A Dance to the Music of Time

by Anthony Powell

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The twelve volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time are usually grouped into four “movements” of three novels each. The first novel of the first movement, A Question of Upbringing, covers its narrator’s years at school and at the university (Eton and Oxford, in the early 1920’s, although Powell gives them no name). The action shifts to the social life of London in the late 1920’s in A Buyer’s Market, and The Acceptance World concludes the movement with a school reunion in the early 1930’s. Each movement and novel are, in their own way, independent fragments of the whole sequence, but as the sequence develops, the novels certainly become less meaningful for readers unfamiliar with characters and events arising in earlier volumes.

Typically, the novels that constitute A Dance to the Music of Time consist of about four fifty-page episodes interspersed and sandwiched by page-long reflective passages, such as the one that opens the sequence. These episodes, with their attendant reflections, generally revolve around a small group of characters and a single action, usually a party or an outing. The last novel of each three-novel movement usually serves as a kind of climax for the sequence to that point. The school reunion and its immediate consequences, which conclude The Acceptance World, draw to a thematic close the various matters of upbringing and initiation into adult society that have concerned all three novels of the first movement. The Kindly Ones, the sixth novel in the sequence and the final novel of the second movement, cuts across the whole period of the first half of the sequence. It begins with a flashback to Nicholas Jenkins’s childhood at the outbreak of World War I and ends with England’s entrance into World War II, chronologically bracketing the entire first half of the sequence.

The first three novels cover Jenkins’s life from age fourteen to about twenty-five, but readers learn less about him than about his school friends, Charles Stringham, Peter Templer, and Kenneth Widmerpool. Stringham and Templer, like the narrator, are sons of upper-or upper-middle-class families, although only Stringham has any links to the actual “aristocracy.” Widmerpool, the son of a Nottinghamshire liquid fertilizer dealer, is an outsider who is viewed as a humorless misfit at school, always training to run races in which he invariably loses. Throughout the sequence, Widmerpool cuts a ridiculous figure, but by the end of the first movement, Jenkins sees that others take the stolid, self-important, and strong-willed misfit seriously. During the intervals of time between Jenkins’s meetings with him after leaving school, Widmerpool becomes increasingly accepted in powerful business and political circles. Because their relationship is friendly but not intimate, their meetings are infrequent and usually coincidental. Yet these “Widmerpool scenes” are not only among the most comic in the sequence, but they also advance Powell’s social theme. With each encounter, Jenkins grows less and less inclined to trust his snobbish public school view of society, which led to his misreading not only Widmerpool but also, to a lesser degree, Templer and Stringham, for whom success in the world seemed assured when Jenkins knew them at school. Templer, whose main interests are business and women, fails with both. The charming and even better-connected Stringham seems destined for a brilliant career in anything that attracts him, but his interests are unfocused, and his talents are dissipated by alcohol, family troubles, and aimless distractions. He fails at everything, but with grace, good humor, and modest detachment. Widmerpool’s successes are accompanied by none of these endearing qualities.

By the end of the first movement, Powell’s...

(This entire section contains 2757 words.)

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narrator has lost most of his early illusions about upbringing, character, and success in a world that he discovers is changing more rapidly than establishment attitudes are able to comprehend, let alone control. Jenkins’s preoccupation with the loss of illusions is an even more pervasive theme in Powell’s second group of three novels—At Lady Molly’s, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, and The Kindly Ones—covering the ominous years between 1934 and 1939, through the Depression to the edge of World War II. As Jenkins observes in the first chapter of At Lady Molly’s, these are “times when the ice floes of life’s river are breaking up . . . to float down-stream, before the torrent freezes again in due course into new and deceptively durable shape.”

The fluidity of these times is suggested by the techniques, especially structural, of At Lady Molly’s. The action is concentrated into a few months of 1935, but there is no sustained focus on any of the major characters. The title, as well as the tone, of the novel derives from Lady Molly Jeavons’s household, the setting of many socially heterogeneous gatherings. There, Jenkins meets or hears about the two dozen or so new characters (largely friends and relatives of his friends and their relatives from the first movement) who will figure in the novels of this movement. Lady Molly represents the idiosyncratic mixture of several strains of English social life. Once the wife of a lord, she has been reduced since the end of World War I and the death of her husband to the disorderly life of her perpetual open houses.

The cultural confusion of English society between the wars is further suggested by the title of the second novel in this movement, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, which deals less with professional and high society than with the troubled domestic lives of Jenkins’s artist and musician friends. Tangled love affairs and intolerable domestic lives dog Powell’s men of the imagination more than they do his men of power, for whom failures with women represent no serious setback in their plan of life. Throughout A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell uses the instability of domestic arrangements to suggest the dissolution of society.

With The Kindly Ones, a novel suffused with the ominous and heedless atmosphere of England at the brink of World War I and then World War II, Powell concludes the second movement and his account of English social life in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The Kindly Ones contains the only flashback in the sequence, its first section concentrating on the young Jenkins’s boyhood on the verge of World War I. Hardly noticeable, because they are so completely integrated into the scenic structure of the novel, are Jenkins’s reflective passages, which move allusively backward and forward in time, enlarging and enriching the significant context of each scene. The title of this novel refers to a euphemism for the vengeful Furies of Greek mythology, who were sometimes called “the kindly ones” in the vain hope that they would indeed behave this way. Powell’s point, and the theme of his novel, is the intrusion of war into a peacetime society and how military conflict necessarily changes the lives and values of societies engaged in their own self-defense.

In the third movement, to which Powell refers as “the war trilogy,” Widmerpool has risen to the rank of colonel and, from his position as the military assistant secretary to the Cabinet Office, is indirectly responsible for sending Templer to his death on a secret mission behind enemy lines in the German-occupied Balkans. Widmerpool is also responsible for having Stringham, who enlists as a private and is assigned as a mess waiter, reassigned to a mobile laundry in Singapore. Here, he is captured by the Japanese and dies as a prisoner of war. Early in the third movement, Widmerpool selects Jenkins, as the best of an unpromising lot of new officers available to him, to act as his junior assistant. By the movement’s end, many of Jenkins’s friends have been killed in the war, but Widmerpool appears to thrive on the opportunities of the war years and is untouched for long by any considerations except power.

The action of The Valley of Bones, the first volume of the war movement, takes place during the period known as “the phony war”—the early part of 1940, after England had declared war on Germany but before any fighting involving British troops had begun. Jenkins, now a thirty-five-year-old second lieutenant, is in training, first in Wales, then in Northern Ireland, then back in England. A new set of characters is introduced in the first two chapters, nearly all of them former Welsh bank clerks who are now army officers. Considerably younger than Jenkins, and his social inferiors besides, these former bank clerks are his military superiors.

The fighting is still far away, and life for the officers and men of Jenkins’s company is largely involved with routine details made bearable by prospects of promotion. The contrast of the catastrophic events in Europe with the boredom, the self-important posturing, and the antagonisms of petty ambitions provides natural material for the social novelist. This scrambling for position also serves Jenkins with a meaningful link between civilian and military life; in both worlds, men of will, such as Widmerpool, triumph over men of imagination, such as Stringham or Jenkins.

Only one of the four chapters in The Valley of Bones is concerned with life outside the army, but with techniques developed in the earlier movements, Powell keeps the reader informed of the condition of nearly all the major characters. A chance encounter with a character last seen in A Question of Upbringing brings news of Templer and other friends, and various guests at a house party supply information from their own spheres. Such coincidental encounters, more than any other technique in the entire sequence, reveal the cohesive pattern of relationships underlying upper-class life in spite of the general social breakdown.

The Soldier’s Art, the second novel of the war movement, covers events between the German occupation of Paris in June, 1940, and the invasion of Russia a year later. Two of its three long chapters deal with Jenkins’s continuing problems in the home army, while the other, set in London, reflects the war’s impact on English society. People very significant to Jenkins are killed by a German air raid over London.

The last vestiges of the old order of Jenkins’s society fall to the exigencies of war in The Military Philosophers, a chaotic state of affairs reflected even in the structure of the novel. More fragmented than either of the volumes that closed the earlier movements, this novel provides an appropriate close to the war trilogy. The Military Philosophers covers the years from 1942 to the end of the war in Europe, a period of momentous events for the world, including the massacre in the Katyn Forest of Polish officers by a Soviet Union that later became England’s ally in the struggle against Nazi Germany. For Jenkins, however, now serving as a liaison officer to various Allied armies in exile, these events, like most of the events reported in the sequence, are experienced at secondhand. Overriding the military conflicts and squabbles among the military attachés with whom Jenkins works is sex—throughout the sequence, the most formidable disturber of the peace. Nothing short of death (and death punctuates nearly every episode of this movement) affects the patterns of Powell’s dance as much as romantic entanglements. Among the new characters introduced in The Military Philosophers is Pamela Flitton, Stringham’s niece, whose constantly redirected romantic attentions wreck havoc wherever she goes, and in this novel she does get around. Considered individually, her romantic attachments mean almost nothing, but in the aggregate they suggest a kind of social upheaval. Her engagement to Widmerpool is announced in the last chapter of the novel.

The final movement of A Dance to the Music of Time looks at postwar society in England from 1945 to 1971, largely from the perspective of the literary scene. Jenkins has returned to his own modest literary career, and as the first novel of the final movement opens, he is at his old university, conducting research for a book on Robert Burton, the seventeenth century antiquarian and author of The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). Later, Jenkins is to become the book review editor of a new left-wing literary magazine, Fission. For the most part, however, Jenkins is less directly involved in the action of this movement than in any previous one. In earlier parts of the sequence, he has been more often witness than participant, but in these final three novels Jenkins is less witness than listener. Presumably, his own life comprises his work as a writer and the satisfactions of a happy home life, punctuated with occasional appearances at parties, reunions, weddings, and funerals. These occasions allow Powell to draw together characters from earlier novels that have news of yet other characters, but readers hear little about Jenkins himself. By the final movement, except for a few key scenes, Jenkins relies on the accounts of others. Even when he is present in the scenes that he describes, it is more than ever as a disengaged spectator.

While characters from the earlier part of the sequence are more often heard about than seen, a number of interesting new characters become central in the final movement. So important are these new characters that readers unfamiliar with the previous nine volumes might be able to enjoy the last three independently without much confusion. These last novels are also among the most traditionally plotted for the sequence, each of them having a more distinct beginning, middle, and end than is usual for Powell.

Books Do Furnish a Room is set in and around London, although it opens at Oxford during the winter of 1945 and closes at Jenkins’s old school in the fall of 1947. The most important new character is the flamboyantly self-dramatizing novelist X. Trapnel, who Jenkins meets and likes through his work on Fission. Trapnel falls in love with Widmerpool’s femme fatale wife, Pamela, runs off with her, and suffers the fate of most of the men who have loved her. Only Widmerpool, now a Labour member of Parliament in the House of Commons and utterly confident that Pamela will return, seems unaffected by this fascinating, but extremely disturbed, woman. After an argument over the conclusion of a novel that Trapnel has completed, she throws the manuscript into a canal and leaves Trapnel. Crushed, he becomes a drunkard, turns to hack work, and within five years is dead.

The first and second chapters of Temporary Kings are set in Venice, where Jenkins and a number of his acquaintances are attending an international writers conference during the summer of 1958, eleven years after the close of Books Do Furnish a Room. The next two chapters take place at gatherings in various fine homes in England over the next year, and the brief final chapter is composed of Jenkins’s recollections of events during the autumn of 1959. The novel introduces two attractive American characters, Russell Gwinnett and Louis Glober. Gwinnett is a professor doing research for a biography of Trapnel, and Glober is a publisher, playboy, and, latterly, a film producer. Glober plans to transform Pamela’s version of Trapnel’s lost novel into a film starring Pamela herself. He is, of course, smitten by her, but Pamela develops a consuming passion for Gwinnett and dies consummating it. Meanwhile, Widmerpool has been elevated to the House of Lords for service to the Labour Party after losing his seat in the House of Commons in the Tory victory of 1955. In the final chapter, he is under suspicion for espionage or treason. Of all the novels in the sequence, none has a more dramatic plot than Temporary Kings. That is particularly remarkable because almost none of its crucial episodes have been witnessed by the narrator; nearly all the events are reported indirectly, some of them filtered through several layers of hearsay.

Hearing Secret Harmonies, the concluding novel of A Dance to the Music of Time, skips yet another decade to 1968 and then to the autumn of 1971. Again, most of its events (the psychedelic world of hippie cults and rioting college students) are related at secondhand to Jenkins, who has fallen even further from direct involvement in the narrative. Widmerpool reappears first as a chancellor of a new university and then as a supporting member of a hippie commune. He dies as absurdly as he has lived, collapsing while attempting to stay in the lead of a naked jog with his commune. His death recalls his first appearance in A Question of Upbringing, puffing out of the mist as he trains for races that no one believed he could win.