was happily able to withdraw his reservation when Widmerpool was restored to prominence in the next volume, The Kindly Ones.
Unfortunately, as Duncan nears the end of the discussion, he recites his “Ten Little Oxford Men” ditty for what may be the last time since Powell is #10. So, this may mark the end of the series, although he promises more about the Waugh-Powell relationship, and Graham Greene has yet to be heard from.