Anthony Powell: A Life


"In the first full-length biography of Anthony Powell, publisher, journalist, man-about-town and author of the "Dance to the Music of Time" sequence, Michael Barber takes a close look at the man and the writer. He finds someone whose temperament was often at war with his upbringing. The son of an army officer, educated at Eton and Balliol, Powell chose as his closest friends people like Malcolm Muggeridge and the composer, Constant Lambert, who were not out of the top drawer or the one below it. And, although happily married for over sixty years
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Anthony Powell

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"In the first full-length biography of Anthony Powell, publisher, journalist, man-about-town and author of the "Dance to the Music of Time" sequence, Michael Barber takes a close look at the man and the writer. He finds someone whose temperament was often at war with his upbringing. The son of an army officer, educated at Eton and Balliol, Powell chose as his closest friends people like Malcolm Muggeridge and the composer, Constant Lambert, who were not out of the top drawer or the one below it. And, although happily married for over sixty years to Lady Violet Pakenham, the daughter of an earl, he admitted that he had "always been attracted by girls who looked as they'd slept under a bush for a week"." Powell believed that creative writing was, like alchemy, a mysterious, indefinable process by which experience became art. Michael Barber focuses on the experience that provided Powell with his raw material. He pays particular attention to the "entre-deux-guerres", that sharply divided cultural interlude when the artists and good-timers with whom Powell identified in the twenties were followed, in the thirties, by the politicians and the prigs.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"An uninspiring figure, to say the least." So wrote Anthony Powell (1905-2000) in his journals about his future first biographer, after Barber (The Captain: The Life of Simon Raven) interviewed him in 1983. It's a tribute to the genial Barber that he can quote this dismissal with bemusement in his sprightly, anecdote-filled biography of the sometimes prickly author best known for that 12-volume chronicle of the human comedy, A Dance to the Music of Time. Drawing on his several interviews with Powell, Powell's four volumes of memoirs, published journals, unpublished letters and more, Barber charts the high points of his subject's career, from his days at Eton and Oxford, through his brief stint in Hollywood, service as a staff officer in WWII and the composition of his masterpiece (published between 1951 and 1975), to his retirement as a book reviewer for the British Telegraph in 1990, after being savaged in its pages by Auberon Waugh. That Dance has always been more a critical than a popular success Barber persuasively attributes at least in part to Powell's personal reticence. As Barber admits in his preface, he was not Powell's choice for official biographer, but until a full, authorized account comes along, this entertaining life serves as a satisfying appetizer for Powell fans. 23 b&w photos. (Sept. 24) Forecast: The relatively small but extremely loyal Powell following in the U.S. should guarantee sales success. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Dreary biography of the writer best known for his 12-novel sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time. Indeed, British journalist Barber's main interest here seems to be in telling readers exactly which real-life people inspired the series' fictional characters. This could be interesting, since Powell (1905-2000) numbered among his acquaintances such leading literary figures as Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Cyril Connolly. But Barber's approach is numbingly literal (an interminable discussion of which Oxford don was the basis for the manipulative Professor Sillery, for example), and he does little to convey the distinctive qualities of Powell's work. The author's other primary concern, making sure readers realize that he personally met many of these distinguished folk, similarly provides scant insight and plenty of annoyance; not many biographers are so eager to document contact with their subject that they would quote a journal entry in which Powell, commenting on being interviewed by Barber, describes him as "an uninspiring figure, to say the least." Readers willing to wade through such tangential material can glean a few facts about Powell's privileged background (Eton, Oxford), his party-going days as a Bright Young Thing in the 1920s, the mildly conservative and largely apolitical stance that put him at odds with London's left-wing literary climate of the '30s, his military service during WWII, etc. They will learn almost nothing about the artistic convictions or intentions that prompted A Dance to the Music of Time; Barber doesn't even bother to properly explain that the title comes from a painting by Poussin, merely tossing off a reference that assumes hisreaders already know all about it. His habit of referring to fictional characters as though they were real people will be equally irritating to those who picked this up assuming they might find it interesting even if they were not familiar with every word Powell wrote. Amazingly dull for such a relatively short text concerning a group of brilliant artists during a lively cultural period.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781585677108
  • Publisher: Overlook Press, The
  • Publication date: 12/27/2005
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.58 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Barber is a writer and broadcaster whose previous biography, The Captain: The Life of Simon Raven, was described by the Evening Standard as a minor masterpiece and the Times as hugely entertaining and scrumptiously readable. He conducted the Paris Review interview with Anthony Powell and has written Powell s entry for the New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
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Read an Excerpt


By Michael Barber

Duckworth Overlook

Copyright © 2004 Michael Barber
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-58567-618-7

Chapter One

In the Beginning

'An ounce of heredity is worth a pound of merit.'

Anthony Powell thought it was rare to find exceptional people without exceptional antecedents, though he added that the unusual nature of those antecedents might not be immediately apparent. He spoke from experience, having dug down to the fifth century AD in order to trace the roots of his family tree. What he found was a pedigree that had seen better days, notably in the early middle ages when one of his ancestors, Rhys ap Gruffydd (1132-97) ruled much of South Wales. By Elizabethan times, when the family had begun to call themselves Powell, their estate had shrunk to a few hundred sparse acres on the border of Radnor and Hereford.

Unscathed by the Civil War and its aftermath, the Powells were undone in the late eighteenth century by the author's great-great-great-grandfather Philip (1746-1819). Reputedly irascible, demonstrably improvident, Philip Powell seems to have been in and out of hot water all his life, long before the conclusion of which he had lost all the family's land. Luckily for Philip his wife, Alice, whom he married before the rot set in, was an heiress; and although much of her dowry went to pay his debts, there remained a house at Marloes in Pembroke, overlooking St Bride's Bay, where Philip ended his days.

Philip Powell had three legitimate sons, the eldest of whom, Philip Lewis (1775-1832), was procured a commission in the Marines, then a dowdy corps by any standards. But Lieutenant Powell evidently had something to recommend him, because while serving in Great Yarmouth he met and married Elizabeth Turner, daughter of a wealthy local banker and sister of Dawson Turner FRS, botanist, antiquary and friend and patron of the watercolourist Cotman. On his marriage to Elizabeth, Philip Lewis Powell retired from the Marines. Presumably his in-laws obtained a job for him in Norfolk, because his seven children were baptised at Old Buckenham, a village near Attleborough. Eventually he moved back to Wales, to a house beside Milford Haven called Landshipping. At his death he was described as being agent to Sir John Owen, a local magnate.

So Philip Lewis Powell had made some amends for his father's follies. But what sort of person was he? To the chagrin of his great-great-grandson, whose purpose as a novelist was to show how people behave, this was a question that could not be answered. 'I know next to nothing about my great-great-grandfathers as men,' he told Evelyn Waugh.

Of Philip Lewis Powell's five sons, three entered the service of the East India Company. Two died young, while the third, another Philip Lewis Powell (1805-56), rose to the rank of Commander in the Company's Naval Service, retiring on the grounds of ill-health at about the time of his marriage. This occurred in 1840, his bride being Eliza Sophia Galliers, one of a large family whose home near Presteigne in Radnor was on the site of a medieval castle levelled during the Civil War. The couple went to live in Jersey, where in due course they had a son, Lionel Lewis, grandfather of Anthony Powell.

With Lionel Lewis Powell (1847-1912) we at last meet a recognisable character, albeit one whose formative years are a bit of a mystery. For instance his obituary in the Melton Mowbray Mercury states that following the death of his father he spent several years in Italy with his mother. Yet the same year his father died, 1856, he was enrolled as a day boy at Berkhamsted Grammar School. Why Berkhamsted? Possibly because of John Dupre, a Jersey man who was Headmaster of the school from 1790 to 1805, during which time it became customary for the Jersey gentry to send their sons there.

In 1861 Mrs Powell seems to have moved to Edinburgh, where Lionel would later train to be a doctor. He spent a few terms at Edinburgh Academy, leaving in 1862; then the trail goes cold for several years. Perhaps this was when he and his mother went to Italy, which had recently, become a united nation. Mrs Powell's sister Charlotte had married an English officer serving with the Bourbon army in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Eliza Powell may well have been anxious to see how her sister and brother-in-law were faring under the new regime.

At his death Lionel Powell was described as a good linguist. Foreign travel in his teens would account for this. It might also explain his unrealised ambition to become a soldier, since Europe in the 1860s was a far more militaristic society than Great Britain, its big cities teeming with uniforms. Possibly his mother put her foot down, or maybe there simply, wasn't the money to purchase a commission in a decent regiment; either way Lionel Powell had to settle for thirty years of part-time soldiering with the local Volunteers, whose honorary Colonel he eventually became.

There are no clues as to why Lionel Powell decided on medicine as a profession, but in 1872, having qualified as a physician in Edinburgh and having obtained his MRCS in London, he put up his plate in Melton Mowbray, a town famous for foxhunting and pies. It was a happy choice. When not hunting himself, which he did three days a week in the season, he was profiting by its consequences. The rest of his spare time was devoted to the Leicestershire Volunteers. Although not without charm, Lionel Powell was evidently someone who had to be taken on his own terms, which included a taste for practical joking. His party piece when out for a stroll with a companion was to trip them up with his walking stick and catch them before they hit the ground, a feat that must have required split-second timing and a degree of forbearance on the part of his victim.

In 1878 Lionel Powell married Jessie Adcock, daughter and heir of William Adcock, a self-made brewer and vintner with whom he served in the Volunteers. Financially this made sense: on the death of her father in 1890 Jessie inherited £16,000, worth over a million in today's money, some of which may have been used to buy The Elms, the large and gloomy house Anthony Powell remembered as a small boy. But in other respects there was a price to pay. Because of her father's humble origins Jessie was not received everywhere in the county. Furthermore her character was markedly different from her husband's. He was a hearty extrovert, happiest in the saddle or, latterly, at the wheel of Melton Mowbray's first car. She, by contrast, was lazy and imperious, reclining on the sofa all day with a risque novel, but quick to impose her will on anyone within range. She was also a bit of a sorceress, skilled, like Mrs Erdleigh, at reading the cards, and reputed to discomfort her enemies by means of spells.

Lionel and Jessie Powell had two children, Philip and Katherine, both of whom were largely raised by servants. In those days that was normal enough, but Philip took it hard, convinced he had been neglected. He blamed Jessie for this, but she cannot be held responsible for the mess that was apparently made of his education. I say 'apparently' because Powell, normally precise about such matters, gives no details of his father's schooling. All he says is that having failed Iris naval entrance exam at the age of twelve (like Evelyn Waugh's Apthorpe), Philip continued to be educated in a 'hand-to-mouth fashion' (again like Apthorpe) until it was time for him to cram for Sandhurst, a longish period being spent with a French family in Brittany. Whether this was negligence on Lionel's part, or a deliberate attempt to spend as little on his son's education as possible, is anybody's guess. But there were plenty of good schools nearby, notably Uppingham, where Philip could have gone.

Like the narrator's father in Dance, Philip Powell (1882-1959) grew up to be a difficult mall, highly strung, caustic, often morose. No doubt the fault lay in his stars, not his irregular education; but ill an Army where nine out of ten officers were public school men, he may have felt that through no fault of his own, he had got off on the wrong foot. It made no difference in the long run: he enjoyed a distinguished career that was cut short by ill-health. But just as some people are very obviously the product of their school or university, Philip Powell was defined by the terms he spent at Sandhurst and his earliest years in the army. Despite having a good enough brain to take a Second in Law at the age of 48, he was never able to refocus the perspective on life he had first acquired as a gentleman cadet. (But could not something similar be said of Winston Churchill? It is, to echo Powell himself, all interesting question.)

Philip passed out of Sandhurst at a time when the Army's shortcomings were being mercilessly exposed on the South African veldt. But while the Boer War kick-started long overdue reforms in tactics, policy and administration, it did nothing to broaden the intake of officers, all of whom were expected to possess a minimum private income of £100 a year, though in most regiments you needed at least £150. Consequently Philip, with not much money behind him, would have known that there were only a limited number of regiments he could afford to join. On the recommendation of his kinsman, Major-General (Sir) Alfred Turner, he chose the Welch Regiment, a socially undistinguished unit, but said to be good and cheap. In March 1901 he was gazetted into the 1st Battalion, then on garrison duty at Pretoria.

Commenting on his father's choice of profession - and we must assume Philip had some say in the matter - Powell notes that although it was difficult to imagine him doing anything else, he was by no means a typical soldier. He was certainly not a typical subaltern in one very important respect, for in December 1904, a few months after his return from South Africa, he became a married man. While not in breach of King's Regulations, this was simply not done, which in those days was reason enough. But this is what he did. At the age of twenty-two he married a woman fifteen years his senior - and one, moreover, who he must have known was not cut out to follow the drum. Clearly he loved her very much. And, as we shall see, time and chance offered other, more congenial avenues for advancement than regimental soldiering.

Philip's bride was Maud Mary Wells-Dymoke (1867-1954), second daughter of Lionel Wells-Dymoke (1814-92) by his second marriage, his first marriage, to another of the Galliers sisters of Presteigne, having been childless. A qualified barrister who neither needed nor bothered to practise, Lionel Wells-Dymoke was the son of an obsessive Lincolnshire squire who almost beggared himself trying to prove that he was the legitimate King's Champion and also heir to two mediaeval baronies. Lionel, who did not share his father's dynastic aspirations, got to know the Powells through his first wife, becoming godfather to Lionel Powell, who was named after him. In time his daughters would visit The Elms, and although they didn't much care for the atmosphere of the house, they were there often enough for Maud and Philip to become acquainted. To say that Maud was in danger of being left on the shelf before she and Philip reached an understanding may be an exaggeration, since she had kept her looks and was, moreover, wealthy enough in her own right to remain a good catch. Nevertheless she must have been flattered by the young man's attentions, which began while he was still at Sandhurst.

Philip would have known that a young officer's first duty - some said his only duty - was to his regiment, and that this precluded early marriage. In some regiments a newly-joined subaltern was required to sign a document promising to pay a hefty fine should he marry before becoming a captain, which would probably not be for at least ten years. That this practice was illegal shows the lengths to which officers would go to prevent one of their brethren defaulting. But assuming a young officer did defy convention and marry, he could expect no preferential treatment; indeed there was a risk that he and his bride would find life so irksome that he would either send in his papers or apply for a less demanding job outside the regiment. This latter course was the one chosen by Philip Powell. In January 1908, two years after the birth of his only son, he took up the post of adjutant to The Kensingtons, a battalion of London Territorials whose Honorary Colonel, by a happy chance, was Major-General Turner.

Given his interest in military matters it is odd that Powell seems unaware of the risks his father ran in marrying when he did. Reading Infants, you are left with the impression that such objections as there were to the marriage came from Philip's parents, and that these were based solely on the couple's disparity in age (incidentally a further embarrassment in regimental circles, since Maud, thirty-seven when she married, could have passed for a Major's wife). Happily the marriage proved a great success, Maud dedicating herself to the welfare of her far from tranquil husband. But having had to move nine times in their first two years together she must have been relieved when Philip got his new job and they were able to settle down in a large flat in Albert Hall Mansions overlooking Kensington Gardens. It was here that Powell's memories began.

Anthony Dymoke Powell, an only child, was born in Westminster on Thursday 21 December 1905. In view of the great age he attained it should be recorded that he was a very sickly infant whose life hung by a thread for several days. But perhaps, even in the cradle, he knew better than to draw attention to himself, something his mother deplored. At any rate, not only did he pull through, he also proved resilient enough to survive the dislocations that preceded the family's removal to Albert Hall Mansions. There, for the next five years, he was looked after by a kindly nursemaid called Clara, a martyr to 'the curse' whose sufferings, he reckoned, 'should have prepared one in the future for feminine disorders of health and temper at these regular intervals'. I think this is stretching a point. But it does suggest how ill-informed about such matters young men of Powell's sort could grow up to be. For instance Peter Quennell, later sent down from Oxford for heterosexual misdemeanours, arrived there thinking that a baby was born through the navel, while Cyril Connolly, aged eighteen, feared he'd caught syphilis after shaking the gloved hand of a French prostitute.

Reviewing a life of Compton Mackenzie, Powell noted that at Mackenzie's christening the Bad Fairy's gift had been 'just the right element of moderate unhappiness in childhood' to help him to become a writer. From this it is natural to conclude that when he describes his own childhood as 'lonely ... but not unhappy', he may have left something out.


Excerpted from ANTHONY POWELL by Michael Barber Copyright © 2004 by Michael Barber. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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