Anthony Powell

I have thus far considered writers who dealt obliquely with the social changes that the Second World War brought. There were many of course who explored the subject more directly. To my mind the one who stands out amongst these was Anthony Powell, and the title of his greatest work, A Dance to the Music of Time, testifies to his purpose in this regard.

The work consists of twelve volumes, which together present a panoramic view of social change over the second and third quarters of the century. At one stage, when I thought my energies limitless, I contemplated of a comparative study of this and the similar sagas for earlier generations of Galsworthy and Anthony Trollope. I finally settled down to the much more limited study of Trollope’s treatment of women and marriage as compared to that of his own peers, but I have often thought the larger study would be fascinating, in terms of techniques as well as subject matter – including relations between sexes and classes.

Powell wrote four sets of three books, and I had made the mistake of starting in the middle when I was still a schoolboy. The book I first read was Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, one of the second set, which was the least interesting of the four. I then avoided Powell for some time, before starting on the very first book, A Question of Upbringing, which had me hooked.

It begins naturally in Eton, and is narrated as all the books are by Nick Jenkins, who seems based to a considerable extent on Powell himself. He is never really a protagonist, and the first part of the book is dominated by two characters, one a schoolmaster called Le Bas, the other a classmate called Widmerpool. The former stands on his own for the whole breed of public school masters, just as later Sillery does for all Oxford dons. Widmerpool on the contrary is distinctly individualistic, an uncouth individual who is seen by his peers as not quite Eton material, and who has to try very hard to keep himself up to the mark. The symbol of this is his endless running, to keep himself fit, a characteristic that recurs in the last book of the saga when, as a retired politician, he takes up the fashionable cult of jogging.

Jenkins moves on to Oxford, which is dominated by Sillery, who was based largely on ‘Sligger’ Urquhart, a Balliol man of course, who devoted his life to his students, and more particularly the public school hearties amongst them, with no pretensions to intellectual distinction or effort. Sillery was however also seen as having a touch of Sligger’s rival Maurice Bowra, who was also a snob, but a more intellectual one. Oddly they are both now conflated in the public mind with Oxford elitism, as a recent review in the New Statesman of a biography of Bowra showed.

Powell would have thought that ironic, since any conflation of the two would have irritated both, given their mutual animosity. However, in making Sillery a respected figure despite his idiosyncrasies, whereas Le Bas degenerates into a pathetic one, Powell encapsulated a very real phenomenon, the enormous influence in those days of university dons on impressionable young men, released into thinking and feeling for themselves in the real world for the first time in their lives.

Jenkins moves on to the desultory social whirl of London, where he has to work but not very hard. He becomes part of a social set At Lady Molly’s, which is another title in the second trilogy, dining often at Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, the preposterous name suggesting the contradictory impulses of fashion at this stage, thirsting for the new but unable to abandon the old, even though it had to be dressed up in daring nomenclature.

All this purposeless if delicate dancing, which includes a suitable marriage, is interrupted in the third trilogy by the Second World War. This is traumatic, even though Jenkins does not see much action, in its effect on the comfortable world he had lived in earlier. In addition to the loss of life, the destruction that he faces includes the rapid rise to influence of Widmerpool.

In the final trilogy, which races through the next few decades, Widmerpool reaches the cabinet and becomes a Lord, though he is soon moved aside, without having really achieved anything. The first book of this trilogy deals largely with a reclusive author called X Trapnel, who has an affair with Widmerpool’s wife Pamela, the nymphomaniac niece of Jenkins’ old schoolfriend Stringham (who had died as a prisoner in Singapore during the War). Trapnel’s reclusive life slides into the new fashions the world is taking on, of drugs and free sex, into which Widmerpool also plunges, with the same appearance of absurdity as he had displayed at Eton all those years ago.

Given the limited nature of the world Powell dealt with, and the absence of any great moral fervour, it is not surprising that the books are now rarely read. Powell I think contributed to this by beginning, after he had brought the series to a close, a series of commentaries on it, through a sort of autobiography that gave hints of the real incidents he had turned into fiction. This gave rise to some delightful parodies, suggesting a self-importance that was in fact the antithesis of Powell’s retiring persona. But the critiques did have an edge, in that Powell obviously thought the world he had celebrated, with restrained melancholia for its passing, was worth recording, whereas the new age thought it well rid of.

But in that contrast, I think, lies the value of Powell’s incisive record of a world without much value. What the First World War destroyed was a powerful dispensation that had in effect run much of the world. After that War, though power had shifted, the British establishment still continued sublimely confident that it called the shots, and it is that hollow world of self-congratulation that Powell draws so sharply in the first half of his saga. The Second War simply confirmed the death of that world as well as its ideals, which is why Widmerpool had so constantly to keep reinventing himself, running harder and harder to stay in the same place.

When Powell used to be discussed at length, while the last books of the saga were being published, it was claimed that Widmerpool was based on a minor Conservative Party politician called Sir Reginald Manningham Buller, known also as Bullying Manner. He was soon forgotten, except that a few years back his daughter became the first female head of MI5, the British spy service. Of course it is quite possible that the identification was not accurate, and certainly the manner in which Powell created Le Bas and Sillery suggests that he did not use a single individual as a model for any single character. Still, the idea that Widmerpool’s daughter should have turned into the legendary M of the James Bond books is funny in its own way.

Powell, like Galsworthy, may soon be largely forgotten, but his work should be studied by anyone interested in social history, and its exposition through fiction. The world he described has gone away, but the foibles he touches on will recur, through a ruling class that can expand like india rubber, changing its shape, while continuing to retain always a certain underlying essence.

The Island – 3rd November 2010