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Dance Master

Books | November issue

Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time by Hilary Spurling, reviewed by Selina Hastings

The twelve volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time, the work for which Anthony Powell is best known, have always divided readers. Some regard it as one of the masterpieces of the 20th century, comparable to Proust, while others are defeated by its length and complexity. Hilary Spurling, in this superb biography, demonstrates not only a profound knowledge and understanding of the novels but tracks in fascinating detail their close connection to Powell’s own life.

Tony Powell, born in 1905, was an only child, his father a military man, an irascible, competitive character of whom his son always remained wary. After a solitary early childhood, constantly on the move, Tony was sent to Eton, which he enjoyed. It was here he discovered his life-long love of drawing, and also where he came to know such colourful figures as Brian Howard, Harold Acton and Eric Blair (George Orwell). It was here he consolidated, too, a long-lasting friendship with Henry Yorke (the novelist Henry Green), originally befriended while at prep school. Even those early days provided inspiration for Dance, Tony years later replicating a vividly recalled occasion when Henry Yorke, like the sinister Widmerpool in the novel, was cruelly teased while at Eton for wearing the wrong kind of overcoat.

At Oxford, Tony was less happy, although his life considerably improved after he was drawn into the circle around Maurice Bowra, regularly included in the wickedly hilarious dinners hosted by Bowra in his rooms at Wadham. Crucially, it was while at Oxford that Tony began seriously to think about writing after a tutor criticised the clumsy first sentence of an essay. ‘I now saw in a flash the importance of structure.’

On coming down, Tony’s first job was in publishing, the beginning of several years working for Duckworth & Co, in their shabby premises in Covent Garden. This dilapidated literary world is brilliantly portrayed by Spurling, the uncarpeted offices, the cheeky young clerks, the endless rows and confrontations between the firm’s owner and his editorial staff. After several years of reading manuscripts and dealing with temperamental authors, Tony, slightly to his dismay, took over editorial control in the by now fast-sinking firm.

Tony was drawn into the Bloomsbury-Fitzrovia circle of painters, writers and musicians. Among his new acquaintances were the painter Adrian Daintrey, John Heygate, who was later to run off with Evelyn Waugh’s first wife, and Waugh himself, first encountered at the Holborn Polytechnic, where Tony had been sent to take a course in printing. 

One of the most inspirational of these friendships was with the composer Constant Lambert, an alliance that led to riotous holidays in the South of France. 

In 1934, Tony, while staying with Edward Longford at Pakenham Hall in Ireland, met and fell in love with one of Edward’s younger sisters, Violet Pakenham. The two married, the beginning of a long and happy union, Violet willingly giving up her life of riding, polo and dancing to become part of her husband’s ‘shabby, rootless urban world’. The Powells moved into a modest house on the edge of Regent’s Park; here they brought up their two sons, while Tony worked on three novels and later a biography of John Aubrey. 

Despite this agreeable existence, Tony was periodically overcome               by incapacitating depression, a blight that haunted him for the rest of his life.

After an industrious but largely uneventful war, Tony moved his family out of London, to The Chantry, a Georgian house in Somerset, where he remained until his death. Here he worked industriously on volume after volume of A Dance. He took on the job of literary editor of Punch, under his old friend Malcolm Muggeridge, and became lead reviewer on the Daily Telegraph.

During these later years, Tony befriended younger writers, among them Kingsley Amis, Vidia Naipaul and the nightmarish Julian Maclaren-Ross, inspiration for X. Trapnel in Dance. His journalistic positions ended explosively: Tony was sacked by Punch, and he left the Telegraph in a rage after reading in the book pages a derisory review of his work by Auberon Waugh.

Throughout this beautifully written, meticulously tracked account of Powell’s life, Hilary Spurling shows a subtle understanding of her subject and his work. She demonstrates an almost uncanny ability to portray the huge cast of characters that floods in colourful profusion across the stage. Her identification of the originals of the characters in A Dance is masterly.

In an epilogue, Spurling describes her own friendship with Powell, during which it was arranged that she would become his biographer. The resulting work proves it to have been among the best decisions he ever made.

Hamish Hamilton £30.00; Oldie price £19.20 inc p&p via Wordery.

This story was from November issue issue. Subscribe Now