Reading Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time can seem a formidable commitment. It is a series of 12 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 a 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 masterpieces” (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 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 eleventh, 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 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 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 Powell, 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.
Like Capel-Dunn, Widmerpool is “a very fat, extremely boring, overwhelmingly ambitious arriviste. His conversations were hideously detailed and humourless” (John Colvin, Daily Telegraph, 30 December 1991). 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 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 overcompensate 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 pitiable). It says much for Powell’s craft that even 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 unpretentiousness and practicality), St John Clarke (verbose novelist with tediously of-the-moment Leftwing political views), Mark Manners (Modernist poet, snob), “Books-do-Furnish-a-Room” Bagshaw (upper-class Philistine) 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.