At Lady Molly’s By Anthony Powell – A Novel Approach To Psychology

At Lady Molly’s is the fourth volume of Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time. Nick Jenkins’ account of his life amongst London’s smart set has reached the mid-1930s. By now even the most unlikely candidates for marriage – Nick himself, and his awkward friend Kenneth Widermerpool – are contemplating settling down.

Mildred Haycock, Widermerpool’s intended, is the sister of Bertha Conyers, wife of General Aylmer Conyers, old friends of Nick’s family. This family is a tangled, extended thing, a sprawling mass of relations, friends, and friends who are distant relations. For the sake of argument, the title of this book puts Lady Molly at the centre – former mistress of Dogdene House during her first marriage. Everything in the book hangs together like this kaleidoscope of family, friends, and acquaintances. There is a pattern which is difficult to hold onto. This is also true of the psychology of the many characters.

Take General Conyers for example. He spends his retirement breeding poodles to work as gun dogs and pursuing an amateur interest in psychology. Often his insights into personality types seem perceptive. On the other hand, his psychological categories don’t seem to do justice to quirky individuals – tellingly that interest in breeding poodle gun dogs is an exercise in mixing up categories.

You could say that At Lady Molly’s tends to be superficial in its approach, like General Conyer’s retirement psychology. But somehow, the unassuming reflections of Nick, our narrator, catch perfectly that important element of subjectivity in human behaviour, the way people shape experience according to their own superficial whims, likes and dislikes. Nick’s laid-back reflections do gain a kind of depth, which a more objective psychological text book, or personality study, would lack. This is a perfect example of what a novel has to offer in looking at life.

As with the previous books in the series, I loved At Lady Molly’s. It’s an easy-going account of other people’s lives, which amidst its entertaining soap opera fun and sly humour, has something insightful to say about how people view the world

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