Unlike other books in the sequence, The Valley of Bones, does not slide around in time to any great extent but focuses on the period 1939-1940, known as the “phoney war”. Nick Jenkins, the narrator, has wangled his way into the army and is in training then subsequently posted with is unit to Northern Ireland in a reserve role.
The second chapter includes the most moving passage so far in the series. Captain Gwatkin (pictured above) apologises for taking out his anger on Nick after he has personally received a dressing down for shortcomings in his performance and that of his unit during an exercise. He explains that he needlessly sent Nick out on a patrol without chance to eat when there was actually sufficient time, and gives him a bar of chocolate to eat, having noticed that Nick has none of that staple of army fare to keep him going. This honesty and straightforwardness is in contrast to much of the behaviour of the other characters in Nick’s social circle and makes Gwatkin a sympathetic character.
Gwatkin is one of several new characters who are introduced in this book. Only two army characters are drawn from his previous existence, David Pennistone, Nick having met him briefly at a party, and Jimmy Brent, who had been involved in a car crash as a fellow passenger with Jenkins in the first volume in the series. Several of the new characters are “from the ranks” – Welsh miners who have been called up or volunteered – and so there is a significant working class contingent taking highlighted roles for the second book in a row. However, Jenkins does not meet them outside the army confines and when he does go home on leave, he is immediately returned to the upper-middle class world that is isolated from the working class men of whom he is in nominal charge when at the camp.
In many respects I was reminded of Spike Milligan’s autobiographical Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall, which covers much the same period of training at home before going into action. There are the same apparently pointless routines and exercises and the focus on the correct way of doing things, not because it achieves the desired results, but because someone once thought it would do so and wrote it down in the manual that way.
Jenkins is reading Thackeray’s Henry Esmond in his spare moments between burst of hyperactivity on the orders of a remote headquarters and is not enjoying it. In fact, he is frankly bored by it and in this it reflects his response to the tedium of army life. I can’t recall having read it myself but Powell isn’t selling it very well, so I think I will stick to Trollope.