HILARY SPURLING Anthony Powell: Dancing to the music of time. Reviewed by Folly Gleeson
This biography of Anthony Powell is a fine examination of the creative process and the time between the two world wars.
For those who have read and loved – or, as in my case, wallowed in – the 12 novels of A Dance to the Music of Time, this stunningly impressive biography by Hilary Spurling will come as a wonderful bonus.
She traces, in elegant prose, the life of writer Anthony Powell from boyhood to his death in 2000, opening her extensively researched work with an empathetic look at his early life:
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.
Spurling is able to make the recounting of Powell’s school years at Eton interesting. I find this remarkable, as tales of school days are often deadly dull. Friendship, fagging, et cetera are not everyone’s meat but because she examines Powell’s friends so carefully, one can see how his use of the knowledge gained through friendships fed his ability to present the characters in his novels compellingly. Widmapool, Templer and Stringham are unforgettable precisely because he was such an acute observer.
He made several friends at Eton and at Oxford, but they were not enough to stifle his excruciating sense of boredom. And indeed those sections in A Dance to the Music of Time that recount the debutante balls and the learning of French in France are heavy-going. They certainly reflect his experience: he was mixing with aristocrats as a useful partner at dances but he was basically ineligible:
He had no prospects, no connections, nothing to inherit and he wasn’t related to anyone people had ever heard of in the world of debutante dances and court presentations.
He was a very lonely young man but in his early 20s he was on the cusp of change. His writing apprenticeship, shared with his friend Henry Yorke, came at Oxford, when in preference to academic studies they read Proust, Eliot, the Sitwells, Aldous Huxley and the Russians. A job arranged through his father’s influence was also very valuable for his understanding of the writer’s world, for in 1926 he arrived at Duckworth and Co, a very hidebound publishing company under Gerald Duckworth, who had just sacked the clever Jonathan Cape for being a little too enterprising. The very amusing and fairly successful novel What’s Become of Waring, published in 1939, relies on Powell’s experience at Duckworths. He used the peccadillos of his employers to witty effect. But his work there was very demanding:
He said nothing taught him more about the technical side of writing – not so much what worked as what didn’t – than reading and assessing up to fifty bad novels a week.
His friendship with Evelyn Waugh was important but he did not escape the boredom of the deb balls until his affair with Nina Hamnet in the latter part of the 1920s. Bohemia offered escape from the stifling social world of the upper class. It also offered liaisons with clever women and Nina Hamnet was very clever indeed:
In a painter’s world where girls featured more or less exclusively as mistresses and models, Nina operated on equal terms with men. She had a broad and multifarious acquaintance on both sides of the Channel ranging from Jean Cocteau and Princess Eugene Murat to Nancy Cunard, Gerald du Maurier and the sinister wizard Aleister Crowley.
Hamnet was an original painter, knew Brancusi and shared Modigliani’s studio. An army child, she had refused out of hand to be, as she said, ’the same kind of gutless half-wit as the rest of her sex’. Powell was really very lucky to have been seduced by her, and his subsequent affairs with lively, intelligent and beautiful women did, I think, inform A Dance to the Music of Time. Independent life was almost impossible for bright women then unless they had powerful friends or their own income. The female characters in Powell’s novels have real presence and power, although the power was not usually financial.
He was always rather short of money himself and even after his marriage, his volatile and erratic father gave him a stipend. By the start of the Second World War he had had five novels published and had married Lady Violet Pakenham, but money was always an issue. Of course, their straitened circumstances were only a problem in terms of their class position; many of their compatriots were really poor. Violet was an engaging and lively woman who did some journalism, painted and later wrote several novels. She had enthusiastically given up playing polo, nightclubs and hunt balls to embrace Powell and his friends like Constant Lambert and Gerald Reitlinger.
The war years fed the three novels that comprise the autumn collection of A Dance to the Music of Time. Spurling’s version of these times is fascinating. Violet had a son, although she had to spend most of the pregnancy in bed and was forced to move often, as so many did to avoid the bombing. Powell began to contemplate the new work in 1947 and A Question of Upbringing, the first of the 12 novels of A Dance to the Music of Time, was published in 1951 and the last, Hearing Secret Harmonies, in 1975. During this period Powell realised:
… that the paramount need for a writer was stability, seclusion and a workplace free from the noise, the expense, the intrusions, and the unceasing social demands of London life.
Violet, family, friends and the purchase of a house called the Chantry provided this for him.
In his 40s and while writing his novels, Powell reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement and Punch. He suffered periods of depression, but writing had always helped him cope with black despair. He enjoyed friendships with the ailing George Orwell and Malcolm Muggeridge and:
Over the next two decades the Chantry became a powerhouse, its layout and routines evolving round production of the Dance. The downstairs drawing room, where Violet mercilessly dissected the first draft of each volume as soon as Tony finished it, took on aspects of an engine room.
As she carefully describes Powell’s life, Spurling makes connections between that life and his books and writes that when he had completed the novels he found it hard to ‘detach himself fully from the hypnotic and dream like state in which he wrote the Dance’. The series is generally considered to be a monumental achievement, although some find the character of Nick Jenkins a little too beige and others criticise the delineation of a fairly middle-class milieu. Spurling ends her also very impressive work with a reference to TS Eliot. Powell had read The Waste Land at 16:
In A Dance to the Music of Time he found the way Eliot suggested, ’a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’.
In a postscript Spurling describes her contacts with Powell and the way in which others have seen his work. She captions one image: ‘He was a captivating friend and the best listener I ever met.’
This biography is a fine examination of the creative process and the mores and events of the time between the two world wars. A thoroughly enjoyable, wise and humorous read.
Hilary Spurling Anthony Powell: Dancing to the music of time Hamish Hamilton 2017 HB 509pp $55.00
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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