A Dance to the Music of Time

by Anthony Powell

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Critical Evaluation

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Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time is a roman-fleuve, a long sequence of novels that together make up a single unified work. Other examples of the roman-fleuve in English fiction include C. P. Snow’s eleven-volume Strangers and Brothers (1940-1970) and Henry Williamson’s fifteen-volume A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight (1951-1969). In French, examples of the roman-fleuve include Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe (1904-1912, 10 vols.), Jules Romains’s Men of Good Will (1932-1946, 27 vols.), Roger Martin du Gard’s Les Thibaults (1922-1940, 8 vols.), and Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927, 7 vols.), to which Jenkins sometimes refers in his narration. Powell’s sequence also is reminiscent of the work of nineteenth century novelists such as Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), whose books, though much longer, have huge casts of characters.

Powell’s work, in its Englishness, is like that of Charles Dickens (1812-1870) as well, as it teems with delightful native eccentrics. Perhaps Powell would not have welcomed this comparison, however, because the novelist Nicholas Jenkins, Powell’s alter ego, on more than one occasion, voices his lack of admiration for the Victorian novelists.

The length of the roman-fleuve allows the novelist to develop characters over time, to convey something of the density and complexity of life itself. Powell memorably achieves these effects; at the same time, he is virtually unique among practitioners of the roman-fleuve in that his viewpoint is essentially comic. His narrative is not stylized or experimental in form, nor is it naturalistic, wherein the narrator purports to allow the characters and events to speak solely for themselves. In these novels, everything related is filtered through the intelligence and the temperament of the narrator, Jenkins. He has a ready eye for life’s ironies and absurdities. Thus, a sequence of novels featuring broken marriages, mental breakdowns, failures in business, the military, and the arts; deaths in battle, and suicides—because of the perspective and personality of the narrator—can be read as comedy.

A Dance to the Music of Time draws its title from a painting by Nicolas Poussin. At the beginning of the novel, Jenkins watches some workers gathered around a fire and is reminded of Poussin’s painting, the one in which the seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of time brings thoughts of mortality, of human beings, facing outward like the seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure and stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognizable shape. This image of “the music of time,” to the tune of which “partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle,” governs the entire sequence. This structure, therefore, supports the many apparently coincidental appearances and reappearances of characters (again, as in Dickens). Perhaps these coincidental encounters are made more plausible because of the relative closeness of the upper middle-class, aristocratic, and artistic circles within which Jenkins moves.

The twelve novels of the cycle are grouped in four subsections, or movements. The first movement, which includes A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer’s Market, and The Acceptance World , traces the progress of Jenkins from youth to experience. Powell’s treatment of this passage is highly unsentimental; for Jenkins, youth is something to be endured and overcome, and the prevailing mood of the opening novels is one of waiting for life to begin in earnest. This mood is not Jenkins’s alone; indeed, throughout the cycle, Jenkins himself is rarely the focus of attention. He is, rather, a participant-observer whose experience enables the reader to meet...

(This entire section contains 4330 words.)

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an extraordinary diversity of characters. Jenkins is all that can be desired in a narrator. He is curious, temperate, and—when not in love—sensible. Because he is a writer, the behavior of characters and the events of their lives often strike within him a literary chord. These observations may provoke analogies—from classical writings, from poetry, even from hymns sung during church services. He is literary but not pedantic.

A Question of Upbringing begins in December, 1921, and although Powell does not always supply exact dates for the action, they usually can be reconstructed with reasonable accuracy following the internal chronology of the cycle, and with reference to historical events mentioned in each respective text. The location in this volume is an exclusive English public school. (This is one of the first biographical details linking Jenkins with his creator: Powell attended Eton College from 1919 to 1923.) Among Jenkins’s schoolmates are three characters destined to play an important role in the cycle. Of these, the most important is Kenneth Widmerpool, the only character other than the narrator to figure in all twelve volumes of the sequence. A disagreeable youth and, ultimately, a despicable man, Widmerpool appears at intervals through Jenkins’s life; their relationship embodies the metaphor of the dance, according to which one is bound to one’s “partners” by an inscrutable design. More sympathetic characters are Jenkins’s friends Charles Stringham and Peter Templer. Stringham is appealing yet self-destructive; Templer is smooth, confident, and mature beyond his years.

The first section of A Question of Upbringing introduces these characters in the school setting. In the summer following his graduation, Jenkins visits the Templers and meets Peter’s younger sister, Jean, then about sixteen or seventeen years old, to whom he is greatly attracted. In the fall of 1923, following a farcical interlude in France, Jenkins enters the university (unnamed, but presumably Oxford, where Powell attended Balliol College from 1923 to 1926). A long comic scene set several months later in the rooms of a power-hungry don, Sillery, introduces two of Jenkins’s fellow students who become recurring characters in the cycle: J. G. Quiggin, later to attain celebrity as a Marxist critic and all-around man of letters (although he leaves the university without a degree), and Mark Members, who makes his reputation as a poet and then, like Quiggin, branches out into the role of man of letters.

A Buyer’s Market, the second novel in the sequence, opens in the summer of 1928 or 1929 and concludes in October of the same year. Jenkins, having graduated from the university, has found employment in London, where he works for a publisher that specializes in art books but issues other sorts of books as well. After his own graduation, Powell had joined the publishing house of Duckworth.

Stringham and Widmerpool, in a coincidence typical of the entire sequence, both find themselves working for Sir Magnus Donners, a prominent industrialist. In structure, this volume follows the pattern established in the first volume. It consists of four chapters, each of which centers on a comic episode or set piece. With some variation, this is the method that Powell follows throughout.

A Buyer’s Market introduces the first of many artists and artists manqué who populate the cycle: Edgar Deacon, a seedy, egotistical, untalented painter with an attraction to young men (he dies in the course of the novel after a drunken fall), and Ralph Barnby, a far better painter but one whose art is very much tied to the Zeitgeist of the 1920’s; he is also a notorious womanizer. The central scene of the novel is a party at the home of Milly Andriadis, a socialite in her mid-thirties who has a brief affair with Stringham before his marriage, which takes place near the end of the volume. This party continues Jenkins’s initiation into the world of experience: “I was . . . more than half aware,” he reflects, “that such latitudes are entered by a door through which there is, in a sense, no return.”

A second set piece features Donners giving a tour of the dungeons at Stourwater Castle, his home, which occasions comment on his voyeuristic and otherwise perverse sexual proclivities. Among the party is the former Jean Templer, now Jean Duport; her loutish husband, Bob Duport, several years older than Jenkins and his contemporaries, is an aggressive entrepreneur who makes and loses great sums of money.

The Acceptance World (the title is British financial jargon for what is known in the United States as trading in futures) completes Jenkins’s initiation. In the course of this volume, which spans the period from autumn, 1931, to summer, 1933, Jenkins publishes his first novel (Powell published his first novel, Afternoon Men, in 1931) and carries on an intense affair with Jean, still going as the book ends but showing signs of ending. Later, Jenkins learns that while their affair was still going, Jean had already been with the man for whom she eventually leaves Jenkins, Jimmy Brent, an odious character whose appeal to Jean is incomprehensible to Jenkins.

An important figure in this volume is the novelist St. John Clarke, introduced briefly in A Buyer’s Market. Clarke, an Edwardian writer who in his time attains both popular and critical success, becomes a kind of litmus test: Referred to in various ways by various characters in the sequence, he represents for Jenkins all that is artistically cheap and meretricious. Also introduced here is the clairvoyant Myra Erdleigh, whom Jenkins meets in the hotel rooms of his uncle, Giles. This scene, the opening scene of The Acceptance World, is one of the most important in the entire twelve volumes. The sequence features many references to occult phenomena, in addition to the often uncanny coincidences that are the very texture of the action. Powell’s attitude toward such phenomena is neither credulous nor debunking. He clearly believes that some experiences of occult phenomena—second sight, telepathy (at least of a low-grade variety), and so on—are valid. Their recurring presence in the cycle (along with instances of obvious charlatanry) has a larger import as well, for they point to the mystery of human existence—a mystery not confined to realms designated “occult.”

When Erdleigh reads the cards and tells Jenkins his future, he is immediately startled by her perspicacity, but he quickly discounts that effect, observing that “such trivial comment, mixed with a few home truths of a personal nature, provide, I had already learnt, the commonplaces of fortune-telling.” Still, Erdleigh’s insights into Jenkins’s character are genuinely perspicacious and, as the reader gradually appreciates, her specific predictions concerning his future are all, in time, fulfilled—genuinely fulfilled, not merely finding the loose “confirmation” of a fortune-cookie oracle.

The first movement of the cycle, then, concludes with Jenkins and his contemporaries firmly established in the “acceptance world,” the world in which the essential element—happiness, for example—is drawn from an engagement to meet a bill. Sometimes the goods are delivered, even a small profit made; sometimes the goods are not delivered, and disaster follows; sometimes the goods are delivered, but the value of the currency is changed.

The second movement includes At Lady Molly’s, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, and The Kindly Ones. It is 1934 as At Lady Molly’s begins, and Jenkins has moved from his publishing job to work as a scriptwriter for a British studio, having meanwhile published his second novel. (Powell had left publishing for journalism in 1936.) A fellow scriptwriter, Chips Lovell, is a nephew by marriage to Molly Jeavons. Early in the novel, he takes Jenkins to a party at the Jeavonses, where he hopes to meet Priscilla Tolland, a young woman whom he is pursuing. Later, at the country cottage of J. G. Quiggin (currently domiciled with Peter Templer’s former wife, Mona, a former model), Jenkins meets Priscilla’s older sister, Isobel. They are but two of the ten children of Lord Warminster; the eldest, Erridge, is Quiggin’s landlord and patron, sharing his Marxist views. In his understated way, Jenkins reports that he knew at first sight that Isobel would be his wife.

The novel begins by introducing, via Jenkins’s reminiscences of long family friendship, General Aylmer Conyers, one of the most delightful and most warmly portrayed figures in the entire sequence. Retired, nearing the age of eighty, Conyers is still formidable: He trains dogs, plays the cello, and discusses the works of psychoanalyst Carl Jung, which he has recently discovered and absorbed with great interest. This volume also follows the fates of Widmerpool, whose fiancé breaks their engagement when he cannot perform as a lover, and Stringham, whose alcoholism and alienation are severe.

Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant begins with a flashback to 1928-1929 that introduces Hugh Moreland, a composer who is one of Jenkins’s closest friends and who becomes an important recurring character. The first section of this novel, discounting the flashback, is set in 1933 and 1934 and overlaps in time some of the action of At Lady Molly’s. By this stage, the fifth novel in the sequence, the special effects of the roman-fleuve begin to come into play. The texture is denser; much can be accomplished simply by mentioning the name of a familiar character in a new (and often surprising) context.

Much of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant is concerned with marriage and marriages. Jenkins marries Isobel; Moreland marries actor Matilda Wilson (to whom Jenkins is introduced by Moreland), a former mistress of Donners. There is also the bitterly—indeed, pathologically—unhappy marriage of the Maclinticks; Maclintick, a music critic who worships Moreland, in his own words, “with the proper respect of the poor interpretive hack for the true creative artist,” ends by committing suicide after his wife, Audrey, leaves him. His suicide dissuades Moreland from pursuing his affair with Priscilla Tolland; a week later, her engagement to Chips Lovell is announced.

The movement concludes with The Kindly Ones, which begins with a long flashback to 1914. Jenkins recalls his governess’s lesson, that the Greeks so greatly feared the Furies that they renamed them the Eumenides—the Kindly Ones—hoping thus to placate them. The flashback evokes the mood of imminent disaster, the sense that the Furies are about to strike again, yet it does so in an oblique fashion, for much of the action is broad comedy involving the Jenkins family servants. Introduced in this section is the cult leader and magus Dr. Trelawney. After another brief flashback, to 1928 or 1929, and sections set in 1938 and 1939, the novel concludes in the fall of 1939, several weeks after the outbreak of World War II, with the brother of Ted Jeavons (Lady Molly’s husband) promising Jenkins to expedite his call-up by the army.

The third movement, which includes The Valley of Bones, The Soldier’s Art, and The Military Philosophers, spans the war years, during which, like his protagonist, Powell had served. It could be argued that the war novels act as the fulcrum for the series. They serve as the bridge between the first six novels and the final three. They chronicle the years that change British society utterly and, therefore, the lives of Jenkins and everyone he knows.

Most novelists of Powell’s generation mined their World War II experiences for material. The third movement of A Dance to the Music of Time and the war trilogy of Evelyn Waugh are perhaps the most successful. Waugh’s Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and Unconditional Surrender (1961; also known as The End of the Battle) feature a protagonist who is similar to Jenkins in age and background and who, like him, ends his military career working with Balkan allies (as Powell and Waugh themselves did). For a vivid picture of the English at war, these two trilogies can be read with profit.

As The Valley of Bones opens early in 1940, Jenkins has been commissioned as a second lieutenant in a Welsh regiment, soon to be stationed at a school for chemical warfare quartered on a decaying estate in Northern Ireland. The title comes from a biblical passage in the book of Ezekiel that refers to a valley filled with bones. The text is chosen by the chaplain, Popkiss, for his sermon: The Lord breathes life into the bones, and they become a great army. Much of the action of this volume centers on the tragicomic fate of Jenkins’s immediate superior, Rowland Gwatkin (in civilian life an employee of a small bank), whose romanticism proves his downfall. When, at the end of the volume, Jenkins is transferred and then told to report to the deputy assistant adjutant-general at divisional headquarters in Northern Ireland, it is no surprise that the officer to whom he reports turns out to be Widmerpool.

Widmerpool’s machinations and running battles with fellow officers figure prominently in the next volume, The Soldier’s Art. Jenkins, on the other hand, fears that he is sometimes too straightforward for the good of his military career. In chapter 1, he has a talk with his commanding officer and, when asked about his taste in books, mentions with admiration Honoré de Balzac’s massive La Comédie humaine (1829-1848; 17 volumes; The Comedy of Human Life, 1885-1893, 1896 [40 volumes]; also known as The Human Comedy, 1895-1896, 1911 [53 volumes]), treating every aspect of French society. General Liddament reads Anthony Trollope. Jenkins’s praise of Balzac and negative critique of Trollope, reckless under the circumstances, is an insight into what the author considers to be literary success. Stringham makes an unexpected reappearance as a waiter in the mess where Jenkins regularly eats. In fact, Stringham gives the book its title. In chapter 3, he quotes a passage from Robert Browning that refers to the soldier’s art.

Literary allusions continually play a role within Powell’s literature. Widmerpool not only rejects Jenkins’s suggestion that they help Stringham in some way but also arranges for his transfer to a mobile laundry unit due to be sent to the Far East—an eventuality of which Stringham maintains indifference (“Awfully chic to be killed”).

On leave in London, Jenkins meets Lovell, currently estranged from Priscilla (who is carrying on an affair) but hopeful of getting her back. Later, after Lovell has left the restaurant where he and Jenkins had met, Jenkins sees Priscilla and her lover. That night, both Lovell and Priscilla (and Lady Molly, at whose house Priscilla is staying) are killed in air raids at different locations. Jenkins has a final conversation with Widmerpool before leaving divisional headquarters. When his old schoolmate asks about the subject of his conversation with General Liddament, Jenkins replies that they talked about Trollope and Balzac. Widmerpool seems momentarily confused as to whether he means the writers or two generals by those names.

In the final volume of the third movement, The Military Philosophers, Jenkins has a new posting, working in the War Office in Whitehall in allied liaison, eventually with special responsibility for Belgian and Czech forces. Widmerpool, who has been promoted, is also working in Whitehall, with access to policy makers at the highest levels. Early in the volume, Jenkins meets his old school friend Peter Templer and is struck by his air of detachment and fatalism. Templer has recently had an affair with Stringham’s niece, Pamela Flitton, a beautiful but malicious femme fatale who inexplicably turns her attention to Widmerpool, to whom she is soon engaged. Later in the volume, when Templer is sent to the Balkans on a secret mission and is killed by communist partisans, Pamela accuses Widmerpool of complicity in Templer’s death. There is also word, confirmed by Widmerpool, that Stringham had been captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore and died in a prisoner-of-war camp. Finally, this volume features the reappearance of Jean Duport, at first unrecognizable to Jenkins as the wife of a Latin American attaché, Colonel Flores, some years her junior.

Until the third movement, Jenkins has lived among the well born, the well educated, or both. Only when he joins the army does he associate intimately with people of other ranks (enlisted men) and—because England lacks sufficient Oxford and Cambridge graduates to fill out its officer corps—with junior officers from a civilian background of minor white-collar employment. Among the best drawn of these are stoic Sergeant Pendry, who dies mysteriously during a training exercise; Sayce, the company’s whining slacker; Corporal Gwylt, the company’s ladies’ man; Bithel, a tippling junior officer, who led a marginal, if not disreputable, civilian life; Warrant Officer Diplock, who embezzles company funds, then deserts to Ireland; Blackhead, a civil servant and master of bureaucracy, who sees it as his duty to stop every initiative in its tracks; and Vavassor, the indispensable porter in Jenkins’s building in Whitehall, who is uniformed like a hotel doorman. Women like Maureen, the barmaid who is Gwatkin’s undoing, play their parts as well. These working-class and lower middle-class characters join the comédie humaine of Powell’s England.

The deaths of Templer and Stringham are symbolic of the end of a period and, indeed, a way of life. The postwar world presents a strange new landscape. Such is the mood of the final movement, comprising Books Do Furnish a Room, Temporary Kings, and Hearing Secret Harmonies. In Books Do Furnish a Room, which begins in the winter of 1945-1946 and concludes in the fall of 1947, Jenkins, who was unable to write during the war and finds that he is still not ready to attempt a novel, undertakes a study of Robert Burton, entitled Borage and Hellebore.

Much of this volume is concerned with the postwar literary scene, especially with the antics of J. G. Quiggin and the crowd associated with his magazine Fission, edited by the disreputable journalist Lindsay “Books-do-furnish-a-room” Bagshaw. Also introduced in this context is one of the most interesting characters in the cycle, X Trapnel (based on Powell’s acquaintance with writer Julian MacLaren-Ross). Trapnel is a novelist and short-story writer of enormous gifts and idiosyncratic manner whose immediate postwar success is not followed up; his decline to a premature death is hastened by an affair with Pamela Widmerpool.

Between the time of Books Do Furnish a Room and that of Temporary Kings, there is an interval of more than ten years—the first such substantial gap in the sequence. Temporary Kings begins in the summer of 1958 at an international writers’ conference in Venice. The arrival of an American professor, Russell Gwinnett, who is at work on a biography of X Trapnel, prompts memories of Trapnel’s death. After a leisurely and blackly comic account of the conference and its attendant intrigues, the scene shifts back to England, where Widmerpool is about to be charged with espionage on behalf of the Soviets. (Later, the case is dropped, presumably in exchange for information from Widmerpool.) Pamela pursues Gwinnett and dies in bed with him in a hotel, having taken an overdose of drugs; there are rumors of necrophilia, consistent with Gwinnett’s past. Hugh Moreland, long in ill health and living in reduced circumstances with Maclintick’s widow, Audrey, dies at the end of this volume.

There is another ten-year interval between the conclusion of Temporary Kings and the opening of the final volume of the sequence, Hearing Secret Harmonies, in the spring of 1968. Several new characters are introduced, including the cult leader Scorpio Murtlock (who claims to be a reincarnation of Dr. Trelawney) and the niece of Jenkins, Fiona Cutts, who is one of Murtlock’s disciples. (The time of the action is the same as that of the infamous Charles Manson “family” and similar phenomena of the 1960’s.) Familiar figures appear as well: Widmerpool, after a stint in California, has returned to England in a new guise, as a champion of the counterculture; Gwinnett’s book on Trapnel, Death’s-Head Swordsman, thought to have been abandoned, is published and wins the Sir Magnus Donners Prize. New and old characters come together when Widmerpool joins Murtlock’s cult (which he tries to take over) and Gwinnett, in England to receive the prize and pursue research for his new book, later titled The Gothic Symbolism of Mortality in the Texture of Jacobean Stagecraft, attends the cult’s rites and witnesses Murtlock’s assertion of supremacy over Widmerpool. A year or so later, Widmerpool dies on a dawn run with fellow cultists; meanwhile, Gwinnett has married Fiona.

The final volume concludes with Jenkins lighting an autumn bonfire, the smoke of which reminds him of the worker’s fire that he contemplated at the beginning of the first volume. In turn, the memory brings to mind a long passage from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), asserting with a kind of biblical eloquence the cyclical order of human life (“one purchaseth, another breaketh; he thrives, his neighbor turns bankrupt; now plenty, then again dearth and famine”). When in the concluding scene of volume twelve, Jenkins is reminded of Poussin’s painting (as he was in the opening scene of volume one), the reader is reminded of the many times during the course of the sequence when a painting or a musical composition has stirred the memory of the narrator.

A Dance to the Music of Time is a remarkable achievement for many reasons, but above all it is distinguished by its richly varied cast of characters. It is a mistake to claim, as some critics have, that Powell has documented the British experience in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Certainly, his novels give the flavor of the period as it was experienced by a certain class, but his interest is always in his characters as individuals, not as types.

Indeed, insofar as it is possible to summarize the message of a twelve-volume sequence of novels, that message may be found in Powell’s approach to his characters. Powell himself has observed that if one writes about people as they are, one will inevitably write comedy. His characters are unpredictable and frequently contradictory in their twists and turns; yet for this reason they are extremely lifelike. They are wonderfully rendered as much through the tact and tolerance as by the perceptiveness of a thoroughly admirable narrator. A Dance to the Music of Time suggests that at the heart of human experience, as of every individual life, there is an irreducible mystery.