A Question of Upbringing

A Question of Upbringing - Anthony Powell “Just a whim of mine regarding elephants.” If you read narrator Nick Jenkins’ thoughts on who might have scrawled the picture of Widmerpool on the wall of the toilet at La Grenadière (along with who might have added “certain extraneous details”) without a smile on your face, without luxuriating in the language, it’s fair to say this won’t be the epic for you. Anthony Powell, on the basis of “A Question Of Upbringing”, has a very delicate sense of humour - he’s barely touching the strings - but if you can tune your receiver to his frequency the rewards are there. Powell writes like an angel and he definitely has a comic eye.

The stroke of genius is the creation of Widmerpool, here seen moving from school into the workplace via a sojourn in France with Jenkins but already painfully recognisable as a real English “type”. I am convinced, in 2017, England is Planet Widmerpool. I suppose the thrust of “A Question Of Upbringing” is a dissection of class war power struggles although since this is the English upper middle class in the early twentieth century this is hard-wired in rather than explicit. It is therefore significant that, say, Widmerpool has to pay to stay at La Grenadière, goes straight to work rather than to University and Oxford don Sillery brings Mark Members and Quiggin to heel by observing they live very close to each other, “practically in the same street”. There are lots of these very English little moments scattered throughout the prose to the extent I’m beginning to see why “Dance” maybe doesn’t travel well. You have to be steeped in this stuff to pick up on it.

After Eton and pre-Uni Jenkins kills time at scallywag Peter Templar’s family house, fixating on the unattainable sister Jean (trotting about the place in a tennis skirt) and observing an incident in which on-the-make businessman Sunny Farebrother’s patented collar straightener – which goes wrong – is used to score points off a hapless race-car driver, Stripling. “Dance” is all about this sort of casual point scoring and oneupmanship and while you might ask yourself at the time why tiny incidents such as this are the subject of attention, Jenkins reports such events later to other characters and their responses are always characterful. You particularly start wanting to know what Widmerpool’s reactions will be. Jenkins’ subsequent French sojourn before Uni is complicated by – ta-daa! – Widmerpool’s surprise appearance (chance meetings being a feature of “Dance”, I believe) and he gets to finesse his diplomatic skills by pacifying two battling Scandinavians Orn and Lundquist, while Jenkins makes a very English hash of his first declaration of love. Once in Oxford we witness the scheming don Sillery (in “sack-like clothes and Turkish slippers”) networking furiously and securing Stringham’s future in the city while a car ride with Templar’s dodgy new chums Bob Dupont and Jimmy Brent ruptures the friendship between Stringham and Templar. Throughout all this Jenkins is the relatively passive observer/artist, Templar the alpha-male, Stringham the bruised romantic trying to find a place in the world and Widmerpool the awkward, self-important kid at school obsessed with gaining power. As schoolmaster Le Bas says “It takes all sorts to make a world.”

Wodehouse without the jokes? Wrong. Read Lundquist’s departure from the tennis court and tell me Powell isn’t a comic writer. Plus Uncle Giles and Sillery both deserve their own novels. Wodehouse, bless him, wrote souffles; Powell is main course material. No knock-out female characters yet, but Gypsy Jones and Pamela Flitton are on their way. This is good stuff. It all bodes well.