15 August 2016
London

My review of A Question of Upbringing, the first Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume novel series A Dance to the Music of Time, chronicling English social and political life in the mid-twentieth century.

Like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume novel series A Dance to the Music of Time is a literary collosus, the kind of project that many readers plan to tackle but few get around to doing. I remember being entranced by the 1990s TV adaptation, starring Simon Russell Beale as the ambitious Kenneth Widmerpool and Miranda Richardson as his doomed wife Pamela, which still holds up well, despite some rather primitive ageing make-up in the final sections. Fans of the books were rather less impressed with the TV series, calling it at best a brave condensing of Powell’s books, in which much of the charm of his prose was lost.

After years of being nagged by my friend Tim to read the series, and buoyed by an enthusiastic review of volume 1, A Question of Upbringing, by Kate Camp on Radio New Zealand, I decided to dive in. As Camp promised, it’s the literary equivalent of comfort food, at least for anyone familiar with English country house fiction, or Downton Abbey. I tore through A Question of Upbringing in a couple of days, and merrily bounded onto volume 2. As promised, it’s a delightful read, if something of a guilty pleasure.

The novel follows a well-hewn English literary tradition of respectful parody of the upper classes. The action opens in the rarefied atmosphere of an English private school in the 1930s (presumably modelled on Eton), a world of top hats and morning dress, lessons in Ancient Greek, and toasting sausages in front of open fires. As Camp says in her review, it’s a world that shouldn’t be familiar to many of us, but which is immediately recognisable to anyone who’s read Tom Brown’s School Days, Brideshead Revisited or Harry Potter.

Through the wry, acerbic eye of our narrator Nick Jenkins, we are introduced to an uneasy quartet of acquaintances: Charles Stringham, an aristocrat with a mysteriously popular divorcee mother; Peter Templar, the womaniser of the group, who shrugs off the aristocratic and academic life and becomes a City financier; and Kenneth Widmerpool, an awkward outsider from a more modest social background, who shrugs off ridicule at school and doggedly pursues a political career.

As this is England, every character is aware of everyone else’s place within a complex social hierarchy. Much of Jenkins’ narration is dedicated to explaining the subtleties of social privilege and the snubs delivered to those who don’t quite fit in. “It is not easy – perhaps not even desirable – to judge other people by a consistent standard“, Jenkins comments, which could well be the cardinal rule of A Dance to the Music of Time. “Conduct obnoxious, even unbearable, in one person may be readily tolerated in another“, and “apparently indispensible principles of behaviour are in practice relaxed… in the interests of those whose nature seems to demand an exceptional measure.” There’s something chilling in these lines, but strangely comforting too, as it confirms what we’ve always thought about the privileges of the rich. Jenkins lays out the truth of this rule with anthropological precision: Templar wears brightly coloured socks but he can get away with it because he is Templar, whereas Widmerpool is ridiculed for wearing “the wrong coat”, and his surname becomes a codeword among the group for gauche or inappropriate behaviour.

The major intrigue of A Question of Upbringing is how much of an insider or outsider Jenkins is, and whether we can trust him as our guide. Powell is deliberately vague about Jenkins’ background – we learn that he is from a military family, and there are teasing references to “the family trust”, about which his bachelor Uncle Giles turns up regularly to quiz him on. While he may not have Templar’s money or Stringham’s family connections, Jenkins speaks with the cool authority and confidence of an insider – or, at least, a favoured guest with a seat at the high table. Crucially, he seems a secure enough part of the gang to join them in ridiculing Widmerpool, who stares at the others “from the solid glass windows through which he observed the world“.

With his social position more or less secure, Jenkins has the means and the largesse to take us into his confidence, sharing his recollections of pranks played on their housemaster Mister Le Bas, tennis weekends at country houses, “going up” to Oxford, glamorous London parties and summer holidays spent in France. The experience of reading the novel is like being seated next to someone at a dinner party who whispers highly entertaining gossip about the other guests in your ear. Jenkins’ commentary is wry and intelligent, stopping short of complete sympathy or antipathy towards anyone, and with an effervescent lightness of touch that’s reminiscent of the best of Evelyn Waugh.

There’s darkness, too, creeping around the edges of the picture frame. We’re made aware that Jenkins is an older man looking back on events of his youth – his commentary is punctuated with “I did not know in those days” or “I was not yet old enough to be aware”, reminding us of the limitations of his youthful perspective. Elsewhere, he breaks the narrative to make solemn, state-of-the nation addresses about human nature that recall George Eliot’s overbearing narration in Middlemarch.

We forgive Jenkins this indulgence in a way we might not with Eliot, because of his awareness of his ignorance, and the foreboding sense of the chaos to follow. “That boy will be the death of me,” Stringham says of Widmerpool, a throwaway line that becomes increasingly ominous as it becomes clearer how important Widmerpool may turn out to be. Towards the end of the book, Jenkins finds himself staying in the same French boarding house as Widmerpool, and witnesses him brokering a truce between two sparring Scandinavians. The incident reveals to Jenkins “quite another side of his character: an unsuspected strength of personality and power of negotiation“. Later, when Widmerpool upbraids Jenkins for being judgmental, we sense Jenkins paying closer attention than he might once have had at school – Widmerpool is now a force to be reckoned with.

The novel closes with Jenkins realising that his tight gang of three is disbanded – Stringham and Templar are practically estranged, his own future is uncertain, and the world is a colder and more unwelcoming place than he’d once imagined. “Life no longer seemed to present quite the same uncomplicated facade as at a time when dodging La Bas and shirking football had been cardinal requirements to make the day tolerable.” One thing is certain, though – that his is an adventure worth following.

Unsurprisingly, Powell causes a lot of headaches for contemporary readers. He seems, at this stage anyway, to be almost entirely uninterested in women. The female characters in A Question of Upbringing are relegated to the margins – mothers, servants, or love interests – with no inner lives or purpose other than in relation to the men. Jenkins develops crushes on two women – Templar’s sister Jean, and a Frenchwoman he meets on holiday – but both are too vaguely drawn to register much impact. Jenkins’ narrative musings on love are much more compelling. “Being in love is a complicated matter,” Jenkins says, in which “only its most determined devotees remain unwilling to admit that an intimate and affectionate relationship is not necessarily a simple one“. For Jenkins – and, we suspect, for Powell – women are more interesting in theory than practice.

If you can overlook the lack of women, and the narrator’s tendency towards old-school Tory snobbery, A Question of Upbringing is a highly entertaining read. My fears about it being a guilty pleasure – should we really still be salivating over the lives of the rich? – is offset by the sobering realisation that English society hasn’t changed enormously since the period being described. Most of our prime ministers, politicians and power players are still drawn from a monied upper middle class, educated at Eton, Oxford and Cambridge, and marry almost exclusively within their own circles. A Dance to the Music of Time is infamous for the soap opera-esque overlappings of its characters – hardly a chapter goes by without someone meeting and exclaiming “Tuffy! I haven’t seen you since -“. On closer inspection, these coincidences aren’t as implausible as they originally seem. For better or for worse, Powell teaches us that upbringing is nearly everything, that the wealthy will (usually) look after their own and close ranks on the rest, and that the Widmerpools of the world will never be part of the group. With this in mind, A Dance To the Music of Time seems less like Downton Abbey-esque country house porn, and more of a social document about the way power operates in English society.

If we don’t like that world, then we should probably burn every copy of Anthony Powell’s novels we can find, and start a cultural revolution. Until then, there is the enormous pleasure of reading Powell’s beautifully written and wittily observed novels. I can’t wait to report back on my progress with the next few volumes.

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