Anthony Powell died on March 28, 2000, twenty years ago today. It is now 45 years since he completed his 12-novel series, A Dance to the Music of Time, written over a quarter of a century. How well has this unique opus worn? With a title taken from Poussin’s masterpiece of the four seasons (at which he would gaze in the Wallace Collection), Dance, has been described as “Proust Englished by P.G. Wodehouse” At 3000 pages, one million words, nearly 500 characters and loosely organised into four three-volume movements, someone described it as ‘dance to the music of time management’. Perhaps Powell’s closely-observed study of 20th-century bohemacy has suffered from being too real: its texture a trifle tweedy; its colours slightly faded. He is not an escapist like Wodehouse; a moralist like Orwell, nor a satirist like Waugh.
Clive James called Dance the best modern novel since Ulysses (prompting the mischievous Auberon Waugh to dismiss Powell as only of interest to Australians). Christopher de Bellaigue thought it ‘perhaps the supreme London novel of the 20th century’, while Max Hastings’ verdict was, “His books are unlikely ever to be placed on the top shelf of 20th Century literature, but they deserve to appear on the one below.” Tariq Ali wrote, he “was the most European of twentieth-century British novelists”, and should be considered alongside not only Proust but Stendhal, Balzac and Musil. Whatever, the saga is still a singular and extraordinary achievement – a very English life over 60 years through the eyes of Nicholas Jenkins.
Auberon Waugh said on the publication of his father’s diaries, “[They] show that the world of Evelyn Waugh’s novels did in fact exist”. This is even truer of his friend and contemporary. Powell’s Dance is not just a roman-fleuve; it is also largely a roman-a-clef. In essence, Nick Jenkins is Anthony Powell. This was well borne out in the masterly, sympathetic, authorised biography by Hilary Spurling, Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time in 2017.
Powell and Jenkins were both born into the British military caste (Anthony Dymoke Powell – he insisted on the Welsh pronunciation, “Pole” – was the only child of Lt-Colonel Philip Powell, DSO, CBE and Maud Wells-Dymoke, in 1905). Both Jenkins and Powell were educated at Eton and Oxford; both took their friends from the upper classes and a more mobile bohemian crowd, and from there they both took lovers; both published their first novels in 1931; both wed earls’ daughters from large families; and both had two sons.
Anthony’s father, given to rages in which he practically foamed at the mouth, always seemed to resent the presence of his only child. His mystically inclined mother, Maud, 15 years older — shunned society rather than be mocked as a cradle-snatcher — adored her son but was completely dominated by her husband. Anthony was born in “one of 159 identical furnished flats in a set of five monolithic blocks” near Victoria Station and spent his early years following his father’s frequent postings. It was a solitary childhood presenting endless opportunities for a quiet outsider to observe everything around him. Again, Nick Jenkins describes with subdued pathos the lives of his own parents in The Kindly Ones.
New Beacon, the prep school he was sent to at eight, appeared to rival Dickens’s Dotheboys Hall in its bleakness. The food was so bad that the students sneaked into a nearby farmer’s field and ate raw turnips. Eton was next. Although he was not much happier there, he fagged for the charming, kindly Lord David Cecil and found himself among some remarkable contemporaries: Henry Yorke, who became the novelist Henry Green; the aesthetes Brian Howard and Harold Acton; the critics Alan Pryce-Jones and Cyril Connolly; and the publisher Rupert Hart-Davis.
Balliol, Oxford, followed, where he felt too poor and lacking in connections to make any impression. A snub from Lady Ottoline Morrel stung him for decades. Spurling notes that Powell and Waugh did not become friends at Oxford but at a more modest institution, Holborn Polytechnic, where in the fall of 1927 Powell took a printing class, while Waugh was looking into carpentry, in case the writing did not take off. Arranged by his father, Powell was taken on by the publisher Duckworth, whose proprietor was Virginia Woolf’s half-brother, Gerald Duckworth, totally unsuited to his vocation as he hated writers even more than he hated books. At Duckworth, Powell was responsible for bringing out Waugh’s first book, a study of Rossetti.
Life began, at last, to pick up for Powell as he mingled among the Bohemian crowd around Fitzrovia. He had a series of affairs; usually with older, worldly, sometimes married women – Nina Hamnett and Inez Holden. Another of them was Marion Coates, a communist and estranged wife of a fashionable Canadian architect; Powell was captivated by “her gravity and composure…unexpected sensuality and English rose looks,” and they began a brief affair. It was she who inspired Jean Templer, Jenkins’ faithless lover.
As a young man, Powell was said to be shy, repressed, and a little odd-looking—short, with a big, squarish head. Philip Larkin, an alleged friend, referred to him as “a horse-faced dwarf”. And yet others have described him as “strikingly handsome. When young, he resembled David Bowie by way of Alistair Cooke.” Henry Lamb’s 1934 portrait (left) somewhat bears this out.
In that year, three months after meeting at a house party where he was being painted by Lamb, Powell married Lady Violet Pakenham, (below right) flirty, horsey, party-going, “sceptical … infinitely discreet and endlessly inquisitive”. She was the fifth of the six children of the 5th Earl of Longford, who had been killed at Gallipoli in August 1915, his last words being “Don’t bother ducking, the men don’t like it and it doesn’t do any good….”.
The couple would, like Jenkins and his wife, Lady Isobel Tolland, have two sons. The elder, Tristram Powell, was to say after his parents’ death that Violet was the “right arm of my father’s imagination”. It proved a close and enduring union but it was not without crisis.
During the war, when Powell, like Jenkins, joined the Intelligence Corps and became a liaison officer, Violet, like Jenkins’ Jean, had an affair with another man, whose identity she never divulged but confided to her friend, Sonia Orwell, that this was the love of her life. When Powell found out after the event, probably in 1946, he “plunged into a black hole of depression, exhaustion and almost insane overwork.” A lifelong insomniac, he suffered intermittently from depression, which he and Violet personified as an angry dwarf, complete with beard, boots, and bobble hat.
It has been said that Powell’s pain over the affair accounts for Nick Jenkins’s chief vulnerability—his fits of sexual jealousy. This trait does counter the charge that Jenkins is colourless. Charles McGrath observed in a penetrating profile for the New Yorker,
the important thing is that he is trusted by so many of the other characters in Dance. People are constantly sharing confidences with him that he betrays to no one but us. ……To call Jenkins dull is to miss the point of his character; while he rarely judges the moral performance of others, he doesn’t seek the society of those he doesn’t like, and we enjoy the rakes and ne’er-do-wells he does know.
McGrath adds that Jenkins makes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway seem unobservant. “And …. it’s nice to be in the hands of someone who isn’t self-absorbed.” For all that, Powell’s Jenkins in art and Spurling’s Powell in life remain shadowy, even after all those pages. Tellingly – it could be Powell – one of the characters in Afternoon Men, his first pre-Dance novel, asks “Do you mind if I speak plainly?” “Yes … I do. I should hate it.”
A legacy from an uncle after the war allowed the Powells to buy The Chantry, a limestone Regency house in north Somerset, overlooking the Mendip Hills – thus completing his coveted double – a wife with a title and a house with a drive. His satudy is pictured below
In 1946, he wrote a biography of John Aubrey, author of Brief Lives, eventually published in 1948. He also continued as a literary editor – at his busiest, he would review a book a day for The TLS, Punch, The Daily Telegraph, occasionally The Spectator — Powell then began his opus. In 1951, A Question of Upbringing was published; and others appeared more-or-less at two-yearly intervals: A Buyer’s Market (1952), The Acceptance World (1955), and At Lady Molly’s (1957).
In 1959, Philip Powell, supposedly practically bankrupt, died and left his son a surprisingly large inheritance of over a million and a half pounds (in today’s money), allowing him to live, for the first time, with financial stability. “This was the last thing he had anticipated,” Spurling writes. Five books of the Dance had been completed; the money led him to rethink the scope, from six to twelve volumes. His three wartime volumes, The Valley of Bones (1964), The Soldier’s Art (1966), and The Military Philosophers (1968) are judged to be his best; although it is said, not quite as acute and stylish as his friendly rival, Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy.
The windfall from his father also gradually transformed him into a country squire. He went to London less, and entertained more at home, seeing mostly congenial people. Kingsley Amis wrote that a weekend he and his wife spent at the Chantry was the most fun he had ever had while clothed.
Powell would place his readers into two categories. They were either fans or shits. A.N. Wilson, a fan, reviewing Spurling’s biography for The TLS, observed, “The Chantry became not only a home but a sort of fiction-factory in which, removed from the London scene where they had both been young and sociable before the war, the author could meditate on the lives of their many friends. Here, lying on a shabby blue sofa, he could allow the fiction to marinade, sensing Malcolm Muggeridge morphing into Books Bagshaw and Barbara Skelton into the immortal Pamela Fitton.”
Ah, yes, Pamela Fitton, the heartless beauty who drives men crazy with desire, is so clearly modelled on Barbara Skelton (or, to some, Helter-Skelter). Recognising herself, Skelton (right) wrote to Powell “Dear Tony, I am suing naturally … In the meantime can you advise me a good publisher for my novel?”
To his abiding irritation, “spotting the original” became a sport for Powell fans. And not only his fans. Kingsley Amis once complained to Philip Larkin, “It did suddenly strike me how fed up I was about all those real people and real incidents he’s put in his books. I thought you were meant to make them up, you know, like a novelist.”
The inspiration for his anti-hero, Kenneth Widmerpool, was the keenest of the hunts. Powell’s brother-in-law, Frank Pakenham (Lord Longford), would take peculiar pleasure in seeing himself in Widmerpool (there was a probably more of him in Lord Erridge). Yet one real inspiration for Widmerpool is Denis Capel-Dunn, secretary to the wartime joint intelligence committee, for whom Powell worked in 1943. Like Widmerpool, he was stout, graceless, totally lacking in humour, superlatively good at his job with almost boundless personal ambition. But Spurling points out, Powell knew him only for a few months. In her view, “So many real people fed into Kenneth Widmerpool, for instance, that trying to trace them all was like mapping the tiny tributaries of a mighty river”. To Christopher Hitchens, Widmerpool was more of a Dostoevskian figure, belonging “with Falstaff and Raskolnikov and Uriah Heep, and not in the pages of Who’s Who.”
Widmerpool was surely his most developed fictional character; but many others were taken, and adapted, from life: Hugh Moreland (Constant Lambert); St John Clarke (John Galsworthy); X Trapnel (Julian Maclaren-Ross); Mark Members (Peter Quennell); Lindsay Bagshaw (Malcolm Muggeridge); Quiggin (C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis). I like former poet laureate Andrew Motion’s take on Dance and its characters.
What, then, is the central theme of the series? Creativity – the act of production. Of literature, of books, of paintings, of music; that is what most of the central characters are engaged in for the whole of their lives. Moreland composes, Barnby paints, X Trapnel writes, Quiggin, Members and Maclintick criticise and the narrator publishes books and then becomes a writer. What excites the novelist is music and painting, literature and criticism. It’s this creativity, together with the comedy of everyday life, that sustains the Dance.
Writing in 1962, Evelyn Waugh likened Dance to watching through the glass of a tank. One after another various specimens swim towards us; we see them clearly, then with a barely perceptible flick of fin or a tail they are off into the murk. That is how our encounters occur in real life. Friends and acquaintances approach or recede year by year.” There is the instance when Jenkins observes his school friend Peter Templer, “He piled his luggage, bit by bit, on to a taxi; and passed out of my life for some twenty years.”
Waugh salutes “the permeating and inebriating atmosphere of the haphazard” so distinctive to Powell’s oeuvre, while fellow fan Christopher Hitchens has said the novels appear to depend much on delicate threads of coincidence.
In 1975, his oeuvre complete, Powell had another quarter century before him. Increasingly crusty, remote and squire-like – he collected three volumes of his reviews, wrote two more novels, four unrevealing volumes of memoirs and three unintentionally revealing journals; the last exposing a high-and-dry Tory, (as one defender wondered, “Is there such a thing as a Low Tory?”), an obsessive genealogist and a diarist as waspish and liverish as his friend, James Lees-Milne. A.N.Wilson wondered if “Aubrey’s Brief Lives inspired Dance, in the Journals we have a late twentieth-century Brief Lives tout court.”
As to his being a walking Burke, Powell’s memoirs begin with one Rhys the Hoarse who lived from 1169 to 1234. He admitted that he and Violet “absolutely love looking people up” To the charge of snobbery, he countered, rather unconvincingly, “If there were a Burke’s Bank Clerks I would buy it.” Wilson recounted a conversation with Cyril Connolly’s widow who told him “that she had on one occasion sat in the back of the car with Powell at her side all the way from Eastbourne to London, and that he had not drawn breath on the subject of his wife Lady Violet’s quarterings.”
Squire Powell outside The Chantry
One of the satirist Craig Brown’s best parodies, worth quoting in full, was an imagined entry in the journal of ‘the Sage of the Chantry’:
Reread Hamlet by Shakespeare, a competent but unreliable author, though now rather dated and always prone to wordiness. Never to my mind managed a novel. Hamlet is a not uninteresting play, but the plot is flawed. The Danes are really extremely minor royalty, even by Scandinavian standards, scarcely worth a lengthy play … Prince Hamlet wouldn’t have lasted long in Pratt’s where Danish royalty is taken with a fairly hefty pinch of salt. ‘Hamlet,’ a peculiar name – any relation one wonders to the Fotherington-Hamlets of Much Hadham? … I would guess Shakespeare stole many of his more notable lines from the immortal titles in my own ‘Dance to the Music of Time’ sequence. But I should hate to pass judgement.
Perhaps he lived too long. In Temporary Kings (1973), the penultimate volume of Dance, he wrote, “Growing old is like being increasingly penalised for a crime you haven’t committed.”
His memoirs and journals aside (although this writer confesses to enjoying them immensely), Anthony Powell, the novelist, deserves to be taken (even it is on the second-top shelf) and read; and though, like the last century, it was not a merry one, his Dance can be enjoyed – its elegant ebb and flow, its cadences and coincidences; its galaxy of recurring characters; and its message that time takes its toll.