Books Do Furnish a Room, is the first book in the last movement of Anthony Powell’s twelve novel sequence, the tenth book overall. As we enter the dance’s winter movement; Nick Jenkins is now a middle aged man. In this fabulously titled novel, Anthony Powell explores the literary world of the mid to late 1940’s.
One of the things I noticed about this novel is due perhaps to the time in which Powell was writing. The first novel, A Question of Upbringing was published in 1951, this novel published twenty years later. In those early novels, Powell sometimes masks some aspects of his characters behaviour in a slight fog of ambiguity. In this novel, although Anthony Powell’s superb style remains largely unchanged, there is a slightly more modern feel in how Anthony Powell refers to matters of a slightly unsavoury or sexual nature.
The novel opens very soon after the end of the war – the last novel ended with Nick Jenkins’ demobilisation. Nick at the age of forty, returns to his university library to do some research for a biography he is writing. Here he meets Sillery again; the manipulative old don who Jenkins and his friends all encountered as young men.
“To enter Sillery’s sitting room after twenty years was to drive a relatively deep fissure through variegated seams of Time. The faintly laundry-cupboard odour, as one came through the door, generated in turn the taste of the rock-buns dispensed at those tea parties, their gritty indeterminate flavour once more dehydrating the palate. The props round about designed for Sillery’s nightly performance remained almost entirely unaltered. Eroded loose-covers of immemorially springless armchairs still precariously endured; wide perforations frayed long since in the stretch of carpet before the door, only a trifle more hazardous to the unwary walker. As might be expected, the framed photographs of jaunty young men had appreciably increased, several of the new arrivals in uniform, one in a turban, two or three American.”
Sillery is now nearing eighty and has a new secretary, Ada Leintwardine who has been tasked with writing up Sillery’s diaries. Ada however has her own literary ambitions. Quiggin, a former writer, has now set up his own publishing house with Howard Craggs. The rather fabulous title of this book, is taken from the character of Bagshaw, nicknamed ‘books do furnish a room Bagshaw’ sometimes merely referred to as ‘books’. Bagshaw is to be the editor of Fission a new literary magazine to be brought out by publishers Craggs and Quiggin.
Jenkins brother in law Erridge dies suddenly and at Erridge’s funeral – to which Widmerpool and his unlikely wife arrive late in company of Lady Craggs; who turns out to be none other than Gypsy Jones – Quiggin offers Nick a position at the magazine. Pamela Widmerpool causes some disturbance by apparently becoming unwell, which causes a fair bit of speculation. At the party to launch the new magazine, Jenkins meets the writer X Trapnel, the Widmerpools are also in attendance, and Trapnel obviously dislikes Widmerpool although is immediately taken with Pamela.
Trapnel wanted, among other things, to be a writer, a dandy, a lover, a comrade, an eccentric, a sage, a virtuoso, a good chap, a man of honour, a hard case, a spendthrift, an opportunist, a raisonneur; to be very rich, to be very poor, to possess a thousand mistresses, to win the heart of one love to whom he was ever faithful, to be on the best of terms with all men, to avenge savagely the lightest affront, to live to a hundred full of years and honour, to die young and unknown but recognized the following day as the most neglected genius of the age.”
Trapnel, a wonderful Powell creation, has been writing a novel for two years, frequently reviews books for Fission, and it is during this period that Jenkins is drawn into his world. Ada, Sillery’s secretary is involved with the magazine too, and Widmerpool is one of the investors, as ever the world in which Jenkins moves is one in which old friends and lovers are never far away.
Widmerpool’s relationship with Pamela remains every bit as unlikely as it seemed at the end of the last novel when the two became unexpectedly engaged. Widmerpool seems to have a determination to keep hold of Pamela, no matter what she does, and she certainly gives him cause to regret his marriage, this determination of Widmerpool’s is quite unnerving. I think the older Widmerpool gets the more repellent he becomes. Widmerpool is now an M.P – as is another of Jenkins’ brothers-in law- Roddy Cutts married to Susan Tolland. At a lunch with Roddy at the House of Commons, Nick and Roddy run into Widmerpool, and return with him to the flat he shares with Pamela. Here the break down in the Widmerpool marriage becomes all too apparent as someone comes to the door with a message that Pamela has left her husband for Trapnel. Pamela is portrayed by Powell as flighty certainly – her behaviour is often exasperating, but also rather oddly (and perhaps typically for the times) as frigid. I’m not sure what if anything this says about Powell’s attitude to promiscuous women, maybe nothing; however it seems a shame that Pamela can’t simply be a bit of a tart, without also having ‘sexual issues’.
Widmerpool initially reacts oddly, pretending unconcern and that Pamela’s eccentricity in wandering off from time to time is well known, that she will soon be back, it is a performance that those who really know the couple don’t believe for a minute. Pamela’s relationship with Trapnel is no more convincing than her relationship with her husband. However Widmerpool’s confidence that she will return to him is borne out by the end of the novel. Trapnel is soon also abandoned by Pamela, but not before she takes her anger out on his precious manuscript – (reason enough for the reader to loathe her).
As the novel ends, Nick travels to his old school to enrol his own son, and here meets his old house-master Le Bas – who is even older than Sillery, and seeing out his retirement in the school library.
So only two of these left, goodness how time flies.