Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In 1976, Anthony Powell, author of the highly acclaimed twelve-volume series of novels, A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975), published Infants of the Spring, the first of the four volumes which make up his memoirs. The second, Messengers of Day, appeared in 1978, followed by Faces in My Time in 1980 and The Strangers All Are Gone in 1982. Together they make up To Keep the Ball Rolling, which in turn was published in an abridged one-volume edition in 1983.

Powell took the title for Infants of the Spring from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (“The canker galls the infants of the spring”). Born in London in 1905, Powell was descended from an old Welsh family. Avowing an avid interest in genealogy, he explained that what attracted him to a study of his family was “the vast extent of human oddness.” In both Powell’s novels and his memoirs, it is most often human eccentricities which capture the writer’s attention and the reader’s interest. His father, one of those human oddities, was a professional soldier, and many of the experiences of Powell’s childhood were later transformed into his portrayal of the childhood of Nicholas Jenkins, the narrator in The Kindly Ones (1962), the sixth volume of A Dance to the Music of Time.

His family’s middle-class aspirations and expectations for an only son made a private education mandatory, and Powell entered Eton College, the exclusive public school, in 1919. Disliking cricket and most other sports, Powell instead joined the Eton Society of Arts, a student group presided over by the future aesthetes Brian Howard and Harold Acton, and including the future novelist Henry (Green) Yorke. Also at Eton during those years were Cyril Connolly, the essayist and editor, and Eric Blair (George Orwell).

In 1923, Powell entered the University of Oxford, where he became a student at Balliol College, with its “arrogant brilliance.” Powell admired his college’s tradition of tolerance, a quality often expressed in his writings and his own temperament. Yet he was not as challenged at Balliol as he had been at Eton; his time at Oxford was seemingly less memorable, although during those years his friendship with Connolly grew and he became acquainted with Evelyn Waugh. His descriptions of those who crossed his path at Eton and Balliol make up a considerable part of Infants of the Spring.

The second volume of Powell’s memoirs, Messengers of Day (a title taken from Julius Caesar), begins in 1926. Not yet twenty-one years old, Powell went to London to learn the publishing business at the firm of Gerald Duckworth and Company. His first months in London were socially difficult and dreary, but that changed with the reappearance of Evelyn Waugh, at that time writing Decline and Fall (1928). Waugh’s London connections opened many doors, and he became a continuing character in Messengers of Day. The discussion of Waugh and his life— anecdotal, with occasional and often coincidental meetings during the many years before Waugh’s death in the 1960’s—is typical of Powell’s memoirs. Through Waugh and others, Powell joined the London social scene, with its continuous round of parties and debutante dances. A socially acceptable, Oxford-educated young man, even if he had little money, was always welcome. He also came to know many members of London’s artistic and intellectual community, and Powell, ever the observer, made much use of those experiences in his later novels, particularly in A Buyer’s Market (1952), the second volume in A Dance to the Music of Time.

In Messengers of Day, Powell discusses various literary figures who influenced him during the late 1920’s: E.E. Cummings and to a lesser degree Ernest Hemingway, but not, he claims, James Joyce, although Powell smuggled the forbidden Ulysses (1922) from France in 1927. He also discovered Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), about which his fictional alter ego, Nicholas Jenkins, would later write. Many critics have also noticed a connection to Marcel Proust, whose works Powell first read while at Oxford. According to Powell, everyone he knew was writing a novel at that time, and he was no exception, with his first novel, Afternoon Men, appearing in 1931. Somewhat to his surprise, it was received by the critics as a bitter satire, although he saw it rather as an “urban pastoral.”

Shortly after the publication of...

(The entire section is 1876 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Barber, Michael. “Anthony Powell,” in The Paris Review. XX (Spring, 1978), pp. 46-79.

Bayley, John. “The Artist as Raconteur,” in The Listener. XCIX ( May 11, 1978), p. 615.

Bergonzi, Bernard. Anthony Powell, 1971.

Brennan, Neil. Anthony Powell, 1974.

Gaston, Paul L. “‘This Question of Discipline’: An Interview with Anthony Powell,” in The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXI (Autumn, 1985), pp. 638-654.

Gorra, Michael. “The Modesty of Anthony Powell,” in The Hudson Review. XXXIV (Winter, 1981/1982), pp. 595-600.

Morris, Robert K. The Novels of Anthony Powell, 1968.

Pritchard, William H. “Anthony Powell’s Gift,” in The Hudson Review. XXXVII (Autumn, 1984), pp. 363-370.

Russell, John. Anthony Powell: A Quintet, Sextet, and War, 1970.

Russell, John. “Definitive Days,” in Modern Age. XXVI (Summer / Fall, 1982), pp. 418-421.

Tucker, James. The Novels of Anthony Powell, 1976.