Powell Publishes the Epic

Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time was one of the most ambitious, complex, and dazzling literary projects of all time. It represents one of the most successful examples in English of the novel sequence known as the roman-fleuve.

Summary of Event

The first forty-five years of Anthony Powell’s life gave little hint that he would produce anything like A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975). The son of a regular-army officer with a Welsh aristocratic lineage, he did inherit major expectations, which were reinforced by his education at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford University. He left Oxford with a third-class degree in history and started work at the publishing firm of Duckworth. The position was secure but lacked distinction. Dance to the Music of Time, A (Powell)
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[kw]Powell Publishes the Epic A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975)
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Dance to the Music of Time, A (Powell)
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[g]Europe;1951-1975: Powell Publishes the Epic A Dance to the Music of Time[03430]
[g]United Kingdom;1951-1975: Powell Publishes the Epic A Dance to the Music of Time[03430]
[c]Literature;1951-1975: Powell Publishes the Epic A Dance to the Music of Time[03430]
Powell, Anthony

Born into the generation that matured after World War I, in the era that ushered in both the Jazz Age and the Great Depression, Powell became one of many British aristocrats to discover that ancestral privilege provided few groceries in times of economic failure. Everything, it appeared, was falling apart; failure was built into the structure of things. Powell’s first fiction centered on these perceptions.

When he was in his mid-twenties, Powell’s own firm started publishing his novels. Shortly afterward, he was married. By the age of thirty, he was well on his way to becoming one of the leading English novelists, although his novels did not provide an independent income. He became a scriptwriter for Warner Bros. in England and continued writing novels for a while, but World War II intervened.

For seven years, Powell served in the military, first in the infantry, then in intelligence. At the end of the war, Powell did not return immediately to fiction. Instead, he worked on a biography of John Aubrey Aubrey, John , a seventeenth century English antiquarian and memoirist. In Aubrey he found a kindred spirit, a writer who both memorialized his age and re-created its spirit, so that it gained a higher reality through him. Powell decided that this was what he wanted to do. Visiting the Wallace collection in London, which housed A Dance to the Music of Time, Dance to the Music of Time, A (Poussin) the painting by seventeenth century French painter Nicolas Poussin Poussin, Nicolas , also helped. By combining Aubrey’s kind of writing with the thrust of the painting, Powell found his literary focus, theme, and pattern. In his A Dance to the Music of Time, he would design a fictional universe reflecting the period of his life and its social and cultural changes.

Poussin’s painting presents a conventional Renaissance allegory of the passage of time. Four gowned and garlanded maidens dance sedately in a garden, while a seated, winged god, aged but muscular, strums a harp. One of two cherubs plays a pipe, and the other stares at an hourglass. A statue of a two-headed god stands to one side. The god is Father Time, and the goddesses are his daughters, Memory and the Seasons. The daughters dance to the unheard music of time, measuring out the processes of history.

The theme of the work coincided with Powell’s mature reflections on fiction. Recognizing that most novelists work from their own lives and experiences, repeating their characters, plots, and themes, he decided to build a massive roman-fleuve—that is, a chronicle, usually in many volumes, of several generations. Furthermore, he would use himself and his acquaintances as a foundation. Thus, he could create a universe free of conventional constraints—that is, of the common demands of plot and character—and therefore be free to reproduce the writer’s view of his experiences.

The plot of the projected work could simply follow the flow of time, limited only by its currents; the characters would dance along its stream, joined both by it and by their own efforts. The same forces that guide life would direct the fiction; fate would rule both, and patterns would emerge only in retrospect. Powell limited himself to his own milieu, the upper and upper-middle classes, which at the beginning of the twentieth century had constituted the elite but lost some of their status in an increasingly egalitarian century.

The cast of characters of A Dance to the Music of Time is vast and diversified, and their lives intersect in unexpected and unpredictable ways. The apparently random connections reveal subtle patterns when viewed from a distance. Up close, the movements of the dancers look spontaneous and improvised. From afar, the dance becomes a figure. Powell’s fiction reflects the intelligibility of life; it seems to be describable with chaos theory, the concept that a reproducible order underlies even apparently random fluctuation.

Powell published the first volume in the series, A Question of Upbringing
Question of Upbringing, A (Powell) (1951), when he was forty-five years old, setting himself a formidable challenge. A twelve-volume series, at 50,000 words per volume, would amount to 600,000 words. To produce one volume every other year, reasonable even for a stylist like Powell, would mean consigning himself to a twenty-four-year contract, running until he would be nearly seventy years old.

Powell stuck largely to this schedule. He succeeded in producing eleven further volumes: A Buyer’s Market (1952), The Acceptance World (1955), At Lady Molly’s (1957), Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (1960), The Kindly Ones (1962), The Valley of Bones (1964), The Soldier’s Art (1966), The Military Philosophers (1968), Books Do Furnish a Room (1971), Temporary Kings (1973), and Hearing Secret Harmonies
Hearing Secret Harmonies (Powell) (1975). Remarkably, the pace of the series is even, and the patterns that emerge almost imperceptibly do seem to mirror the patterns of wisdom acquired by experience. Upon completion in 1975, the series was recognized as a rarity, a work of art that truly imitated life.


While Powell was composing A Dance to the Music of Time, critics paid little attention to the developing architecture and judged the novels as single entities. When he finished the series, a common first reaction was to congratulate him solely for the effort, for the literary record teems with incomplete projects. The physical feat of completion, however, pales before the subtle revelations that multiply as readers finish the sequence. The title of the twelfth volume, Hearing Secret Harmonies, sums up the effect, which duplicates the experience of the author in fashioning the narrative.

Powell wrote these stories very much as they are read, as gradually accumulating cells of experience originally lived through as single, separate units. Powell intended his narrative to duplicate the process of living. To accomplish this, he had to avoid predetermining outcomes or allowing completed volumes to affect those in progress. This consideration also made some of the volumes quite unlike conventional novels.

In dividing the narrative, Powell sometimes arbitrarily determined starting and stopping points, just as the calendar defines where months begin and end. Each book is concerned primarily with capturing a period in life rather than in following a conventional plot with conventional characters. Thus, some of the outcomes are indefinite and ambiguous; sometimes the significances are vague and imprecise. This corresponds with life, which often does not reveal what an episode is about until long after it is over. Powell accomplishes this restraint with great integrity; parallels and correspondences emerge on their own, rather than through the manipulations of the author.

Powell’s achievement generally has been hailed as one of the most important works of the twentieth century. He has suffered some detraction, especially in England, where his writing has been less well received than it has been in the United States. Acceptance of his work seems to be connected closely to social level and choice of subject, particularly because Powell memorializes a superseded class and a rejected way of life. He has undergone the reevaluation experienced by his friend Evelyn Waugh, also now demoted from the eminence he once enjoyed. When questions about the world he represents—really an extraliterary consideration—are ignored, however, Powell’s triumph is regularly admitted. Even his detractors note that Powell wrote the epitaph of the elite class, documenting its demise. He obviously was aware of its deficiencies.

Powell’s achievement lies partly in his fidelity to the perception that the privileged classes determined the character of English life in the first half of the twentieth century. Powell focuses on the way the upper class presided over the disintegration of the very imperial system that raised it to prominence and made it necesssary; that is, the elite voluntarily relinquished their power. Furthermore, they also rose to the occasion during World War II, which could not have been waged without their direction. Powell bids farewell to past glory.

Powell’s vision is subtle, penetrating, and detailed. He focuses on behavior, especially on the nuances of social interaction, the choices and actions that betray character. His presentation is detached and objective, almost photographic: characters appear frontally, their actions and words speaking for them. Since many reappear at later stages, the reader sees certain traits persist over time and control personality. Character manifests itself early and remains substantially intact.

The novels group themselves into sets of three. Their reissue as a quartet of trilogies reflected that organization. The first triplet deals with youth and early adulthood. It begins with A Question of Upbringing, which underpins the entire sequence, establishing the central character opposition and suggesting how character developed in youth directs behavior throughout life. The source of intelligence is the main figure, Nicholas Jenkins, who tells his story as if his life were incidental. He chronicles the vicissitudes and follies around him with gentle irony, but without judging, acting throughout with decency, integrity, and loyalty, supposedly the values of the upper classes, though these values are often violated.

Set against Jenkins is Kenneth Widmerpool, the first and most persistent of a set of ambitious power brokers, ruthless in pursuit of position. The two characters encounter each other repeatedly. The second trilogy deals with the period of marriage and family rearing, establishing careers, and forming social groups. The third presents World War II, the high point of this generation. The fourth deals with the decline of the upper classes following the war. It is difficult to imagine a more complete depiction of the character of this class and this civilization than that presented by Powell. In his close attention to character, he chronicled the end of an era as well as offering a monumental epic. Dance to the Music of Time, A (Powell)
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Further Reading

  • Birns, Nicholas. Understanding Anthony Powell. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004. A guide to Powell’s writing, focusing on its autobiographical component. Part of the Understanding Contemporary British Literature series. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Felber, Lynette. Gender and Genre in Novels Without End: The British Roman-Fleuve. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995. Study of three major romans-fleuves, comparing Powell’s work to that of Anthony Trollope and Dorothy Richardson. Reads Powell’s novels as fundamentally influenced by his gender. Bibliographic references and index.
  • McEwan, Neil. Anthony Powell. Modern Novelists. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. A small book, but full of useful information. It has much more material about Powell’s writings than about his life. Analyzes A Dance to the Music of Time from three different points of view, as narrative, myth, and artwork. Notes, select bibliography, and index.
  • _______. The Survival of the Novel: British Fiction in the Later Twentieth Century. London: Macmillan, 1981. The chapter on Powell is the best brief introduction available to A Dance to the Music of Time. Places Powell’s work in relation to twentieth century fiction in general. McEwan is less partial in his judgments than are most commentators. Index and bibliography.
  • Powell, Anthony. To Keep the Ball Rolling: The Memoirs of Anthony Powell. 4 vols. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976-1982. Powell’s memoirs are almost as entertaining and just as well written as his fiction. Since the fiction is based on his life and times, the memoirs provide a number of illuminating parallels. They will not clear up all the questions, for reticence and refusal to judge characterize the memoirist as well as the novelist.
  • Powell, Violet, ed. The Album of Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time.” London: Thames and Hudson, 1987. This collection of photographs and illustrations related to the novel sequence is an indispensable companion for a fan embarking on a rereading. Much of the sequence is concerned with the function of the memory in making sense of one’s life experiences; this work aids the process.
  • Spurling, Hilary. Invitation to the Dance: A Guide to Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time.” Boston: Little, Brown, 1977. The most complete guide to the sequence, its characters, the real-life parallels and analogues, the motifs and patterns, and the recurrent themes. It is full of charts and lists and features several types of cross-referencing and indexing.

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