Nicholas Jenkins attends an upper-class boarding school (based on Powell’s own experience at Eton), where he befriends two older students, Charles Stringham and Peter Templer.
Separated into four chapters, each section follows Jenkins at a different phase early in life. The first chapter outlines his fall semester and his growing association with Stringham and Templer, as well as some mention of another acquaintance, Kenneth Widmerpool.
The second chapter is the winter holidays. Stringham is finished with school and is going to spend the spring in Kenya with his father, but before he leaves he takes Jenkins with him to his mother’s and step-father’s home for the break.
The third chapter is after Jenkins finishes school and spends time in France, studying the language and learning more about life before he goes up to university. In France he crosses paths once again with Widmerpool.
And the final chapter is at university. Templer doesn’t attend, but comes for a visit with some friends from London. And Stringham decides to leave university early to work in London. But by the end of the chapter, Jenkins realizes he probably won’t see either of them much in the future.
The entire novel feels very much like a prologue to the volumes that come later, but as a stand-alone work, there’s not much to recommend it. Nothing really happens, and Jenkins spends the entire 230 pages making observations about the many people he meets (and who will presumably appear again in later volumes), and commenting upon the changeable nature of friendships and romances. Decent enough theme, but no real story to go with it at this stage.
I wasn’t a particular fan of Powell’s style, so when coupled with the absence of a plot, this wasn’t a successful experience for me. I’m pretty firmly in the camp, from what I’ve read, that the series is vastly overrated. I won’t be going on to volume two.