Monthly Archives: February 2019

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

Set in a London stage school in the early 1960s, At Freddie’s is another of Penelope Fitzgerald’s marvellous tragicomedies, reasonably similar in style to her earlier works, Human Voices and OffshoreMany of the familiar elements from the author’s early novels are here – isolated women; hopeless, befuddled men; precocious children – all caught up in a somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic community. Once again Fitzgerald has drawn on some of her own experiences in writing this book – in this instance, her time spent as a teacher at the Italia Conti drama school during the decade in question. It’s an excellent novel, both darkly comic and poignant, shot through with a deep understanding of the foibles of human nature both positive and negative.

Situated in the midst of Covent Garden, the Temple Stage School is managed by the eponymous Freddie, an elderly matriarch and longstanding doyenne of the theatrical world. Aiding Freddie in this capacity is Miss Blewett – affectionately known as the Bluebell – her devoted assistant of several years. The school specialises in training children for classic roles, parts in Shakespeare’s plays, Peter Pan and other such staples. Naturally, Freddie’s pupils are terribly precious in a rather dramatic way, prone to overexcitement and competitiveness, qualities typified by the following passage.

The children did a half day’s education only. If they went to their music, dancing and dramatic classes in the morning, they spent the afternoon in a kind of torpor; if they weren’t to go till the afternoon, they were almost uncontrollable all morning. Feverishly competitive, like birds in a stubblefield, twitching looks over their shoulder to make sure they were still ahead, they all of them lied as fast as they could speak. Whether they had any kind of a part in a show or not, they wrote ‘Working’ against their names in the register and claimed that they were only in school because there wasn’t a rehearsal that day. The first professional secret they learned was an insane optimism. Still, all children tell lies. But not all of them, if reproached, well up at once with unshed crystal tears, or strike their foreheads in self-reproach, like the prince in Swan Lake. (pp. 29-30)

While Fitzgerald is primarily concerned with recreating a rather peculiar world, the novel does have a narrative thread of sorts, namely the perilous state of the school’s finances. (Pupils must carefully navigate the sagging floors and areas of disrepair to avoid any unpleasant accidents.) For years, Freddie has used her considerable and power and influence in the theatre community to keep the establishment going, procuring resources here and there to maintain the business. Moreover, when necessary, she has been successful in combating various adversaries, as evidenced by her success in staving off the creditors.

Debt collectors had long since given up waiting at the front and back doors of the Temple School. They knew there was no prospect of getting anything, and it was said that one of them, in the manner of the old comedies, had been persuaded to part with his waistcoat and jacket and donate it to the stock of costumes. ‘He gave them to Freddie’s Frocks, dear,’ said the Bluebell with loyal vagueness. (p. 59)

However, now we are in the ‘60s, the surrounding world is beginning to change. The importance of television is growing, but Freddie remains wedded to the medium of theatre, a place where longevity and tradition are admired and treasured.

Into the mix comes Mr Blatt, a potential investor in the school, if only he could make Freddie see sense. Blatt is dismayed at the lack of business management at the Temple, so he sets about making a number of sensible suggestions for improvement, all of which are promptly ignored. As far as Blatt sees things, the potential for TV and radio commercials is vast, but Freddie remains steadfast, at least until the novel’s closing stages. Fitzgerald is clearly making a point about the dynamics between artistic merit and commercialisation – that said, it never feels forced or laboured, just wonderfully ironic instead.

Also threaded through the novel is a subplot involving the school’s only proper teachers, Hannah Graves and Pierce Carroll, both recently hired from Northern Ireland (naturally, as this is Freddie’s, they are being paid a pittance). Hannah is attracted to the romance and atmosphere of the theatre, a point successfully identified by Freddie during their discussions about the role, hence her ability to strike a bargain on the girl’s salary.

Hannah Graves was a nice-looking girl of twenty, with too much sense, one would have thought, to consider a job at eleven pounds fifteen shillings a week. But Freddie had instantly divined in her that attraction to the theatre, and indeed to everything theatrical, which can persist in the most hard-headed, opening the way to poetry and disaster. (p. 19)

Pierce, on the other hand, has no interest whatsoever in dramatic pursuits. Instead, he is simply grateful to have found a half-decent job, knowing his own value (or lack of it) in the wider world. As the weeks go by, Hannah and Pierce fall into a loose relationship with each another, one that seems doomed from the start. There is an excruciating proposal of marriage, followed by an even more desperate discussion in a Lyons tea shop, complete with waitresses itching to clear up and go home. Pierce is one of Fitzgerald’s classic hopeless men, aware of his own tragedy but clueless as to how to negate it.

Interspersed with these storylines are various vignettes of life at the stage school and the theatre in general. We follow the progress of twelve-year-old Mattie (a bit of a prankster) and his gifted friend, Jonathan, both of whom have landed the role of Prince Arthur in Shakespeare’s King John. (Mattie is to play the part for the first twelve weeks followed by Jonathan for the remainder of the run.) There are also some highly amusing pen portraits of the various luvvies in the theatrical world, typically men with overinflated views of their own importance. Take William Beardless, for instance, the actor who has been hired to play King John – a performer whose reputation proceeds him.

He [Beardless] was disliked throughout the profession for his habit of handing out little notes to the cast after every performance, pointing out, in a friendly spirit, exactly where they had gone wrong. His notebook and pencil were out already. (p. 91)

A visit from Noël Coward is another highlight, an occasion that prompts Mr Blatt to give nine-year old Jonathan a drink of whisky for courage, something that results in the young lad being sick in the boys’ toilets.

Overall, At Freddie’s offers a marvellous insight into a rarefied world, that of a stage school struggling to survive in a time of change. The theatrical world in general is revealed as one characterised by resentments, jealousies, overinflated notions and egos, and yet there is also compassion and understanding too. As ever, Fitzgerald is wonderfully perceptive on the opportunities and disappointments of life, both big and small. The Covent Garden setting, with its traditional fruit and vegetable market, is also beautifully evoked.

Once again, Penelope Fitzgerald confirms her status as one of my favourite writers. If they’re of interest, you can find my posts on some of her other novels here.

At Freddie’s is published by Fourth Estate; personal copy.

A Dance to the Music of Time, book 1 – A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell

First published in 1951, A Question of Upbringing is the first novel in Anthony Powell’s masterly twelve-part cycle, A Dance to the Music of Time, a series which explores the political and cultural milieu of the English upper classes in the early-mid-20th century. It’s been on my radar for quite a while, mostly due to conversations with MaxJonathan and Ali who have written about the books in some detail. The final push came towards the end of last year when the Backlisted team covered book ten in the series, Books Do Furnish a Room, on their Christmas podcast.

Having drawn a line under my three-year Classics Club project, I now have the headspace to read a long sequence of novels – hence my decision to begin the Dance. While I can’t promise to write about every book in the series, I will try to post some thoughts every now and again, just to capture a few observations. In the meantime, here are a few reflections on the first instalment, A Question of Upbringing.

As the novel opens, the narrator – a man named Jenkins – is observing the movements of some workmen in his street when he is reminded of Poussin’s great painting, A Dance to the Music of Time, in which the Seasons move in rhythm to the notes of the lyre.

The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance. (p. 2)

It’s a striking image, one that prompts Jenkins to think back to his youth, a time when so many things, hitherto unfathomable to him, were starting to become a little clearer.

Immediately we find ourselves back in the 1920s where Jenkins is in his final year of public school, destined to progress to a notable University, almost certainly Oxford. Most of his spare time is spent messing around with two companions, Stringham and Templer, whose temperaments, Jenkins observes, appear to represent two different facets of life in spite of their outward similarities. Stringham is something of a romantic and an eccentric, perhaps destined to play a somewhat different role from the one he truly desires. Templer, on the other hand, is more practical, valuing the tangible things in life, though he is not particularly ambitious.

The boys enjoy a feisty relationship with their punctilious housemaster, Le Bas, a situation which prompts Stringham to devise a devious joke at the tutor’s expense. The incident culminates in Le Bas being mistaken for a petty fraudster who is wanted by the police. Rather amusingly, Le Bas believes Templer to be the orchestrator of the prank, especially once the boy’s tobacco pouch is found near the scene of his arrest. It’s a very funny story, one that soon spreads around the network of boys as the episode becomes public.

While at school, Jenkins also encounters Widmerpool, a rather isolated, awkward boy who cuts a lonely figure marked by an air of greyness. A year or two older than the other boys, Widmerpool is destined to reappear in Jenkins’ orbit in the years to come.

Following these reflections on the boys’ schooldays, the novel then goes on to shadow Jenkins as he pays visits to Stringham’s home in London and the Templers’ residence near the sea. While staying with the Templers, Jenkins comes into contact with Sunny Farebrother, an amicable business associate of Templer senior. Farebrother also finds himself the butt of a joke when Templer’s brother-in-law, the rather objectionable Stripling, attempts to place a chamber pot in Farebrother’s hat box before the businessman’s departure. However, the plot is foiled when Farebrother surprises Stripling in the midst of enacting the trick.

When reading the novel, we view everything through Jenkins’ perspective, observing the movements of the other characters in relation to each another. It soon becomes clear that Jenkins is a little naïve, certainly more so than many of his peers. Nevertheless, there is a sense of him maturing as the novel progresses, a feeling that he is beginning to understand a little more about the business of life.

Clearly some complicated process of sorting-out was in progress among those who surrounded me: though only years later did I become aware how early such voluntary segregations begin to develop; and of how they continue throughout life. (p.69)

It is during his stay at the Templers that Jenkins first becomes aware of the possibilities that love might offer in the course of one’s existence – not just in terms of a physical attraction to someone, but a deeper, more emotional force too. This realisation is sparked by his observation of another of the Templers’ guests, the intoxicating Lady Reith. Although Jenkins is not seriously tempted by the prospect of Lady Reith, he does recognise her magnetism and power over the opposite sex. Instead, Jenkins considers himself to be in love with his schoolfriend’s sister, the somewhat remote Jean Templer.

Before heading off to university, Jenkins spends the summer in France, staying with a wartime friend of his father’s, Commandant Leroy. Also visiting the Leroys that summer is Widmerpool, who in spite of a little window dressing still retains much of the aura of the odd-boy-out from school.

Widmerpool had tidied himself up a little since leaving school, though there was still a kind of exotic drabness about his appearance that seemed to mark him out from the rest of mankind. […] His familiar air of uneasiness remained with him, and he still spoke as if holding a piece of india-rubber against the roof of his mouth. He also retained his accusing manner, which seemed to suggest that he suspected people of trying to worm out of him important information which he was not, on the whole, prepared to divulge at so cheap a price as that offered. (p. 118)

There is something rather secretive and unpleasant about Widmerpool at this stage, a feeling that leaves me interested to see how his character evolves over time. Currently articled to a firm of solicitors, it is clear than Widmerpool believes himself to be destined for greater things – either in the way of business or politics or both.

Once again, there are some beautifully observed scenes in this section of the story, particularly the amusing tennis matches involving two somewhat idiosyncratic Scandinavians – one from Norway, the other from Sweden – who clearly dislike one another.

The final chapter of this novel sees Jenkins in his first year at University, attending Sunday afternoon tea parties hosted by the wily Sillery, an influential don whose primary aim is to uncover and exploit any connections that might be of use to him. Stringham is also studying at the same University, although his arrival is delayed by an accident which puts him out of circulation for several months. Unlike Jenkins, Stringham is unhappy at the college, and it is not long before he convinces his mother and stepfather to allow him to depart. Other young undergraduates float in and out of Jenkins’ orbit during this period, although the significance of these figures remains to be seen.

As the novel draws to a close, Jenkins parts company with Stringham, and there is a sense that a particular chapter in his life is coming to an end.

I knew now that this parting was one of those final things that happen, recurrently, as time passes: until at last they may be recognised fairly easily as the close of a period. This was the last I should see of Stringham for a long time. The path had suddenly forked. With regret, I accepted the inevitability of circumstance. Human relationships flourish and decay, quickly and silently, so that those concerned scarcely know how brittle, or how inflexible, the ties that bind them have become. (p. 229)

It is observations like this that really stand out for me – Jenkins’ (or Powell’s) reflections on the nature of life alongside his wry asides. How relationships develop and then dissipate over time; how complex and powerful the business of love can be; how our personalities are often formed in the years of our youth, thereby setting the pattern for much of our lives. These are just some of the points that strike me on reading this book, but there are many more. Above all, it is not what you know, but who you know that seems most important here: a person’s social class and background; which school and college they went to; their network of influencers. These are the things that appear to matter most.

I’m looking forward to seeing how these individuals develop over time as they move in and out of one another’s lives. No doubt several new characters will be introduced as the Dance takes shape. I do hope we see Jenkins’ Uncle Giles again, a man whose liaisons with various members of the opposite sex are as dodgy and indiscriminate as his business dealings. I’ve run out of space to say any more about Giles in this piece, but maybe another time; he is a marvellous creation.

A Question of Upbringing is published by Arrow Books; personal copy.