Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time reaches 1933/34 in this fourth volume. Hitherto the social milieu in which narrator Nick Jenkins moves, the English upper and upper-middle classes, has seemed to exist in a bubble. The financial crisis of 1928 and subsequent depression appear to have barely touched them. Or rather, while the economic consequences have, as now, been felt largely by the less well off, the subject has been referred to in passing, only obliquely and vaguely, as “the slump” in The Acceptance World even when that novel is, ostensibly at least, concerned with the world of finance. Certainly, up to this point in the cycle of novels, politics has been conspicuous by its absence.
Now, however, as Fascism takes its hold on governments on the continent and the National Socialists achieve power through democratic means in Germany, Powell introduces politics through the differing perspectives of his characters.
Widmerpool (pictured above from the cover illustration) is on the left and expresses views that, if one were to ignore their attitudes to Jews, then the National Socialists aren’t all that bad. He emphasises that as well as the Nationalism, there is also the Socialism which inspires major investment in infrastructure and large scale regeneration projects which create jobs for workers. He argues against diverting resources of production in the UK towards re-armament, proposing instead a conference to settle matters.
This stance, a fair representation of the position taken by many in the UK at the times, reminds me, when he goes on to suggest that Goering might be won over by a visit to Buckingham Palace and the award of the Order of the Garter because he is at heart a snob, of the misguided attempts by Lord Darlington in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day to broker a deal between the UK prime minister and the German Ambassador.
The communist Quiggin is shown to be focussed on internal political manoeuvring, more concerned with sniping about his rival Craggs, dismissing his current concern with German refugees in terms of a passing fad and Guggenbuhl, citing the oneupmanship of the Trotskyist German exile patronising later German refugees. However, Powell does attribute to the unlikeable Quiggin an appreciation that Hitler was a threat to communists in Germany and the view that Anti-Fascism is the most important stance.
The reader also learns in passing through snippets of overheard conversations, symbolically in untranslated French, in which a Balkan diplomat in the service of Prince Theoderic (whom we have met in an earlier novel but who makes no personal appearance in this volume) describes how he believes Hitler has given up plans to annex Austria by force and that in his view France was wrong to oppose the customs and immigration union in 1931.He then argues that Austrian Chancellor Dolfuss had acted decisively but undemocratically against the National Socialists in his country.
However, the most direct, and to the modern reader benefitting from 20:20 hindsight, most effective response to Hitler’s rise, is voiced by the eponymous Lady Molly’s husband Jeavons, who had been presented up to that point as something of an old duffer who was decidedly past it. He baldly states that the UK should “Declare war on Germany right away…knock this blighter Hitler out before he gives further trouble…Wait and see…That was what Mr Asquith used to say. Didn’t do us much good in 1914.”
It is characteristic of Powell that he should give such prescience to a minor, comic character rather than one of his central figures.