AT LADY MOLLY'S, the fourth in Anthony Powell's 12-volume sequence "A Dance to the Music of Time", is something of a step backwards after the preceding novel THE ACCEPTANCE WORLD. Though we are now in the mid-1930s when Hitler has come to power in Germany and the Soviet Union is flexing its might, Powell's characters focus more inwardly on the foibles of aristocratic dinners.
As the novel opens, narrator Nicholas Jenkins encounters the eponymous Lady Molly, whose home draws an amusing variety of English upper-class socialites. Jenkins comes to know the many Tolland siblings, and while not exactly a roman a clef, the novel has a recognizable basis in Powell's own circle of friends through older brother Erridge, an eccentric Left-leaning peer who has recently lived as a tramp, a character clearly modeled on George Orwell. Widmerpool briefly reveals himself at the beginning of AT LADY'S MOLLY'S as the series' antagonist, but is mostly depicted as a buffoon and the object of other character's derisions. Quiggin appears again, but Powell ascribes him a tumultuous home life instead of continuing to mock the Communists of the era through him.
In THE ACCEPTANCE WORLD, Jenkins wore his heart on his sleeve when describing his youthful love affair with Jean Templer, but in this novel he has reverted to a rather impersonal narrator, only describing the wild events around him without mentioning himself much. Nonetheless, we do get a single paragraph on Jenkins' feelings of love at first sight that is quite memorable, and the concluding events of the novel hint that the now thirty year-old has established a comfortable maturity.
After the third volume in the series, AT LADY MOLLY'S can be somewhat rough-going. THE ACCEPTANCE WORLD had excellent pacing and a refreshing brevity, but here Powell spends the first several tens of pages introducing us to a new cast of characters in a clumsy fashion. No doubt many readers who planned to go the distance and were happy to finish the first "movement" of the sequence got bogged down here and gave up. Still, once you've passed this hurdle, AT LADY MOLLY'S is a lot of fun, and I'm still keen to continue with the "Dance".