‘Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time’ by Hilary Spurling

I have always been rather ambivalent towards biographies as I find the minutiae of people’s lives rather dull reading, especially when we have to wade through the subject’s childhood and ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’; but certain people have generated enough interest in me to find out about their lives and quite a lot of those subjects have been authors. Typically those I have read biographies of have been authors that have led exciting or extraordinary lives, those I’ve read a large amount of their work and those whose work is autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. Part of the interest of reading biographies of those authors whose work is at least partially autobiographical is comparing the work with their real life and this was, in part, the interest for me in reading this recent biography of Anthony Powell by Hilary Spurling. Writers, such as Powell and Proust, as well as their biographers warn us that we shouldn’t be looking for real life comparisons of characters in their books, but in the end it’s just too tempting to resist, especially when many of the novelists’ characters do have real-life counterparts and events are similar to those in the author’s life; I then think we are justified in looking for them and as long as we’re grown-up enough to realise that there isn’t necessarily a one-to-one connection, that not all the characters are taken from real life and that some may be a mixture of different people or just inventions of the author then I don’t see any harm in this pastime.

At first Anthony Powell’s life doesn’t seem to be a particularly interesting topic but as with his novel series, A Dance to the Music of Time, it is the characters that he comes in contact with as well as his reflections on them and himself that ends up making this an interesting book to read. Spurling doesn’t attempt anything fancy, instead she cracks on from 1905, the year of Powell’s birth, giving a brief description of Powell’s mother and father and his childhood years before surging on. The opening sentences gives a picture of these early years.

Small, inquisitive and solitary, the only child of an only son, growing up in rented lodgings or hotel rooms, constantly on the move as a boy, Anthony Powell needed an energetic imagination to people a sadly under-populated world from a child’s point of view. His mother and his nurse were for long periods the only people he saw, in general the one unchanging element in a peripatetic existence.

His mother was very introverted, religious and had a liking for the occult, whereas his father was explosive and demanding and mostly absent from Anthony’s early life, especially once WWI began as he was an officer in the army. Spurling then covers Powell’s school years at New Beacon School in Sevenoaks, Kent followed by Eton, where he became friends with Henry Green, and then on to Balliol College, Oxford, where he befriended Evelyn Waugh.

Although the sections on Powell’s schooldays and university period are of interest as we get to see the young Anthony Powell and we can compare it with Nick Jenkin’s life in the first novel of ‘Dance’, the biography really became interesting for me after he left university and he began work at the publishers Gerald Duckworth and Co. in London. It’s here where we start to see several interesting characters filtering through Powell’s life. Duckworth’s was a strange publishers for young Powell to end up at as the owner seems rather uninterested in publishing books and tries to block any attempts to revitalise the firm. But it is at Duckworth’s that Powell begins to experience life more fully and on his own terms. During this period he has love affairs, meets artists, buys a car and starts writing his first novel, Afternoon Men. Spurling does an excellent job in portraying the rather seedy bohemian lifestyle that Powell was immersed in. His rather dilapidated lodgings in Shepherd Market appealed to him as a counterpoint to his life at Oxford. Reading the chapters on this period in Powell’s life has really made me want to read more of his pre-WWII (and pre-‘Dance’) novels, especially What’s Become of Waring?, which is set in a publishers much like Duckworth’s – see Karen’s review at Kaggsybookishramblings.

During a visit to Pakenham Hall, Ireland, he met and fell in love with Violet Pakenham, whom he married in 1934. Powell left Duckworth’s and tried, but failed, to make it in Hollywood as a scriptwriter. During the war he entered the army as a Second Lieutenant and, like Nick Jenkins, ended up in Intelligence. The post-war years were somewhat difficult for Powell, as they must have been for nearly everyone. Spurling describes Powell’s moments of depression during this period, convinced that he’d wasted the most productive years of his life and that he’d never write again. During the war years his sole work had been a biography of John Aubrey but it is during this period that he came across Nicolas Poussin’s painting, A Dance to the Music of Time in the Wallace Collection which was to inspire his own work.

Nicolas Poussin’s A Dance to the Music of Time at the Wallace Collection, London.

Powell worked as a freelance writer, a book reviewer and wrote a regular column at the Daily Telegraph. Powell became friends with many famous people whom most of us have heard of, such as Malcolm Muggeridge, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Julian MacLaren-Ross, Ivy-Compton Burnett, Kingsley Amis, and many other interesting people that I hadn’t heard of before such as Gerald Reitlinger, Edward Burra, John Heygate etc. He seems to have formed deep and lasting friendships with many of these people and to have enjoyed socialising with them, possibly making up for his rather sombre childhood at home and young adulthood at university.

Powell began writing A Question of Upbringing, the first novel of ‘Dance’, in March 1948 and which was published in 1951. When the first volume was published Powell had envisaged the whole work as ‘at least a trilogy’ but he was to continue over the next twenty-five years to publish a new novel in the series roughly every two years. It was only when he was writing the volumes relating to WWII that he knew that it was going to consist of twelve volumes. Curiously, Spurling seems to race along with the narrative once Powell begins work on ‘Dance’ and even stranger is that the biography more or less ends with the publication of the last novel of the series. There’s a Postscript which covers this period from 1975 up to Powell’s death in 2000 but it appears rather rushed especially as Powell still produced a couple of novels and a four-volume set of memoirs during this period. This is my only criticism of this excellent biography and is recommended to anyone who has read the novels of Anthony Powell.

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6 Comments

Filed under Non-fiction, Spurling, Hilary

6 responses to “‘Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time’ by Hilary Spurling

  1. What a wonderful photo on the front cover, that’s just the way I imagined him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Yes, I liked the cover as well. There were quite a few photos and illustrations in the book but, as always, never enough. I kept searching on the internet for photos of people and places mentioned; which is useful but also a hindrance to my reading. I certainly will read more of his other books now.

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  2. Col

    I think your comments about finding an interesting subject for a biography which goes beyond the minutiae of their early lives is spot on. I’d got into the habit of restricting biographies to those of sportsmen and they’d become increasingly dull so I thought it was the biography as a form I’d lost interest in. Then a couple of years ago I picked up a copy of Matthew Hollis biography of Edward Thomas the poet who I’ve always liked and been interested in – and it transformed my view of biographies – now I skip footballers and cricketers in favour of writers and poets I’m interested in. I have heard a lot about Powell’s Dancing To Music Of Time books but have never read any – I feel I should rectify that!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I guess it depends on what one is expecting from a biography. I often read a biography (or history book etc.) with certain things I want to find out; if they have answers then I consider it a success but it probably is unfair to expect the biographer to know what it is that I want to know.

      If the ‘Dance’ series appeals to you then certainly give them a go. If you don’t like the first volume then you’re unlikely to like the rest. I found them easy to read, amusing but substantial.

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  3. Odd to skip over the last 25 years like that.

    Dance is remarkable. I have a Category cloud on my blog and even now Dance dominates it since I reviewed the whole sequence and there were so very many of them (12, as you say).

    Easy to read, amusing but substantial is a good way to describe them.

    The parallels are interesting, but I haven’t read any non-Dance Powell (apparently pronounced Pole?) so I should probably try at least some of that first…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      The other week I went to a talk at the Wallace Collection by Hilary Spurling on her new book (I was going to write a short post on it but forgot) and someone asked her the same question—why the book essentially ends with Dance—and she said that it was because that was when she got to know Powell personally and she felt that she couldn’t cover Powell’s life during that period as biographer should; it would probably be more like a memoir if hse had tried. Also, she’d taken quite a while after Powell’s death before writing the biography to allow a certain distance from the subject.

      The only non-Dance Powell that I’ve read so far is Afternoon Men which I really enjoyed. I aim to read more soon.

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