Fiction books Legacy Reviews

The classicist Anthony Powell

The classicism of Powell, is the classicism of culture, which draws from the ancient world and develops in the modern world.

Dancing to the Music of Time by Hilary Spalding


The author Eli Goldstone has said she “can’t think of many Great Books that aren’t funny”. She has hit on something. People often reserve the great books as austere serious tomes that, yet until the advent of the Russians most of the Great Books were funny. From Lucian to Rabelais, Cervantes to Sterne, the Great Books sought to entertain.

Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time is a great book and it is very funny. It disects human society with a scalpel. Snobbishly sneery and camp, it  revels in high culture. Above all, Powell is a classicist.

Dance begins with a reference to the classical world, which sends the narrator into a revery which expands into a highly successful 12 book novel series:

“For some reason, the sight of snow descending on fire always makes me think the ancient world-legionaries in sheepskin warming themselves at a brazier: mountain offerings glow between wintry pillars; centaurs with thorches cantering beside a frozen sea – scattered, un-co-ordinated shapes from a fabulous past, infinitely removed from life; and yet bringing with them memories o thing real and imagined”

The images are highly visual, drawing much from art history and perhaps a little from school books.

The classicism of Powell, is the classicism of culture, which draws from the ancient world and develops in the modern world. It is what would be called Reception today. The scene around the brazier reminds Jenkins, the novel’s narrator, of Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time which reminds him of a pleasant evening at Eton.

Anthony Powell drew on the same rich vein of classical tradition as authors from the Eighteenth century. Not only did he model his life on such figures in his country house, but he read their books. His was a polished world of well connected intellectual figures inviting each other round to country estates and writing literary epistoles to one another.

The narrator of The Dance describes himself as a classicist.

Art and literature informs his reading of situations. Jenkins is well read in the classics and the moderns. After the war he writes a biography of Richard Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton was himself something of a Powell-esque character, with a foot in two worlds: the classical and the contemporary. Burton’s contemporary world – with its references to Shakespeare and Jonson – had become itself classical. It is to this world that Jenkins, returns after the dislocation of war. It is also by understanding the language and codes of this world, that Jenkins is welcomed back within the postwar cultural elite (conferences in Venice and dinners at the Royal Academy).

This classicism is perhaps best personified in the novel by Mr Deacon, a painter of classical scenes who came of age in the ‘90s. His works include Boyhood of Cyrus, Pupils of Socrates and By the Will of Diocletian. By the time he enters the novel in the ‘20s he has given up painting and surrendered himself to leftwing fads such as the peace movement, vegetarianism and socialism, and antique dealing. He is also homosexual, and wears sandals. His presence and art haunts the novel. In the final novel, he is rediscovered post-mortem and repackaged for a new generation of rich patrons.

Yet today Classicism is a problematic tradition.

Rather than the sensibility and coolness, we see in the classical tradition Empire, slavery and racism, the second-class position of women and the exploitation of people and environmental resources to support liberal (i.e. non-slave) lifestyles.

In the second half of the 20th century it was a tradition both at odds and central to the great levelling and democratisation driven by Labour governments and supported by the pre-Thatcherite political consensus. The period when Powell was writing Dance saw the growth of universities, including the Open University, and the publication of Penguin Paperback Classics. TV brought culture to living rooms across the country through institutions like Play for the Day and documentaries presented by characters like Malcolm Muggeridge and Mortimer Wheeler. The audience for his books was created by this moment. It would’ve been broader then than at any point previously.

We should see Powell as part of this tradition and a reaction against it. Throughout his life he remained solidly on the right of political life. Although a humane liberal, he nevertheless baulked at Labour’s power. He resembles Lucian: someone who has benefited from education and privilege, but who is somehow just outside enough to cut through the cant and depict with sharp humour the frailties and snobberies he also enjoys.



Dance to the Music of Time

Anthony Powell, or Tony as he is known to readers of Hilary Spurling’s biography, began Dance to the Music of Time in 1949 and published the last book in 1975. It covers the period of time from just after the First World War until the middle seventies  from the viewpoint of the upper echelons of society. These years saw immense social change; or at least a widening of liberties from elite men to a larger spread of society.

The history of the period forms the backdrop. The early books depict a youthful world in fervent; always moving, dancing and loving. In the books leading up to the second world war, the atmosphere is claustrophobic and apocalyptic. The war years are dry, death enthused and a deprivation of the richness of life. In the last books, the permissiveness of the youth veils a vertiginous abyss, the land almost literally falling away under the feet of the older generation.

The characters drive the action not the history of politics of the time.

The novel begins just after the first war in an unnamed boarding school, in the rooms of a trio of likely young lads.  Nicholas Jenkins, the narrator, is sitting with friends Peter Templer and Charles Stringham. Amongst other subjects they discuss a fellow school boy, Kenneth Widmerpool.

Through the series Jenkins meets various characters from the opposing worlds of society, bohemia and the City. It is one of the few novels which takes a detailed interest in the inner workings of finance.

There is not a single central character. Individuals come and go from Nicholas’ life. Sometimes we find out what happened later through gossip picked up from other characters. There is something impersonal about this, but true to life.

Things happen in coincidental meetings between crucial characters. Characters who Nick first meets with one character, incongruously bump up with another and another one later on.

At first Nicholas Jenkins is an obscure character. Even his name remains allusive. The characters come and go from his life but are joined to him and together by both spiritual threads, the spider webs of fate, and also the connections of school, university and (much later) the army. He spends an inordinate amount of time at old boy meetings (or the equivalent). Even the literary world is presented as so many old boys awarding each other prizes.

We hear little of his own life, even when towards the end of the series, he is married with children. Details between the lives of Jenkins and Powell match in some areas. Like Powell, Jenkins spends much of his life in the lonely world of writing. But both had a deep interest in the lives and gossips of others. The coincidental meetings of friends reads much like someone looking forward to the weekend.


Kenneth Widmerpool *Spoiler alerts*

No single character is the main protagonist. Yet Kenneth Widmerpool arguably takes centre stage. His personality dominates the books. The story is as much his, as it is Jenkins.

Widmerpool is first encountered at School, long distance running. A sport he is uncongenially suited for: “Widmerpool, fairly heavily built, thick lips and metal rimmed spectacles giving his face as usual an aggrieved expression … two thin jets of steam drifted out of his nostrils”. He is the butt of school boy jokes about a coat.

Later he turns up in France, where Jenkins and he are staying with a French family. Jenkins finds a crude image of him is found carved into the toilet. He wonders if Widmerpool had carved it himself. The highlight of Widmerpool’s early career is giving an uninvited and long oration at the Old Boys Tea. It is ended only by the old house master’s stroke.

Widmerpool’s mediocrity is matched only be his mesospheric rise. He is able to push other more able or well connected individuals aside. Although this is never stressed in the novel, he is in many ways a mirror of that other beaurocrat-done-good Joseph Stalin.  Both figures are exacting paper workers, with a streak of ruthlessness. Widmerpool is a Kafkaesque character seen from the otherside of the desk.

It is the war that makes him. A zealot for work he takes on Jenkins as an assistant working fourteen hours a day, thirteen hours a week. His position should not have entailed the amount of work. Widmerpool is a composite figure of different people Tony met. This part of him came directly from an officer Tony worked under in the war.

The nature of his war work is never completely clear but he leaves the war first a Labour MP, then a Labour Lord.

Towards the end of the series Widmerpool character becomes more sinister. He is indirectly the cause of one school friend’s death in Singapore and there are hints he is behind another death somewhere in the Balkans.

It all comes undone around the late fifties. Widmerpool is revealed as a Soviet agent and to save himself betrays another agent, whose death he might have engineered. Yet his skin is saved only to suffer a worst indignity, exile to America where he becomes a counter-cultural figure who prefers to be known by his first name.

Yet for all this Widmerpool is a great character. There is something of the anti-hero about his rise. Widmerpool is the antidote to the prevailing elitism of the other characters. He is the narrative counterweight to Nick/Tony. Both are on the outside of the society they belong to and both rise the ranks to eminent positions in different fields.

This perhaps gives some flavour of the richness of the Dance. Often maligned as a chronicle of the upper-classes, it is instead a kaleidoscopic satire which operates on several levels. Powell was a literary chameleon. He drew colour, tone and language from classic literature and hid in the background of the environments he finds himself in.



Anthony Powell

Anthony Powell is a gift to a biographer. He was well placed to several key moments of history, with just the right amount of distance for objectivity and close enough for intimacy.

The artistic model through much of his life was John Aubrey. Aubrey collected biographies of his contemporaries with a plan to write a much larger work. Aubrey’s mini biographies (often gathered together under the title Brief Lives) are gossipy, over intimate, psychologically insightful and humane.

Hilary Spurling was a friend to the author. She worked with him as a journalist on the book pages. Her first book was written at the invitation of Powell. It was a key to the Dance to the Music, which still provides much needed outlines to the characters, books and paintings found in the novel.


Keys to characters in the Dance

Hilary Spurling has a hard task. Many readers read Dance as a Roman à Clef, expecting there to be direct connections between favourite characters and real life persons. Not only are characters so specific, but they seem to enjoy positions of power which must have real world counterpoints. This attempt at decipherment is part of the joy of reading the Dance.

Perhaps the reason for this is that Powell is such a brilliant portraitist. His characters are both fully realised and never wholly formed. So much of what we know about them, comes from the narrator’s reflections, as it would in life. The setting is the lower nobility and upper middle classes, and certain scenes could be alien (Eton) the characters could almost come from any place. We expect them to be based on real people because they seem so specific and so reminiscent.

The senior Labour MP Dennis Heaney even asked Powell if a particular character was based on Edward Heath, the lacklustre Tory prime minister.

For my part, I thought I recognised an Eric Ravillious type character in the artist Barnby. According to the sources (the Anthony Powell society), this character was based on the sexed up artist Adrian Daintrey, an Augustus John acolyte. Barnby appears in the third book and then disappears seemingly replaced by the musician Moreland, a similar but more rounded creation. I wondered if a threat of libel had forced Tony to change tack.

Daltrey was charmed by his alter-ego: “My pride at (unless I’m mistaken) recognising some resemblance to myself in one of the characters is enhanced by relief at appearing in such a comparatively flattering light”, he wrote in a letter.

To this extent the Dance resembles Dante. The allusions to noted persons will become more vague as time goes on as the people themselves become more esoteric. Yet the characters have the power to retain interest in their own right.


Powell and the peerage


Hilary Spurling’s biography is an interesting read, but can be confusing. It is sometimes hard to follow who married whom and who was whose ancestor. Powell was into genealogy in a bg way. Back then this meant tracing aristocratic routes. Lord Aberavon (“first and last of his peerage”) a self made shipping magnate, was made a peer by Victoria, which only confirmed his noble roots: he traced his family back to Vortigern.

The charge of snobbery is never far away.

Powell traced his own family back to notable progenitors. His last action on leaving his first job at a publishers was to order a copy of Burke’s Peerage. A later cartoon from the seventies shows Powell holding a battered Peerage. One wonders whether fusty Nanny Hawkin’s, from Brideshead Revisited, comforted in her old age by perusing Debrett’s Peerage was based on Powell. There is something of the not-quite-U about Powell.


Anthony Powell’s connections

Friends made at school, remained important throughout Powell’s life. It needs to be stated that Powell went to the elite British school, Eton. The incubator of future leaders. Tony left school equipped with a powerful network of well-connected individuals.

The Powells were not intensely rich and Tony was fortunate to receive financial help to attend school. It was still a privileged education: “Classical associations made me think, too, of days at school”, he writes at the start of the Dance.

Tony experienced a mixed education. His first (pre-prep) school was idyllic, but the Prep-School he attended was hellish. The type of place which believes sadism is paramount to producing strong and capable young men.

Eton was blissful. It was the first stable home, the iterative Powell, had had. He enjoyed his own rooms and slowly made friends.

His friends at Eton became models for characters throughout the Dance. Hubert Duggan formed the model of the early Charles Stringham, Jenkin’s languid and artistic best friend at school who hits the bottle in a big way. Hubert Duggan was step-son of Lord Curzon, a possible future Prime Minister. He enjoyed a privileged lifestyle, protected by his powerful connections.

Hubert’s elder brother, Alfred, was sent down from Oxford for being caught outside the doors after curfew a little too often. Powell would help lower him down the college walls on a scarf. He would then be chauffeured to London nightclubs where he enjoyed a healthy diet of drink and sex. Alfred is perhaps best known today as a writer of historical romances of luminous learning and novelistic flair championed by critics as disparate as Evelyn Waugh and Rhakotis’ literary editor Simon Bralee. Powell himself said “The unbelievable – so so often – had taken place”.


Powell and Bohemia

Although a member of Bohemia, Tony only had a few interactions with this land. He was acquaintances with artists like Edward Burra and even met David Jones. As a publisher he worked with allumaries like the Sitwell siblings and John Galsworthy (who is transposed into St John Clarke, the baddie in Dance). He was on nodding terms with the Bloomsbury set, who were in the ascendant in the 20s and 30s.

Bohemia was never one place. Different groups glided around each other.


Constant Lambert

Powell was at home with the musical and dance groupings circling his close friend Constant Lambert. The character of Moreland was copied wholescale from Lambert as a kind of homage after his death. Powell had attempted to write a biography of his friend, but was unable to. A biography has since been written by Stephen Lloyd. The passages of his death are quietly devastating in their understatement. His absence from the later books is a palpable void.

Malcolm Muggeridge was another close friend. The two would walk around Regents Park discussing the early stages of the Dance. Just after the war, Powell took Muggeridge to Eton which both thought was on its last legs. Muggeridge looked for places for machine gun nests, using the technical knowledge picked up as a correspondent in the war. Although best known today as Adrian Mole’s first intellectual hero, Muggeridge was a genuinely respected figure at one time.


Henry Green

Another close friend of Powell’s was the novelist Henry Green. Green is one of the greatest novelists of the Twentieth Century. Arguably greater than Powell, easily greater than Waugh. He is in the upper echelons of the Pantheon with Woolf. He is little known and less read today.

The two met at pre prep-School and continued through the same series of Schools and Colleges before separating in the early twenties. Henry went to Birmingham to work in his father’s factory. The two young men grew close through a shared love of the arts and literature. Henry was precociously brilliant. He wrote part of his first novel at Eton and had it published whilst at Oxford.

The pair slowly drifted apart. Powell stayed with him briefly in South Kensington during the war, but by then the friendship was over. In later life Henry took to the bottle. Towards the end of his life he was an alcoholic with a particular fondness for the Ottoman Empire.


Evelyn Waugh

Often when Powell is spoken of these days, his friendship to Evelyn Waugh is also mentioned. It creates the sense that both authors belonged to the heady “Bright Young Things / Vile Bodies” set. There is not much truth in this.

Although Powell and Waugh had known of each other in Oxford, they only became close after they had both moved to London. They met professionally. Powell helped publish Waugh’s first book, a biography of Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Powell would spend Sunday evenings at a cold meat supper at the Waugh family home in North London. Waugh’s father encouraged the friendship and thought Powell a better influence than some of his younger son’s other friends.

Although Powell is often named as a close friend of Evelyn Waugh, he was an even closer friend to Evelyn’s first wife (also called Evelyn) and the man that she married after divorce from Waugh. This divorce is best remembered by the change in tone in Waugh’s second novel Vile Bodies, from light comedy to quite bitter satire. The divorce broke Waugh. Powell navigated the complex relationships of his friends as best he could.

Powell’s early novels share a similarity with Waugh. They are both set in a similarly non-conformist world. They both have a certain light disregard for the mores of polite society and faster society.

Both writers were particularly inspired by Ronald Firbank. Ronald Firbank wrote eight short and camp novels in 1890s. Another writer demanding a revival, Powell edited a collection of his works in 1961.

In later life the Powell and Waughs lived close to each other and remained friends. Waugh become more and more a stolid figure: broadening in hulk as he is ostensibly swallowed in world view. He became more and more identified with a certain kind of Englishness- country house weekends, Oxbridge and tweeds.

Post-war there was a turn against this. The tide turned on both Waugh’s politics and his Catholicism. In 1953 he was interviewed on radio by three “Abrasive” interviewers. Peter Fleming said of it that it was like Matadors taunting a bull.

Waugh died in 1966, at a low ebb in critical esteem. His books remained popular and the 1981 dramatisation of Brideshead Revisited brought his name back to general recognition. Today he has became a source for TV shows set in costume-drama-times.

Powell has avoided this indignity, perhaps because the one attempt to film his work was a critical failure.


George Orwell

Tony and George went to Eton at the same time, but did not know each other at this time. Orwell was a King’s scholar, having arrived at Eton from Wellington School. They became acquainted in the thirties. The conservative Powell and socialist Orwell developed a deep friendship. The socialist peer Eridge in the Dance, might be partly a reflection of Orwell who dressed as a tramp to experience the lives of iterative workers in Paris and London, and later in the North of England.

At Orwell’s funeral, Powell read the Eulogy. His early death was a great loss, that Powell felt throughout his life.


Whatever happening to Warring? Powell and the war

The war was a major disruptive event of Tony’s life. Through the thirties, it was clear that war would eventually come. Appeasement was not working and it began to be understood by the man on the street (if not his parliamentarian) that fascism must be stopped by military means.


The home front

Although he never experienced direct conflict, the war was still a traumatic experience.

Powell’s novels give some idea of the bleak and apocalyptic atmosphere of London in these years. Although Tony missed much of the Blitz in London, having been with the Welch Regiment in Northern Ireland, he experienced the home front’s deprivation and constant threat of death.

In the Dance, the Blitz kills Jenkin’s close friend Chips Lovell and his wife Tolland (Jenkin’s sister-in-law) in tragic circumstances. Tolland was to go with her lover to a nightclub where she would unintentionally meet Chips. When she hears he will be there, she causes a scene and returns home. That night bombs fall on both restaurant and house, leaving the tension between husband and wife unresolved but uniting them in death. Little comfort is derived from this union – Jenkins, like Powell, was an atheist – but the bitter aftertaste of irony remains.

In the Military Philosophers, Powell describes the first doodlebug raids towards the end of the war. It becomes a backdrop to one of his set pieces, where characters randomly meet again after several years. The heightened sense and fear of the attack is brought out in subtle descriptions of dialogue that do not reference the war at all.

He later writes: “In due course V.1’s went out of fashion, and V.2’s, a form of rocket, became the mode”. Even in the war years, Jenkins inhabits a fashionable and well-heeled demimonde of louche intelligence officers.


The enemy within

During the war Powell was away from his wife and young family. It was in these years that his wife fell in love with another man. She never said who he was but told a friend that he was the love of her life. It is unclear how, or why, they seperated.

The war was full of such experiences. The intensity of living with the threat of annihilation and the loneliness and boredom of war brought many people together for comfort and happiness. The romance in Brief Encounter might give some idea of how this relationship played out.

In the Dance several members of Jenkin’s in-laws had wartime affairs. After the war, the Powell’s remained close, like so many other couples. Did Powell have affairs during this period? Spurling’s biography doesn’t mention any. Neither does the Dance.


The David Jones and The Valley of Bones

Powell was a literary charmeleon. In his war books, he begins to draw on other literature. Each of the books has a presiding genius. I would argue that the first of the war trilogy Valley of Bones draws on David Jones. The book’s title is from Ezekiel. It references Eliot’s Wasteland: “And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, |  And the dry stone no sound of water.“ …“Dry bones can harm no one”; which is referenced by Jones “Wet bones live”.

The soldiers resemble medieval levees and sing hymns: “We moved off in column of route, leaving behind us Sardis, one of the Seven Churches of Asia, where the garments were white of those few who remained undefiled”.

The initiation into war is a Chthonic ritual. The sea to Ireland is a journey to the land of the dead; the land of Thule. This is similar to the structure of Jones’ In Parenthesis in which the mystic and historical jostle with the contemporary.

Jones and Powell met in the thirties and were in correspondence during the sixties. Powell’s son later produced a TV interview with Jones around the time that Valley of Bones was published.

There are differences however. In Dance, their mythic identity as Welshmen is pricked by their class identity and social positions in contemporary society. The enlisted men are miners and the officers are bank clerks. Captain Gwatkin, who carries Puck of Pooks Hill, does not know who Vortigern is (though he might trace his ancestry back to him). This is to be contrasted with the visionary Dai Greatcoat of In Parenthesis and other characters.

Captain Cadwaladr restores
the Excellent Disciplines of the Wars


The war from Whitehall

The war books feel the most complete of the series, if not a little dry. The free wheeling and loquacious bohemia of the earlier books is replaced with a bureaucratic and narrowly efficient landscape of offices and claustrophobic messes.  This is the world of Nigel Balchin and the back room boys. It is the theatre where characters from CP Snow’s novels would later come to fore. The mood is intentional and adds to the sense of closing down of borders.

The war waged here is not just against the enemy but also against other bureaucrats.

In the Dance events, shrouded in mystery, happen off stage. Charles Stringham is taken prisoner at Singapore and dies in a POW camp. Jenkin’s friend Peter Templer dies somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean, possibly by partisans allied to the British.  Another character has been involved in the same theatre. A brummie Paddy Leigh Fermor, Odo Stevens displays the Boys Own heroics that would become the stock subject of war books. After the war, he seeks to write a novel about his experiences there. Publishers step back at some of the accusations, including communist collusion. Events here are never resolved.

It is easy to forget, given how the war is currently remembered, that is was a traumatic event and that service people suffered PTSD. After the war there was an attempt to remember and make sense of events, but this was a period of secrets when many activities were still covered by the Official Secrets Act. Like the first war, the Second World War was swiftly followed by threatening political events.


In from the cold

Powell worked in Military Intelligence. He supported British allies in Europe such as the Poles and Czechs. As a result Powell had the front seat not just on diplomatic issues but the development of the cold war. The Polish were the largest contingent of allies. For much of the war, a mystery surrounded over 20,000 missing Polish Officers who had been taken prisoner by the Russians. It was believed that they were being held in Gulags in Siberia. Even after Russia joined the war against Nazi Germany, the fate of the officers remained murky. In 1943, the Germans reported to the International Red Cross mass graves in the Katyn Forest. These were the first signs of the murder of over 22,000 officers by the Soviet authorities.

The Russians denied it, even though many in the British authorities knew that it was likely true. The Polish government demanded justice but the British refused to intercede with Russia, an important ally. Later that year, the Russias stood by and literally watched Warsaw burn, as the Germans brutally suppressed the Warsaw rising. To many observers, it was clear that Russia was invading Eastern Europe, with only “superficial” interest in liberating the countries. It was a tragedy in slow motion.

After the war, many of Powell’s European colleagues were slowly murdered by Communist Secret police.

Powell was a conservative with the love of the aristocracy only felt by non-aristos. The war years may have turned him into a anti-communist, but it was a position he had long owned and one that was justifiable.



Powell and the post- war years

The final trilogy of the Dance, cover the post-war years: Les Trente Glorieuses, il miracolo economico, der Wirtschaftswunder. In the novel, there are hints of the optimism of the time, but the last three books have a more pessimistic tone than the first six. They also cover more ground. Books Do Furnish A Room covers immediately after the war and the Hearing Secret Harmonies cover the years immediately following the sixties fall out.

The early post-war years were dreary. It was a period when survivors came to deal with their traumas and began to live without the heavy anxiety of threat. It was a period of deprivation and, perhaps worse for Powell, the years of Clement Attlee. The Labour Government of 1945 introduced key changes that improved the social and political life of Britain: the NHS, the building of new houses, nationalisation of key industries.

Powell never quite criticises these things, but the socialisation of Britain allowed mediocrities like Widmerpool to come to the fore. It is in this ambivalence, in which Powell expresses his discomfort.

The later forties saw people come to terms with what they had just experienced. Powell’s close friend, the art historian Gerald Reitlinger, wrote the first scholarly account of the holocaust in English. It easy to forget that the Holocaust was almost brushed under the carpet in the early years after the war. The reasons for this are varied but point to the ambiguous position of Jewish people in English society.

Powell reviewed Reitlinger’s work, but the shadow of the Shoah never falls on the pages of the Dance.


X. Trapnel

An abiding character in Books Do Furnish a Room is the character X Trapnel; an arresting figure dressed in safari suit and shaded glasses, carrying a skull capped sword stick. He was closely based on the novelist Julian Maclaren Ross. A sometimes brilliant but rambunctious writer, he never quite capitalised on his talent and drank it away in the pubs of fitzrovia.

Maclaren-Ross was not just the model of X Trapnel, but also Prince Yakimov in Olivia Mannings The Balkan Trilogy.

Maclaren-Ross would carry a knobbled stick for protection against the Observer’s books editor, John Davenport.

Powell knew him well in the post-war years working on literary magazines. Maclaren-Ross was an able reviewer with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of literature and film. He would read a book a day so that he could sell it the next day and buy more. This apparently made him a bit of bore. In the Dance X Trapnel will hold forth for hours. In real life, Powell avoided him when he came to visit or phoned.

Maclaren-Ross was also something of a collector of acolytes. This is played for laughs in the Dance,  but in real life he was friends of such noted writers as John Heath Stubbs.

He fell deeply in love with Sonia Orwell and would harass her and her friends.



Barbara Skelton

Another figure in the final trilogy of the Dance is Pamela Fritton. The niece of Charles Stringham, she has a slew of lovers. Her life is touched with loss and she wreaks destruction around her. She is connected to the deaths of Peter Templer, (possibly even) Charles Stringham and X Trapnel. She marries Widmerpool and is behind his fall.

Her predecessors come from classical myth, lurid gothic novels and lurid morality tales. She is a joy to read breaking the more staid high class society. She is a high-camp femme fatale, drawing all characters to their destruction.

It is felt that her real life inspiration was Barbara Skelton; wife of Cyril Connolly and George Weidenfeld; lover of King Farouk, Peter Quennell and Alan Ross.



Move to the Chantry

In the fifties, the family moved to the Chantry, a rambling country house near Frome in Somerset. The family were able to buy because of a property slump precipitated by fears of nuclear war after the USSR had developed its own atomic bomb. The walls were decorated a garish pink but slowly over time the Powell’s did work to redo it.

It is perhaps not surprising that Powell plumped for a country pile, but he decorated it in inimitable style. He was a fan of Edward Bawden’s wallpaper; a design which was a “strange mix of coal, asphalt and rough-cast concrete” was hung in the library. When asked by Sonia Orwell why she had decorated the room in this style, Violet said “Because I love my husband”.

The library slowly filled with classical busts- a set of Victorian Engineers picked up cheap locally, plaster casts of Antinous and Caracalla, a Caligula from Lord Longleat. Much later in life a bronze bust of the author, was sent as an apology for a bad review by the Telegraph.

Here, Tony would splay on a chaise longue, sometime stroking a cat, thinking up the plots for his novels. This photo gives some idea of the room. Classical and fifties. An interiors style demanding a revival.

Bawden went on to illustrate the cover of the Penguin paperback of What’s become of Waring.


Book reviewing

The Chantry was far from the distractions of London but still close to old friends such as the Waughs in Gloucestershire. Tony would go up to London 2 -3 times a day to work on his papers.

During this time he was the Literary Editor of Punch. Brought on board by Malcolm Muggeridge in his attempt to turn the paper around. Muggeridge left, but Powell remained. He fought something of an uphill battle to change the literary pages. When he was finally fired, Powell was devastated.

Book reviewing became his life in this period and he would regularly read a book a day to review them. His reviews have been collected in and Miscellaneous Verdicts and Under Review give some idea of his technique, but his range was much broader.


VS Naipul and Kingsley Amis

During this time, Powell continued to make friends in the literary world. Two of the most notable are Kingsley Amis and VS Naipul.

Although Powell and Amis were from, and wrote about, different social spheres they hit it from the start. They would visit each others’ houses and positively review each others’ books.

There is something at once both dreary and highly fortunate about the writing of this period. As much as Lucky Jim is an account of the little indignities experienced by young men of lower middle class background, they are also incredibly privileged to viewers from today.

VS Naipul was probably Tony’s closest friend in these later years.

Tony was also close to his niece Lady Antonia Fraser, herself a noted writer. First married to the debonair Tory MP High Fraser, she later married the left-wing playwright Harold Pinter. After Powell’s death he was awarded the Nobel Laureate.


Powell around

In 1959 Powell’s father died. Powell had a contentious relationship with his father. Powell Patre increasingly became a miser, claiming to be unable to pay expenses to his son, such as his grandchildren’s school fees.

It came with some surprise then that when he died, Powell fils stood to inherit £174,350 4s 6d (about £1,500,000 today). The Powells spent the money on Saga cruises. They especially liked the Mediterranean, but they sailed around Scotland and the Nordic countries. One of the highlights of their later years was a cruise with Prof Mortimer Wheeler, who gave lectures on archaeology.

They also visited Egypt and saw the pyramids, Abydos, Karnak and Luxor. They watched the removal work of the Abu Simbel temple complex. “We had a marvellous time in Egypt & I never felt better”, Tony said.


Hearing Secret Harmonies

Powell published the last book of Dance in 1975. Hearing Secret Harmonies is a strange book. Rather than merely concluding the strands of earlier books, it introduces new characters and creates new strands.

It begins with the visit of four young people to Jenkins now living in the countryside. The group are under the sway of Scorpio Murtlock. As the novel progresses, it’s clear that Scorpio is a dangerous character. He has created a new age cult of personality. He claims to be the reincarnation of the late Dr Trelawney (an Aleister Crowley type in the novel). The group performs some form of sexual or blood magic.

The novel takes in student unrest and the great casualisation of costume, but it neatly side steps “Radical Chic” and popular music. It is a book out of step with the times. This is, to some degree, part of its success. The narrator by this point is an old man. He is out of step with the times. Widmerpool, tragically or comically, is in step with the times and it is his undoing.


Powell and Politics

There is something fusty about this estrangement. As Jenkins is telling you of the young people today or his struggles with the local council, you can audibly hear him shuffling his Daily Telegraph.

This last book was dedicated to Robert Conquest. Conquest was the first author to bring the awful truth about the USSR, and especially Stalin’s purges, to a wider public. In this, he was a brave man, going against the positive aura surrounding Uncle Joe.

He was also a literary man and introduced the Movement poets to a wider world through his anthology of poetry.

Yet he was a rabid anti-communist who supported continuing intervention in Vietnam. By the early 70s, Vietnam was anathema to most people. It’s continuation was no longer justifiable and tragedies like My Lai elicited anger on a massive scale domestically in the US and internationally. By positioning himself in his company, Powell was making clear his political stance.


Powell and the Permissive Society

That is not to say that Hearing Secret Harmonies is any less humane than his earlier books. In some ways his target is as much literary, as it is social. Hints of John Fowles and Thomas Pynchon can be picked out.

The novel series is interesting not just in terms of social history, but how openly it expresses subjects of sexuality. In the earlier novels, for example, homosexuality is treated frankly but suggestively. By Hearing Secret Harmonies homosexual relationships are openly described. Jenkin’s brother in law Hugo Tolland is clearly in a long term homosexual relationship, whereas before he could be mistaken for a gadfly with a fear of commitment.

Hearing Secret Harmonies ends not with finality, but with the institutionalisation of key characters. Mark Members and JG Quirrell are respected men of letters. Mr Deacon is experiencing a post-mortem renaissance. His works have been collected by a young gallerist and are eagerly brought by a new audience. The homoeroticism is now celebrated. Jean Dupont, Nick’s first love, is the elegant widow of a South American dictator.

The only finality in life is death, and death is no finality at all.



Hilary Spurling’s Life

Hilary has done a stirling job to assemble the materials for her life. She writes that when she was first asked to write this book she refused because she didn’t feel she could get enough distance and objectivity.

In the biography, it is hard to trace who’s who and what’s happening to what by whom. This starts with the description of Powell’s ancestors and continues through to the description of his early contemporaries. It only abates when the biography has moved onto Powell’s post war life. By this time the reader is climitised and Powell’s social life had settled to a more regular round of weekend visits.

Individual stories and images in the biography stand out – Tony’s office at Duckworth’s, his holiday in France with Edward Burra or his first flat near Piccadilly with a supporting beam in the middle of the room. Yet they tend to become blurred in the wider work.

Hilary was close to Tony, and protective of his legacy. There are no real revelations in the biography. What we are offered instead is a key to his work. Spurling seeks to not just write the life but to clarify those bits of Powell’s work which remain obscure. This is a difficult task. The Dance shines with lucidity of the rising sun. Although some parts are obscured in the dark, the light hits spots with a sharpness and clarity all the greater because of the opposing darkness. The noon sun hits all points with a level brightness and loses definition, is unable to bring shade or sharpen outlines.

The best bits of the biography came at the end. These are the personal reminiscences. Hilary knew Powell from the late sixties when they worked together on The Spectator’s literary pages. She had a ringside seat at the fall out between Powell and Auberon Waugh. The description of Auberon shuffling along gower street in a heavy coat stuffed with books is a great one. The Powell she remembers is warm, funny and clever. It is a great portrait.


Criticism and The Dance

The protectionism, which Spurling exhibits through her biography, means that all criticism of Tony’s work is presented as personal attacks and betrayals. Much of the criticism is similar.

The criticism began with Malcolm Muggeridge. He described the series as a heap of dust. The sense of betrayal was stronger, not least because of their close relationship but because Powell had discussed the novels in detail with Muggers before he began writing them. Muggers’ review was misjudged and tactless, but is it totally unjustified?

Another early betrayer was Philip Larkin, whom Tony had brought into his very house and fed, a man he had sat down with, this man betrayed him. Larkin was close friends with Kingsley Amis and associates with Robert Conquest. Larkin wrote “Imagination must, of course, select and arrange reality, but it must be for imaginative ends: all too often the role of imagination in this sequence is to funny-up events and people whose only significance . . . is that Powell has experienced them.” Is Larkin’s criticism so off the mark?

The greatest betrayal perhaps, came off Tony’s death at the hands of VS Naipul. He wrote “It may be that the friendship lasted all that time because I had not examined his work.” Yet Spurling writes that during their friendship, Naipul wrote letters saying he had read Powell’s work. It is interesting to note that both authors are experiencing that post-life lull. They are no longer the household names they were, and who knows which one, if either, will become a classic in a century’s time.


καὶ σὺ, τέκνον

For Spurlin, the Great Betrayer was Auberon Waugh. In 1990, he was commissioned to review Powell’s collected reviews: Miscellaneous Verdicts. He took the opportunity to also criticise the Dance; he described it as “an early upmarket soap opera”. For Spurling (who was a friend of Bron), the review was an oedipul act of vengeance. Bron had known Powell from childhood. For Spurling he associated Tony, with his father a distant, cold man. Spurling thinks it’s unfair, given how different the two men were.

Powell quit his job at The Telegraph in response.

This sense of betrayals seem apt and misplaced. Misplaced in that Tony himself was a literary critic. It was his main source of income. He was an astute judge of books and fair in his appraisals. Criticising books is not betraying authors. At worst it is either adding to the ever growing paperworks on literature or fancy advertising. At its best it adds to the “Big Conversation” between authors and their works. This personalisation of negative criticism is apt however, because Tony was sensitive. He split the words into fans and shits. This worldview is not particularly mature. It would not be put on a bookshop Tote bag, but it is closer to how most of us experience criticism. It shows how flawed Tony was a person, but we are all flawed.


Powell and Posterity

The question which is never quite asked by Spurling is will Powell stand the test of time?

It is too early to tell. We are currently facing a period in which the old guard of the twentieth century are being challenged. The major writers of the 20th century are coming under fresh scrutiny and authors who were seen as canonical – Mailer, Nabokov, Roth – are facing challenges to their positions. It is hard to see who will be read in 100 years or 200 years time.

Time is the great thresher.

To put this into content, 100 years ago Lytton Strachey published Eminent Victorians (post to come). This challenged the nostrum of the time. We are waiting for our current Eminent Victorians moment, but perhaps #MeToo is it.

Possibly Powell will stand this test. Reading The Dance is a commitment, but one worth doing. He has much of the strength of authors like Waugh, Amis, Nabokov but avoids their tiresome stylistic excesses.

The world he creates is as vivid and entertaining as anything from Dickens. It revels in a wide range of society like Shakespeare. It understands the mythic like Jones. It has its flawed heroes and villains like Homer. Whether the Dance belongs in this exalted pantheon, is another question. Regardless of whether the pantheon still stands, I am sure he will still be read.


Further readings

Anthony Powell Dance to the Music of Time

Anthony Powell, Miscellaneous Verdicts

Anthony Powell, Under Review 

Hilary Spurling Anthony Powell

Hilary Spurling Invitation to the Dance


Photo credits

Dance to the Music of Time (c. 1640) By Nicolas Poussin , Public Domain

Silver Favourites (1903) By Lawrence Alma-Tadema , Public Domain



By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics