Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time may be the most ambitious English roman-à-clef (a novel whose characters resemble people known to the author). Yet the French term has no English equivalent, perhaps because such novels are considered mildly disreputable. Novelists are supposed to create their characters from scratch—to “use their imagination”—rather than take them ready-made from lovers and friends. Not only that: lovers and friends are rarely pleased by their fictional portraits.
But as the world of Dance recedes into the past, the aesthetic and ethical issues attached to the roman-à-clef recede with it. If the character of “Pamela Flitton” may have seemed, at the time, a vicious attack on two living women—Barbara Skelton and Sonia Orwell—no one now can be harmed by it. In English law, a claim for libel becomes null after the plaintiff’s death, because “the dead don’t hear.” A roman-à-clef ceases to be a scandal when there is no longer anyone living to take offense. Hilary Spurling’s biography marks the transition from scandal to literary history, by giving names to those in Powell’s circle who provided the raw material for his novels, including the five he wrote in the nineteen-thirties, long before Dance.
Novels are valued for re-creating the “look and feel” of past societies better than historians can: ancient people are brought to life again, at least in the mind’s eye of the reader. The English society represented in Powell’s novels is now far enough removed to become historical, even quaint. The action of Dance covers the period from about 1920 to 1970. Powell died in 2000 at the age of ninety-five, and almost all the people who became models for his twelve-novel sequence are dead also. They are no longer “people like us,” but people like our parents, grandparents, or even further back.
One such person might be “Erridge Tolland, Lord Warminster,” who was built on the foundation of Powell’s brother-in-law and fellow-Etonian, the late Lord Longford. Erridge is a woolly-minded upper-class Leftist, though one who takes advantage of his aristocratic privilege and wealth. Lord Longford was indeed an erratic figure, especially in his defense of Myra Hindley, the child-murderer. But he held several ministries under Harold Wilson, and was a generous supporter of prison reform and other causes. For the purpose of Dance, however, he needs to be a figure of fun, reducing high politics to low comedy.
Powell called himself a “traditional Tory,” but he was in many ways a Tory anarchist. He was suspicious of anyone who aspired to rule—above all, his anti-hero “Kenneth Widmerpool.” Spurling identifies the original of Widmerpool as Powell’s superior during the War, Major Dennis Capel-Dunn. He brought Powell into the center of British war-planning, close to Churchill and with access to the deepest secrets, including Enigma. But before long he shuffled Powell out, into a largely ceremonial job of liaison with governments in exile in London.
The failure of Powell’s military career was a crushing blow, not least because his father had been a career soldier and a hero of World War I. But it was failure in a noble cause, because Powell had protested against his government’s decision to conceal Soviet responsibility for the Katyn massacre of some 22,000 Polish army officers, policemen and intellectuals in 1940. When this became known to Churchill in 1943, he decided that it was more important to appease Stalin than to support the Polish government-in-exile. Powell’s conscience could not swallow this; in the sequel, he wrote twelve novels around the central idea that those who seek worldly power usually do so for base motives. The power-seeker lives by the will, and must be inferior to those who live by the imagination.
Because power is such a pervasive theme in Dance, it is not enough for a Powell biographer to identify Widmerpool’s prototype with Capel-Dunn and leave the issue there. Capel-Dunn died in a plane crash in 1945; but Widmerpool is still alive around 1970, when Dance ends. In various ways—too many to list here—Widmerpool becomes a caricature of C. P. Snow, author of the rival Strangers and Brothers series. In those novels, Snow’s ruling idea was that power-seeking is what makes the world go round. Powell’s target in Dance is not just Snow as an individual, but also all the British people of his type who frequent the “corridors of power.” It is disappointing that Spurling’s biography says nothing about the Snow connection.
As he started work on Dance, Powell published John Aubrey and His Friends, about the seventeenth-century author of Brief Lives. Dance might also be seen as a compendium of brief lives: each character is introduced with a thumbnail sketch of their background and peculiarities; they then appear and disappear randomly, rather than possessing a continuous life-history. Brevity also implies caricature, often spiced with cruelty. It is easier to make a character memorable when they are given some tic that makes them ridiculous.
Reliance on social stereotypes makes Dance a humor comedy, one populated by self-enclosed “clockwork” figures. Spurling says that Powell wrote in this way for a reason: he believed that “characters who were fully realized in fact left nothing much over for the novelist to do in fiction.” Instead, their actions take place inside an authorial pinball machine, where various eccentrics collide with each other without breaking their external shells. What they do is driven by impulse, and their inner life, if any, seems to have little relevance to how they behave. This worldview is even more extreme in the five comic novels that Powell wrote before World War II. In these books, “bright young people” ricochet around London, driven by sex and money. There is no point in asking whether these novels have a moral purpose, because such characters are no more than the sum of their whims.
A common critique of Dance is that it is just a parade of shallow and snobbish characters, while the narrator keeps telling us how fascinating his friends are. Powell’s fans—I admit to being one—have to respond by saying that these people are fascinating, and endlessly amusing too. Much of their interest comes from the way they are embedded in the British upper-class system. Membership in that class requires shared values, but rivalry and coincidence subject individual relationships to the play of chance. Driven by their “personal myths,” people seek counterparts who promise to validate their identities. But time constantly shuffles the cards, and the one you fall in love with today may be whirled away, beyond your grasp, tomorrow.
In one novel in the sequence, At Lady Molly’s, J. C. Quiggin attacks Nick Jenkins and his friends as “Laodiceans … [those who are] neither hot nor cold.” Many readers of Dance may feel that its narrator, Jenkins, lowers the overall temperature of the work by having no strong beliefs or feelings (except for his love affair with Jean Templer in The Acceptance World). Still, it has been argued that Chaucer, Shakespeare and James Joyce are Laodiceans too—rather than “unacknowledged legislators,” as Shelley defined great writers. A novelist needs first of all to observe the world, or perhaps to laugh at it, rather than volunteering to change it. Powell has said that there are two kinds of people: those who are interested in others, and those who are interested in themselves. He put himself in the first category, of course, and implied that any good novelist should be there with him.
Dance is a novel about flux, but it still needs a fixed point of observation, which imposes a pattern on otherwise random events. That center is the consciousness of its narrator, Nick Jenkins. To criticise him for being passive and vapid is to miss the point of Powell’s grand scheme. In the early volumes Nick does have ambitions and desires, which culminate in his affair with Jean Templer. He then seems to withdraw from the arena—or, if he is still a slave of passion, he prefers to keep quiet about it. Nonetheless, something is hiding in plain sight: among a cast of clockwork characters whose inner lives are not revealed, Nick is the great exception. The entire novel-sequence is presented to us as an extended monologue. We learn everything that Nick is thinking and feeling, and the philosophical conclusions that he has reached through his life as a spectator. He arrives at a vision of the whole, and in doing so shows that he has a much richer inner life than any of those who circulate on the dance floor. In his own more modest realm, he pursues what Powell most admired in Shakespeare: “an extraordinary grasp of what other people are like.”
That raises the question of what Spurling has tried to do as a biographer: to tell us “what Powell was like.” The biography was authorised by Powell but has only now appeared, eighteen years after his death. Spurling recognises that his reputation has declined in the years since the completion of Dance in 1975. There has been plenty of criticism of him as a pompous right-winger and crashing snob. That might apply more justly to Evelyn Waugh, yet Waugh’s reputation has been helped by his early death, and by his pre-emptively caricaturing himself as an arch-reactionary. Waugh turned his nastiness into a popular brand, while Powell was pilloried for his supposed youthful ambition: to acquire “a house with a drive and a wife with a title.”
Spurling deals with Powell’s last phase summarily, covering twenty-five years of his life in a mere twelve pages. She accepts that his creativity was largely exhausted by the completion of Dance, though he still produced scores of book reviews, a novel, and four volumes of memoirs (which did his reputation little good). Earlier in the biography, Spurling does justice to Powell’s long struggle for any kind of success, whether financially or in his personal relations. Before he became an establishment figure, Powell led a rackety existence in the world of upper-class Bohemia, involving sexual anarchy for both women and men, too little money, and too much to drink. He did go to Eton, but unlike Tory fogies of today he had no religion—he refused to attend his son’s christening—travelled constantly outside England, and relentlessly made fun of businessmen. He didn’t think much of politicians, whether of Left or Right, and his most significant political act was to lose his job over Katyn. The great love of his life, before his marriage, was Marion Coates, a member of the British Communist Party. Oswald Mosley boasted that he would “Vote Labour, sleep Conservative”; Powell didn’t mind doing the opposite.
Spurling portrays the early Powell as an open-minded and adventurous young man. He was not the first such person to end up being more cautious and conventional, but only his enemies would claim that that was all there was to him. If there is a weakness in Spurling’s biography, it is that she does not say enough about “the crucible,” as Henry James called it: the process whereby the elements of everyday life are refined into art. Powell will remain a polarising figure, and this biography may not change many minds about the value of his work. But Dance to the Music of Time, if read on its own terms, can be the best possible guide to what, in the past century, the English upper classes “were like.”