Powell was regarded by such writers as Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis as amongst the greatest British novelists of the 20th century, and has been called the English equivalent of Marcel Proust. Powell's major work remains in print continuously, and has been the subject of TV and radio dramatisations.
When Powell was two his father was posted as adjutant to the Kensington Regiment, a London battalion of the Territorial Force. (The practice was to appoint a regular officer in the rank of captain, not usually one of the rising stars, to provide the core of a regiment whose other members, including the commanding officer, were civilian volunteers or reservists who attended 'drill nights' and an annual camp).
His father's posting lasted six years, so Powell's early childhood was spent in a flat in Kensington, overlooking Kensington Gardens, where he often played. In 1913 his father rejoined his regiment at Aldershot, where the family moved into Stonehurst, a large, furnished bungalow on top of a hill.
On the outbreak of war in August 1914, the regiment went to France and was heavily engaged in the early fighting. Mother and son moved to a succession of temporary accommodations in London. Powell attended Gibbs's pre-prep day-school at the Square end of Sloane Street for a short time. He was then sent to a boarding school in Kent, called The New Beacon, near Sevenoaks and popular with military families. He was unhappy there but made a friend of a fellow pupil, Henry Yorke, later to become known as the novelist Henry Green. In early 1919 Powell passed the Common Entrance Examination for Eton where he started that autumn.
He came to spend a lot of his spare time at the Studio, where a sympathetic art-master encouraged him to develop his talent as a draughtsman and his interest in the visual arts. In 1922 he became a founder-member of the Eton Society of Arts. The Society's members produced an occasional magazine called The Eton Candle, and Powell was represented by "a not very interesting drawing" published under the title (not chosen by Powell) of Colonel Caesar Cannonbrains of the Black Hussars. In the examinations during his final year Powell was graded 9th in the school and 3rd oppidan (i.e. excluding the notably gifted boys who were grouped together in College), "a laurel of reasonable distinction".
Powell went up to Balliol College, Oxford to read history in the autumn of 1923. He was still three months short of his eighteenth birthday. He later said that he experienced a loss of intellectual vitality rather than stimulation from his new environmement. Shortly after his arrival he was introduced to the Hypocrites Club, originally founded as an undergraduate discussion group but by now progressed to be a lively and bibulous gathering that did not attract the aesthetes, the hearties or the conspicuously well-behaved.
Away from the Hypocrites he came to know Maurice Bowra, then a young don at Wadham College and enjoyed his company, without subscribing to his article of faith that Oxford was the centre of the civilised world. During his third year Powell lived out of college, sharing digs with Henry Yorke. Powell travelled on the Continent during his holidays and in Paris, in December, 1925, in his twenty-first year, lost his virginity to Lulu, of whom little is known, not even, alas, the bare details.
Powell had worked hard, expected a second-class degree, hoped for a first but, in the event, was awarded a third.
One strand of his social life developed around attendance at formal debutante dances in white tie and tails at houses in Mayfair or Belgravia. Without telling his friends he joined a Territorial Army regiment in a South London suburb and for two or three evenings a week dined in mess, then spent a couple of hours under instruction in the riding school.
He renewed acquaintance with Evelyn Waugh, whom he had known at Oxford and was a frequent guest for Sunday supper at Waugh's parents' house, between Hampstead and Golders Green. Waugh introduced him to the Gargoyle Club, upstairs in Meard Street, an alley off Dean Street, Soho, which gave him a foothold in London's Bohemia.
He came to know the painters Nina Hamnett and Adrian Daintrey, who were neighbours in Fitzrovia, and he was soon to meet the composer Constant Lambert, who remained a close friend until Lambert's death in 1951.
Shortly after its appearance Powell's own position at the firm changed. The original agreement had provided that in 1929, by which time Powell would have had three years to learn the ropes, his father would invest a capital sum to buy Powell a directorship. When the time came, Powell's father refused to proceed with this arrangement and Powell became a simple employee of the firm. In 1932, Balston told Powell that, with hard times threatening in the publishing world, he could either continue to work full-time at a reduced salary, with no guaranteed future, or he could take a bigger cut and work mornings only. Powell chose the latter. In 1934 Balston was himself ousted from the firm for unrelated reasons.
Powell's third novel, From a View to a Death, was published in 1934. Prior to its appearance he had moved again, within Bloomsbury, to 26 Brunswick Square. E. M. Forster occupied the flat below him, though the two contrived to avoid making one another's acquaintance.
All three of Powell's novels had been favourably noticed in the London literary world, without selling more than two or three thousand copies. His next published work was a contribution to a symposium in which various authors wrote about their school days. The book was the brain-child of Graham Greene, who had been a contemporary, though not a friend of Powell's, at Balliol. Powell's recollections of Eton appeared under the title of The Wat’ry Glade.
In the spring of 1934 Powell was invited by telephone to a party given by Lady Pansy Lamb, wife of the painter Henry Lamb and the eldest sister of Powell's future wife. He bumped into a second married sister again a few weeks later and with some hesitation accepted her invitation to spend his fortnight's summer holiday at the family castle in Ireland. Only during the second week of his stay did he get closely acquainted with a third sister, Lady Violet Pakenham. Things then moved quickly. Powell proposed at the end of September, and on 1 December 1934 they were married at All Saints, Ennismore Gardens, Knightsbridge. They spent their honeymoon in Greece before returning for a short period to Brunswick Square (where E. M. Forster was quick to make a surreptitious inspection of the new arrival), then moving, still (just) within Bloomsbury, to a flat on the top two floors of 47 Great Ormond Street.
Powell, who had very few relations of his own, had married into a large, diverse and talented family. Life was also changing in other respects. Powell was unsympathetic to the popular-front, Leftist commitment that was asserting itself in literary and critical circles, and a holiday trip to the Soviet Union in 1936 did not change his attitude. His fourth novel, Agents and Patients, (published by Duckworth in 1936, the last to appear under their imprint), remained as politically uncommitted as his earlier work.
In the autumn of that year he left Duckworth and took a job as a script writer at the Warner Brothers Studio in Teddington. The job paid well, but involved long hours and a difficult journey as well as much drudgery under virtually industrial discipline. With a team of others, he laboured to produce material that could be turned into cheap films popularly known as "quota quickies". The Quota referred to was a device intended by the Government to protect the British film industry, by requiring cinemas to show a proportionate footage of British-made film for each foot of the (more popular) American films they screened. Warner Brothers, an American company, acquired Teddington Studios to ensure that they reaped some of the benefit, though without any intention of switching major productions or potential hits away from Hollywood. After six months of fruitless labour, Powell's contract expired and was not renewed.
It was by now clear that the threat of war was growing. Powell got his name accepted on to the register of the Army Officers Emergency Reserve. He had no immediate ideas for his next book, but found work reviewing novels for The Daily Telegraph and memoirs and autobiographies for The Spectator. During his time in California Powell had contributed a couple of articles to the magazine Night and Day, which had recently been founded to provide a London equivalent of The New Yorker. Powell wrote a few more occasional pieces for the magazine until a libel case in March 1938, resulting from a review by Graham Greene of a Shirley Temple film, meant that Night and Day ceased publication.
Powell eventually began work on his fifth novel, What's Become of Waring, which he completed in late 1938 or early the following year and offered to Duckworth. They refused to pay the advance requested, but Cassell's were more obliging and brought it out – the only one of his books to be published by them – in March 1939. At this time international tensions were running high, and the book sold fewer than a thousand copies.
The expectation as war approached was that London would be immediately subjected to heavy bombing. Officers on the Emergency Reserve also assumed that they would be called up at an early date. The day war was declared Lady Violet Powell received confirmation that she was again pregnant, having suffered two earlier miscarriages. She retired to stay with relatives in Carmarthenshire until a safe delivery was achieved. For three months Powell remained alone and uncalled at Chester Gate. He was then instructed to report for regimental duty on December 11, 1939, in the rank of Second Lieutenant, to the 1/5th Battalion of the Welch Regiment at Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire. The journey, he later recalled, "led not only into a new life, but entirely out of an old one, to which there was no return. Nothing was ever the same again".
Once war came his determination to get into the army and to work hard in whatever posting he found himself ensured that long hours and physical fatigue put paid to any thought of writing extensively. From time to time he was able to read background material relevant to Aubrey, much of it heavy going but providing distraction from current worries and discomforts. The writing of the biography had to await his return to civilian life.
Powell himself came to believe that the enforced lay-off from novel writing was not without value to him. War service certainly provided him with a wealth of material for subsequent use. Three volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time are devoted to the war years: "The Valley of Bones", "The Soldier's Art", and "The Military Philosophers". Powell's military service provided a framework for these three novels.
Powell joined his regiment as a Second Lieutenant at the age of 34, more than ten years older than most of his fellow subalterns and next in age to the battalion's second-in-command. His previous military experience comprised his days in the Officers' Training Corps at Eton and a spell as a Territorial officer in a South London artillery regiment more than a decade earlier. Quite apart from the inadequacy of this preparation, a great deal had changed in weaponry, drill and procedure.
Powell had joined a Territorial battalion of his father's old regiment, but without his father's assistance. It was Powell's acquaintance with an officer who administered the Army Officers Emergency Reserve List that did the trick. The acquaintance arose because the officer's wife was boarding the Powells' cats. He somewhat tactlessly expressed surprise at Powell's asking for a "funny outfit" like the Welch, where there was little competition for commissions.
The 1/5th Battalion of the Welch Regiment, referred to as the First-Fifth, owed its peculiar numbering to an esoteric practice favoured by the Army to preserve the links between regiments and the localities they recruited from. In 1938 the 5th (Glamorgan) Battalion had expanded and split into two battalions, re-labelled the 1/5th and the 2/5th. Local connections within the Battalion were reinforced at company level, each of the four companies of the 1/5th having been recruited from its own Glamorgan mining valley. Many of the NCOs and Other Ranks were serving alongside relations, in-laws or fellow-workers from the mine, where the peace-time hierarchy might be quite different from that imposed by military rank.
A number of the second lieutenants, aged from 19 to 23, had been commissioned from the ranks a few months earlier. The commanding officer was a solicitor in civilian life. Many of the other officers worked in Cardiff banks. This close-knit community took pains to welcome Powell, who began a period of intensive learning on the job as he led troops on a church parade, commanded them on field exercises and mastered the techniques of military administration at platoon level. All this was made easier at this early stage of the war, when the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of a peace-time Territorial camp still set the tone, but Powell's application and success in adapting to his new circumstances should not be underrated.
Just before Christmas 1939, the 53rd (Welsh) Division, of which Powell's unit formed part, was ordered to Northern Ireland, the 1/5th ending up in Portadown. In February 1940 he was sent on a course to Aldershot intended to bring newly-commissioned officers up to scratch. On his return Powell found that his commanding officer (who had been in poor health) had been replaced by a Regular officer, who had served as a younger contemporary of Powell's father. The battalion was moved closer to the Irish border to Newry and the new CO began the process of gingering up the battalion, removing older or less efficient officers (a process that Powell survived), and promoting the young and promising.
Powell learned in April 1940 of the birth of his first son, Tristram, and was given leave to see his wife and baby. On his return his company was sent on detachment to the Divisional Tactical School to provide security and a demonstration platoon. The School was in Gosford Castle, County Armagh, an abandoned neo-Gothic pile whose appearance was well captured, sight unseen, by Osbert Lancaster in his cover drawing for the Penguin paperback edition of The Valley of Bones.
Later that summer Powell left the battalion after seven months with them on posting to Headquarters 53rd Division, located in Belfast, as assistant camp commandant, "one of the least distinguished jobs in the army", which, because of the incumbent's proximity to the Divisional Commander, required a man "less than utterly uncouth in habits". One of the duties of the post was to command the defence platoon that protected the Divisional Commander's HQ in the field. This required its commander to mess with the general and the division's senior officers.
Lady Violet, with the infant Tristram, was by now living in Sussex, a less than ideal location as the Battle of Britain raged in the skies overhead. Powell arranged for them to move to Belfast, which had until then been free of air-raids, though this was to change almost immediately.
In January 1941, a War Office telegram arrived ordering Powell to attend a Politico-Military Course at Cambridge. Powell never established how this came about and he himself had made no attempt to escape from the lowly job to which he had been consigned. Twenty officers attended the course, which lasted eight weeks and was designed to produce a nucleus of officers to deal with the problems of military government after the Allies had defeated the Axis powers. This, given the military realities of the time, six months after the withdrawal from Dunkirk, can only be regarded as contingency planning to the n'th degree.
The report on Powell at the end of the course noted that he was "Able, but with no very obvious qualifications". Despite the luke-warmth of this recommendation, the course director recommended that he should transfer to the Intelligence Corps. While the transfer wound its way through the administrative machine, Powell returned to 53rd Division HQ, by now located at Castlewellan in County Down.
Lady Violet and Tristram had moved back from Northern Ireland to Shoreham in Sussex, which lay beneath the main flight path for bombing raids on London and, from June 1944, a busy corridor for the V-1 flying bombs. Powell was living in a one-bedroom flat in Chelsea, dining most evenings in a near-by pub then retiring immediately to bed (often to read more Aubrey material).
In March 1943, to Powell's surprise, he was summoned to cross Whitehall to the Cabinet Office, located in the subterranean levels of Government Offices, Great George Street, to serve on the Secretariat of the Joint Intelligence Committee. The transfer involved acting promotion to Major. The move had been initiated by a man called Denis Capel-Dunn, a barrister in civilian life who had risen rapidly in the hierarchy of wartime military bureaucracy to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and the appointment of Secretary of the JIC. Powell had met him with a mutual friend on two or three occasions and had not greatly taken to him. He would become the principal source for Powell's most celebrated character, Kenneth Widmerpool.
Powell was thrown into a testing job in a high-powered organisation at the centre of the strategic war effort with no preparation and little support. After nine weeks his appointment was terminated, Powell reverting to his substantive rank of Lieutenant. Capel-Dunn, whose war service had not taken him within range of the enemy, died when the plane bringing him back from the signing of the UN Charter in June 1945 went down in the Atlantic.
Powell's former section, Military Intelligence (Liaison), in the War Office, welcomed him back, enabling him to reassume his acting captaincy. He was given responsibility for dealings with the Czechs. The Belgians and Luxembourgers were added to his portfolio in due course and, later still, the French. With the growth of responsibilities he again became an acting Major.
In November 1944, by which time Allied forces had just crossed the German frontier, Powell acted as assistant escorting officer to a group of fourteen Allied military attachés taken to France and Belgium to see something of the campaign. The tour included a night at Cabourg, which Powell failed at the time to recognise as Proust's Balbec. Most of the attachés, though not Powell himself, stayed in The Grand Hotel, whose varied delights had enchanted the young Marcel in the early years of the century. Later the party visited 21st Army Group Main Headquarters and was received by Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery. These events are depicted in fictional form in The Military Philosophers.
In the last months of the war Powell and his family moved back into 1 Chester Gate, various friends or colleagues lodging with them from time to time. Powell celebrated VE Night lying in bed and reading the Cambridge History of English Literature. On 19 August 1945, he attended in official capacity the Thanksgiving Service held at St. Paul's Cathedral. In September 1945, he began the three months' demobilisation leave that brought his military career to an end.
His first task was to resume work on Aubrey. The manuscript of John Aubrey and His Friends was completed in May 1946. Powell offered it to the Oxford University Press but, unimpressed by the advance they proposed, took it to Eyre & Spottiswoode, where Graham Greene was a director. In difficult post-war conditions, they took their time about bringing it out and it did not appear until 1948. At one stage, they even threatened a further postponement, which led to a row between Greene and Powell and the annulment of Powell's contract to offer them future books.
In 1949, the Cressett Press commissioned Powell to compile and edit a volume that they brought out under the title Brief Lives and Other Selected Writings by John Aubrey.
In 1950, Powell received a small legacy when a widower uncle, who had retained a life-interest in his late wife's estate, also died, the resources passing to Powell. He was able to purchase a house called The Chantry at Frome, Somerset, about sixteen miles from Bath. It was a Regency structure standing in its own grounds, which included a lake and two grottoes. Both house and grounds were in need of considerable attention.
Powell returned to novel writing and began to ponder a long novel-sequence. At an early stage, he found himself in the Wallace Collection standing before Poussin's painting A Dance to the Music of Time, which struck him as conveying graphically the rhythms and complexities of relationships and events as he wished to describe them.
In parallel with his creative writing, he served as the primary fiction reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, and in 1953 was appointed Literary Editor of Punch, in which capacity he served until 1959. From 1958 to 1990, he was a regular reviewer for The Daily Telegraph, resigning after a vitriolic personal attack on him by Auberon Waugh was published in the newspaper. He also reviewed occasionally for The Spectator. He served as a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery from 1962 to 1976. With Lady Violet, he travelled to the United States, India, Guatemala, Italy, and Greece.
Anthony Powell died peacefully at his home, The Chantry, aged 94 on 28 March 2000.
The characters, many loosely modelled on real people, surface, vanish and reappear throughout the sequence: it is not, however, a roman à clef; nor are its characters confined to the upper classes. The most memorable is the monstrous Kenneth Widmerpool, partially based on Denis Capel-Dunn, under whom Powell served in 1944 in the Cabinet Office and also Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller. The three wartime novels are arguably the most powerful in the sequence.
As Robert L. Selig has noted, "The twelve-volume sequence of A Dance to the Music of Time traces a colorful group of English acquaintances across a span of many years from 1914 to 1971. The slowly developing narrative centers around life's poignant encounters between friends and lovers who later drift apart and yet keep reencountering each other over numerous unfolding decades as they move through the vicissitudes of marriage, work, aging, and ultimately death. Until the last three volumes, the next standard excitements of old-fashioned plots (What will happen next? Will x marry y? Will y murder z?) seem far less important than time's slow reshuffling of friends, acquaintances, and lovers in intricate human arabesques."
Dance was adapted by Hugh Whitemore for a TV mini-series in the autumn of 1997, and broadcast in the UK on Channel 4. The novel sequence was earlier adapted by Graham Gauld for a BBC Radio 4 26-part series broadcast between 1978 and 1981. In the radio version (at 26 hours, a longer and fuller adaptation than the TV series) the part of Jenkins as narrator was played by Noel Johnson, well known previously in the role of Dick Barton, in the eponymous radio adventure series. A second radio dramatisation by Michael Butt was broadcast in April and May 2008.
Partial bibliography of other novels, plays, and works:
To Keep the Ball Rolling: Memoirs of Anthony Powell
A one-volume abridgment, called simply To Keep the Ball Rolling, was published in 1983.