Anthony Dymoke Powell was one of England’s most respected novelists of the twentieth century, and A Dance to the Music of Time, in twelve volumes, published over a quarter of a century, is one of the longest works of fiction written in English. Powell was born in London on December 21, 1905, into an upper-middle-class family. His father, P. L. W. Powell, was a career military officer, and his mother, Maude, belonged to an old family with upper-class ties. The Powells moved often while Powell was a child because of his father’s military assignments, and these early experiences were later transformed into fictional incidents in Powell’s novels. He attended the exclusive public school Eton College and then was matriculated at Balliol College, Oxford. Powell’s contemporaries at Eton and Oxford included such future literary luminaries as Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Cyril Connolly, and Harold Acton. After leaving Oxford, Powell worked in London for the publishing house Duckworth and finished his first novel, Afternoon Men, in 1931. His social scene in London included both debutante balls and bohemian literary and artistic haunts, all of which play a part in his subsequent novels. He left the publishing business in the mid-1930’s for scriptwriting after he married Lady Violet Pakenham, and by the outbreak of World War II in 1939, he had published four more novels.
In World War II, he initially served in his father’s old regiment but was later transferred to an intelligence unit, working as a liaison to several governments-in-exile based in London. He found it impossible to write fiction during the war and instead began a study of John Aubrey, the seventeenth century antiquarian, which was published in 1948. He resumed his career as a literary critic in the late 1940’s, but his primary focus was upon his multivolume work, A Dance to the Music of Time. The first volume, A Question of Upbringing, was published in 1951, and the twelfth and last volume, Hearing Secret Harmonies, appeared in 1975. Powell’s stated reason for writing a series of connected novels was that it would free him from the usual eighty-thousand-word format and would allow him to develop an extended plot and story; it would also not require him to invent a different cast of characters for each new novel. The result was a brilliant study of upper-middle-class London society, from the years before the Great War through the events of the counterculture of the 1960’s, years that paralleled Powell’s own life.
Nicholas Jenkins is the first-person narrator in A Dance to the Music of Time. The author noted that he took the title of the entire series from an allegorical painting by Nicolas Poussin, the seventeenth century French artist, which portrays four figures in dance. Admitting that there might be other interpretations, Powell saw the dancers as representing the seasons, and Powell divided his twelve volumes into four sections, corresponding to the four seasons. Like Powell, Jenkins and his fellow characters experience an era of history that was filled with significant events, both for the social classes represented in the novels and for England and European civilization generally. World wars, economic upheavals, the decline and evolution of various standards–moral, artistic, aesthetic–governed the twentieth century, and Powell’s figures dance their part. It is a world both of incident and of coincidence. Throughout the long tale, characters periodically cross paths. Powell defends these coincidences by noting that the English literary and artistic scenes, centered on London and the universities, are more cohesive than those in the United States.
Although Powell’s literary universe is made up of characters from many different backgrounds, from household servants to enlisted men and from bohemians to hippies, the major figures come from Powell’s own upper-middle-class background. Many critics have noted the similarities between Powell and his character Jenkins, similarities in experiences and also perhaps in attitudes. Jenkins is mainly an observer. In using Jenkins as the narrator, Powell is able to relate, often in gentle satire, the lives of those around him.
Powell commented in his memoirs that he was early captivated by human eccentricities, and the characters of his novels exhibit them in full. The most memorable figures in his novels are males, often of the types Powell himself might have known at Eton, at Oxford, or in the army. Most notable among these is the comical but somewhat menacing figure of Kenneth Widmerpool, a ubiquitous presence who seems to follow Jenkins like a shadow throughout the series. It is through Widmerpool and his ilk that Powell introduces a political aspect to the novel, namely a critique of the rise of an opportunistic and illiberal left-wing power elite in twentieth century English society. Critics have noted that Jenkins remains a somewhat diffident figure, but in his role as observer and narrator, illuminating the lives and foibles of others, his diffidence is effective. In his memoir To Keep the Ball Rolling, Powell is equally reluctant to place himself at the center of the stage, and critics complained that where Powell’s Jenkins had been successful in A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell as narrator did not succeed as well in telling the story of his own life.
Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time has been compared to Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1922-1931): Both chronicle the upper classes and the demimonde, both are influenced by the perception of time, and both evoke a similar world. Yet Proust is more subjective, more concerned with interior or internal feelings, while Powell writes of surface impressions as the sympathetic observer of the human comedy. Some critics have claimed that Powell’s work is comparable to James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), but Powell does not use the technique of interior monologue or stream of consciousness. Powell has also been compared with his friend and colleague Evelyn Waugh in his concern with social disintegration, but Powell’s satire and comedic treatment are more tolerant, sympathetic, and understanding of the human condition.