The Acceptance World is the third of Anthony Powell’s magnum opus, A Dance To The Music Of Time, a twelve volume comic novel. It would be almost a relief to say that the novel is set in London, but that would be stretching the reality of these characters, who inhabit a far smaller place. These people in fact occupy a particularly rarefied layer of society that sits on certain parts of London, often like a smear. English they are, British they may be, but representative they most certainly are not. The twists and turns of their lives, often very funny, usually poignant, sometimes farcical provide utterly engaging material for a wonderful comic novelist to exploit, but their antics are just about skin deep at best, while the consequences are somewhat shallower.
As ever with these echelons of society, someone, somewhere is going to be something in the City. The capital letter, of course, indicates that this implies no mere city, but specifically London’s financial centre where all that tonic of money goes sloshing back and forth even faster than the gin. In this case there is an old friend of the first person narrator, someone called Widmerpool, who is adopted into the Acceptance World. Nick is in conversation with Templer when he asks just what the phrase might mean.
Templer replies: “If you have goods you want to sell to a firm in Bolivia, you probably do not touch you money in the ordinary way until the stuff arrives there. Certain houses, therefore, are prepared to ‘accept’ the debt. They will advance you the money on the strength of your reputation. It is all right when the going is good, but sooner or later you will be tempted to plunge. Then there is an alteration in the value of the Bolivian exchange, or a revolution, or perhaps the firm just goes bust – and you find yourself stung. That is, if you guess wrong.”
And that’s about it. People speculate, act on reputation, take risks, profit and eventually lose. But the Acceptance World is not set in the realms of high finance. There is no doubt that it inhabits wealth, and everything that the unquestioning consumerism of this society assumes goes with it; but the Acceptance World is really just concerned with affairs of the heart. It is human relations, not financial ones that form the guts of the novel, as marriages dissolve, affairs materialise, as responsibilities go by the board and, constantly, judgments are made against speculated outcome.
A contemporary reader might not easily identify with the emotional traumas of these characters, however. It’s not everyone who can sympathise with any tale of woe delivered over tea at the Ritz, for instance. A housing crisis where the difficulty is resolved by taking a place – however small! – in a new block along Park Lane might not quite ring true. The tongue has to be well into the cheek for any irony to be felt. Rubbing shoulders with a novelist called St John Clarke (pronounced ‘sinjun’, by the way) or a famous painter called Isbister is not run-of-the-mill Jack-on-the-street stuff. But then the characters of The Acceptance World have already been born and thus already accepted into a world of privilege, public schools and jobs in the City. One of life’s tests, surely, must have been to learn to chew around the attached silver spoon.
Anthony Powell’s treatment of these people might not be quite sufficiently tongue in cheek for a modern audience, but then his attitude remains far from mere acceptance. We are invited onto the inside but, like all these precariously balancing people, we are never quite at home there, never quite accepted, always competing, jostling for advantage, always on the look-out, always speculating. Things can go wrong and often do, but then in the world of human relationships, we accept the risks because the rewards are potentially so high. Not that we have much of a choice, anyway…