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


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

Anthony Powell – England’s Proust


A Dance to the Music of Time

Reading Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time can seem a formidable commitment. It is a series of twelve novels (totalling one million words) published between 1951 and 1975, following the lives of over 300 characters during seven decades of the 20th century, as observed by a narrator who is at once involved in the turbulent century and ironically detached from it. This may sound indigestible, but Powell’s roman à fleuve manages to be simultaneously captivating and consequential, witty and wise – leading acute critics to see Dance as the “greatest modern novel since Ulysses” (Clive James) and “one of English fiction’s few twentieth century master- pieces” (John Lanchester).

Powell (incidentally pronounced Pole) has been called “the English Proust”, and the comparison is appropriate. Like Proust, his themes are time, change, chance and regret, evoked by multitudinous closely observed details and characters whose traits somehow encapsulate whole ‘types’.

Powell was born in 1905, the son of an army officer and a mother distantly descended from the Dymoke family of Scrivelsby in Lincolnshire, who were and perhaps still are the hereditary King’s Champions, required to ride fully armoured into the hall during a king’s investiture and challenge any pretenders to a duel (a ritual sadly discontinued after George IV’s coronation). Powell’s childhood was spent in London, Aldershot and Sevenoaks, then he went to what he described as “well-deserved obscurity” at Eton (although he was graded ninth in the school in his final examinations). He read history at Balliol, Oxford (he got a third). He worked for the publishers Duckworth, and associated with the likes of Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, John Betjeman, Malcolm Muggeridge, Augustus John, Tallulah Bankhead, Nina Hamnett, Aleister Crowley and Constant Lambert. He wrote three novels – Afternoon Men (1931), Venusberg (1932) and From a View to a Death (1934), all of which were well received but sold unspectacularly. He married Lady Violet Pakenham in 1934 (they had two sons). He published his fourth novel, Agents and Patients, in 1936 and that year also visited the Soviet Union on holiday; the experience reinforced an emerging, if always understated, dislike of communism. He worked as a scriptwriter and reviewer, and brought out a fifth novel, What’s Become of Waring?, in 1939. That year, he was commissioned into the Welch Regiment, eventually transferring to the Intelligence Corps.

Upon leaving the army, he published a biography of John Aubrey, bought a run-down Regency house in Frome (where he lived for the rest of his life), wrote for the Times Literary Supplement, Daily Telegraph and Spectator, and became literary editor of Punch. He was created CBE in 1956, declined a knighthood in 1973 and became a Companion of Honour in 1988. He published two more stand-alone novels, O, How The Wheel Becomes It! (1983) and The Fisher King (1986), plus four volumes of memoirs, then became incapacitated and died in 2000.

Dance won immediate admiration, and the fourth volume in the series, At Lady Molly’s, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1957. The 11th, Temporary Kings, won the W H Smith Prize. The sequence was adapted for TV in 1997 and shown on Channel 4 (starring Simon Russell Beale), while there were also radio adaptations in 1978-81 and 2008.

The title of the sequence is taken from the painting by Poussin that hangs in the Wallace Collection in London, which shows four dancers circling a measure to a tune played by Father Time.

An almost hypnotic spell seems cast by this masterpiece on the beholder. I knew all at once that Poussin had expressed at least one important aspect of what the novel must be

Powell recalled in his memoirs, To Keep the Ball Rolling.

Writing in the Guardian in 2000, an appreciative Norman Shrapnel called Powell a “fastidious satirist” – “reflective and often melancholic”, “clinically accurate and searching”, “comic in the least uproarious way imaginable”, unsentimental, interested in coincidences, and eccentric and ritualistic behaviour. Such stylistic qualities have compelled respect even from readers who do not share his small-c conservatism, and who are predisposed to dislike his real-life and novelistic habitats of public schools, Oxbridge, St James’s, the army and literary studies.

The parlour game of trying to work out on whom Powell based some of his best characters is also a fascinating one. For example, some have seen in the humourless leftwing publisher Quiggin a blend of C. P. Snow, F. R. Leavis and Harold Pinter – although the latter identification was always denied by the author, who was related to Pinter by marriage.

Some straightforward borrowings from real life were later admitted to by the author, such as the manic novelist X. Trapnel (based on Julian McLaren-Ross) and the tubercular composer Hugh Morland (Constant Lambert) – and of course Powell’s greatest creation, the unforgettable, unspeakable Kenneth Widmerpool, based apparently on the military bureaucrat Denis Capel-Dunn, under whom Powell had served briefly during the war.

The odd surname Widmerpool was derived from a real-life English Civil War soldier, a Parliamentarian cavalry captain. This selection of a Parliamentarian’s name for the buffoonish yet genuinely nasty central character of Dance implies Powell’s political inclinations. According to John Colvin, writing in the Daily Telegraph on 30 December 1991, Widmerpool is, like Capel-Dunn,

…a very fat, extremely boring, overwhelmingly ambitious arriviste. His conversations were hideously detailed and humourless

From Dance’s Etonian outset, Widmerpool is always there or always sensed, and always ridiculous – the oikish, shortsighted son of a fertilizer manufacturer (the father’s stock-in-trade hinting at his son’s essence), remembered chiefly by his acutely status-conscious schoolmates for having the “wrong kind of overcoat”, and ever afterwards cropping up everywhere in the narrator’s (Nicholas Jenkins) affairs, and usually to deftly comic effect. He is painfully aware of his physical and social shortcomings, and tries to over- compensate through constant work and by trying to foresee looming trends, so that he can steal a march on his envied, hated contemporaries. He is propelled utterly by ambition, and tries to make himself indispensable to whomsoever happens to be in a position of authority.

He trims his sails constantly to the prevailing winds – at different times, he is (or claims to be) a go-ahead man of business, an admirer of Hitler, a confidant of Mrs Simpson, a senior logistics officer during the war, a Labour MP under Attlee, a Soviet spy, a writer for a leftwing magazine, a life peer, a chancellor of one of the new universities, a supporter of the 1950s and 1960s counter-culture, rejecting his title and joining a New Age cult founded by a new kind of ‘anti-authority’ authority figure. He is quietly unpleasant, seeping Uriah Heep-like through the lives of all the other characters, and all of 20th century Britain, an ambitious and malignant force both following and setting the century’s tone. But whatever he tries fails.

Widmerpool is, as Norman Shrapnel noted, “a shade pathetic, a little absurd, more than a little sinister”. Whilst trying to impress his business boss (Sir Magnus Donner, based on Lord Beaverbrook) he drives into one of Donner’s garden statues; he has sugar poured over him in public by a girl he is trying to impress; his vaunted closeness to Wallis Simpson turns out to mean that he once saw her at a pheasant shoot; he is hated even by his parliamentary Labour colleagues; he makes a mess of espionage and falls foul of his KGB handlers; his writing is dreary; he is impotent and a voyeur; his wife hates him for allegedly being responsible for the death of her beloved uncle and has married him solely so that she can make his life a misery; the red-brick university of which he is chancellor is clearly a poor academical relation to the unattainable Oxbridge; he is publicly humiliated by having paint thrown at him; he grovels (possibly homo-erotically) before a charismatic hippie leader, eventually falling dead whilst running naked in the countryside. Whatever he does, it is ludicrous, misplaced and déclassé; his is a lifetime of always wearing the “wrong kind of overcoat”.

Yet this ridiculous personality comes to wield real power at times, even occasionally seeming like ‘the wave of the future’. He seems to Powell to have in some way personified everything that was wrong with the 20th century, and specifically the political Left during that period. In all his gaucherie, envy, resentment, sycophancy, intrusiveness, insensitivity, humourlessness, ruthlessness, condescension and lack of culture, Widmerpool is brilliantly funny but also loathsome (and slightly pitiable). It says much for Powell’s craft that most left-leaning litterateurs cannot resent this devastating caricature of the Leftist personality.

Widmerpool is surrounded by characters whose names conjure up obliterated times and places – Dicky Umfraville (spivvish, raffish, White Mischief set), Professor Sillery (precise, bitchy, gossipy academic), Ted Jeavons (chauffeur who took his titled wife’s surname but has retained his unpretentious kindness and practicality), St. John Clarke (verbose novelist with tediously of-the-moment political views), Mark Manners (Modernist poet, snob), “Books-do-Furnish-a-Room” Bagshaw (upper-class Philistine hearty) and Scorpio Mortlock (1960s pagan cult leader). Every name and every incident has been minutely considered, and none are redundant; this gives Dance its totally convincing and sinewy texture, whether Powell is describing Oxford studies, Jazz Age clubs, car crashes, homosexual artists, seedy boarding houses, Berkeley Square mansions, bombing raids, wartime billets or Venice in the 1950s.

It may sound as if Powell has a politico-historical agenda, but there is no evidence of this – the absence of any ‘grand narrative’ suggesting profound impatience with allegedly all-encompassing worldviews and ideologies. Nor is he trying to change anything. His chosen tactic is simply, as Nicholas Birns explained in 2005’s Understanding Anthony Powell, the “amused, reserved acceptance of what happens”.

Arguably, this sceptical stance is itself conservative. Powell tended to avoid discussing his own views, because he feared they might hurt his career, but as a young man he expressed concerns about democracy giving dominion to “the morally and intellectually deficient”, and once said that had he been compelled to choose a side in the Spanish Civil War he would (albeit reluctantly) have opted for Franco. He was an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, and was “broadly sympathetic” to Christian values. He was interested in genealogy and heredity, and aspired to live in a house “with a driveway”. But his philosophy is always kept thankfully well- trimmed and unobtrusive. He does not wish to make a point – but only to record what it felt like to be English, in England during those years.

One of Powell’s favourite books, and one which features largely in the latter parts of Dance, was Robert Burton’s outré 1621 classic, The Anatomy of Melancholy – that strange gentle compendium of depressiveness and madness hovering in the book’s background, like a Purcell ground heard from far away, as the dancers slow down and quit the stage. Soon, they will all have gone, as Powell has gone – but reading Powell reminds us that there will always be new dancers to tread the same steps in different ways, always to the beat and tempo of an always sardonic Father Time.

This article appeared in the Quarterly Review in Summer 2009