Time’s terpsichorean – review of Anthony Powell by Hilary Spurling

TIME’S TERPSICHORIAN

Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time

Hilary Spurling, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2016, hb., 510pps

Anthony Powell’s million word, twelve-volume novel sequence Dance to the Music of Time is one of the great achievements of postwar English literature, attracting near-universal praise for its subtle and textured evocation of England between the First World War and the 1960s. Powell’s narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, looks on quizzically as a representative cavalcade of twentieth-century characters cavort across the pages of history, at times following anciently ordained patterns, at others striking out on their own to amusing or bizarre effect. 

In the 1640 painting by Nicolas Poussin which inspired the sequence’s name, a naked, winged, controlling Father Time strums a cithara and looks on enigmatically as dancers representing the seasons revolve, facing outwards, holding hands, while a celestial chariot races through storm clouds above, and cherubs blow soap-bubbles to remind viewers of the impermanence of things. Poussin paradoxically suggests continuity and cosmic lucidity, but also the ever-present possibility of upset; dancers may perform pavanes or tarantellas, but in the end even the most corybantic must come back to the circle. Powell wrote in comparable baroque-classical vein, as if striving to rationalise randomness, impose order onto an increasingly disorderly England. Nicholas Jenkins preoccupies himself with Robert Burton’s 1621 The Anatomy of Melancholy, Powell so signalling his own appreciation of the Anglican divine’s stately lugubriousness, his rolling periods and mordant sense, his insistence that everything has been seen before, what will be will be, and we should see chaos in context. Such phlegmatism pervades The Dance’s million words, giving its babooneries black lustre, ballasting what in less sure hands might just have been Jazz Age incidents.  

Jenkins’ England’s most egregious representative is Kenneth/Lord/Ken Widmerpool, whose altering states and styles adumbrate revolutionary wider changes. Widmerpool is a school contemporary of Jenkins, an awkward, ungainly, deeply earnest loner of “exotic drabness”, sniggered at or dismissed, who nevertheless “gets on” surprisingly, first in the world of business, but then in other ways as his attention to tedious details and brisk officiousness help him overtake more likeable but less serious schoolfellows. He is “not interested in anything not important or improving” (Powell), and constantly “closes down possibilities” (Spurling). Chilly relentlessness carries through into all he does, making him the perfect pen-pusher for peace or war, admirer of Wallis Simpson, proponent of deals with Hitler, postwar Labour peer with ties to the Soviets, cuckold, voyeur, and in the end cult thrall, returning to school-style humiliation, dying trying too hard. He rises, and sinks, without trace. In his 2004 Understanding Anthony Powell, Nicholas Birns suggests Widmerpool’s defining trait to be “craven acquiescence to whatever he perceives to be the prevailing power of the day”. Yet the quintessentially twentieth century Widmerpool would have considered himself an autonomous individual and independent thinker. 

This paragon of preposterousness is only one of over four hundred characters populating Powell’s English universe – Widmerpool counterpointed by fusty novelists, outdated painters, alcoholic ex-gilded youths, Young Turk litterateurs, communist activists, confused peers, bed-hopping models, embittered critics, impecunious uncles, oddly impressive palmists, cranks, termagants, block-headed, secretly suicidal army officers, cult-followers turned art agents, a literal femme fatale, and too many others to mention, flashing out or fleshed in expertly, each believable, comprehensible, containing multitudes. We have all had such encounters in strangely significant interiors, small exchanges that over time add up to an immensity – noticed similarly tragicomic coincidences, connections and contradictions – experienced the same disconcertment as time races but much remains the same. Those few cavillers who reject Powell for classism, conservatism, orotundity, parochialism, or triviality misread him severely. At base, The Dance is deeply humane, a universal acknowledgement of our foibles and possibilities; as Powell wrote,

All human beings, driven as they are at different speeds by the same Furies, are at close range equally extraordinary.

Hilary Spurling knows Powell’s creations better than most, as compiler of 1977’s Invitation to the Dance, the indispensable handbook to Powell’s dramatis personæ. “Bowled over” by The Dance at eighteen or nineteen, she worked her way onto the literary desk of the Spectator, and so was able to meet her hero. As she began to make her own name (as biographer of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Paul Scott, Henri Matisse, Sonia Orwell, and Pearl Buck), she and her novelist/playwright husband John drew close to Powell and his wife Violet, at liberty when passing to drop into The Chantry, the Georgian “house with a driveway” he had always sought, for tea and scintillating talk. Powell secured her the job of writing the Invitation, and eventually asked her to be his biographer on the understanding, she writes, “that nothing was to be done for as long as possible”. When he died in 2000, she commissioned an outsize cast of his head, which peers onto their London garden as he once surveyed the entire city and century, a face of marked alertness, with slightly upturned nose  as if still scenting all winds, and owl-like eyebrows. If the Invitation allowed Spurling to display her organisational ability, this book proves her subtle understanding of Powell’s many milieux, and reveals flair and force that often rival her subject’s. 

An earlier Boswell-manqué, Michael Barber, found “certain doors were closed to me, and certain resources withheld”. He nevertheless published correspondence Powell might have preferred to forget, such as 1920s animadversions against democracy and liberalism, and a 1992 letter in which he opines “…much against my taste I would have been for Franco in a preference to a Left dominated by Communists”.  Spurling loyally does not mention Barber’s 2004 book. Powell’s politics should not be overstressed; he was averse to all ideological or religious commitments (although he had superstitious tendencies). His sole political action was helping stave off a communist takeover of the National Union of Journalists. Unlike some of his creative contemporaries, he had no wish to reform human nature, or upturn England; to borrow the title of The Dance’s third instalment, his was usually an Acceptance World. Powell produced several volumes of memoirs, but they are often opaque, as tantalised James Lees-Milne noted –

[Powell] discloses nothing about himself, but is revealing, albeit cautiously, of his contemporaries’ follies.

Like his creation Jenkins, like Poussin’s Time, the author was enigmatic, watching rather than acting, assessing rather than judging.

Happily Spurling’s delicacy of touch gives us a sharp picture of Powell in his subfusc strangeness, born in 1905, elfin only child of an irascible and stingy army officer who had been at Mons, and his much older wife, both of whose antecessors could have come from Surtees or Thackeray. We find him forced through loneliness into feats of imagination and introspection, drawing, making up stories and reading, often age-inappropriate books like Aubrey Beardsley and Havelock Ellis, interesting himself in actual or fanciful genealogies. “He found his own obscure stability in a distant heredity”, Spurling reflects, compensating psychologically for military-posting peripateticism by dwelling on “grounded for centuries” Radnorshire antecedents. Like his mother, he would always be “glad to see ghosts”. 

Powell would have no fixed address until despatched to a Kentish boarding school aged ten, a Spartan-to-squalid establishment whose pupils were fed rancid meats, and sometimes augmented their diets with raw turnips stolen from a nearby farm. Here he befriended Henry Yorke, who later wrote successful novels as Henry Green (they broke eventually, because of Yorke’s pomposity). Thence to Eton, where being standoffish and unsporting he might have suffered, but he landed luckily under the aegis of Arthur Goodhart, one of the few housemasters who took more interest in the arts than sports. Even Goodhart found the future novelist difficult to plumb, but Powell would later say his Eton days had been the most important of his life, when he found community, and started to see the world as it was. Amongst innumerable other observations, Powell filed away for future use the stigma attached to Yorke, ribbed by schoolmates for unorthodox sartorial choices, just as later Widmerpool’s persona and even destiny would be partly determined by having once worn “the wrong kind of overcoat” at school. Mrs. Spurling has been extraordinarily assiduous in identifying the originals of numerous incidents and characters that years later would step into The Dance.

Powell went on to Oxford, where he languished listlessly, conscious of being neither rich nor well-connected. But there he found Evelyn Waugh, who became a lifelong friend (and whose posthumous reputation Powell would help rescue, earning him Auberon Waugh’s enmity) and other appreciators, including Maurice Bowra. There were mind-expanding encounters with Dostoevsky, Eliot, and Proust amongst others, deep discussions, and European travel during the holidays. 

After Oxford he worked at the faction-riven, stuffy Duckworth publishing house, dealing with authors whose often atrocious texts he was expected to assess, sometimes up to fifty a week. This taught him how not to write, and the acquired habits of focus and swift summation would be of massive benefit later, both as in-demand reviewer, and dreamer-up of The Dance, turning out instalments to a private master-plan over twenty four years. Friendships accrued with notables like Robert Byron, Constant Lambert, Adrian Daintrey, and the Sitwells, and he became a Territorial Army officer. Somehow he found time to become a novelist, drawing 1931’s Afternoon Men from the lives around him, and locations like his lodgings in Shepherd’s Market, a raffish-risqué island in the middle of Mayfair. 

Love affairs came inevitably along, culminating in Violet Pakenham, the daughter of Lord Longford he married in 1934, who gave him two sons, and would become merciless, priceless dissector of each Dance volume’s first draft. He tried to become a Hollywood screenwriter, and issued four more novels – Venusberg, From a View to A Death, Agents and Patients, and What’s Become of Waring? – each in some way prefiguring his magnum opus. He got to know Graham Greene, George Orwell and everyone else who figured on the sometimes incestuous cultural scene (Greene fell away, piqued by Powell’s insufficiently fulsome review of The Heart of the Matter). Even with all her access and skill, Spurling sometimes struggles to lift him clear of his context; he had almost too many flamboyant contemporaries, who flare up and briefly outshine Powell’s steadier flame. But it would be impossible to do a better job with so “frightfully buttoned-up” (Powell’s self-description) a subject, and in any case he is inseparable from the cultural ferment she evokes so capably. 

War service entailed long absences and marital difficulties, but afforded a mass of material for the military volumes of The Dance. Demobbed, he suffered from aimless depression, and expended vast intellectual energies reviewing, sometimes a book a day for publications like the Daily Telegraph, Punch, and the Times Literary Supplement. He became close to Malcolm Muggeridge (who later cooled, jealous of Powell’s superior reputation). 1948 saw his John Aubrey and His Friends, the easygoing, inveterate quidnunc clearly speaking to Powell across centuries. Then along came 1951’s A Question of Upbringing, and The Dance die was cast. Between installments, Powell used his influence liberally to bolster or create careers, like those of Kingsley Amis and V. S. Naipaul – the latter long an intimate, but eventually an ingrate who trashed Powell’s oeuvre once his old mentor had died.

As he garnered grey hairs and honorary doctorates, and became a Companion of Honour, he came to be dismissed by callower critics as fusty, out-datedly English, vaguely Tory, his European outlook and experimentalism occluded by externalities of accent or attire, such as being the last Travellers’ Club member to maintain the habit of wearing a hat during lunch. But over the years of writing The Dance his reputation generally held up, each volume awaited keenly by connoisseurs, some awarded prizes. 

Forty-two years after the appearance of the final volume, Hearing Secret Harmonies, Powell is still relatively widely read, but few would have understood better than he the contingency of celebrity, the evanescence of fame, bubbles popping from the pipes of Poussin’s putti. Oeuvres ought to be constantly reexamined, and reputations renewed, if even the greatest works of imagination are not to slide down time’s interstices. Spurling’s subtle salute to her friend will be of  service to his shade, and conducive to a nuanced view of his century. 

This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Chronicles, and is republished with permission

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