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 of how she subsequently persuaded me to pay £5,000 for a bronze cast of Powell, her own hero, to stand in the Daily Telegraph office. She does not mention that she pleaded that she was struggling to find a home for it and frankly needed to recoup the cost. I suggested that it was a bit rum to ask us to pay a significant sum for a representation of a writer who had just shaken our dust off his sandaled feet, but she said, “Oh, come on, you know you’re a huge fan of Tony.” We bought the bust. When the next volume of Powell’s Journals was published, I was mortified to read a passage in which he heaped derision upon my idiocy in paying for the bronze, and for good measure observed that I had vulgarized his dear old newspaper beyond endurance.
I record this ludicrous episode at more length than it objectively deserves, partly because it illustrates for non-Powell readers the sort of chain of events from which, in fictionalized form, he forged whole chapters of Dance, and partly because it emphasizes the vanity that in later years did him no service. All that said, however, some of us continue to believe that, while Powell does not deserve to rank as Evelyn Waugh’s peer, he should be acknowledged as a more considerable novelist than the modern consensus allows.
He was born in 1905, the only son of an odd marriage between the thirty-six-year-old Maud Wells-Dymoke and the twenty-one-year-old Lieutenant Philip Powell of the Welsh Regiment, following an “understanding” reached between the couple three years earlier, before he sailed for the South African war. Spurling writes, “Tony grew up in extreme, inward-looking, almost monastic seclusion.” His mother was morbidly antisocial. His father’s army career was blighted by his choleric ill-temper and an inability to conduct his life with any sort of coherence. There was enough money around to sustain the family in what passed for upper-middle-class comfort, attended by the usual retinue of eccentric servants, some later translated into Powell’s novels.
He attended a wretched preparatory school where his closest friend, Henry Yorke—who later wrote as Henry Green—remembered (in Spurling’s words) lunching off “a stinking ham oozing clear smelly liquid, and boys so hungry they ate raw turnips” in a farmer’s field. Powell, a slight child who never grew tall, failed to shine at Eton, though he nurtured an enthusiasm and some talent for drawing. He enjoyed membership in the school’s Society of Arts, founded in 1922 by himself, Harold Acton, Robert Byron, and Bryan Howard. Thereafter he took a third-class degree at Balliol College, Oxford, where he contrived to be unhappy.
He yearned to enter “the kingdom of art and letters that lay beyond the hills” and experienced an early dabble through a teenage friendship with a disreputable antiquarian book dealer, Christopher Sclater Millard, who had premises in Abercorn Place, near the Powells’ North London home. Millard had recently emerged from prison after serving twelve months for illicit sex with boys, and it is unsurprising that Tony’s father soon intervened to ban further social intercourse.
Aspects of Millard were later translated into Dance’s fictional Mr. Deacon: here was a first glimpse of the fascination Powell displayed in all his writing for rackety Bohemia, at least as great as his oft-observed interest in toffs. “The upper classes,” he wrote in his commonplace book, “with all their faults, are actually the only integrated society. In this respect it would be better if the whole world could be turned into a vast aristocratic world, i.e. interested in each other.”
He shared rooms in his last year at Oxford with Yorke, who achieved the remarkable feat of getting his first novel, Blindness, accepted by a publisher before he took final exams. The two of them read voraciously, embracing the great Russians, Eliot’s The Waste Land, and above all Proust, who would become a dominant influence on Powell’s life.
His own literary course became more clearly set when, for lack of anything better to do, he became an apprentice publisher in the venerable but decayed firm of Duckworths, a post secured for him by its editorial director, Thomas Balston, a wartime staff officer under his father. The work was dreary, the firm’s internal power struggles Borgiaesque. Tony rented a squalid little flat in Shepherd Market, then notorious for its hookers. He chose the area because it provided the setting for the seduction scene in Michael Arlen’s 1920s best seller The Green Hat, the impact of which seems baffling to a twenty-first-century reader. Spurling, a veteran biographer most notably of Matisse, writes with her accustomed savvy, “Seedy chic was the point of The Green Hat…an exhilarating mix of cynicism and the higher tosh dispensed with humour and a dazzling modernity.”
Powell’s life in those days was painfully boring, unassuaged by enlistment in a part-time Territorial Army artillery regiment, together with debutante balls and visits to Rosa Lewis’s Cavendish Hotel. His biographer says of his lack of social success, “Tony was basically ineligible. He had no prospects, no connections, nothing to inherit and he wasn’t related to anyone people had ever heard of.” He formed a friendship with Evelyn Waugh, who inscribed a copy of his debut novel, Decline and Fall, “For Tony who rescued the author from worse than death.” The two shared a lifelong vulnerability to depression.
Powell’s love life began to flourish before his professional one: at the age of twenty-two he embarked on a long affair with the thirty-eight-year-old artist Nina Hamnett, a princess of louche London social life who introduced him to—among many others—the Satanist Aleister Crowley. Sex may have been the least interesting aspect of Powell’s relationship with Hamnett, who made a droll general observation about men in the sack: “I let them get on with it.” Her attitude to “my little Etonian” was probably no different.
Fitzrovia, the run-down area north of Soho that was then an artists’ mecca, was her happy hunting ground, and later provided settings for many incidents in Dance. Another friend and author whom Powell introduced to Duckworths was Inez Holden, whom Spurling calls “probably the first girl Tony came across to embody in fact a type he would re-create in fiction with particular relish ever afterwards, ‘the sort of woman who, if she had been taken in adultery, would have caught the first stone and thrown it back.’”
Through the Sitwells—more Duckworth authors—he met the musician Constant Lambert, “a boy of precocious brilliance and slender faun-like beauty” who became his closest friend and provided much of the model for the doomed Hugh Moreland in his novels. The artist Adrian Daintrey, another friend, contributed many words of wisdom about relationships that Powell attributes to Ralph Barnby in Dance: “I take women as I find them. The latter is usually more difficult to achieve than the former.”
From an early stage, Powell was determined to become a novelist, and A Writer’s Notebook, published posthumously, records all manner of wordplays and scribblings from life, some of which later found their way into the books. Characteristic samples include: “Being Irish is like being homosexual, it gives the speaker a permanent topic of conversation”; “He that is not free is not an Agent, but a Patient”—John Wesley’s line provided Powell with a book title; “All his geese are Swanns, in fact some of them are Charluses”; “The beauties of yesterday become muttering, mad old women.”
Among Powell’s private indulgences were a passion for genealogy, especially his own, and a taste for creating titles for fictional books later mentioned in his novels, such as Match Me Such Marvel, supposedly written by his character the best-selling but meretricious Edwardian St. John Clarke, and the brilliant but fated X. Trapnel’s Camel Ride to the Tomb. Among many titles unused but listed in his notebook are Naughty Figs, Mute of Malice, Golden Grind, Offa’s Dyke: a study in Anglo-Saxon Lesbianism, and Uninteresting Experience—this last designed for an autobiography.
There was a line often attributed to the youthful Powell by his enemies: “I intend to marry a wife with a title and live in a house with a drive.” Spurling does not quote this, so it is surely apocryphal, but he achieved the first with impressive celerity. In the summer of 1934, staying at Pakenham Hall in Westmeath, he met Lord Longford’s daughter Lady Violet and embarked upon a wooing by reading aloud to her passages from his own embryonic novel. Three weeks later he proposed. Their wedding took place once Tony had served notice on his two lovers of the moment, one of whom—a lightly married woman named Marion Coates—observed tartly to her daughter many years later that she could quite see why Tony chose to leave her for the daughter of a belted earl.
Violet Powell, as she became, was a frisky, clever, pretty twenty-two-year-old with a respectable £400 a year of her own who made Tony an excellent wife and, amid some difficulties and miscarriages, gave him two sons. Later, during the war, she had a serious affair with a man whom Spurling has been unable to identify, described by Violet to Sonia Orwell as “the love of her life.” Nonetheless, especially in the last twenty or thirty years of their lives together, their shared love of jokes, books, paintings, and Swan Hellenic cultural cruises seems to have made the Powells happy. Tony’s limitations as a family man were no worse than those of most fathers of his generation.
In the course of the 1930s, Powell published four novels that established his reputation as a seriously promising writer. He took the title of the first, Afternoon Men (1931), from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, always one of his favorite books: “a company of giddy-heads, afternoon men.” As in most of his works, not much happens beyond a succession of parties and a rural sojourn, but the crisp, witty, finely observed dialogue among well-connected artistic wannabes became a Powell hallmark. What’s Become of Waring (1939), rooted in his publishing experiences, concerns a best-selling author who vanishes; it ranks among his most entertaining comedies.
The three volumes in the Dance sequence that address the narrator’s passage through World War II closely mirror the author’s own experience, and are often unfavorably compared with Waugh’s trilogy about the same period. Powell’s are undeniably inferior novels, yet when I am asked to suggest works that illustrate what life was like in beleaguered Britain, I urge the case for his.
Powell never saw action. He spent the first war years as an overaged infantry subaltern in the 53rd Welsh Division, one of the least impressive formations in the British army, then became a staff officer, spending some weeks with the Joint Intelligence Committee before being sacked, and three years as a liaison officer with assorted European allies.
Powell’s novels vividly depict the tedium of a nonheroic war: the separations, dreadful food, lack of civilized companionship, discomfort, and squalor of battered London. He emphasizes one of the worst aspects of enforced military service for an intelligent man: the near inevitability of subjection to the whims of much stupider people who bear higher ranks than oneself. Those of us privileged to take for granted a range of choices in our daily lives should acknowledge that the experience of World War II, for most men insufficiently young, fit, and eager to fly Spitfires or win VCs, was pretty ghastly.
Powell emerged from military service claiming that the whole business had been so unsettling that he found it hard to get back to writing novels. For some time he scraped a crust reviewing, and wrote a dull book about the seventeenth-century diarist John Aubrey. Probably in 1946, Violet confided to him her wartime passion, which may have precipitated the long fit of depression he suffered at that time. In one of his novels he writes of “the ecstasies and bitterness of love,” and Spurling observes that
on a personal level Violet was clearly implicated in both, particularly in the paroxysms of jealousy that make the narrator feel, here and at intervals throughout the Dance, as if he were successively chained to a corpse, gripped by red-hot pincers and being brutally beaten up.
In 1953 Powell became literary editor of Punch, then newly entrusted to the hands of his friend Muggeridge, at a generous salary of £1,500 a year. His conduct of the magazine’s books pages emphasized a determination to fly his standard as the highbrow’s highbrow: his first choices for review were an anthology of Kipling’s poems edited by T.S. Eliot and published in French, a study of Alfred de Vigny’s military thinking, and a piece on Robert Musil, whom he dubbed “An Austrian Proust.”
A distinguished British writer with whom I recently discussed Powell praised his pre-war books, then rolled his eyes theatrically and exclaimed, “If only he had not got mixed up with that French fellow!” My friend meant, of course, that Powell overreached himself by consciously modeling on the works of Proust his twelve-novel sequence about life seen through the eyes of a narrator, and taking its overarching title from the Poussin painting of that name.
The first book, A Question of Upbringing, which addresses Nicholas Jenkins’s experiences at Eton and Oxford, was published in 1951, and successors appeared thereafter at two-year intervals. They follow the manner in which circumstances, attitudes, and relationships shift among a cast of characters that is progressively diminished by mortality and expanded by representatives of new generations thrusting a path onto the stage. Most of the stars of school and university—“the coming men”—fade; others reveal wholly unexpected powers.
The early offerings, especially, were received with warm critical enthusiasm, though achieving modest sales. They won some literary prizes and set the course for Powell’s later life. He acquired the Chantry, his “house with a drive,” a run-down but charming Georgian pile in Somerset, where he wrote very slowly—never more than a thousand words a week—and was fortunate enough to be sustained by subsidies from his detested father, who eventually bequeathed him a useful fortune.
The books are founded upon minute observation of a succession of social occasions, at which some or all of the same characters behave more or less absurdly, watched by Jenkins, whom even Violet Powell found a trifle colorless. His most celebrated creation was the monstrous Kenneth Widmerpool. Bob Duport, not an interesting figure save as the husband of Jenkins’s sometime lover Jean, summed up this freak of nature in a superlative fragment of invective: “that chateau-bottled shit.”
Powell was somewhat irked that Widmerpool seized the imagination of readers more than any other character in the sequence. Since he is fat, sweaty, pompous, self-obsessed, treacherous, boundlessly foolish, and bottomlessly ruthless, some have expressed bafflement at Widmerpool’s worldly success: he becomes progressively an affluent businessman, a Labour MP, and finally a peer of the realm.
Yet his ascent should not puzzle anyone with a passable acquaintance with worldly affairs. Widmerpool possesses some intelligence matched by an eye for the main chance and a terrific appetite for work. In every organization there is a demand for people who foreswear all extramural interests, especially cultural, and prove willing to labor tirelessly at thankless tasks nobody else can be bothered with. Widmerpool is the man who stays to the very end of meetings, probably contriving a conversation with the chairman afterward.
Dogged persistence at clinging to the rockface, combined with an absolute lack of conscience or principle, carries many charmless men and women of moderate abilities to the summits of politics and business, as more than a few lords of Wall Street investment banks can testify. It is neither surprising that people like Widmerpool achieve this, nor that Powell’s depiction of their success in transcending absurdity commands enduring fascination.
Another of his memorable creations, or more appropriately recreations, is the nymphomaniac Pamela Flitton, who first appears as a femme fatale—literally so, since she is eventually revealed as a necrophiliac—in The Military Philosophers. When the book appeared Barbara Skelton wrote Powell, “Dear Tony, I am suing, naturally. In the meantime can you advise me a good publisher for my new novel?” The satanically beautiful Skelton, who titled her autobiography Tears Before Bedtime, achieved the memorable record of being divorced by Cyril Connolly, citing George Weidenfeld as the man with whom she committed adultery, then divorced by Weidenfeld, citing Connolly. Powell’s depiction of her as Flitton is both richly comic and sufficiently terrifying to deter male readers forever from adultery. She might have uttered the line Powell noted in his commonplace book, spoken by Shakespeare’s Cleopatra: “All strange and terrible events are welcome/But comforts we despise.”
As for men with energetic love lives, Ralph Barnby remarks in A Buyer’s Market, “Most of us would like to be thought of as the kind of man who has a lot of women…. But take such fellows as a whole, there are few enough of them one would wish to be at all like.” Elsewhere, others of Powell’s characters offer provocative observations about relationships. The cynical, drunken, hopeless Stringham observes in A Buyer’s Market: “Parents—especially step-parents—are sometimes a bit of a disappointment to their children.” Another of Powell’s embittered men says, “The nearest some women get to being faithful to their husbands is being disagreeable to their lovers.” Powell is great on names: among my own favorites is that of a siren called Mopsy Pontner.
The construction and execution of Dance are so mannered, and some of its scenes so protracted, that it is unsurprising that many readers lose patience. Powell’s self-conscious presentation of himself as a man of letters invited put-downs, just as his moanings about money (at least until his father died) prompted cruel folk to suggest that he might try working a bit harder and prick his inflated sense of self-entitlement.
He lived too long, dying at the age of ninety-four in 2000, having rashly published four volumes of autobiography, three more of journals, and two late novels, all best ignored. Hugh Thomas, an admirer of Dance, deplored Powell’s willingness, through their pages, to allow himself to be seen as “dim, provincial, insular.” Hilary Spurling, who more or less concludes her account of his life in 1975, when the last volume of Dance was published, seems of the same opinion.
Yet she, like me, is a lifelong devotee and borrows Powell’s words about Shakespeare to describe the author’s “extraordinary grasp of what other people were like.” No man with such a remarkable range of close friends, from George Orwell through Harold Pinter and Kingsley Amis to Daintrey, Lambert, and Waugh, can be lightly dismissed as a human being.
I have sometimes urged on my children the case for reading novels in order to discover something about relationships, in hopes of thus sparing themselves the anguish of enduring at first hand a full range of grisly emotional experiences. It is remarkable how many people fail to understand, as Anthony Powell understood, that the play of human affairs is always a comedy, that we all look equally ridiculous in the bath. He wrote, “One of the most difficult things to realise when one is young is that all the awful odds and ends taking place round one are, in fact, the process of living.” His books are unlikely ever to be placed on the top shelf of twentieth-century literature, but they deserve to appear on the one below. A Dance to the Music of Time is a remarkable achievement, as is Spurling’s biography of its author.