Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time.
Hilary Spurling, best noted for her biographies of artist Henri Matisse and novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett, has now written a biography of Anthony Powell under an arrangement made between her and Powell near the end of his life giving her exclusive access to his archives. He offered to start while he was still alive, making himself available to her for interviews. After giving that a try, she decided she needed to put some distance between them before starting the book. This may have been because they had become friends since she had worked with him on a guide to the 12 novels making up Dance to the Music of Time near the beginning of her own writing career. This was published as Invitation to the Dance (Boston, 1978; London, 1977).
The book she has now completed traces Powell's family and professional life over most of his 90 years. He outlived nearly all of his contemporaries and ended up providing source materials used in the biographies of many of the leading British writers from the interwar and postwar periods. These included George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, Henry Yorke, Graham Greene, and Julian Maclaren-Ross. Evelyn Waugh also belongs on this list.
He and Powell go back to their undergraduate days at Oxford. This is, quite appropriately, where Spurling begins the story of their relationship, but she gets off on a slightly wrong foot when she says that Powell only knew Waugh at Oxford "by reputation" (86). That suggests that there was no direct social contact. Both writers agree in their memoirs of Oxford that they were not "in friendship" as undergraduates. But they certainly knew each other personally through contacts at the Hypocrites Club where both were members. Powell also recalls other social gatherings where they met, such as Col. Kolkhorst's tea parties on Beaumont Street. Waugh knew Powell well enough to invite him to "offal dinners" in his rooms at Hertford College (Powell, Infants of the Spring: London, 1976, 166-67).
Spurling next moves on to their closer friendship in London. According to Powell, "This was the period when I knew and liked Waugh best" (88). Waugh would probably agree with that. Powell was two years younger than Waugh and by the time Powell had graduated Waugh was also back in London after nearly two years of what Spurling describes as "penitential stints" school-mastering following his departure from Oxford (86). Powell had an apprentice level job at Duckworths the publishers and contacted Waugh, perhaps along with several other friends, with an essentially pro forma letter asking if Waugh might have something he wanted to publish. This resulted in a meeting with Thomas Balston, Powell's superior, who was looking for someone to write a biography of Dante Rossetti to mark his centenary. At the interview, Waugh produced the booklet he had written for Alastair Graham's Stratford-based printing house the previous year (P.R.B. An Essay on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) and impressed Balston to such a degree that he gave Waugh the commission at double the usual Duckworth's advance. (1)
As a result of these early meetings, Waugh and Powell continued to see each other and became friends. The details of their friendship in this period are important because they provide the framework for a lasting and productive relationship that continued through and survived some bad patches after the breakup of Waugh's first marriage. Spurling gets it mostly right (with the help of Powell's memoirs and the two writers' correspondence). Powell became a frequent visitor at the Waugh household in this period and met and quite liked both Waugh parents. He recalls that Arthur Waugh (also a publisher) was doubtful that the Duckworths book project would be successful and feared he would have to make good the advance (87). What most impressed Powell about the Waugh family, according to Spurling, is that it was the "first genuinely literary household he had ever encountered," with books everywhere. Powell was rather distant from his own parents--an only child of an older mother and difficult father whose professional military career was already foundering by the late 1920s. There are no mentions of reciprocal visits by Waugh (or any of Powell's other friends, for that matter) to the Powell household.
The book offer arranged by Powell at Duckworths marked a turning point in Waugh's life. He had few prospects; at the time, he described himself as "very hard up," having failed at school-teaching and dabbling in artistic pursuits to no particular advantage. (2) Indeed, while he was writing the Rossetti book, he had enrolled to study carpentry at the Holborn Polytechnic without telling Powell, who was sent there by his employers to study printing and met Waugh unexpectedly in the halls. By the time Rossetti was published, Waugh had organized his life sufficiently to start work on what became Decline and Fall. But he was also at work on the courtship of Evelyn Gardner. This was opposed by her family and turned out to be a problem with his publisher as well. Powell was familiar with the novel from having read and enjoyed advance drafts and arranged to have it offered to Duckworths. The head of the firm, Gerald Duckworth, was related to Evelyn Gardner and was quite aware of Waugh's courtship and that it was unwanted by Gardner's family; he intervened and had the novel turned down. Balston cited some spurious modifications but made no objection on the merits, as explained by Spurling (98). Waugh refused to make the modifications and took the book to his father's firm. They published it after he agreed to make changes similar to those demanded by Balston. After the book was published, Waugh presented a copy to Balston with the inscription, "the stone that the builder rejected" (99).
Powell and Waugh remained on friendly terms after Waugh's marriage (and Duckworths continued to publish Waugh's nonfiction). Indeed, it was through the Waughs that Powell met and became friends with John Heygate. Although they had overlapped at Eton and Balliol, they did not become acquainted until they met at one of the Waughs' parties in their Islington flat. Spurling tells the now familiar story (114-15) of how the Waughs broke up due to an affair between Heygate and Waugh's wife. Powell was caught in the middle and was on a motor trip to Germany with Heygate when the news reached both of them that the Waughs were separating.
Mrs Waugh demanded that Heygate return at once--sending that same message to both Heygate and Powell. (3) Heygate dutifully returned, "taking the precaution of buying a revolver on the way." This last bit of information is new and is sourced from letters that Heygate wrote to Powell (still travelling in Germany) on Heygate's way back to England.
Despite the fact that Powell remained friends with Heygate and his new wife and continued to see them socially in what had been the Waughs' flat in Canonbury Square, Powell also remained on friendly terms with Waugh, albeit somewhat distant. Waugh sent Powell a copy of his travel book Labels (published by Duckworths) inscribed "from his brother of the pen." (4) A few years later when Powell published his third novel, From a View to a Death, Waugh named Powell, based on that book, as the only writer he could think of who had produced new work in 1933 that showed future promise (162). This was in a Harper's Bazaar article, and was volunteered despite the fact the book was dedicated to "John and Evelyn"--i.e., the Heygates (a detail Spurling fails to mention). (5) One reason for Waugh's continued friendship was no doubt his recognition that Powell deserved a considerable amount of the credit for turning his life around at what was probably its lowest ebb. When he gave Powell a copy of Decline and Fall, Waugh wrote in it, "For Tony who rescued the author from a fate worse than death" (87).
The next contact between the two writers mentioned by Spurling (323) comes in 1952 when Waugh visited the Powells' new house in Somerset and sent a letter recording his impression. (6) They had seen each other at a dinner party in London (not mentioned by Spurling) near the end of the war, probably arranged through contacts between Waugh's wife Laura and her sister Gabriel who was married to Powell's friend Alick Dru (Diaries, 13 April 1945, 625). (7) Powell served with Dru in the same Army unit. The Drus were actually tenants for a time during and after the war in the Powells' London house near Regent's Park. Powell also saw Waugh at Piers Court during his house-hunting in the early 1950s. But for most of the 1930s (after Waugh's divorce) and 1940s there was little direct contact. By the 1950s Powell was no longer close to John Heygate, who had moved to Northern Ireland after the war, and this may have made things easier for frequent contacts with Waugh to resume. The Powells' new house was not far from where Waugh lived near Dursley in Gloucestershire; it was also about a mile from Mells where he frequently visited Katharine Asquith and Ronald Knox, and not far from Downside Abbey and its School that Auberon Waugh was attending. (8)
Spurling describes the relaxed and friendly relationship between the families in this period, with casual visits occurring on both sides (354-55). This is also the period after Powell had begun Dance to the Music of Time. He was writing the third volume (The Acceptance World) when they moved to Somerset in 1952. He was also reviewing for Punch in this period and gave politely favorable but somewhat reserved notices to Waugh's novels of the time--Scott-King, Men at War and Officers and Gentlemen--and a politely negative review to Helena. But the novel from Waugh that most impressed Powell was The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Spurling quotes Powell's review of the book in Punch as "the most searching of Waugh's works... the 'voices' on the boat seem to me to make a sequence unequalled in their combined funniness and macabre horror" (355). Spurling also quotes from the writers' letters in which they comment favorably and critically on each other's books. She concludes: "If Waugh won hands down in popularity and sales, Powell of all people understood what it cost him in loneliness, self-doubt and depression... Powell admired above all in Waugh a relentless honesty, quite different from his own but no less exacting..." (356).
Waugh was at this time captivated by Powell's novel sequence and anxiously awaited each new volume. He would comment in his letters to Powell on each of the novels as it appeared. At Lady Molly's (1957) was his favorite, and he told Powell he had "been looking forward to it like seven days' leave, and read it without interruption" (356). The first of the books Waugh reviewed was the next in the series, Casanova's Chinese Restaurant (1960). The review in the Spectator expressed his disappointment in the story's takeover by the newly introduced musical characters, centering on Hugh Moreland (closely based on Powell's friend, conductor and composer Constant Lambert). Waugh wanted more Widmerpool and instead got the bickering Maclinticks and gossipy music critics. That review is not among those mentioned by Spurling. It is, however, the only one about Dance collected in Waugh's Essays, Articles and Reviews, and this gives the misleading impression that Waugh had formed a negative overall assessment of the series. This is put to rest in his review of the next book The Kindly Ones (1962), also in the Spectator. In this he found Powell was back on form. Spurling in her book quotes Waugh's assessment of the series in that review, and this has become what is probably the most frequently quoted passage in the UK reviews of her book. It was also read out in the BBC Radio 4 broadcast of an abridged version of the biography in its Book of the Week series (episode 5, first broadcast 3 November 2017):
The life of the series is generated within it... Less original novelists tenaciously follow their protagonists. In the Music of Time we watch through the glass of a tank; one after another of the various specimens swim toward us; we see them clearly, then with a barely perceptible flick of fin or tail, they are off into the murk. This is how our encounters occur in real life. Friends or acquaintances approach or recede year by year.... Their presence has no particular significance. It is recorded as part of the permeating and inebriating atmosphere of the haphazard which is the essence of Mr. Powell's art. (366)
Powell reviewed Waugh's last book, A Little Learning, supra, a few years later and, according to Spurling, tried "to counteract an increasingly prevalent image of Waugh as a frivolous and over-rated minor writer, perhaps also to combat his old friend's terminal depression" (394). After Waugh's death "his reputation had taken a steep posthumous downturn" which Powell tried to rectify in his reviews of works such as Waugh's Diaries, Letters and Essays, Articles and Reviews as well as the biographies of Waugh by Christopher Sykes and Martin Stannard. Spurling concludes her consideration of Waugh's reputation as seen by Powell with this:
In these years when Waugh was subjected to every kind of slight and barb, Powell's view of him never wavered. 'Surely the time has come to abandon trivialities,' he wrote sternly in the Daily Telegraph when the furore [sic] about the diaries first arose, 'and treat him as a great writer.' (395)
Spurling's consideration of Powell's life ends with the appearance of the last volume of Dance to the Music of Time in 1975. This is just as well for Waugh because, in his later life, Powell underwent a change of heart. Powell spent the 1970s writing his memoirs; these four volumes--published together and abridged as To Keep the Ball Rolling (Harmondsworth, 1983)--were published individually between 1976 and 1982. Discussions of Waugh in these memoirs were largely reflective of Powell's contemporaneous efforts to rehabilitate Waugh's reputation. In January 1982, however, Powell began to keep a detailed Journal. Whether this was intended to be published after his death is never stated, but he completed it in 1992, and its publication began under the editorial supervision of his wife Violet in 1995 (when he was 90), appearing in three volumes at one-year intervals thereafter.
The commencement of the Journals coincided with the notable revival of Waugh's popularity following the 1981 ITV broadcast of the Brideshead Revisited TV series. Powell had been frustrated in several attempts to arrange a TV adaptation by the BBC of Dance to the Music of Time. The huge success of the Brideshead adaptation may well have added to this frustration. Whatever may have been the cause, the early Journals were riddled with negative references to Waugh the man and somewhat less so to his early works. These references were out of keeping with Powell's efforts over the preceding years to rehabilitate Waugh's reputation. The great success of the Brideshead TV series may have made any further such efforts by Powell appear superfluous, but they do not fully explain why Powell seemed to reverse direction. In fact, the negativity toward Waugh trailed off in the final two volumes of the Journal (1987-92). This would again support the theory that jealously fueled by the Brideshead-fed revival of Waugh's popularity may have been the primary cause. (9)
No hint of this belated animosity appears in Spurling's book, although she does refer briefly to another incident in this later period that indirectly implicates Waugh. This involved a 1990 review by Auberon Waugh of Powell's collected essays Miscellaneous Verdicts. This appeared in the Sunday Telegraph and was harshly negative toward both Powell's writings and the man himself. This can in no way have been a response to Powell's own negativity toward Evelyn Waugh in the Journals since those did not start appearing in print until 5 years later. Whatever may have motivated Auberon's review, Powell blamed the Telegraph for publishing what he saw as a personal attack on him by his own long-time employer and quickly resigned. Spurling was also employed by the Telegraph at that time, writing the lead book review in the intervals between those of Powell that appeared every other week. She describes how she felt caught in the middle of this dispute and undertook to have the Telegraph mend the fences by commissioning a bust of Powell to be displayed in its offices. But she offers little explanation of what may have motivated Auberon Waugh to write the starkly negative review, aside from his having suffered "a barrage of taunts and merciless disparagements" by his father who had unreservedly admired Powell's works (422-25). (10)
Spurling's book is well written and produced and has enjoyed a favorable UK critical reception comparable to that accorded to the recent biography of Waugh by Philip Eade. It may well do more for Powell's reputation than a popular TV adaptation would have achieved. (11) But it does make one thing quite clear. Powell as a person was not the sort of self-promoter Waugh turned out to be. Powell in himself was not particularly interesting whereas Waugh the person was and is. Waugh created a memorable personality that still helps sell his books today even if much of what he projected appears snobbish or a bit mean. His life also makes interesting reading in a biography and may explain why there have been six published. Powell as a personality, on the other hand, hardly exists outside his writings and, even where those writings include a character based on Powell, such as Nick Jenkins, the narrator of Dance, it is Jenkins' (or Powell's) vivid and realistic descriptions of other people that one remembers. Powell was widely interviewed in his later years as he became the last living relic of the interwar generation, and what he says is thoughtful and relevant but neither controversial nor particularly exciting. What you get from him in his fiction is not what he projects in interviews or, as in this case, biographies. As he himself once admitted in explaining why he appeared so rarely in his memoirs: "I have absolutely no picture of myself. Never have had." (12)
Barber, Michael. Anthony Powell. London: Duckworth, 2005.
Manley, Jeffrey, "Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh: A London Literary Friendship." Proceedings of the 6th Biennial Anthony Powell Conference: London 2011. Ed. Keith Marshall. Greenford: Anthony Powell Society, 2013. 68-74.
Powell, Anthony. Infants of the Spring, London: Heinemann, 1976.
--. Messengers of Day. London: Heinemann, 1978.
Waugh, Evelyn, A Little Learning. London: Chapman & Hall, 1964.
--. Diaries. Ed. Michael Davies. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976.
--. Rossetti: His Life and Work. Ed. Michael Brennan. Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh. Vol. 16. Oxford: OUP, 2017.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Manley
(1) Spurling does not mention the role of P.R.B. in securing Waugh's commission, but Powell explains this in his memoirs (Messengers of Day, London, 1978, 22-23). According to Powell, Waugh may not have known that Balston was looking for someone to write about Rossetti but brought the copy of P.R.B. as an example of his writing. In the Introduction to the Rossetti volume of the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh (Volume 16, Rossetti: His Life and Works ), the editor Michael Brennan claims that Powell, and not Waugh, showed the essay to Balston (xxxv). Powell does mention in Messengers (22) that Waugh had given him a copy of P.R.B. but is quite specific on who showed the essay to Balston: "Waugh brought a copy of P.R.B. with him as evidence of literacy. Balston, on the strength of the essay, immediately suggested Rossetti as a theme." Indeed, in the CWEW Introduction, a few pages after making Powell the source of the pamphlet, there is an extensive quote from an explanatory note that Waugh wrote in 1961 for the projected sale of the Rossetti manuscript: "Next year, when I was seeking a commission to write a biography, I showed this essay [P.R.B.] to Mr. Balston of Duckworth's (Mr. Anthony Powell introducing me) and since a centenary was imminent he very kindly set me to work on Rossetti" (xl).
(2) A Little Learning, London, 1964, 201.
(3) Martin Stannard, in the recent Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh edition of Vile Bodies, states that the telegram came from Mr. Evelyn Waugh, not his wife. This is based on (1) a detailed reconstruction of Waugh's movements during the period when his writing of Vile Bodies was disrupted by his wife's desertion and (2) the text of the telegram to Powell that was recently auctioned by the Powell Estate and which Powell had misquoted in his memoirs (xxxv).
(4) Spurling (126) describes this as a "dedication" of the book to Powell, but the book was dedicated to Bryan and Diana Guinness. What she refers to was a presentation copy to Powell with the quoted language inscribed. Unfortunately, Spurling often gets these terms confused.
(5) In subsequent editions of the book, that dedication was deleted. George Lilley, Anthony Powell: A Bibliography (1993, 11-20).
(6) On p. 260, Spurling seems to suggest that they met after Waugh returned to London with the Commandos following the Battle of Crete in 1941. But no such meeting is recorded so far as I am aware. The reference is sourced from a September 1941 letter from Powell to his wife (463), but the text is not given, and he may have merely mentioned the fact that Waugh had returned, not that he had met with him.
(7) Waugh writes in his diary that Powell and his wife "came unexpectedly to dinner" with Alick Dru. At the time, Waugh seemed to be staying at the Hyde Park Hotel in London while Laura and the children were still living in her parents' home at Pixton Park, although she was visiting Waugh in London at the time of the dinner.
(8) When the Waughs moved to Combe Florey in west Somerset in 1956, they were about the same distance from The Chantry as they were in Gloucestershire.
(9) For a more detailed discussion of these writings, see my essay "Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh: A London Literary Friendship."
(10) An earlier biographer (Michael Barber, Anthony Powell, London: Duckworth, 2005) wondered whether the publication of the negative review may have been part of an effort to secure Powell's retirement from book reviewing. Already nearly 90, he may have been seen by the Telegraph's management as past his prime. In an article appearing in The Spectator ("Why I've been written out of Anthony Powell's history," 27 January 2018), Nicholas Shakespeare, at that time literary editor of the Telegraph, explains that the assignment of the review to Auberon was the result of a recent reorganization at the Telegraph and was in no way motivated by a desire that Powell retire (retrieved from internet on 25 January 2018). In a review of Spurling's book in the TLS ("Temporary King," 28 November 2017), A N Wilson wrote that Auberon's animus was based on his mistaken assumption that Powell had blocked an entry for the Waugh family in a new edition of Burke's Landed Gentry. The source of the story was Hugh Massingberd. It was his decision, as editor, to exclude the Waughs, not Powell's, who merely wrote the introduction.
(11) UK's Channel 4 produced a four-episode, 7-hour series of Dance to the Music of Time in the late 1990s (shortly before Powell's death), but it did not achieve nearly the degree of popularity that was enjoyed by ITV's Brideshead series (a rather unfairly high bar for comparison, perhaps).
(12) Quoted in Spurling, (419) and sourced (486) from an interview by Lynn Barber that originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday, 8 March 1992.
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|Title Annotation:||"Through the Glass of a Tank"|
|Publication:||Evelyn Waugh Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2017|
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