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


An­thony Pow­ell: Danc­ing to the Mu­sic of Time By Hi­lary Spurl­ing Hamish Hamil­ton £30.00 Oldie price £19.20 inc p&p

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 Blooms­buryFitzrovia 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.

Early evo­lu­tion

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