The classicist Anthony Powell

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.


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