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UNDERSTANDING ANTHONY POWELL
By Nicholas Birns
University of South Carolina PressCopyright © 2004 University of South Carolina
All right reserved.
The life of Anthony Powell figures in his writing. It might be said that he goes over the same autobiographical experience three times: in the novel sequence Dance to the Music of Time, at least in its premises if not in its precise content; in the four volumes of his memoirs, To Keep the Ball Rolling; and in the three volumes of his Journals, which though ostensibly documenting only the years 1982 to 1992, reflect widely over the previous years.
Anthony Dymoke Powell (pronounced AN-to-ny DIMM-ok PO-ell) was born on 21 December 1905. His father was Philip Lionel Powell, a regular army infantry officer who rose to the rank of Colonel, was a company commander in the First World War, and received the honors of Commander of the British Empire and Distinguished Service Officer, and his mother was Maud Wells-Dymoke. Anthony Powell was extraordinarily interested in genealogy, and not just in his own. The reason was not snobbery, as many people presume, but lies in the way a genealogical concern embodies, as Hugh Massingberd has put it, "an expression of interest in other people" and "a punctilious attention to detail," both of which were in the marrow of Powell's novelistic practice. Genealogy, in Powell's writing, provides a context for human life, one far more flexible than other constructs imported from outside immediate circumstances. The Powell family originated in Radnorshire some miles west of the traditional Anglo-Welsh border. They were distantly descended from the Lord Rhys, who effectively controlled all Wales in the late twelfth century; more immediate forebears were prominent local Radnorshire landowners, successful tanners, and starting in the eighteenth century, soldiers and sailors.
The Wells-Dymokes originated in Lincolnshire. The Wellses and the Dymokes were members of the same extended family who frequently intermarried. In the fifteenth century, the Dymokes, headquartered at Scrivelsby in Lincolnshire, became hereditary King's Champions, succeeding the Marmion family, fictively portrayed in Sir Walter Scott's poem of that name. Powell's immediate ancestors were not the main line of the Dymokes. At one point they seemed poised to inherit the Championship. But the honor devolved upon another cousin, and a counterclaim put in by Powell's great-grandfather did not succeed. Against the presumption that Powell was born into the upper reaches of society, one may quote Robert Selig: "On Anthony Powell's maternal side, the Wells-Dymokes of Lincolnshire had no exalted kings or princes in their history, but instead had parsons and squires. Although, generally speaking, young Powell might qualify by birth as one of the privileged classes, he began life pretty much on the fringes." Selig may underrate the class level of the Wells-Dymoke family, which even if the claim to the Championship was never won was still reasonably well pedigreed and affluent, but he is right in that Powell's path through life was by no means assured merely by the station of his parents. The parents' decision to send the young Anthony to Eton, the well-known boarding school, was based less on their wealth and on Eton's traditional place in the schooling of men in their family, which was slight apart from Powell's depressive grand-uncle, D. R. Jefferson, than on their wish that their son have the best available academic education.
When Powell was born, he was "expected to survive at most two days" (Infants, 1), little prefiguring a life of ninety-four years. After spending his earliest years in London, he moved around as his father was posted to various stations. One of the family's longer residencies produced the model for Stonehurst in Kindly Ones and evidently had similar ghosts. Powell went to preparatory school in Kent during the First World War. In the midst of this generally ghastly experience, he met the first of his friends to become part of the literary world, Henry Yorke, who wrote his novels as Henry Green (1905-74), and came to know another Henry, Lord Henry Thynne, Viscount Weymouth, later the sixth Marquess of Bath.
At Eton, Powell met future belletrists such as Cyril Connolly and Harold Acton. Powell joined the Eton Society of Arts, filled with the budding aesthetes of that generation, and according to Michael Meredith, "was fascinated by them, listened to their opinions and prejudices, and enjoyed their company before retiring to Walpole House and his less assertive companions there." During breaks from school spent with his parents at home in St. John's Wood, he met the bookstore proprietor, 1890s relic, and noted eccentric Christopher Millard.
Powell always spoke positively, although this side of sentimentality, about his time at Eton. His impressions of the years between 1923 and 1926 at Balliol College, Oxford, seem more mixed. Though he liked his tutor, Kenneth Bell, he did not particularly distinguish himself academically, taking only a Third in history, "without the satisfying conviction that I had never done a stroke of work" (Infants, 160). But this is not to say that his exposure to the academic study of history left his writing untouched. As Lynette Felber points out, Powell's study of history may have contributed to the extraordinary way his work illuminates "the potential of narrative, when attended by insight and aesthetic judgment, to render history with as much accuracy as is humanly possible." This engagement with the nuts and bolts of history not only deepened Powell's sense of former times and his ability to spark anecdotal life out of archival remnants but also gave him insight into narrative structure and the power of consequent perceptions to alter our sense of what has happened in the past. He became a member of the salon held by the young academic C. M. Bowra, only to offend Bowra by pointing out limitations in the milieu of Oxford of which Bowra was utterly uncognizant. Powell's too-candid admission that he did not like Oxford alienated Bowra for a while, although the two eventually renewed their friendship. The atmosphere of the Hypocrites Club attracted a gallery of eccentrics among Powell's own generation. Other people he encountered at Oxford were Robert Byron, Peter Quennell, Graham Greene, and, of an older age group, Lady Ottoline Morrell.
Powell traveled to several European capitals, combining undergraduate adventure and visits to his father, who was posted abroad as a military attache. He went to Paris, Berlin, and then to several cities just recently become capitals of independent states: Belgrade, Budapest, Tallinn (then called Reval in the West), and Helsinki (just emerged from being called by its Swedish name, Helsingfors). These travels bore early fruit in Venusberg. As suggested by a family friend, Thomas Balston, Powell took a job at a London publishing house, Duckworth, a name well known to literary historians of twentieth-century Britain because of the Duckworths' family connection to Virginia Woolf and the accusations of abuse Woolf raised against her Duckworth half-brothers. Among the writers Powell brought to Duckworth was Evelyn Waugh; he also worked with talents as diverse as those of Sacheverell Sitwell and Cecil Beaton. Among Powell's London friends were the bohemian painter Adrian Daintrey and the modernist composer Constant Lambert (popularly conceded to be the models for the painter Barnby and the composer Moreland in Dance), and on a far more restricted level, the novelist Graham Greene. One may assume that Duckworth, headed by three brothers of that name, was the model for Judkins and Judkins in Powell's novel What's Become of Waring. ("Which Judkins do you prefer?" "Judkins, emphatically"; Waring, 9.) Waring was, coincidentally or not, the only one of Powell's five prewar novels not published by Duckworth. Powell's early novels are short and comic, each concentrating on a certain physical and social setting. They contain much terse, gnomic, and taut dialogue and only rarely have the kind of discursive, ambling quality characteristic of Powell's later, more analytic work. But the prewar novels' continuity with others produced by people of the same generation is less striking then their discontinuity with most previous British fiction.
The prewar novels, at first glance, look flimsy and trivial when compared with the great modernist master works produced just a few years earlier: James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), E. M. Forster's Passage to India (1924), and D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love (1920). What we might call, for shorthand's sake, the Powell-Waugh generation, was the first such generation born in the twentieth century. It was also the first to have no choice but to inherit a twentieth-century aesthetic. The slow odyssey from Victorian complacency and optimism was not for them a perilous quest but a point given. Not for the generation born in the twentieth century was the deliberate "case" against Victorian serenity made by Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse, in which the Victorian synthesis personified by Mr. Ramsay yields, in time and resonance, to the momentary epiphanies of the artist Lily Briscoe. Its maturity expedited by the trauma of the First World War, and in any event totally severed from anything Victorian, Powell's generation came to adulthood after that indefinable moment, whether or not in December 1910, when "human nature changed." As Robert Morris comments, "Most of Powell's early novels [are] indebted to the films for much of [their] terminology, technique, and design." Certainly this engagement with the quintessentially twentieth-century narrative form could not be said of Virginia Woolf or E. M. Forster. In part this is because Powell wrote for the movies in both England and Hollywood, but a good ingredient of this ease with filmic technique is simply generational. People Powell's age grew up with the cinema as much as any later generation.
Powell's novels attracted good reviews, but he did not blaze like a supernova in the literary firmament, especially compared with other writers of his generation, such as Greene and Waugh. Some critics, though, perceptively responded to his genius; among these was G. U. Ellis, whose treatment of Powell in Twilight on Parnassus is appreciative and discerning. Powell also produced a poem in this period, Caledonia, an eighteenth-century-style satire on Scottish cultural self-assertion (its animus proceeding as much from Powell's Welshness as his Englishness, though in a letter to Julian Symons of 12 March 1982, Powell states that he does not "really bear any animus against the Caledonians"). Although hardly poetic in any traditional sense of the word, Caledonia does show that Powell could write in fixed, metric verse forms, something by no means every novelist can do. This metric sensibility mirrors a regular, rhythmic, almost reassuring pattern in his far more ornate and idiosyncratic prose. Studded with obscure references to Scotsmen, Englishmen, and even Africans, Caledonia, in its original, privately printed form, is now worth several thousand dollars on rare book markets.
Caledonia was published to celebrate the September 1934 engagement of Powell to Lady Violet Pakenham, the third daughter of Brigadier General the 5th Earl of Longford, who had been killed in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. Powell and Lady Violet were married in December 1934. The Powells had two sons, Tristram, born in 1940, and John, born in 1946. In the early years of their marriage, they lived in London and, briefly, in Hollywood, where Powell sought work as a scriptwriter (he had previously worked for Warner Brothers in London as a writer of "quota quickies" to provide local content to complement the imported Hollywood product). In the course of his California sojourn, he encountered F. Scott Fitzgerald, a crucial influence on his major work.
Lady Violet Powell (1912-2002) was a member of a large family, many of whom produced literary and/or biographical works, such as her sister-in-law Elizabeth Longford and her nieces Antonia Fraser and Rachel Billington, or were notable public figures, such as her older brother, the 7th Earl of Longford (1905-2001), the noted antipornography and prisoners' rights advocate. Violet Powell was in her own right a memoirist and biographer of distinction with a signature, often sardonic style. Her book on E. M. Delafield, The Life of a Provincial Lady (1988), is one of the best literary biographies of a British writer in the twentieth century. She is also judged by most who knew the Powells personally to have contributed significantly to the richness, depth, and polish of Powell's work. American poet and novelist Jay Parini, in an appreciative obituary of Powell in the Sewanee Review, describes Lady Violet as "the daughter of an English Lord." Although the Pakenham family is of English descent and holds English peerages, the Longford peerage itself is Irish, and for centuries the family seat was in Ireland (not in County Longford, but in County Westmeath). Similarly, Parini describes the Chantry, the house near Frome in Somerset where the Powells moved in 1952, as "a house that had not changed for many centuries," when in fact the Chantry, as Powell makes clear in his memoirs, was a Regency-era house, built in 1826. Elements of "the invention of tradition" always occur when one country looks at another's social forms and heritage. That these transatlantic misunderstandings flow both ways can be seen in the entry on the American novelist James Fenimore Cooper in the Cambridge Guide to English Literature, edited by the late Ian Ousby. Here it is said that Cooper married "Susan Delancy, who was descended from the early governors of New York colony." The entry not only spells the lady's name incorrectly but also erroneously implies that the DeLanceys were at one point hereditary governors of New York colony. It is admittedly nitpicking to point out these errors, but from such misunderstandings a misleading picture of the author can proceed. This is especially so in the case of Powell, whose work has long been mischaracterized as being of interest only to aristocrats.
Powell, who had been in Officers' Training Corps at Oxford and served in the 1920s in a South London Territorial (analogous to the U.S. National Guard) battery as a gunner, tried to join the army as soon as war broke out in 1939. He soon obtained a commission in the Welch Regiment, in which his father had served during the First World War. After service with the regiment, primarily in Northern Ireland, Powell was transferred to the military Intelligence Corps. He worked here for the balance of the war effort.
by war's end, Powell had reached the rank of major.
Excerpted from UNDERSTANDING ANTHONY POWELL by Nicholas Birns Copyright © 2004 by University of South Carolina. Excerpted by permission.
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