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Anthony Powell’s Music: Swansong of the Metropolitan Romance

ISSUE:  Summer 1976

WITH the publication, a few months before his 70th birthday, of the twelfth and last volume of his sequence of novels A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell completed one of the most ambitious undertakings of postwar British fiction. The series began in 1951 with A Question of Upbringing; now, 25 years later, Hearing Secret Harmonies rounds it off. The critics in Britain crowned Powell’s achievement with lavish praise. It was a classic, a masterpiece of ironic comedy, and the literary editor of The Guardian, W. L. Webb, a persistent denigrator of modern British fiction, cast all his usual doubts aside: “Achieved is the glorious work. Buy it now; we won’t be able to afford this kind of writing again.” Such a welcome showed that Powell had created an almost 19th-century type audience, readers who had followed the work volume by volume and had made it an imaginative annex of their own lives. Some of the reviews discussed the work in terms normally reserved for popular soap operas. The usual tone for these discussions, a judicious mixture of indulgence and knowingness, suggested an in-group making public their idol.

This is surprising because, at first sight, Powell would not seem to be an author geared to late 20th-century taste. His novels, whatever their limitations, are the work of a fastidious, cultivated person: a man not afraid of making abstruse literary or historical references; capable of dropping into French, German, or Italian, as the need arises; and ready to break up his mannered narrative with quotations from obscure authors, Powell’s novels reveal a High Tory nonconformist (if such a mixture is possible), widely read in English and French, with a passion for authors such as John Aubrey and Robert Burton; who is fascinated by genealogy and physiognomy; has a good eye for buildings and sculpture; loves painting and likes to describe fictional characters by cross-reference to favorite pictures.

Although Edmund Wilson spoke of Powell’s novels as light reading, they make demands on the reader of a specific and unusual kind. Because the story-line in the sequence flows on from book to book and the characters and the narrator make so many references to past events, there is little profit in starting to read the novels out of order once the third volume is passed. As the work gathers way, the loyal reader picks up the recapitulations and echoes from the past, and these create not only a sense of life lived but of life shared with the writer, The final volume is the ultimate crossword puzzle, for without having just read the first book the reader misses the point of what is happening. Such a world of private allusion makes the casual reader feel excluded, but this is the way sequence is meant to work.

The narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, is a gentleman of the old school. He is leisurely and eccentric in his selection of events. He commands a style that might be called middle-mandarin. It is capable of superb comic effects and good description but can degenerate into a genteel pleonasm, like a pastiche of the novel of extreme sensibility. What sets Jenkins apart from most characters in modern fiction is his social composure. He knows exactly who he is and what he can expect of himself. Given the sense of old money and valuable inherited objects in his background, one is not surprised at his indifference to “getting on” (that fata Morgana of the C. P. Snow novel sequence, Friends and Brothers, which has run parallel to Powell’s over the years); or, indeed, to any run-of-the-mill ideas of success. Jenkins hardly needs to raise his voice to make his points for, after all, who is there to impress? This patrician disdain never becomes arrogance for the simple reason that Jenkins is far too curious about human beings. Hard work keeping a stiff upper lip and finding out what makes people tick. No fear of that happening; Jenkins is a professional.

The sequence, like the five novels Powell wrote in the 1930’s, is mostly set in that milieu where the upper middle class meets Bohemia on the one hand and the old nobility on the other. The members of this fairly restricted class, brought together by marriage, education, and military service, constitute, as far as possible, a self-perpetuating elite. Its habitat normally is limited to certain clearly-defined sections of London, a handful of provincial areas, and a few country houses. It has its contacts in finance (“in the City”), in the universities and learned professions as well as in the Civil Service and the Diplomatic Corps. It contrives to appear exclusive while keeping its doors open to such talent capable of entertaining it or enhancing its mana. This class has helped to carry on, like a work of superior fiction, the idea (which had once been a reality) that everyone who was anyone in London knew everyone else. This creates an illusion of coziness and in-ness so powerful that the rest of humanity can easily get forgotten. A novel belonging to this illusion and reflecting its corollary-assumptions belongs to a genre of its own: the Metropolitan Romance. In this romance, that old warhorse, The Matter of Britain, is reduced to the chronicle of a coterie whose activities range from country house weekend parties to certain semi-public rituals, such as publishers’ beanfeasts and other manaenhancing activities. The Metropolitan Romance attracts two particular categories of reader: those who like to read of what they believe is “their scene” and those, all people outside the magic few, who imagine the romance can give valuable insights into how these darlings of fate operate. As The Music of Time is Metropolitan Romance at its finest flower and in its decadence, Powell’s work has immense cachet and snob-value and, as such, is an obvious target for radical critics who like their fiction to have contemporary relevance and believe that relevance means a panorama of dishevelled political attitudes and types.

In Britain, admirers of the Powell work see it as even more than this. Julian Symons, for instance, says the sequence is a High Tory social and literary history of our times. For others, the novels illustrate the relationship (or non-relationship) between the artist and a community that is not so much Philistine as indifferent. More exotic interpretations suggest that the sequence is a gallery of thinly-disguised portraits of contemporaries (e. g., Noel Coward, J. B. Priestley, Stephen Spender, George Orwell, C. P. Snow) manipulated to suit Powell’s own private demonology. Others hint at a secret occult framework for the whole series because of the number of times fortune-telling, hermetic lore, and debased religion crop up and, even, swamp the last volume. None of these tentative descriptions should exclude or cancel out the others. Interpretation is really a matter of personal response since Powell has said he had no big ideological framework in mind. In a recent interview he tended to be scornful of readers who even needed such a framework. At this stage, only one thing is quite clear: it has taken twelve volumes for the dance of the title to complete itself and, by referring back to the first volume, suggests a continuous process.


The title of Powell’s long work is taken from a painting by Poussin in which (as described by Jenkins in the first volume) the figures move “hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognizable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.” This “intricate measure” is really several inter-locking sets of dances. The main one, which keeps the sequence together, is Jenkins’s life as he matures from school-boy to successful man-of-letters living in some style in the country. Of almost equal importance is the dance of Kenneth Widmerpool, who is Jenkins’s fall-guy, tormentor, and antithesis. The subsidiary patterns, often discontinuous from volume to volume, involve the secondary characters, and Powell uses them to illustrate what he takes to be the preoccupation or mood of a given period.

It follows that a sequence of twelve novels based on Powell’s vision of man as dancer in circles must, as it gathers way, move further and further from naturalism or, at times, probability. Instead of the life-imitating chaos of events, Powell creates a mood akin to comic fatalism, which gives an inevitability to the most incredible coincidences, hearsays, and unforeseen correspondences. This law of inevitable coincidence applies especially to the meetings between Jenkins and Widmerpool but is in operation all the time and produces about a score of improbable couplings and marriages in the course of the work. At times, this lends strength to the Metropolitan Romance aspect of the novels by creating the motion of a private galaxy where the elect whirl about, meet, part, re-meet, and always oblivious of the ordinary world about them. The reader learns to recognize this law in operation and smiles unskeptically when Jenkins meets no less than three of his intimates at a meeting of some Cabinet advisory committee during the war.

Powell has said of Jenkins that he is “himself but different.” The similarities are all fairly obvious. The surnames, Powell and Jenkins, are Welsh in origin; both men spent the nomadic childhood of Soldiers’ children; both went to an exclusive private school and older university; both chose literary careers, whether as editors, publishers, reviewers, or writers; both served in a Welsh regiment during the 1939—45 war; both left London after the war to live in the country. Powell has made little attempt to invent a wider range of interest for Jenkins or disguise similarities. From time to time he fudges the picture, as though inhibited by the strict British laws of libel, so that Eton College, Oxford, a Welsh garrison town, and Northern Ireland are never named, although no one can be in much doubt about the places Powell is describing. On the other hand, Powell’s placing of events in London is nearly always explicit, and the early volumes are signposted through a series of elegant Metropolitan Romance districts, Mayfair, Belgravia, and the like. There is some nostalgia for the reader in this detailing of a vanished London geography. Conversely, some of the London areas which seemed to the young Jenkins as almost beyond the pale (Bayswater, Pimlico, and Chelsea) have now become expensive; and in such small details the sequence already has an air of historical fiction.

Yet, despite the similarities between Powell and Jenkins, the reader is obliged to differentiate because Powell, after all, is writing fiction and Jenkins is a fictional character. The general critical assessment of Jenkins is that he is unobtrusive, his style low-key and self-effacing. Both adjectives suit; blood-less and impersonal might suit just as well, Jenkins is a mixture of honesty and secretiveness; he is never predictable. He is honest about his achievements (or lack of them), secretive about his emotional life. He gives the reader as much information about jobs, enthusiasms, dislikes, and background as he needs without ever creating real intimacy. His great defect as a narrator is his inability to come to the point or to write in a style that he can command. His attempts to disguise banal reflections on life and letters, time, and change in a thin philosophical sauce are the result of those moments when Jenkins confounds his true vocation, which is to be the chronicler of a specialized group of people, representatives for the most part of a class in decline, with the vocation of a Proust (which would be to expose himself through experience of men and events, of women and the affections, and of works of art and their ability to nourish and transform the personality).

This brings up the comparison with Proust, always made at Powell’s expense. Powell’s debt to Proust is enormous, and the influences are everywhere plain, beginning with the title of the sequence. In the ninth volume (The Military Philosophers), Jenkins, as a member of the army of liberation, finds himself in Cabourg, Proust’s Balbec. This unexpected visit inspires a private emotional highlight rare in the novels as a whole. In addition, Jenkins shows his power as a pasticheur and offers a tribute to Proust by writing a piece in the style of Marcel.

Yet Marcel and Jenkins are poles apart. Jenkins is socially there: he moves among his lords and ladies as of right and is, consequently, free from illusions about them. Once he reaches maturity, Jenkins is free from snobbery and, unlike Marcel, retains the ability to see himself as he really is and to laugh at himself. If anything unites Marcel and Jenkins, it is their dedication. Both lived for the books they were to write.


The narrator is only rarely self-conscious about his aims. Although Jenkins’s bookishness is established in the first volume, it is not until Volume 3 (The Acceptance World) that he looks at one of his acquaintances in the light of a future literary work. The man involved is Members, a trendy literary figure, despised by Jenkins:

“Thinking about Members that evening, I found myself unable to consider him without prejudice. . . . Prejudice was to be avoided if—as I had idly pictured him—Members were to form the basis of a character in a novel. Alternately, prejudice might prove the very element through which to capture and pin down unequivocally the otherwise elusive nature of what was of interest, discarding by its selective power the empty unprofitable shell making up that side of Members untranslatable into terms of art; concentrating his final essence, his position, as it were, in eternity, into the medium of words.”

Much later in the sequence (in Volume 10, Books do Furnish a Room) Jenkins touches on his own difficulties in creating fiction: “An important aspect of writing unmentioned by Burton was priority what to tell first. That always seemed one of the basic problems.” Another problem that haunts Jenkins is that of authenticity. As he assembles his cast of about 300 characters, he obviously has difficulty in writing about their doings from firsthand since he cannot bug their rooms or follow them everywhere. He establishes a fussy accuracy, often in the interests of comedy. In Volume 6 (The Kindly Ones) there is a flashback to the summer of 1914. Jenkins’s parents are entertaining a general and his wife when a simple-minded parlormaid bursts into the room without any clothes on. Jenkins writes:

“Left alone with my mother . . . I first heard a full and fairly reliable account of that story, fragments of which had, of course, already reached me in more or less garbled versions, from other sources. A long time passed before all the refinements of the saga were recorded and clarified.”

By Volume 11 (Temporary Kings) Jenkins has become dissatisfied with witnesses other than himself. They were unreliable: “One hears about life, all the time, from different people, with different narrative gifts. Accordingly, not only are many episodes in which you may even have played a part hard enough to assess; a lot more must be judged from the haphazard accounts given by others. Even if reported in good faith, some choose one aspect on which to concentrate, some another.”

It is clear that this straining after accuracy is often in the interests of comedy, for the truth when established (was the housemaid absolutely naked? Did the general behave like a gentleman and cover her with a shawl?) is so trivial as hardly to justify the apparatus. There are other occasions when Jenkins is wilfully obscure, usually when he is referring to his private life or filling in material that either bores him or eludes his grasp. His first sexual encounter, at the back of an antique shop, is dismissed in seven words. . .”after the brief interval of extreme animation,” and his marriage to the charming Isobel Tolland is mentioned almost in parenthesis: “Not long afterwards, perhaps a year, almost equally unexpectedly, I found myself married too . . . .” There is nothing about the marriage after that because Jenkins says he cannot write about it. The height of vagueness or impersonality comes in Volume 10. The last section opens: “I left London one Saturday afternoon in the autumn to make some arrangement about a son going to school.” (writer’s italics)

The truth-apparatus almost breaks down when it comes to other people’s sexual antics. At this point, Jenkins is content to pass on hearsay, even though it might be derogatory. Several women in the novels are held to be attracted to their own sex, and one is even alleged to be jealous, or rather envious, of her husband because of his success with women. Jenkins is no less alert to male deviation, and as early as Volume 4 (At Lady Molly’s) someone makes fun of this curious obsession: “”Why? (Jenkins asked) Does he go to parties only frequented by his own sex?” Quiggin laughed heartily at that. . . . “How like you to suggest something of the sort”.” Jenkins even tells a girlfriend that he had suspected her of being lesbian, although his statement appears to behave been descriptive rather than moral in implication. In the later volumes the sexual deviations become really sinister: necrophilia and the unmentionable. Yet the effect is neither titillating nor convincing as detail.


The Dance to the Music of Time runs more than 50 years from the period of the peace conferences after the First World War to the hippy-sex-ecology counter-culture of the present decade. Jenkins covers this period unevenly. There are six volumes up to 1939; three for the five years of war; and another three for 25 years of peace. The action moves forward through straight story-telling but mostly through conversation which can double back in time and bring the narrator and the reader up-to-date with the lives of characters who have been off the stage for some time. The conversations take place in bars and dining-rooms, at formal gatherings mostly, except in the wartime novels, where there is more freedom of movement and more characters from outside the magic circle, The social gathering has a profound significance for Jenkins. After a dinner in the Cafe Royal (in Volume 3) he mused: “Afterwards, that dinner in the grill seemed to partake of the nature of a ritual feast, a rite from which the four of us emerged to take up new positions in the formal dance with which human life is concerned.”

In Volume 5 (Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant) one dinner party takes up 50 pages, and this characteristic set conversationpiece has its critics. Anatole Broyard, writing in the New York Times found it old-fashioned. Whether dinnertable conversation is out-of-date or dated is beside the point; what is important is that the conversation should either divert or inform. In some cases, these conversations have to carry so much information about the past activities of characters that present interrelation or confrontation suffers. A good example of this is in the section devoted to the Warminister funeral in Volume 10. Two sides of Jenkins’s life meet there (the law of comic fatality operating again): the stuffy members of his wife’s family and a particularly dreadful group of left-wingers, including Jenkins’s first mistress. Nothing really happens; they march up the hill and down again, and the denouement of the whole scene is when a woman, the diabolique Pamela Flitton, who takes over some of the later volumes, is sick in a fake Chinese vase.

Jenkins’s greatest success is nearly always when he offers information to the readers which is the equivalent of kindly gossip: the facts about people that lead to speculation and fill in, for no real purpose, our limited knowledge of others. Here, a quite Dickensian feeling for the quiddity and oddity of people comes out. General Conyers playing Gounod on his cello; Lady Molly sitting down to eat scrambled eggs with the vet; the writer St. John Clarke telling a friend that the Nobel Prize was just around the corner; or St. John Clarke again, in his Marxist period, following a protest demonstration in a bath-chair; or the general on porridge parade and the two officers arguing about a “pipe of port.” Or, again, it could be Lord Warminster arguing with his butler about the champagne or Sillery, the Oxford professor and gossip, leaning forward to his dreary secretary and asking, “Have you any piquant details, Ada?” Jenkins’s response to eccentrics is wholehearted, and he pins them down with a phrase and a small image. The most successful single volumes of the sequence, At Lady Molly’s and The Valley of Bones, are where this feeling for human diversity comes out the most strongly.

The prose style of these novels has been widely praised. In his early novels Powell had a laconic manner that owed something to Hemingway. To move from Agents and Patients of 1938 to the first volume of the sequence is to feel at once the change that has been brought about by Proust’s influence: “Silted-up residues of the years smoldered uninterruptedly— and not without melancholy—in the maroon brickwork of these mediaeval closes: beyond the cobbles and archways of which (in a more northerly direction) memory also brooded, no less enigmatic and inconsolable, among the water-meadows and avenues of trees: the sombre demands of the past becoming at times almost suffocating in their insistence.”

Passages of similar opacity occur in all the novels and usually arise when Jenkins is uncertain how to kick off a new section or when he is covering up for an absence of concrete detail at a time when it is needed. The crab-like opening of Volume 2 (A Buyer’s Market) illustrates the first kind; the handling of the chromite affair in which Widmerpool is said to be involved, the desertion of the soldier in Northern Ireland, the skulduggery in Yugoslavia, and Pamela Flitton’s death in a cheap London hotel, are examples of the second. In addition, Jenkins often writes in a pompous and inflated manner, as when he refers to the painter Deacon: “His haunts I remembered had bordered on the northern confines of London.” Presumably he means: “He used to hang around the Euston Road (or Fitzrovia).” The description of Venice which opens Volume 11 also comes into this category. Another hall-mark of Jenkins’s style is the unnecessary use of quotation marks, usually with the intention of spacing himself from a new or suspect usage. It may be correct to write of “ghosts” and “haunted” when it is not accepted that ghosts exist; but to write “fallen in love,” “girl,” “get on,” and a “reverse” gear is finicky and pedantic. Such misplaced or over-precise quotes occur throughout the series.

Jenkins is at his best when he is most close to those qualities admired in lyric poetry or landscape painting: the first sight of Sir Magnus Donners’s palatial pile or of a sad Northern Irish port emerging out of the gloom or of a military policeman, seen near Aldershot, “jogging his horse across the heather, a heavy brushstroke of dark blue, surmounted by a tiny blob of crimson, moving in the sun through a Vuillard landscape of pinkish greys streaked with yellow and silver.”


In the first volume of the series, Jenkins introduces his schoolfriends. His closest ones, Stringham and Templer, are attractive, socially rewarding young men; a third boy, Widmerpool, is a gauche striver, offending by his mere presence. Stringham and Templer, for all their charm, are neither successful in their careers nor in their personal relations. A mysterious blight is on them, and they are both killed during the war, Widmerpool, a one-man disaster area, moves from one position of power to another and ends up as a member of the House of Lords, the embodiment of thick-skinned, self-important philistinism, the man who is everything Jenkins would hate to be. Jenkins has no love for Widmerpool and thinks of him as a ludicrous and craven person, dedicated to social climbing and the pursuit of power. In the first volume, Widmerpool enters at the trot—he is a compulsive exerciser— and in the last volume he exits panting along with a group of hippies engaged on some weird rite of their own. In between these two scenes Widmerpool dogs Jenkins’s career and life. They stay at the same French house to learn the language; they meet in the same parties; Widmerpool becomes Jenkins’s senior officer in the war; they are involved in the same short-lived magazine. In the fourth volume Jenkins comments on this law of inevitable return: “Widmerpool was a recurring milestone on the road; perhaps it would be more apt to say that his course, as one jogged around the track, was run from time to time, however different the pace, in common with my own.”

As fall-guy and tormentor Widmerpool has a major role in the series. He is, in the early novels, both irritating and pathetically comic. He gets custard-pie treatment (he is hit in the face by a banana and a debutante pours sugar on his hair), and at the same time he is shown to be dominated by his awful mother and to be a treacherous schemer. Later, Jenkins’s portrait becomes more sinister. He is a cultural blockhead, a sexual incompetent and cuckold, a small-minded military man, an intriguer, a fellow-traveller, and, possibly, a spy and a crook. It is as though Jenkins transfers on to Widmerpool all he despises, and Widmerpool’s role slowly changes from that of the buffoon in a Wodehouse novel into a destructive Caliban, doomed to work through and endure all that is most pedestrian, self-deceiving, and socially abysmal in the British character. The insults and innuendoes increase as the sequence proceeds so that, as a public figure, Widmerpool not only gets soaked in red paint, thrown by students, but is accused of being a voyeur of his wife’s adulteries, a Communist agent, and the man responsible for the deaths of Templer and Stringham.

Unsympathetic treatment is also given to all politicians in the novels. Jenkins believes them to be shams, whose motivation is never the public interest but their own ambition. It is never suggested that anyone who takes up a political cause is doing so in an honest response to a given historical situation. Rather the opposite: Jenkins implies that all political enthusiasm is misplaced and the best material for ironic comedy. He makes good use of left-wing attitudes in this respect and at one point satirizes a politician answering a question with marvellous accuracy. This distrust of politicians is accompanied by a certain ignorance of the way political life is conducted, and Jenkins’s memory must have slipped when he claims to have met Widmerpool at a party on the night of the 1955 general election. Widmerpool as a candidate would have attended his own count and would not have “heard . . .that he had lost his seat in the House.”

Jenkins says at one point that none of his (true) friends had any urge to put the world right, and it could be that Jenkins dislikes political chatter because it distracts from the real business of life, which is finding out who has just been divorced or bedded and by whom. All the same, this dislike for politicians and politics does not prevent Jenkins reflecting adequately the way people react to public events in the 1930’s. After the war, the touch is less sure, and he substitutes adequate reporting of divergent attitudes by the vague, half-cooked ideas of the cold war as seen by thriller writers. It is not convincing, and it is not especially entertaining, either.

Throughout the novels, Jenkins prefers to discuss international, rather than domestic politics, and the 1945 general election is mentioned in one phrase, “but, with Labour in again, we all need friends at court.” This attempt to extend the rules of the first-name-dropping Metropolitan Romance to the forces that might be thought hostile to it is not pursued, within the fiction at least. In fact, the postwar novels introduce a great many characters and situations which the romance, as such, was never intended to cope with: the internationalization of life, the Americanization of life, the by-passing of the old elite by the new one created by the media, and instant cultural events. Coping with this, Jenkins has no time or will to deal adequately with postwar Britain. In fact, he prefers more sensational themes, sordid matters in which the pushy and egregious Widmerpool is involved.


The three wartime novels are, in many respects, the most original of the sequence. By making clear to the reader that he was a hopeless soldier, Jenkins removes the need for heroics and instead gives an often hilarious account of an armchair warrior among other armchair warriors. In Volume 7 (The Valley of Bones) the fun, ironic but never patronizing, is at the expense of a bank official who dreamed of being a great military man and failed. In Volume 8 (The Soldier’s Art) the comedy is in watching power politics within a dreary military establishment in Northern Ireland. This constitutes Jenkins’s first experience of exile, and he is saved from it, typically, by the interest of a general who reads Trollope. Jenkins gets posted back to London as liaison officer to Europeans-in-exile, and the humour in this novel (The Military Philosophers) is almost that of the comedy of manners. This volume ends with a big set-piece, the victory thanksgiving in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Jenkins is so moved (churches usually make him solemn) that he quotes the British National Anthem in full.

Should the sequence have ended there, and are the three postwar novels a mistake and a falling-off? The answer, in my opinion, is Yes. When he came to write these novels, Jenkins must have found himself with two main problems: a dearth of sympathetic characters within the sequence itself since so many of the attractive ones had died in the war; and pressure from outside, where public taste had by-passed the Metropolitan Romance and could not see the point of evoking, in precisely Jenkins’s terms, a vanished world. These late novels were written in the 1960’s, and there is evidence that in choosing material for them, Jenkins drew on sensational public events such as the Manson case in the United States and a literary prizegiving in London at which the winner attacked the donors of the prize. There is a coarsening and obviousness in the writing as well as a congestion of detail. After all, it was the period of the four-letter word and public revelation of facts that had until then been hidden, either through fear or modesty. How could a style that depended on the sly wink and the satirical periphrasis for some of its effects suddenly come to terms with the new brutality? The answer is that it did not, for it could not. There is much that is silly, even childish, in the last two volumes as the urbane Metropolitan tradition breaks down. So much of the material is half-digested and undistanced. How seriously does Jenkins take the magic, the quotes from hermetic writers, and the inept dabblings in magical power-seeking? Just what effect is he striving for in his account of cultural junketings in Venice? We are never sure.

In these last two novels, the illusion of a cosy inner group controlling affairs is finally dissipated. People are no longer playing the same social games. When Jenkins, with old-fashioned courtesy, offers a bottle of wine to the hippies who have camped on his land, he is rebuffed. What happens when the barbarians arrive and refuse to be seduced by social graces? Nothing at all, if Jenkins is to be believed. He merely directs the reader back to the first novel and the coziness at school and at Mayfair parties.


The Music of Time is shot through with unconscious paradoxes and ironies. It is ironical that in a sequence with such a sure and powerful design, there are many selections where the invention falters and the narrator cannot create incident or detail to make his insights into the inexplicable changes and coincidences that govern human life both significant and concrete. It is also a paradox that Jenkins should spend a great deal of time developing the careers of certain characters such as Sir Magnus Donners and Lewis Moreland, the composer, and yet give them less fictional life than characters who appear briefly and in minor parts. It is ironic that Jenkins, who is in all things the literary gentleman, should be so unsympathetic to other writers. With the exception of Trapnel (who is unreal), all writers have an element of the humbug: they quarrel like schoolgirls, they affect intellectual passions, but, like politicians, they only want to satisfy small ends. The real irony lies in Jenkins’s own position: he is constantly being rebuffed because he is a writer, and other characters take his ambitions with a pinch of salt. This, of course, adequately reflects the English distrust of writers (the profession of letters is not admired in England) and of cleverness and ideas in general; and it is an attitude that Jenkins shares. Yet, in volume 10 Jenkins comments: “This particular notion—that respect should be accorded to a man of letters—again suggested foreign rather than home affiliations.” Jenkins might enjoy the respect he is unwilling to accord to his fellow-writers. We will never know because within the scope of the sequence, Jenkins never gets the acclaim that Powell has received in real life.

It is paradoxical, too, that despite the great length of the novel sequence the reader is left with the impression of something small, rather delicate, a string of vignettes or miniatures, rather than a solid structure. This smallness, culminating in the refusal to end the sequence with a flourish, without valedictory passages, without giving the reader that sense of moral or spiritual growth he might have expected, finally suggests that the comparison should not be with Proust at all but with someone working on a much smaller scale; Noel Coward, whose theatrical historical pageant Cavalcadeoffered its audiences much the same pleasures as The Music of Time. The suggestion is not hostile (Coward was a great craftsman and entertainer) but is meant to pin down the essential quality of the sequence and to explain its hold over its devotees. Powell’s ability to “hit off” the flavour of each period (up until the end of the 1940’s) is celebrated justly, and readers enjoy this period detail, the popular songs, the modish paraphernalia, the new social types coming into being. And so a man with an antiquarian, rather than a historian’s, feeling for the past has written a long novel that has elements in it of a parable about the decline of his class and is itself the swansong of the Metropolitan Romance. For a writer who has not believed in a general framework of ideas or historical theories, this is the greatest paradox of all.


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