Published in 1962, The Kindly Ones, draws as much inspiration from contemporary events at the time of its writing as it does the events leading up to the Second World War which is the point that the narrative has reached in the sequence of novels. D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover had just been published by Penguin and is discussed by the narrator Nick Jenkins and a friend at some point in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s, presumably both having had access to the privately published edition (Italian from 1928 or the Mandrake Press edition of 1929, though the bowdlerised 1932 version might also be possible).
This discussion takes place at the start of the second chapter, the first chapter having been devoted to an incident which took place on the eve of the First World War (in fact on the day the Archduke was assassinated in Sarajevo precipitating the crisis which led to the war). This earlier incident focuses on three servants – the first time Powell has devoted some 75 pages to working class characters rather than the middle class and upper-middle class characters who have been the exclusive centre of attention so far in the cycle – this being volume 6. The subsequent conversation by the two middle/upper-middle class characters therefore provides a frame for the earlier incident and detached commentary on it. They wonder what married life is like for the servant/working-class.
I cannot help but wonder whether the timing of this first inclusion of an entire chapter in which the principal characters are the working class servants is merely coincidental given that such subject matter was topical and controversial at the time of writing. Is Powell jumping on a bandwagon or providing an ironic commentary upon the bandwagon?
Later in chapter two there is a dinner party at Stourwater, hosted by the magnate Sir Magnus Donners (pictured above by Mark Boxer for the cover of the Mandarin edition), who, it is speculated at the time, might be brought into the government to use his business acumen to aid the preparations for the anticipated war. This party degenerates, at the behest of Donners, into a debauch with the attendees all acting out scenes depicting in turn the seven deadly sins, for him to photograph. The parallels are clear between this scene and the events at Clivedon in 1961 which emerged as a public scandal, the Profumo Affair, in 1962/3 but were no doubt known to those such as Powell who moved in the literary and upper-class society, given the hints and veiled references which appeared in various periodicals, such as in the gossip column of Society magazine Queen.
Powell is therefore drawing heavily on these current events for source material for his novel set at the end of the 1930’s and may be thought to be winking knowingly to those of his readers who shared the same inside knowledge when he used it in his novel.
The novel makes greater play than earlier volumes of Powell’s pre-occupation with the extent to which there is a “will to Power”. This concept outlined by Nietzsche in his philosophical works was subsequently hijacked by the Nazis (by way of Wagner) and so is of particular relevance here given the era in which it is set. However, Powell applies it not only to Widmerpool, who embodies the concept throughout the sequence of novels, but also to the narrator’s Uncle Giles. The narrator on going to the hotel where Giles has died is struck by it’s resemblance, on a smaller scale, to his uncle’s favourite haunt in London, the Ufford Hotel. (Trollope fans may note the choice of name has connotations for those with a hunting turn of mind.)
He ponders whether Giles has bent his surroundings to his will in both locations and likens this to the power of a photographer to make his images of different locations have an appearance of consistency – thereby reminding his readers of the photography hobby taken up by Donners in the previous chapter as a similar means to impose his will on the world and people around him. A more likely explanation, to my mind, might be that people are drawn to the same types of places when deciding where to live, but that would be inconsistent with Powell’s theme.
Powell also has Uncle Giles express admiration for “the little man they’ve got in Germany now”. This preference on the part of the anti-authoritary figure Giles is explained by his seeing Hitler as a reaction against the established order.
This perversity of view is perhaps the ultimate reflection of the book’s title. The Kindly Ones is a translation of the Greek Eumenides, the euphemistic, flattering name given to the Furies of classic mythology whose wrathful arrival served as the harbinger of war, famine, drought and pestilence, as if by so-naming them, the depredations that followed them might be put off. As with Hitler, this naming convention to ward off evil, appears doomed to fail as the sequence of novels continues into the Second World War.