A Proust of One’s Own: Anthony Powell’s 20th Century

November 22, 2018   •   By Sylvia Brownrigg

GIVEN THE INTEREST of American writers in chronicling our own lives, you’d think we would have produced our own Proust by now. Yet it is two Europeans, Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard, who have recently revived the form Proust innovated, the series of novels that draw on their authors’ biographies. Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s grand fictional epics both chronicle characters from provincial backgrounds and their coming of age as writers, and if sexism has inevitably played a part in how the two are received — Knausgaard being more likely to earn (and himself encourage) Proust comparisons, though discerning critics recognize the subtle complexity in Ferrante’s work — both trace the changing lives of a series of characters over decades, with layers of vivid details, and have earned the loyalty of a global readership.

Half a century before these Neapolitan and Nordic searches of lost time, Britain produced a Proust of its own. In the 12-volume epic, A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell broadly canvassed 20th-century English life in times of war and peace, through the exploits of a protagonist who bore a close resemblance to himself, along with an accompanying cast of hundreds. Contrary to stereotypes about English insularity, the Eton- and Oxford-educated writer was steeped in Proust and the Russians (especially Chekhov and Lermontov), while eschewing the British modernist project of mapping every contour of characters’ inner lives. Dismissive of Joyce, in no way part of Bloomsbury, neither was Powell a social satirist like Evelyn Waugh or a political one like George Orwell, though he was close friends with both. The novels are rich with social texture and psychological acuity, and Powell could write an extended party scene, its revels and unravelings, like no one else — until, decades later, Alan Hollinghurst, who learned from him. Read widely through the 1950s and ’60s as the volumes were published, Powell earned the admiration of contemporaries from P. G. Wodehouse to V. S. Naipaul; in our own time authors as different as Christopher Hitchens and Claire Messud have written of their fandom. Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels would not exist without Anthony Powell.

Nonetheless, this essential figure of 20th-century British literature is no longer familiar to most American readers. If you don’t know the rich, engrossing, and very funny novels of Powell’s Dance, or if you’ve only faintly heard of him, you are part of a conversation we could have — that we are already having, daily, weekly — about the rise and fall of literary heroes. The relative evanescence of Powell’s reputation may be a testament to the (not unhealthy) diminishing of Anglocentrism in American tastes; or it may be due to the perceived narrowness of the world he describes. Even his champion Hilary Spurling, a good friend in his lifetime and author of a new biography of Powell — published in the United States this November, a full year after English publication — is aware that by the time of his death in 2000 Powell’s reputation had suffered. “He had somehow come to stand for everything dull, conventional and socially exclusive,” she mourns, though she counters this perception by quoting Tariq Ali’s view that Powell was in fact “the most European of twentieth-century British novelists.” In the United Kingdom, the series paperbacks come emblazoned with a quotation from John Lanchester, calling A Dance to the Music of Time “[o]ne of English fiction’s few twentieth-century masterpieces.”

What is this masterpiece, and who was its author? Was he more of a Knausgaard or a Ferrante in his time — or, even, a Proust?


Anthony Powell (he insisted on a pronunciation that sounds like “pole”) was born in 1905, the only child of Philip, an officer in the Welsh regiment, and Maud, who was 15 years his senior (making theirs an unconventional marriage, though in Spurling’s account a contented one). Army life meant that, as a child young, Tony moved frequently and knew few other children; “the first fixed address he ever had was his boarding school, followed later by his Oxford college.” Thus, an immediate difference from the novelists mentioned above: Anthony Powell was not deeply of any particular geography, a fact reflected in fictions that are more concerned with people than with place. London is the backdrop for most of his characters’ professional and social lives, but the Dance’s initial volume, A Question of Upbringing, takes as its setting an Eton-like boarding school on the edges of open country (after a brief opening description of the Poussin painting from which the series derives its title), and we learn little of the family background of the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins. Jenkins is not even the first person named; that would be Kenneth Widmerpool, the heavyset, bespectacled older boy he sees running ponderously through the misted landscape. Powell’s most vivid fictional creation, the comically awkward Widmerpool gradually emerges as the series’s antihero. We will come back to Widmerpool. (As people always do, to a character Jenkins refers to at one point as “one of those fabulous monsters that haunt the recesses of the individual imagination.”)

Throughout his life, Powell found his social footing with fellow writers. At Oxford, he shared lodgings with Henry Yorke, who enjoyed early success writing as Henry Green — innovative novels such as Loving — and kept some distance from the “raucous high spirits” notorious among the interwar generation, colorfully detailed in Evelyn Waugh’s early novels. Powell’s friendship with Waugh began after university, when Tony worked for the caricaturish publisher Gerald Duckworth, who “disliked books and those who wrote them,” and whose typical author, in Tony’s youthful witticism, “allowed himself a good deal of platitude.” At Duckworth, Powell commissioned a Rossetti biography from Waugh, and on the side, read draft chapters of what would become Decline and Fall. Waugh and Powell enjoyed a close relationship until Evelyn’s death in 1966, after which Powell loyally defended him against sniping posthumous assessments (though in a kind of Oedipal betrayal, Evelyn’s son Auberon savaged a book of Powell’s in The Daily Telegraph 20 years later, causing his father’s old friend great distress).

Powell authored several novels before the war, but it was not until the late ’40s that he began to conceive of canvasing what he “defined as his central subject — ‘human beings behaving’ — in successive instalments of a single long novel.” Rereading Proust, he found him “much funnier and more poetic” than he had as an undergraduate; and believed that far from being a late Victorian, Proust was better understood as offering “a broad hint of what was to come.” Powell used his platform reviewing for the TLS (later Punch, and finally The Telegraph), to develop his ideas about the contemporary novel. By this point his own circle included George Orwell, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Graham Greene.

If all this sounds rather clubby, it was; though with scarcely any family money behind him, Powell never could afford the leisured socializing of richer friends, and needed the review income to supplement the amount earned from his own fiction. Initially Powell’s lack of means seemed to doom his marriage prospects, but in 1934 he had the good fortune to meet a pretty young socialite named Violet Pakenham. He proposed to her three weeks later. “Undoubtedly it was rash,” Powell recalled in his memoir. “On the other hand, there is absolutely no knowing what being married to someone is going to be like, short of marriage to that person.” We are 800 pages, or three and a half volumes, in to the Dance before Jenkins has similar luck with Isobel Tolland. Brief though the moment is — Jenkins remains famously reticent about his emotional life throughout these volumes — there is a lovely description of his falling in love: “It was as if I had known her for many years already; enjoyed happiness with her and suffered sadness. I was conscious of that, as of another life, nostalgically remembered […] We knew one another already; the future was determinate.” The moment is brief; but given Jenkins’s famous reticence about his emotional life throughout these volumes, the rare sentimentality is affecting. Tony and Violet had two children together (and suffered a bruising series of miscarriages), enjoying a long, contented marriage that gave Powell the stability to do his best work.

In the swirl — the dance — of friends and acquaintances around Jenkins, there are marriages, affairs, and divorces, some wretched, some amusing, but Jenkins himself remains a relatively still point, the astute observer of those around him. Powell has a great ear for dialogue; a brief spell of working for Warner Brothers in the 1930s did not pan out, but today he would be sitting in a writers’ room somewhere, creating longform television. The two self-confident pranksters Jenkins befriends at school, Peter Templer and Charles Stringham, are touchstones against whom Jenkins measures his own changes as the years go on. Templer, asked to leave school (a point of pride rather than embarrassment), avoids university and moves directly into womanizing and finance; in the city, he will begin to see Widmerpool not as a joke, but as an asset. The posh and witty Stringham’s path proves differently wayward. When Jenkins, at a raucous late-night party, asks after Stringham’s family, his friend replies jauntily, “[Y]ou know parents — especially step-parents — are sometimes a bit of a disappointment to their children. They don’t fulfil the promise of their early years.” Stringham slides into alcoholism, and the Dance’s third volume closes with Jenkins, along with an efficient, disapproving Widmerpool, helping settle Stringham into bed in his flat after he drank a vast amount at their school reunion. Nick recognizes the significance of the moment, as Widmerpool wrestles Stringham into staying in bed: “That suggested a whole social upheaval: a positively cosmic change in life’s system. Widmerpool, once so derided by all of us, had become in some mysterious manner a person of authority.”

This gradual transformation of the formerly risible Widmerpool into a competent figure in business and later politics, forms the moral backbone of the Dance. Widmerpool’s awkward and humorless exterior masks a fierce determination, and Jenkins realizes over time that these are the men who succeed, while the Templers and Stringhams eventually dissipate. (A parallel recognition seems to have dawned on the novelist himself, who did not at first grasp the paradoxical appeal of the ruthless character he was drawing.) A vast number of people appear in the Dance’s shifting groupings — antiwar pamphleteers, radical aristocrats, struggling painters, successful composers, Kipling-quoting army captains, mystical Tarot readers, lesbian couples — but pompous, driven Widmerpool always resurfaces, in due course attaining a wartime cabinet position from which he has a non-benevolent impact on the fates of both Templer and Stringham.

Widmerpool is a man without sensitivity or sentiment, who maintains a skeptical distance from the books, arts, and music that give texture to Nick’s existence. Told of Jenkins’s position in publishing, Widmerpool says, “It doesn’t sound to me a very serious job. […] I can’t see it leading to much.” Spurling identifies as essential to Powell this contrast between men of action and of sentiment (a difference considered chiefly through male characters, though Powell’s women have life too and are not merely decorative): it is “the axis of power and imagination on which the whole novel will turn.” It is certainly an important thematic through-line in the nearly 3,000-page epic, but Spurling is perhaps oversimplifying, and not acknowledging Jenkins’s reflections in the second novel of the series, A Buyer’s Market, that separate spheres may prove less separate than one imagines:

I used to imagine life divided into separate compartments, consisting, for example, of such dual abstractions as pleasure and pain, love and hate, friendship and enmity; and more material classifications like work and play: a profession or calling being […] something entirely different from ‘spare time’. […] As time goes on, of course, these supposedly different worlds, in fact, draw closer, if not to each other, then to some pattern common to all; so that, at last, diversity between them, if in truth existent, seems to be almost imperceptible except in a few crude and exterior ways.

In addition, some of Powell’s great comic scenes take place when Jenkins has unexpected words about literature with military men, proving that men of action may have more layers than it seems. There’s a wonderful exchange with retired General Conyers about his attempt to read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and Freud; or, years later when Jenkins is a soldier — the three war volumes constitute for many the pinnacle of Powell’s achievement — an amiable general who abruptly becomes outraged to the point of knocking over his chair on hearing Jenkins’s admission that he does not much like to read Trollope.

There are moments in Spurling’s biography when we might wish for more context of the Dance’s 12 novels, the kind of close readings one finds in Hermione Lee’s magisterial literary biographies: a deeper analysis of Powell’s method, the way he manages to draw such diverse and vivid characters without delving into descriptions of their states of mind; or how we might trace Proust’s influence, or that of the Russian writers Powell admired; or an exploration of how Widmerpool’s role and significance expanded over the years of writing.

Powell’s essential narrative deflection away from Jenkins makes him a kind of anti-Knausgaard, since the latter’s main focus is always and overwhelmingly himself, giving Powell greater kinship to Ferrante, who throws such imaginative energy into her narrator’s “brilliant friend.” Neither Powell nor his alter ego Jenkins is an egotist; the heart of the story is not Jenkins, but everyone around him — the characters in the dance. Jenkins does become a writer, and in later volumes Powell amuses himself and us by observing the pretensions and pettinesses of the literary world (the 10th book in the series is called Books Do Furnish a Room) but his literary career is not presented as a great achievement so much as a foregone conclusion.

A multi-part novel that spans British life from the 1920s to the 1960s is necessarily shadowed by World War II. Powell’s Dance has brilliant movement and wit, with pauses amid fluid social scenes for reflections on love and jealousy, art and reputation, painting and music. One of its most somber moments comes at the close of the ninth volume, with Jenkins given a place at the 1945 Thanksgiving Service for Victory at St. Paul’s. Powell beautifully captures the occasion’s patriotic resonance along with Jenkins’s awareness of its pomp and theatricality. (As always, he is participating, but also standing to one side and observing.) Amid the words of Blake, the prayers, and the triumphal hymns, Jenkins finds the national anthem’s less famous second verse the most resonant:

O Lord our God arise
Scatter his enemies,
And make them fall.
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On thee our homes we fix;
God save us all.

He has seen enough by now not to feel that England has any particular claim to nobility, and he likes the unvarnished honesty of the petition — especially the phrase “knavish tricks.” The lesson for Jenkins, and for readers of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, is that men of action, in business and in war, will find their ways to succeed over those who try to stand in their way. Yet there will always be a need for the work done by men of imagination, as well. Powell’s 12th and final volume in the series is called Hearing Secret Harmonies. It’s a title that aptly captures the novelist’s proof over thousands of pages, and movements both quiet and loud, that in spite of our lives’ apparent randomness, the arbitrary turns, the losses and the lights — a musical structure can be found there, for the artist who takes time to listen.


Sylvia Brownrigg is the author of several acclaimed works of fiction: five novels, including Pages for You, its sequel, Pages for Her, and The Delivery Room; a collection of short stories, Ten Women Who Shook the World; and a book for middle-grade readers, Kepler’s Dream, which was adapted into a feature film in 2017.