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Hearing Secret Harmonies

How Anthony Powell chronicled the curiously languid world of the English middle class

Anthony Powell by Henry Lamb, Oil on Canvas, 1934. National Portrait Gallery of London.
Anthony Powell by Henry Lamb, Oil on Canvas, 1934. National Portrait Gallery of London.

Graham Greene famously observed that there is a splinter of ice in the heart of every writer, and certainly this is true of that generation of middle-class male novelists born in the decade before 1914. These were the men who, as one of them, John Heygate, remarked, were “too young to enter the war, too old to inherit the peace.” What they had in common was a deep-seated strain of melancholy verging on, and frequently lapsing into, a curiously unemphatic, almost whimsical form of despair. Heygate, a minor novelist and man-about-other people’s wives, killed himself in the 1970s, leaving instructions for his friends to have a lavish, celebratory meal after his funeral. Their outlook upon the world may have been bleak, but they did have style, those chaps.

Anthony Powell, the subject of Hilary Spurling’s elegant, affectionate biography Dancing to the Music of Time, was afflicted by recurring and utterly debilitating bouts of depression, one of the worst of which followed the discovery, after the event, of his wife’s adultery sometime in the 1940s. Nicholas Jenkins, the affectless narrator of Powell’s most famous work, the multivolume novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time, published between 1951 and 1975, shares many of his creator’s own traits. He springs to something most closely resembling life on those occasions when he recalls an early love who betrayed him, and the torments of jealousy that he, like Powell, suffered because of her unfaithfulness: “I felt as if someone had suddenly kicked my legs from under me, so that I had landed on the other side of the room…with all the breath knocked out of me.” This is spoken, we feel, in a tone very close to Powell’s own.

Knopf, 480 pp., $35.00

A Dance, as internal evidence suggests, and as Spurling frequently confirms, is Powell’s largely autobiographical account of the period just before what used to be called the Great War, through World War II, and into the 1970s. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is a fictionalized group portrait of certain people living in those times, since Jenkins, the narrator, figures as a version of Woody Allen’s character Zelig. He is a mostly passive participant in all the major events of the elaborately detailed plot, as he encounters dodgy aristocrats, artists manqués—in Jenkins’s world no one is ever quite first rate, and quite a few are hapless failures— aspiring politicians and expiring relatives, femmes fatales, money men and wastrels, peace-loving soldiers and warlike civilians: a latter-day Vanity Fair, in other words. Towering over all, in all his egregious awfulness, is the horribly memorable Kenneth Widmerpool, whose self-promoting machinations are among the forces that drive the novel sequence.

Powell himself, according to his biographer, considered the central theme of the sequence to be “human beings behaving.” Although it is hard to think what characters, like real people, might do other than “behave,” the most appealing quality of A Dance is the almost hallucinatory sense it conveys of real people performing real actions in a wholly realistic world. Powell had, as Spurling has him say of Shakespeare, “an extraordinary grasp of what other people were like.” As a novelist, he had an unusual ability to portray large gatherings of people, and he made the phenomenon of “the party” one of his specialties. His women are particularly convincing, while his best male characters are the louche and slightly disreputable ones. He is not as acute as Evelyn Waugh, the writer to whom he is most often compared, and is certainly not his equal as a stylist, but Powell is a far more disinterested writer than Waugh, and lets his characters reveal themselves in a wholly natural way that Waugh would not have been capable of. Waugh’s fiction always bears the artist’s stamp, whereas Powell’s work appears self-generated.

As an avid observer of the comédie humaine, Powell was drawn to John Aubrey, the seventeenth-century author of Brief Lives, a series of short, often comic, and sometimes scurrilous biographical sketches of numerous of the author’s contemporaries. “He contemplated the life round him as in a mirror,” Powell admiringly wrote in his biography of Aubrey,

He was there to watch and to record, and the present must become the past, even though only the immediate past, before it could wholly command his attention. For him the world of action represented unreality.

Powell, in his novels, took a similar stance in regard to his characters and the time they lived in. He catches perfectly the curiously languid pace of twentieth-century middle-class English life, which persisted even through two world wars, and which self-deluding Brexiteers vainly imagine can be reinstituted in today’s globalized world.

Powell’s own life spanned most of the last century—he was born in 1905 and died in 2000—and despite his urge toward self-effacement, it was in its way every bit as active, noteworthy, and odd as the lives that John Aubrey sketched, or as the fictional lives of the multitude of characters Powell himself invented over the span of his career. He was born in “one of 159 identical furnished flats in a set of five monolithic blocks” near Victoria Station in London. His mother’s people had been landed gentry in a small way, but they lost their modest fortune in the costly and vain pursuit of a peerage. Powell’s paternal grandfather, Lionel, settled near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire and became a surgeon of sorts in order to finance his passion for foxhunting. He “relied throughout his career on the hunting shires around Melton,” Spurling writes, “for a steady supply of fresh fractures” to treat.

Philip Powell, Lionel’s son and Anthony Powell’s father, as a boy had been “blooded” by being smeared with the tail of a newly killed fox, an experience that, Spurling says, “seems to have inoculated him against the sport of kings ever after.” Still, he cannot have been entirely averse to bloodshed, since he became a career soldier. He was a “dashing young subaltern” of not quite 18 when he fell in love with his future wife, Maud, an impossibly young-looking 33-year-old, whose “banjo solos were a star attraction of the Ladies Mandoline and Guitar Band” in the 1890s. She had known Philip since he was a baby. The couple had to wait three years for Philip to reach 21 so that they could marry without the consent of his parents. The marriage was happy enough at first, but Maud soon became depressed by the conviction that she was looked upon as a cradle-snatcher. She shunned society and even her own friends and settled into a reclusive life, which, luckily, suited her husband—and which Nick Jenkins describes with subdued pathos as the lives of his own parents in The Kindly Ones, the sixth volume of A Dance.

These facts of his early life no doubt contributed to Powell’s lifelong diffidence and cool detachment from the lives going on around him, lives that he nevertheless tracked with the obsessiveness and detailed attention of a Nabokovian naturalist. Growing up “in rented lodgings or hotel rooms,” he was “constantly on the move as a boy,” and, Spurling proposes, he “needed an energetic imagination to people a sadly underpopulated world from a child’s point of view.” And these years perhaps shaped his view of himself as a keen-eyed outsider. A slight figure, with notably short legs, he used to represent himself in marginalia in his letters as a dwarf, complete with bobbled hat and bootees.

Powell’s father seems genuinely to have loved his wife, and probably loved his only child, too, but as the years went on he became a sort of second son to Maud, who it sometimes seemed “had to deal with two implacable infant male egos.” Indeed, accounts of Philip Powell’s character and behavior give a new and forceful meaning to the word irascible. In old age, when he was living in solitude in a seedy London hotel, the management, unable any longer to tolerate his impossible behavior, issued an ultimatum for his removal to a nursing home. Anthony’s wife, Violet, traveled up from their home in the country to break the news to the old boy, who, Spurling writes, “pre-empted alternative plans for his future by dying the same day.” At the funeral, Powell heard an explosion from a nearby quarry that sounded to him, so he told his son Tristram, “like Grandfather being received in the next world.”

Like many of the sons of English middle-class parents of the time, the boy Anthony—or “Tony,” as Hilary Spurling, who was a friend, calls him throughout her book—was dreadfully unhappy at school. He went first to the New Beacon School at Sevenoaks in Kent, where most of the pupils came from military families. He was lucky in making a close friend there, Henry Yorke—later to be the novelist Henry Green, another product of that melancholic prewar generation—who later described being offered “a stinking ham oozing clear smelly liquid, and boys so hungry they ate raw turnips and mangel wurzels” stolen from the farmers’ fields roundabout. For years after he left the school, Powell had recurring nightmares of being back there, until in his late 20s he dreamed he had killed the headmaster, which proved a curative.

From the Beacon, Powell went on to Eton, which seems to have been, if only by comparison, an improvement on what had gone before. Some of the housemasters there were interesting, and at least one of them, Arthur Goodhart, would find his way into A Dance as the restless, dim, and faintly sinister Le Bas, who is a mass of physical tics, has numerous passages of second-rate verse off by heart, and on one occasion is caused to be arrested by the police, a prank played on him by Charles Stringham, Jenkins’s friend and one of the most vivid characters in the sequence. It was at Eton that Powell developed his interest in and talent for drawing, and from the beginning, according to Spurling, he “found his own natural habitat in the Drawing Schools on Keats Lane.” However, although his imagination was in many respects pictorial, he did not have the makings of an artist in this medium, and his drawing remained confined to caricatures and amusing sketches.

Throughout his life, though, he kept up the habit of assembling scrapbooks and murals, some of them considerable in size, style, and prolixity, from images cut out of newspapers and magazines—examples of these adorn the endpapers of Spurling’s biography—which might be speeded-up, manic versions of Poussin’s masterpiece A Dance to the Music of Time. The painting, which hangs in The Wallace Collection in London, and to which Powell returned again and again, shows a quartet of figures, three women and a man, engaged in a round dance to the music of a lyre played by the figure of Time, an elderly, naked man. Recalling in his memoirs his first view of the painting, he wrote, “I knew all at once that Poussin had expressed at least one important aspect of what the novel must be.”

One guesses this aspect to be what he referred to, with the urgency of italics, as “the importance of structure.” What Powell took from Poussin is a classically balanced coolness of style and treatment. Because one reads A Dance close-up, necessarily—it is after all a compelling, even a rollicking, narrative, except perhaps in the wartime sections, where, paradoxically, the pace slackens to a slow march—it is easy not to notice how tightly and expertly woven the tapestry is. Despite the claims of some of his more excitable admirers, Powell is a much lesser artist than Joyce, lacking Joyce’s stylistic exuberance and his determination to break out of the bonds of the traditional novel form. Yet he could with justice claim of A Dance, as Joyce did of Ulysses, that it is a triumphant feat of engineering.

Somewhat surprisingly, and unlike his friend and friendly rival Evelyn Waugh, Powell detested Oxford and chafed throughout his time at the college. Probably he was too solitary a soul—and too confirmed a heterosexual—to relish the jostling, sybaritic pleasures on offer in the City of Dreaming Spires in the interwar years. One night at dinner he made the mistake of confessing his distaste for college life to the legendary don Maurice Bowra, who was so shocked at the notion of anyone not venerating the alma mater that a rift was opened between the two men that was to last for 35 years. Spurling has no doubts that Powell’s happiest, or least unhappy, time at Oxford was his last year, when he was sharing rooms with Henry Green and they were discovering together, among other glories, Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, as each new volume appeared. Proust was, along with Poussin, a vital discovery of Powell’s younger years, the great exemplar who showed him what wonders, not only of narrative but also of style and form, could be achieved in the roman-fleuve.

Powell got out of Oxford as quickly as he could and went to work for the venerable and highly dysfunctional publishing firm of Gerald Duckworth & Co. Spurling’s pages on this period of his life, like the fictional version of it in A Dance, contain some of the most richly entertaining passages in the biography. Gerald Duckworth was a figure that Powell, or Waugh, would hardly have dared to invent. He “smoked foul-smelling cigars, enjoyed a bottle of claret a day over lunch at the Garrick, and was often half-tipsy in the office.” More pertinently, he hated books and, according to the head of a rival publishing house, he considered authors “a natural enemy against whom the publisher must hold himself arrayed for battle.”

In looks, Powell was no matinee idol, and to many he seemed cold, aloof, and arrogant, yet a remarkable number of remarkable women fell in love with him, or at least suffered him to fall in love with them. Few of his early affairs were satisfactory, until he met Violet Pakenham in the summer of 1934. The encounter took place at Pakenham Hall in County Westmeath, Ireland, seat of the Earl of Longford, who had inherited the title at 13 and later repudiated it, being an Irish nationalist to the extent of changing his name to Eamon de Longphort. The family was a sort of Irish version of the Mitford clan, though possibly a shade more eccentric, if such seems possible.

Powell was attending a house party at the Hall, not very happily; Christine Longford was also a novelist, and jealous, like all novelists, so that from the start the occasion was touched with a definite froideur. Powell was having his portrait painted by Henry Lamb, Edward Longford’s brother-in-law, who summoned his wife’s sister to keep the model from fidgeting. This indicates a touching naivety of the painter’s part, since Violet Pakenham was beautiful, intelligent, and a definite “catch”—Marion Coates, a girlfriend of Powell’s at the time, remarked wryly years later that she could quite see why he would throw her over in favor of the daughter of a belted earl.

After the sitting, Violet took Anthony outside to the kitchen garden and, in an Edenic gesture, conscious or otherwise, picked him an apple; that evening, as Violet wrote years later, there began “a conversation which has continued unabated until this day.” The marriage was long and happy, surviving even Violet’s secret affair with the man—Spurling has been unable to identify him—whom she described to Sonia Orwell as “the love of her life.” When Powell found out about Violet’s betrayal—probably in 1946, according to Spurling—“he plunged into a hole of depression, exhaustion and almost insane overwork.”

Powell was indeed a prodigious worker, who in his early years as a writer could read and review five or six books a week. Over his lifetime, he produced 19 novels, five volumes of memoirs and three of journals, a writer’s notebook, and, for good measure, two plays. As an artist, he probably lived too long: His work was largely done by the mid-1970s, when he published Hearing Secret Harmonies, the final volume in the Dance series, and when the world in which the series was set had largely disappeared. He spent the remainder of his life doing little more than tidying his desk, as Spurling tacitly acknowledges by wrapping up those years in an appositely titled, and decidedly perfunctory, 13-page Postscript.

Although all of Powell’s novels sparkle, if not all the time, his true achievement is A Dance. Even though it is probably not quite as good as many, including Powell himself, considered it to be, it will live if only through a handful of characters who have become emblematic of a milieu and a time. These include the toadlike Widmerpool; Charles Stringham, funny, fey, and doomed; Pamela Flitton, shamelessly based on the beautiful man-eater Barbara Skelton—who threatened to sue, but settled instead for advice on getting a novel published; the crafty, avaricious, and unforgettably awful Uncle Giles; and Jenkins’s lost love, the beautiful betrayer Jean Duport. These are, as Evelyn Waugh said of Captain Grimes in Decline and Fall, among the immortals.

And it was Waugh who paid Powell the best and certainly the most elegant tribute one novelist could bestow upon another. In an uncharacteristically warm and generous assessment of his friend’s masterwork, he wrote:

Less original novelists tenaciously follow their protagonists. In the Music of Time we watch through the glass of a tank; one after another various specimens swim towards us; we see them clearly, then with a barely perceptible flick of fin or tail, they are off into the murk. That is how our encounters occur in real life. Friends and acquaintances approach or recede year by year…Their presence has no particular significance. It is recorded as part of the permeating and inebriating atmosphere of the haphazard which is the essence of Mr. Powell’s art.

Despite inevitable flaws and weaknesses, Anthony Powell was a master of the traditional English novel form. As the dance of life proceeded around him, by turns gay and melancholy, he watched, he listened, he noted, with the most careful interest and attention. “Try,” Henry James, in his great essay The Art of Fiction, urged the tyro novelist, “to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” Anthony Powell was without doubt an artist of that rare kind.