Dancing to the Music of Time: the intriguing and elusive Anthony Powell

In Hilary Spurling's biography, as in his life, Powell is seldom centre stage.

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“I have absolutely no picture of myself,” said Anthony Powell. “Never have had.” The first description of Powell’s physical appearance in Hilary Spurling’s compendious and sympathetic biography comes more than 400 pages in – during the “postscript”, in which Spurling reveals that in Powell’s later years she became a friend of his.

Her admiration and affection are evident, but Tony (as she calls him throughout) remains an elusive presence. Spurling gives us a glimpse of his clothes – tan trousers and “chukka-type boots” in the country, a “battered suit” for trips to London – but explains that they were “practically uniform at the time for a writer of his generation”. She records snippets of his conversation, yet praises him not for anything he said but for being “the best listener I ever met”.

In this book, as in his life, Powell is seldom centre stage. If he is, it is as a still point around which swirls a colourful crowd. He is an observer from the sidelines, or a reserved, almost invisible passenger through a throng. The same is true of Nicholas Jenkins, the narrator of Powell’s great novel sequence (or rather novel – he always insisted it was a single work), A Dance to the Music of Time.

Powell’s devoted readers will inevitably scan this biography for prototypes of their favourite characters, but Spurling is dismissive of attempts to read Dance as a roman-á-clef. Its best-known character, Widmerpool, resembles Denis Capel-Dunn, secretary to the wartime joint intelligence committee, whose assistant Powell was in 1943. Capel-Dunn was “stout, graceless, totally lacking in humour, superlatively good at his job” and, like Widmerpool, possessed of “almost boundless personal ambition”.

But, as Spurling points out, Powell knew him only for a few months. No such fleeting acquaintanceship could yield more than a few ingredients of Powell’s protean creation. What is remarkable about his characters is that they exist in the dimension of time. They rise and fall; they loom enormous, then fade into the background; they seem now ludicrous, now sinister, now charismatic, now pathetic, as they weave in and out of a narrative spanning nearly half a century.

Powell was the social novelist par excellence. Perhaps the reason society, with its ceaselessly shifting relationships, so fascinated him was that he came to it late. He grew up in a largely silent household, as the only child of an irascible soldier father who was often absent and a reclusive, much older mother who was kept awake at night by ghosts summoned up by her unquestioning belief in them.

He went to a prep school where he was so miserable that years later it was still giving him nightmares; in one, he killed the headmaster. Then came Eton, which suited him, not because he had any sentimental attachment to the institution – its venerability, its elitist glamour – but because it was, in a very practical sense, home. In the first two years of his existence, his parents moved house, as army families must, nine times. “Boarding school,” writes Spurling, provided young Tony’s “first fixed address”. It was also the first setting in which the isolated boy could observe the complex interactions of a large number of people – eccentric or dull, exasperating or beguiling.  His life as a social being started there, and so, later on, did his masterpiece. The narrative of A Dance to the Music of Time begins with a schoolboy in the wrong kind of overcoat plodding up Eton High Street on a foggy afternoon.

It would be many years before Powell got down to writing that passage. The early volumes of Dance evoke English life in the interwar years, but – begun in 1946 – it is an entirely postwar work, a remembrance of things past. In the months before he started writing it, Powell reread Proust. Vastly different as their works are in style, both authors were retrospective writers, evaluating and re-creating experiences that take on in hindsight (the author’s hindsight as he writes; the reader’s as he or she progresses through the narrative) a musical patterning and a distinctive, dark patina compounded of irony, resignation and regret.

Oxford bored Powell, but once he moved to London his life began in earnest. His first love affair was with Nina Hamnett, a painter and ex-lover and model of several other fine painters. Hamnett took him to boxing matches and to dance the tango with strippers in Montmartre. Things were looking up. Soon, Powell was travelling abroad with a rumbustious gang of friends including the painter Edward Burra, the ballet dancer Billy Chappell, a cabaret artiste who called herself Hodge and the bisexual graphic artist Barbara Ker-Seymer. The dance was on, and at its centre stood what one of Powell’s new friends unkindly called “a colourless young man with some humour” – Tony, coolly curious, storing it all away.

The wit and energy of Spurling’s account of these years are derived from her main source: Powell’s memoirs. Her pen portraits are deft and vivid. We encounter Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell (“Battle is in the curve of their nostrils,” said Arnold Bennett); Constant Lambert, the composer “with the aura of a conjuror” who could play “God Save the King” by “forcing his breath through his punctured eardrum”; Enid Firminger, whom Tony loved hopelessly; Varda (she was called Dorothy but only ever used her surname), the writer and party-giver whom CB Cochrane recruited for his chorus line, proclaiming that she was “the most beautiful woman on Earth”.

Spurling writes that towards the end of his life, the younger generation of literati (who perhaps had not read him) viewed Powell as a snob. In fact, he viewed social pretension with quizzical amusement. His descriptions of a milieu in 1930s London, in which young men would attend deb dances at the start of a night before moving on to rackety parties in cramped flats in Fitzrovia, repeatedly disrupt assumptions about class and propriety. Here are some words that recur frequently in Spurling’s book: “shabby”, “seedy”, “desperate”, “drunk”.

Writers were all around. Powell’s best friend since prep school was Henry Yorke, who published his first novel (as Henry Green) when they were both still at Oxford. Powell’s adult working life began as a publisher’s editor at Duckworth. At the Holborn Polytechnic, where he had been sent to learn printing, he came across an acquaintance, Evelyn Waugh, who was learning carpentry. Powell arranged for Waugh’s first book to be published by Duckworth. Waugh’s father scoffed when he was told that his “hopeless” son had been given an advance: “I suppose I’ll have to make it good.” When Decline and Fall came out a year later, it was dedicated to “Tony, who rescued the author from a fate worse than death”.

What fun it all was! The regular lunches with clever friends at Maxim’s Chinese restaurant; the parties; the jaunts abroad; the dressing up and charades; the exchanges of satirical doggerel in rhyming couplets; the private views at Freddie Mayor’s gallery, startlingly stripped down to become the first white-cube space in London. What fun, but how fatiguing. There comes a point, for the reader of this biography, when one craves a respite from the whirligig, but just as that point is reached, Powell seems to have concluded, too, that the time had come to settle, to marry and to work.

In 1934, he met Violet Pakenham. Within a month, they were engaged. Powell had found himself an entirely congenial wife. Years later, Violet wrote that on their first walks, they began a “conversation which has continued unabated to this day”. The once-lonely boy had also acquired a family, a large, noisy one whose members ranged from the dotty to the distinguished. (Violet described the many writers in her family as “volcanoes in more or less active eruption”.)

The couple were divided by the war. While Tony was with his regiment in Ireland, or working a six-day week in London, Violet kept their babies safe from the Blitz, staying with friends and relations in the country. The war over, they bought a house in Somerset, the Chantry, notable for its 18th-century grottoes. For the next quarter of a century, Tony worked at his books in the mornings and spent his afternoons slashing at brambles in the garden, going up to London twice a week or so to jobs as a reviewer for the Telegraph or Times Literary Supplement, or as the literary editor of Punch.

In a writer’s life, the period of greatest productivity is often the least interesting biographically. As Powell settles on to the old chaise longue, on which he liked to lie while working out his plots, Spurling wisely gathers speed. She is an accomplished biographer – beady in seizing on telling details, brisk and bold in her evaluation of a character or retelling of an incident. Her comments on Powell’s writing are always illuminating.

Powell’s first ambition was to be a graphic artist. Spurling remarks that “his imagination was essentially pictorial”. Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow, first seen when he was 20, impressed him profoundly with its “breathtaking structural perspective”. A couple of years later, he watched Burra working at a rickety table, cluttered with “the remains of petit déjeuner”. “An immensely complicated design would begin in the bottom right-hand corner of a large square of paper… moving in a diagonal sweep upward and leftward across the surface of the sheet, until the whole was covered with an intricate pattern of background and figures. If not large enough, the first piece of paper would be tacked on to a second one – and would almost certainly be joined by several more.”

As Spurling writes: “This passage describes the way Tony worked on the Dance.” He, too, was making an “intricate pattern”, one charged with vitality by his discovery that: “All the awful odds and ends taking place around one are, in fact, the process of living.” Powell may have had no picture of himself, but his remarkable novels add up to a panoramic picture of the world he knew. 

Anthony Powell
Hilary Spurling
Hamish Hamilton, 496pp, £25

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer