When We Like Unlikable Characters: Audrey Maclintick in Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant

Perhaps on a first reading, we read a novel as the writer intends.   Well, not quite, but we tend to like the genial characters and to be less sympathetic to the unpleasant characters. Then, if we love a book and reread it, we may grow fond of the less engaging characters.

I am a fan of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. I had no idea what a treat I was in for when I bought the paperbacks at a used bookstore in my twenties. (I bought them for the covers.)  Although Powell’s 12-book masterpiece is often compared to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, I see it more as Evelyn Waughish–a very long Brideshead Revisited combined with the Sword of Honour trilogy.  Nick Jenkins, the charming, witty narrator-writer,  satirically sketches the colorful people in his life: Waughish aristocrats, night club goers, artists, writers, musicians, soldiers, wealthy businessmen, and charming, dissatisfied women.  But he also examines the vicissitudes of English society from the end of World War I through the 1960s–a high society I would  not aspire to, even if I understood British culture  well enough.

On a recent rereading of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, the fifth book in Dance, Audrey Maclintick, the unhappy, cranky wife of an unsuccessful music critic, surprisingly became my favorite character.

Must I defend Audrey?  I think I must.  If you lived in her cold, horrible house with a moody, misogynist music critic, you would be uncharming, too.  Dicey surroundings improve no one’s temperament.  When Nick’s friend Hugh Moreland, a successful  musician/composer, takes him to visit the Maclinticks, he is not prepared for the neighborhood:  “The house, when we reached it, turned out to be a small, infinitely decayed two-storey dwelling that had seen better days; now threatened by a row of mean shops advancing from one end of the street and a fearful slum crowding up from the other.”

Nick does not like the house, nor does he have a good impression of Audrey.  “’Find somewhere to sit,’ said Mrs. Maclintick, speaking as if the day, bad enough before, had been finally ruined by our arrival. ‘He will be down soon.'”

When Maclintick comes down in his slippers, Mrs. Maclintic is querulous.  “I thought you were going to get the man to see after the gas fire.  You haven’t moved from the house all day.  I wish you’d stick to what you say.  I could have got hold of him myself, if you weren’t going to do it.”

Now it’s not that Nick/Powell is entirely unsympathetic to Audrey. She isn’t a heroine, but she isn’t a fishwife, either. She is a comic character, and yet he captures her unhappiness, and certainly shows Maclintick as being far worse.   And as wives, we  must sympathize with Audrey. There are moments for all of us when the “gas fire” hasn’t been seen to, but if our husband isn’t a music critic, it is probably because he thought he could fix it himself.

There is also a ruckus over the lodger, Carolo, a composer. Like his wife, Maclintick  doesn’t wait for his friends to leave before complaining.  He doesn’t like Carolo’s writing in the corner while they are eating.  And poor Audrey is honest.  She says, “I like Carolo here….  He gives us little trouble.  I don’t want to die of melancholia, never seeing a soul.”

Poor Audrey!  Maclintick is inattentive and unkind.

And later, at a party, Audrey is charmed by Stringham, Nick’s old school friend, who is now an alcoholic, unwelcome at his mother’s house.  Audrey is ready to go out on the town with Stringham to escape the boring snobbish musical party, given in honor of Moreland.  Stringham and Audrey are both mavericks, but their attempt to escape is squelched.

The Maclinticks’ marriage does not end well.  In fact, it is tragic.  But can one blame Audrey for running off with Carolo?  I cannot.  Maclintick really does seem like a horrible man, though we have much sympathy for him at the end when he loses  his wife and his job and then…  But the consequences of that bad marriage temporarily save Moreland’s marriage to Matilda, an actress, to whom Audrey turns out to be linked in a surprising way.

Does anyone else like Audrey?   I never read Powell the same way twice.

Who are your favorite unlikable characters?  More on this anon from me.

Paul Rhys (Stringham), James Purfoy (NIck), and Zoë Wanamaker (Audrey) in “A Dance to the Music of Time”