Evelyn’s Last Dance

Duncan McLaren has posted two articles in his Brideshead Festival series in which Evelyn Waugh ponders the contents of the last two volumes of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. These are Temporary Kings (1973) and Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975). McLaren (or an imagined Waugh) begins the Temporary Kings essay with this observation about how the settings of these final installments fit in with the rest of Powell’s novel:

Temporary Kings is set in the late 1950s, ten years on from Books Do Furnish a Room. In other words, a much larger gap between books than hitherto in the series. Time is speeding up. And we know what happens, in human terms, when time speeds up. People slow down. They get old and drop dead. But, no, this novel, although touching on death, is not about death. Perhaps the last book in the series would be. Evelyn has not read that yet. If nothing else, he is going about his reading systematically.

This carries on in the HSH essay:

Heinemann published [HSH] in 1975, so it was largely written in 1974, when Tony was in his 69th year. As in the 11th book in the series, the action has moved on several years, on this occasion from the late fifties to the mid-sixties. Time having speeded up considerably from that experienced in the first ten volumes. […] It did not seem to be an old man that was writing Temporary Kings. It may be an old man who is responsible for Hearing Secret Harmonies. Time will tell.

Waugh continues to see similarities between Powell’s character Kenneth Widmerpool and himself. He doesn’t suggest that Powell in any way intended to base the character on Waugh. Rather, that it simply comes out that way. He also finds similarities, equally unintended, between Widmerpool and his characters Apthorpe in Men at Arms and Ambrose Silk in Put Out More Flags. He compares the plot device of the Venice writers conference in Temporary Kings with the one he created in Spain for Scott-King’s Modern Europe. The most interesting of the comparisons from the HSH volume are between the wedding scene in which Widmerpool appears unannounced and the wedding scene in Powell’s memoirs where he actually encountered Waugh for the last time in 1964:

Evelyn tries to calculate whether he would have made a better or worse impression on wedding guests than Widmerpool had done in Hearing Secret Harmonies. Worse, probably. Though he hadn’t got down on his hands and knees and asked forgiveness of anyone. Though if Dudley Carew had been there that day, he would have been tempted. The poor man had been his best friend during Lancing schooldays, but Evelyn had thoughtlessly insulted him in 1965’s A Little Learning.

In the Temporary Kings essay, similar comparisons are made and the best in my opinion is his discussion of how Pamela Flitton reminds Waugh of Barbara Skelton (who Powell admitted was his model for the character). He also takes time to comment on the collage Powell created in his cellar’s boiler room beginning about the time Waugh made his last visit to the Powells in the early 1960s:

Apparently, in late 1964, Tony was working on The Soldier’s Art – the eighth book in the Dance, set in 1941 – in the morning, and he would work on the boiler-room collage in the afternoon, covering walls, pipework, doors and ceiling. What was Evelyn doing by this time at Combe Florey, within relatively easy visiting distance? He was longing for death. True, he had cut up illustrations from a volume of Canova in order to make illustrations for Love Among the Ruins, but that had been in 1953. […] It is said that Tony worked on the collage for decades. So it seems reasonable that he was working on it in 1972, when writing Temporary Kings. The ceiling is as densely covered as the other surfaces. Would that be Pamela Widmerpool up there on the right? Or on the left, but the wrong way round? Why not?

In an earlier paragraph Waugh makes a connection with Widmerpool as cuckold, as was illustrated in the fictional paintings by Tiepolo which take up a major chapter in Temporary Kings. This reminds Waugh of his own cuckolding by John Heygate that ended his first marriage, although unlike the Waugh cuckold, the Widmerpool version gets his jollies from watching his wife have sex with other men.

Evelyn wonders at what stage in Widmerpool’s life he began to obsess over letting other people have sex with his wife. Perhaps the masochistic urge had been there from the start. There is a scene in A Question of Upbringing where Widmerpool seems to get pleasure from being hit in the face with a banana, if only because it had been thrown at him by a boy of high status.

In Evelyn’s own case, an obsession with being cuckolded may have begun with John Heygate’s relationship with She-Evelyn. In 1936, Heygate had written him a letter apologising for what he’d done. Evelyn had replied ‘OK E.W.’ But it hadn’t been OK, not by a long chalk.

Whether this brings Duncan’s series of articles in the Brideshead Festival stream to an end is not clear. In the concluding paragraphs, Waugh is reminded of the last stanza of the 10 Little Oxford Men ditty:

‘One little Oxford man, reading just for fun. He read right up himself, and then there were none.’

But by then he is on his way to one of the rooms at Castle Howard where, he hopes, he will find his friends having drinks and conversation with each other. He further anticipates that by now Anthony Powell will have joined the others and [spoiler alert] he can get a laugh with a new character he has named Waughmerpool in a novel cycle to be called “A Waughltz to the Music of Time”. The essays are available here (Temporary Kings) and here (Hearing Secret Harmonies).




This entry was posted in Evelyn Waugh, Festivals, Humo(u)r, Men at Arms, Put Out More Flags, Scott-King's Modern Europe and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.