Some decades ago, Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell were widely regarded as Britain’s foremost novelists of the modern era. Today, Waugh reigns triumphant in the literary pantheon, one of the few twentieth-century British writers enthusiastically devoured by the young. Meanwhile Powell, if not forgotten, is scarcely read by people under sixty. His reputation, chiefly based upon his twelve-novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time, published between 1951 and 1975, has slumped.
The downgrading of Powell’s stock began with a characteristic act of treachery by Malcolm Muggeridge, one of his oldest friends, who asserted in a 1964 Evening Standard review of the latest volume in the series, “It is a kind of social accountancy, and not much more enlivening than the financial sort.” He deplored Nicholas Jenkins, the narrator: “His snobbishness…is quiet, steadfast, as it were Anglican in its flexibility and tenacity. It is Snobbishness Ancient And Modern…the Thirty-Nine Articles of Snobbishness.”
Another old friend, Philip Larkin, accorded Books Do Furnish A Room similar treatment in a 1971 New Statesman review, and went on to brand the whole sequence a failure. My mother, Anne Scott-James, who was married to another Powell intimate, the artist Osbert Lancaster, swore me to secrecy when murmuring that, much as she loved Tony, she found that the combination of masculinity and snobbery suffusing his books made them unreadable. Few women of any age find them sympathetic, Antonia Fraser and Hilary Spurling being notable exceptions.
Some of Powell’s enemies were goaded into dishing out rough handling by his own conviction, which grew more pronounced with age, that he was not merely an important writer, but at least the equal and perhaps the superior of Waugh. That writer’s manically mischievous son Auberon played on this for years, tormenting Powell in print whenever opportunity allowed and eventually precipitating a row that earns a mention in the last pages of Spurling’s excellent biography, Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time.
Powell was a long-serving fiction reviewer for The Daily Telegraph, of which in 1990 I was editor-in-chief. It was apparent that his powers had waned—not unreasonably, since he was an octogenarian. As an admirer I had not the heart to sack him, but he was ill-advised to publish an edition of his collected reviews between hard covers, since most were better forgotten. With difficulty I found a writer willing to notice the “book” favorably in our daily edition.
Unfortunately, I forgot to check who was writing about Powell in The Sunday Telegraph, and only discovered on opening the paper that in a mad moment before departing on holiday, the literary editor had given it to Auberon Waugh. He treated himself to a feast of contempt at Powell’s expense. Powell took nuclear umbrage, resigned immediately, and rejected my groveling apologies.
Spurling’s account is mildly disingenuous about the details…
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