Michael Barber faced obstacles in writing this book. Anthony Powell was an acclaimed novelist, famous for his twelve-novel series known collectively as A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975). Some years ago, Powell selected Hilary Spurling to write his authorized biography. Like Powell, Spurling was an Oxford graduate, and in 1977 she had published a useful guide to Powell's novels, Invitation to the Dance. When Barber, an enthusiastic reader of Powell's work, began to contemplate his biography, he found some doors closed and some documents unavailable. Nevertheless, he produced an admirable and enjoyable book in a year when Spurling's book had yet to appear.
Barber first tackles an issue that has confused many readers: how to pronounce Powell's name. Powell, proud of his Welsh ancestry, pronounced it in the Welsh way, rhyming with “Noel” or “role.” Because he seemed the epitome of a man with a public school and Oxbridge education and because he wrote about London life, Powell often found his Welsh claims disputed. Barber confirms Powell's lineage, though noting that the family's fortunes took many twists after they departed from Wales several centuries ago.
Powell's father, Philip, was irascible and morose but not mean. His mother, Maud Mary, was better tempered. Their only child, who was born in London on December 21, 1905, said he had a happy childhood. When he was nine years old, he entered a prep school. It was wartime, and the headmaster managed to make Powell's experience there miserable. Powell did make a friend, Henry Yorke, later known as the novelist Henry Green. In many ways, Barber's work is a catalogue of famous people Powell knew.
Powell's life then changed. His father was determined to do the best for his son, so he sent Powell to Eton in May, 1919. Though Powell worked hard, his career there was undistinguished. His manner was aloof. Being part of the least honored house in the school allowed him to escape the beatings and the focus on sport for which Eton was known. He joined a group that discussed modern art, especially new painters like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. His circle of friends included people who would be famous in years to come: Hugh Lygon, Brian Howard, and Harold Acton. Evelyn Waugh met them several years later at Oxford, and each became models for characters in Waugh's Brideshead Revisited(1945). Barber evokes what was probably the most important thing Powell got from Eton: an appreciation for aristocratic, amiable, and easy manners—a style.
At Oxford, Powell's college, Balliol, was right for him, for it did not stress athletics. He was for a while in the orbit of the charismatic teacher Maurice Bowra, but they parted company when Powell lamented the dearth of girls at Oxford. Powell's heterosexuality could not find expression at the prim university, though he managed to lose his virginity while on vacation in Paris. Sex was not the only unsatisfying aspect of life at Oxford. Powell was younger than most undergraduates—and poorer. To make a social splash there, money was more important than success at sports. He did keep up with the latest things in the arts: Marcel Proust, the Russian ballet, and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), and he contributed reviews and drawings to an undergraduate magazine. Still, Powell's Oxford years were not his happiest. He was described by others as conservative and unforceful, an unobtrusive observer. Although he worked hard, he got a third-class degree.
After completing school, Powell went to London, and his life became more enjoyable. Through influence and a subsidy from his father, he landed a job at the publishing firm of Duckworth in the fall of 1926 and remained there for about ten years. His main job was to sift through unsolicited manuscripts, a task that did not interfere with having a good time after work. Outside the office, Powell began to collect the material for A Dance to the Music of Time. He found rooms in Shepherd's Market, a seedy corner of Mayfair. At first he was not rich enough or aristocratic enough to be invited to many important parties, but he gradually found his way into bohemian artistic circles. He had an affair with an experienced artist and model who told him tales of Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, and James Joyce. He met painters like Augustus John and the likes of the traitor-to-be Donald Maclean. Powell's best friend during these years was the acclaimed composer Constant Lambert. In the late 1920's London parties welcomed more and more people of wit and talent—not just money and titles—and Powell benefited.
After reading Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises in 1927, Powell found his own style and began to write. Even though the geopolitical landscape was again changing, Powell produced three novels that did not show a social conscience: Afternoon Men (1931),...