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Criticism of Society in the English Novel between the Wars

Hena Maes-Jelinek

Anthony Powell

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  • 1 Anthony Powell, A Question of Upbringing, London, 1952, p. 52.

In everyday life, the participants act their parts without
consideration either for suitability of scene or for the
words spoken by the rest of the cast: the result is a
general tendency for things to be brought to the level
of farce even when the theme is serious enough.1

  • 2 In his introduction to The Complete Ronald Firbank (1961) Anthony Powell writes that it was at his (...)

1Anthony Powell’s pre-war novels are often called “Waugh-like” because of their subject and manner. Powell writes with the same detachment as Waugh, and he also has an ear for dialogue. However, as we have seen, the innovator in this field is not Waugh but Firbank, whom Powell always admired and to the revival of whose work he contributed.2 Powell’s early novels show neither Firbank’s extravagance nor Waugh’s pungency; indeed, he uses their method to produce the opposite effect, i.e., to deflate his characters’ experiences. Of the five novels he wrote before the War, three have hardly any plot; they consist of a series of scenes and incidents which recreate life among Chelsea Bohemians and Bloomsbury second-rate intellectuals in the late Twenties. Afternoon Men (1931), once described as “the party novel to end all party novels,” deals with the love affairs of literary, artistic and professional young men, on no account “Bright Young Things,” but rather tired and frustrated survivors of an extravagant generation. Venusberg (1932) describes the love affairs of Lushington, a not very competent journalist sent as a foreign correspondent to a small Baltic State. It is full of eccentric figures and parodies the political confusion which prevailed in many small East European States in the Thirties. Agents and Patients (1936) deals with cynical semi-intellectuals, who extract all the money they can from an inexperienced and senseless young man who “wants to see life.” From a View to a Death (1933) and What’s Become of Waring (1939) have a rather more substantial plot and less economical style; both contain elements which point to Powell’s post-war novels. The first takes the reader from Chelsea to a country-house and to the world of fox-hunting; it describes the attempt of a painter to marry an upper-class girl and the no less cynical intrigues of her father to have the better of him. In the second of these novels the characters are in search of a mysterious but successful writer who turns out to be a fraud.

  • 3 Anthony Powell, Afternoon Men, London, 1952, p. 1.
  • 4 Anthony Powell, Agents and Patients, London, 1955, p. 2.
  • 5 Anthony Powell, Agents and Patients, London, 1955, p. 2.
  • 6 Anthony POWELL, From a View to a Death, London, 1954, p. 41.

2In these novels Powell seems to have deliberately set out to expose a way of life which Waugh had to some extent romanticized. There is none of the glamour of Mayfair about his characters; they are mostly upper-middle-class but impecunious, and are to be seen about Soho or at the house of faded hostesses. Everything about them is dingy, shabby and often sordid. Afternoon Men starts with Atwater telling Pringle: “‘If you pay for this round and give me three-and-ninepence we shall be square.’”3 This places him immediately for he is always involved in stingy accounts, though as a painter he sells fairly well. Atwater “[is] a weed-looking young man with straw-coloured hair and rather long legs, who [has] failed twice for the Foreign Office” (p. 2) and obtained a job in a museum through influence. Fotheringham is one of the sub-editors of a spiritualist paper: “the aura of journalism’s lower slopes [hangs] round him like a vapour.” (p. 53) Lushington and Da Costa in Venusberg rank a little higher professionally but are not very efficient either. In Agents and Patients Chipchase is an art-critic and an amateur psycho-analyst, while Maltravers, who is connected with the film industry, “might have been a better-class gangster figure of any period.”4 They are described as “post-war types, already perhaps a little dated.”5 When the novel opens, they are feeling the effect of the depression. Zouch, the main character in From a View to a Death, is a rather different type. He has moved for years among shabby Bohemians, but he has become a successful painter and is ruthlessly cynical in trying to rise into the upper class. Jasper Fosdick is another incompetent left-over from the War, utterly unable to keep a job, while his brother Forquil is a sort of decadent aesthete on whom “senile decay seemed already to have laid its hands while he was still in the grip of arrested development.”6

3These people are mostly bored, utterly inefficient and unam-bitious. Party-going and gossip of the most tedious kind are major activities in Afternoon Men. Undershaft, a man who has gone to New York, is their favourite topic and is discussed five times in ten pages in approximately the same terms. They all go to a party, uninvited, but drinking or dancing is not more exciting than gossiping and hardly raises their spirits.

‘Do you read Bertrand Russell?’ ‘Why?’
‘When I feel hopeless,’ she said,’ I read Bertrand Russell.’ ‘My dear.’
‘You know, when he talks about mental adventure. Then I feel reinspired.’
‘Reinspired to what?’
‘Just reinspired.’
‘Do you feel hopeless now?’
‘Rather hopeless.’
‘Do you really?’
‘A bit.’
‘Come back with me to my flat, ‘said Atwater,’ and have a drink there.’ (p. 21)

4Though he is not particularly attracted to her, Atwater starts an affair with Lola, simply because it seems the normal thing to do. Similarly, Harriet Twining takes Pringle as a lover because she cannot have the man she loves, and Pringle is as good as anyone else. Atwater too is in love with a charming girl, Susan Nunnery, but she doesn’t want to fall in love and goes away with a richer man. In Venusberg Lucy eventually accepts Lushington because Da Costa is dead, while the more sophisticated women of Agents and Patients choose men for their money and their beautiful cars. They make no pretence of being in love. Mrs. Mendoza and Gaston de la Tour d’Argent come together because they recognize in each other a similar inclination for debauchery. Sarah and Maltravers have been married for two years, but they never stop quarrelling, and each has love affairs which the other knows about. Chipchase rather enjoys declaring: “‘I don’t pretend that my love affairs are not sordid. They are. They always have been. I like sordid affairs.’” (p. 1) In From a View to a Death Zouch pretends he is in love with Joanna Brandon, a naive, provincial girl who wants to be a highbrow. He persuades her to become his mistress, then proposes to Mary Passenger and advises Joanna to marry the grotesque Jasper Fosdick.

5An incredible callousness prevails among the characters. In Afternoon Men Pringle takes his friends to the country, where they get as bored as in London. Pringle, who has become Harriet’s lover, finds her making love with Barlow and feigns to commit suicide. He undresses on the beach under the eyes of Harriet and Atwater, who find it odd that he has no towel. Yet, it never enters their mind that Pringle might really be upset, and though they no longer see him on the water, they make love and go home quietly. When they find his note saying that he has decided to commit suicide, Atwater merely says that it was a mistake to come and stay with Pringle. Even Barlow, who feels responsible, never suggests warning the village people and fetching a boat to try and save him. They sit down to lunch and tell each other that Pringle has let them down. When the latter turns up in the evening in a fisherman’s clothes, the tragedy turns into a grotesque farce, all the more so as it suddenly becomes clear that Pringle could never have committed suicide. They squabble endlessly to decide whether to give the man who saved him ten shillings or a pound, since after all, he “lifted him out of the water.” In the end they wake up the exhausted Pringle to make him give the fifteen shillings on which they have compromised.

6In Venusberg the farce turns into tragedy with the same utter meaninglessness. Political disturbances are caricatured and produce the same effect as the “stage policemen out of a knock-about farce” who invade DaCosta’s flat after his death. He and Frau Mavrin are victims of the authorities’ refusal to take the situation seriously because the ball, which is the event of the season, is more important. Except as a source of gossip, no one seems to care much about their fate. We never learn what Professor Mavrin feels about it, nor Lushington, who was having an affair with the professor’s wife. Lushington can now have Lucy, who was in love with DaCosta, but both are indifferent to what happens.

7When Zouch dies in From a View to a Death, Mr. Passenger cannot even hide his satisfaction: things have turned out better than he expected when he purposely gave Zouch a dangerous horse to mount. The latter’s death “make things easier” for every-one; even Mary, who was engaged to him, doesn’t seem unduly upset and arranges to stay with friends who have an eligible son. Unlike Waugh’s Bright Young Things, who attempt to ignore death, thereby suggesting an uneasy awareness of its significance, Powell’s characters are as insensitive to death as to life. Their existence is absolutely devoid of meaning, and they display their lack of purpose, their inability to live and their indifference in all circumstances. Except in Agents and Patients, in which cheerfulness is often associated with mischief-making, they don’t even bother to show artificial gaiety or defiance as Waugh’s characters do, nor the desire for special popularity which makes, for instance, Henry Green’s characters in Party Going stick together, though they can hardly bear each other. Powell’s characters merely try to avoid loneliness, and anyone is good enough for that purpose. They sometimes take the trouble to assert to each other that they have amusing friends, but their tone is so unconvincing that no one is taken in by what they say, and they are not particularly affected by the scepticism they meet with.

8In Afternoon Men and Venusberg everything the characters say is of a depressing banality, so that the novels themselves tend to be flat and boring. The characters’ lives are dreary, dull and completely devoid of glamour. They do whatever most people do when they want to have a good time but don’t even pretend that they are enjoying themselves. One is only aware of their promiscuity and of the drunken messiness of their parties. The absurdity and mediocrity of their existence are due to their lack of initiative and their inability to act. They simply allow things to drift and remain unaware of the potentialities and rewards of action. In this they foreshadow the upper-middle-class men of The Music of Time, who are without ambition and unaware that they have a task to perform in society. Men like Atwater, Fotheringham, DaCosta or the Fosdick brothers have no sense of responsibility and can never be anything but failures, while Pringle and Zouch, who come from the rising business class, are selfishly ambitious and dishonest. However, they are rather rough creations in contrast with the more complex men of will of Powell’s post-war novels.

  • 7 Bernard Bergonzi, Anthony Powell, Writers and their Work Series, London, 1962. p. 27.

9As Bernard Bergonzi suggests,7 Agents and Patients is hardly more than a farce, but this makes it also more high-spirited than any of Powell’s pre-war novels. Chipchase and Maltravers are more enterprising though much more unscrupulous than Powell’s earlier heroes; they are also less bored and consequently less boring. Blore-Smith, who is completely ignorant of life and leads a dead, uneventful existence, is their obvious victim. He has much in common with Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall, but he is exploited more overtly by people who are more cynical and less considerate than Margot Metroland. They take him to a Berlin reminiscent of Mr. Norris’s, but they are naturally blind to the latent tragedy. Maltravers greets the Brownshirts with a sonorous “Heil Hitler” and comments: “‘They’ll be coming into power soon. … Just as well to be on the right side of them.’” (p. 136) This is said with complete unconcern, for he has no idea what the Brownshirts stand for and doesn’t care. For all his facetiousness, Maltravers belongs with the agents, people who act but usually do so to exploit others. Agents and patients are the two main types of characters in Powell’s novels, the latter being victims of the former. The female characters are usually agents. Susan Nunnery and Harriet in Afternoon Men, Mrs. Mendoza, Sarah Maltravers and Pauline de Borodino in Agents and Patients are free from any attachment which might in any way make them emotionally dependent on another human being. They are not consciously cruel, only inconsiderate and determined to get all they can out of life. In a way they are less cunning than Waugh’s heroines, but like most females in the comedy of manners of the period, they seldom hesitate between money and romance, or else they manage to get both.

10Powell’s first two novels and Agents and Patients parody the life of the typical inter-war hero: the disenchanted Bohemian-intellectual. The author reduces his characters to such nothingness that they can only breed contempt. They are either grotesque or so completely unaware of human values that they never inspire the sympathy or understanding which the disillusioned young can arouse in spite of their extravagance. The sharpness and the economy of Powell’s style emphasize the dryness and barrenness of the characters’ existence. Unlike the heroes of Huxley and Waugh, they are not even humanized by a touch of despair. In From a View to a Death the cynicism of the characters is accounted for, but it doesn’t make them more attractive. On the contrary, it shows to what length they are prepared to go in order to gratify their selfishness. Mr. Passenger, whose family has steadily declined for several generations, is ruthlessly determined to preserve it from intrusion and to protect his estate from any trespassing. The means he uses to get the better of Major Fosdick and Zouch are cruel, though disguised as tolerance and generosity. In fact, feelings and human relationships have no place at all in his life, and he is much more cunning than Zouch in making his will prevail. His daughter Betty, who experiences a sort of perverse pleasure in thwarting him, has much in common with him. From the start she sees through Zouch, and she invites Joanna Brandon to stay at Passenger Court for the same reason as her father offers Zouch to mount Creditor, i.e., in the hope that she will make a mistake that will discredit her. In spite of the satisfaction she gets out of shocking people, as when she becomes engaged to Torquil Fosdick, she knows well enough that there are limits she mustn’t overstep. Like Mr. Passenger, Zouch considers himself as an “Uebermensch,” “treating life as a sort of quick-lunch counter where you helped yourself and all the snacks were free.” (p. 12) He realizes that Mr. Passenger is his match, but he is too selfish and too sure of himself to realize how much he is disliked by him. Will-to-power is the chief motive of the two men. In his endeavour to ascend the social scale, Zouch curiously resembles Widmerpool, the climber in The Music of Time. Like him, he is attached to form and resents the fact that Betty Passenger doesn’t behave as people of her class are expected to. Also, there is in him a mixture of self-assurance and vulnerability which provokes Mr. Passenger to action. However, Zouch is himself very unpleasant. On the whole the atmosphere of frustration and dissatisfaction which pervades the novel is irritating and far too suggestive of mediocrity and dishonesty to seem distressing, which of course answers the author’s aim.

11From his early work onwards Powell seems to have been preoccupied with will-to-power as an important motive of action. For instance, Barlow and Atwater are always trying to prevail upon Pringle to make him do things he doesn’t want to do, while Chipchase and Maltravers wholeheartedly enjoy their hold over Blore-Smith. Zouch and Mr. Passenger are both greedy of power; the fact that Powell describes Zouch as a “fair English equivalent of the Teutonic ideal of the Uebermensch” may suggest that he considers will-to-power the chief human motive in the social and political arena of the period; in the inevitable contest between ambitious men the most cunning and cruel usually wins. Again, Betty Passenger hits the mark when she tells Zouch ironically that her father’s cruelty is pathological.

  • 8 W.D. quesenbery, “Anthony Powell: The Anatomy of Decay,” Cri-tique, VII, 1 (Spring 1964), 5-26.

12At the end of What’s Become of Waring, the narrator, who is writing on Stendhal, makes a comparison between the latter and the characters in the novel, suggesting that they all want power: “It was power Hugh wanted. Everybody wanted power. Bernard wanted power. Roberta wanted power. … Was money power? … T.T. Waring. He wanted power more than any of them.” (pp. 235-6) However, except for T.T. Waring, who may derive a sense of power from the fact that his faked travel books have a tremendous success with the public, it isn’t made clear at all that the other characters’ chief motive is a desire for power, unless we equate will-to-power with selfishness. As W.D. Quesenbery remarks in an article on The Music of Time,8 the dominant element in What’s Become of Waring is chance, which together with will, is fundamental to Powell’s view of life. Fortune-tellers, coincidence, chance acquaintanceships and meetings eventually lead to the discovery of T.T. Waring’s true identity. The analogy with Powell’s post-war work is further suggested by the introduction of a first person narrator, who plays a part similar to that of Nicholas Jenkins in The Music of Time. There is little to say about Powell’s last pre-war novel: the impact of the mysterious T.T. Waring on the public recalls the impact of T.E. Lawrence on the imagination of a whole generation, though Waring in an impostor and far from being an idealist; his exposure by Hudson, who was going to write a book on his life and is very upset by the discovery of his identity, merely points to the essential mediocrity of men’s lives and to their delusive romanticism.

13Though it is sometimes preferred to The Music of Time, Powell’s pre-war work is a limited achievement. Venusberg and What’s Become of Waring are rather thin novels. Afternoon Men remains the best because of its detached, yet contemptuously ironic, portrayal of an attitude and a way of life which seemed glamorous because fashionable, but were merely dull and slightly nauseating. Agents and Patients is funnier but also more farcical. From A View to a Death combines Powell’s talent for creating eccentric characters with a deeper insight into human motives. At the same time, the contest between an unscrupulous upper-class man and a cynical ambitious young painter is a striking dramatization of class antagonism in the Thirties and forebodes the major theme of The Music of Time.

  • 9 Anthony Powell, The Music of Time, including: A Question of Upbring-ing (see p. 499, note 1), A Bu (...)
  • 10 Ford Madox ford, Last Post, p. 185.

14Among the post-war novels inspired by the inter-war period Powell’s The Music of Time is probably one of the most ambitious. Nine instalments out of the twelve projected have so far been published9: the first appeared in 1951, while the latest came out in 1968. This retrospective view of English society at a significant period of its history brings out the continuity of the English novelists’ vision of the decline of England and its ruling class. Powell takes up more or less where Ford Madox Ford had left off in his tetralogy about the First World War. Tietjens’s comment that “If a ruling class loses the capacity to rule – or the desire! – it should abdicate from its privileges and get underground”10 is only too well illustrated by Stringham, Powell’s anti-hero, who in the Second World War would rather be a mess waiter than sit as an equal with a captain rising from the lower classes. The author’s approach is clearly similar to that of Ford and of Waugh in The Sword of Honour, who both show the decline of the aristocracy consummated by war, the former prophetically, the latter as a fact. But in spite of this similarity to their point of view, Powell’s method of presentation is very different from his predecessors’.

15Powell’s chronicle covers the period from the end of the First World War to the end of the Second. Each novel illuminates a different phase in the evolution of English society through a number of characters whose individual behaviour contributes to the creation of new social patterns. In each phase people of all kinds move temporarily around the main characters, who epitomize the major trends of social change. They add to the web of experience and incident in which, with the passing of time, the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, discerns a significant design. However, at the moment they are supposed to take place events are recorded passively with no special meaning attached to them. This is particularly true in the early instalments, in which the narrator is so self-effacing as to confine the narrative to a very superficial level and to give an impression of mediocrity. For he is the pivot-man of the sequence since the choice of remembered experience lies with him, and his appreciation of the significance of events determines the character of the novels. At the beginning of the sequence he describes people’s behaviour with hardly any under-standing of it; much importance is attached to the characters’ movements or actions, but their motives are curiously simplified and very little is said about their feelings. As time goes on and the narrator becomes more mature, his understanding deepens, and his own values and sympathies are more sharply defined. But his view of the world around him remains a surface one, which is a weakness in a roman-fleuve of this kind.

16The originality (and main defect) of the sequence lies in the author’s attempt to combine the lightness of social comedy with the depth and scope of a socio-historical fresco. He hopes to convey this depth through a certain continuity in the attitude of the main characters, which in retrospect will make their actions significant. At the same time, through his external approach and passive recording of incident, he stresses the absurdity of life and its unexpected or incomprehensible developments. In an often-quoted passage at the beginning of A Question of Upbringing Powell gives the genesis of the sequence by comparing the attitude of human beings in life to that of the Seasons in a painting by Poussin:

The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving 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. (p. 2)

17Jenkins’s occasional comments on the characters approach to life further stress the awkwardness and unpredictability of their behaviour and shed light on the import of the social comedy. However, the variety of incidents, the farcical and the grotesque that impinge frequently on the serious or even the tragic, though illustrative of the agitation and diversity of life, are too trivial to account for a character’s development, let alone to explain the alteration of social patterns. For instance, some of Widmerpool’s features or some incidents in his life are recalled at intervals to remind the reader of his inadequacy in social or personal relation-ships: his unusual overcoat, Barbara Goring pouring sugar over his head at a ball, or his disastrous engagement to Mrs. Haycock. The significance of these incidents is overrated by the narrator, and his insistence on them is as much a sign of his own snobbery as a convincing evidence of Widmerpool’s unsuitability for life in society.

18Powell describes a society in transition, one in which new men, mostly from the lower-middle class, take the lead and provoke a change with little resistance from the traditional élite. Social and historical events give them an opportunity for action and advancement. These events are never described: the Depression, the Spanish Civil War, Hitler’s coming to power, these are only referred to casually, though they also test the characters’ response to public life and their sense of responsibility, and ultimately influence the social configuration emerging from the characters’ reaction to the test. Even the Second World War takes place off-stage, its atrocities being reported, while the “Military Philosophers,” Jenkins’s colleagues and superiors at the War Office and the representatives of the Allied Armies in London, are either involved in petty administrative tasks, or are in a position to make decisions which send other people to a useless death. Here again it is the trivial and anecdotal aspects of life which are emphasized in an attempt to show how inconsistent the characters’ attitude is with the momentous situation in which they are involved.

19The disintegration of the Establishment and the corrupting influence of its decline on the whole of English society are shown through the individual movements of the characters on the social scene and some of its peripheral areas. Some of these spheres, like politics and personal relationships, tend to overlap when the characters use their power in one of them to succeed in the other. The prevailing motives are self-interest, lust for money and power. Men like Sillery, the Oxford Don, or the writer St John Clarke are always seen courting the powerful; they adhere to the fashionable political party and, while socially on the Right, veer increasingly to the Left in their political attitude. In fact, all politicians or people interested in politics are presented as opportunists; even Quiggin, the apparently sincere and militant marxist, chooses his friends and relations according to their fortune and rank. Together with Widmerpool, Miss Weedon and Matilda Moreland, he is an outsider who tries to reach the higher spheres of society and to exercise influence in private as well as in public life.

  • 11 Arthur MIZENER, “A Dance to the Music of Time: The Novels of Anthony Powell,” The Kenyon Review, X (...)

20It appears fairly early in the sequence that the characters belong to two different categories roughly defined by social status, which always happens to coincide either with a particular blunt-ness, or with sensitivity, to the art of living. Arthur Mizener11 appropriately described Powell’s characters as either men of will, whose prototype is Widmerpool, or men of imagination, whose typical representative is Stringham. Occasionally, adaptable men like the painter Barnby bridge the gap between the two categories, but on the whole, the characters’ behaviour is determined either by will-to-power, among lower-middle-class people, or by imagination and sensibility, mostly to be found among the upper classes. Though it takes Jenkins some time to become fully aware of the scope of Widmerpool’s ambition, it is evident from the beginning of the sequence that the latter is determined to “get ahead” and will not rest until he has reached the top. On the other hand, Stringham, the product of a traditional and refined art of living, lacks guidance and finally drifts into alcoholism.

21The antithesis Widmerpool/Stringham symbolizes the social upheavals of the Thirties with the lower-middle-class seriously striving for power, and the upper classes playfully and irresponsibly allowing themselves to be defeated. Once after a party Widmerpool and Stringham start wrestling, the former seriously, as always, the latter laughing so much that he becomes quite powerless.

  • 12 The Acceptance World, p. 209.

I was thinking, Jenkins writes, … of how strange a thing it was that I myself should have been engaged in a physical conflict designed to restrict Stringham’s movements: a conflict in which the moving spirit had been Widmerpool. That suggested a whole social upheaval: a positively cosmic change in life’s system. Widmerpool, once so derided by all of us, had become in some mysterious manner a person of authority. Now, in a sense, it was he who derided us.12

22Jenkins’s surprise seems due at first to his lack of perceptiveness. But the “mysterious way” in which Widmerpool has become a person of authority also shows that the latter has caught them unawares, that he has been preparing himself for power while they were fooling away their youth. At the beginning of the Second World War Widmerpool is a high-grade officer while Stringham, at last cured of his alcoholism, but a humble nonentity, enlists as a private. His spiritual destruction symbolizes the final abdication of his class to the Widmerpools. “Awfully chic to be killed,” Stringham reflects much in the manner of a First-World-War hero. Indirectly, yet symbolically, Widmerpool sends him to his death, though he does not die gallantly on the battlefield but in a Japanese prisoners’ camp. By a cruel irony, Widmerpool becomes String-ham’s heir by marrying the latter’s niece. Like Waugh, Powell shows the upper classes relinquishing their inheritance and their power to the rising, but dull and graceless, lower orders.

23Widmerpool’s ambition is quite effectively served by the indifference to achievement and success of his upper-class acquaintances. The latter’s aimlessness and lack of a sense of duty entail the loss of power and influence of their class. “Melancholy is the curse of the upper classes,” says Barnby, and it is true that to some extent it explains the young men’s lack of ambition. Already as a student, Stringham starts living in the past, and his outburts of high spirits alternate with fits of depression. But it also seems that the men of sensibility, though prepared to take a job which appeals to them without necessarily paying, refuse to be sufficiently industrious or efficient to be even moderately successful. They think that success is vulgar, whether it takes the form of material prosperity, as with Peter Templer, or of professional achievement, as with Widmerpool, the man who never ceases to surprise them and whom they secretly despise. However, their own inclination to self-destruction and their irresponsibility, particularly in public life, bring about the gradual disintegration of their class and deeply impair their capacity for leadership. Erridge, who has inherited the Tolland family estate, neglects it utterly and spends the family fortune on “causes.” Young men whose fathers and relatives were leaders in the First World War are content to become subalterns on the eve of the Second. In The Valley of Bones, as in Waugh’s war novels, the commanding posts in the army are generally assumed by ambitious young men of the lower classes, while upper-class boys abdicate responsibility.

  • 13 The Acceptance World, p. 153.

24Desertion of the ideal of duty and of responsibility in public affairs is best illustrated in Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, in which the abdication of Edward VIII is constantly referred to as a symbol of the rejection of values and of confusion. No one comes up to the traditional standards. The older generation themselves have become utterly inefficient, and their private lives reflect the decay of their ability as well as the apathy and futility of their general attitude. General Conyers, who gave up the army at fifty, when he got married, is proud of the small honorary position he holds at court and devotes his time to playing the cello and dabbling in psychoanalysis. Uncle Giles, an eccentric character, has been living on unknown resources and a limited private income since he was forced to leave the army for some obscure reason. He leads an “aimless, uncomfortable, but in a sense dedicated life. … Dedicated, perhaps, to his own egotism.” The ineffectual Teddy Jeavons, who in Jenkins’s words is “something left over from the war,” lives on his wife, the easy-going Lady Molly. As to Dick Umfraville, he belongs to a generation who bridge the gap between two periods. “They partook of both eras, specially forming the tone of the post-war years; much more so, indeed, than the younger people. Most of them, like Umfraville, were melancholy; perhaps from the strain of living simultaneously in two different historical periods.”13 Umgraville marries four or five times, lives on his wits and even opens a night-club. He finally settles down with the distinguished and conventional Frederica Budd, who is Lady-in-waiting at court.

25The will-to-power which acts as a prime force throughout the sequence and quickens the fall of the privileged class is a reflection in individual life of the powerful urge which determined the course of events between the Wars. On the other hand, the diseased sensibility of men unable to control their own life, let alone the society in which their class has always played a prominent part, brings about the decline of their culture. These two elements, which in Widmerpool and Stringham lead to self-centredness on the one hand and to self-destruction on the other, make for the disappearance of the complete man, who can face responsibility in public and private affairs and finds fulfilment in a harmonious individual life. Far from being a source of regeneration, the pervasion of the upper classes by lower-class elements aggravates the deterioration of standards. Not only do ambitious men take their tone from the declining and amoral, though still fashionable, upper class, they are not fastidious in their choice of means and add to the corruption of an already decaying Establishment. Here again, Widmerpool is the archetype. At times he even appears as a deus ex machina who relentlessly pulls the strings of power to ensure the efficiency of his plans, even if this means abandoning former schoolmates to certain death. Yet in spite of the narrator’s obvious contempt for him, the effect of his unscrupulousness is damped by the ambient amorality. There is a confusion of values in all quarters, and it is no longer possible to choose between well-defined patterns of behaviour.

  • 14 The Kindly Ones, p. 133.

26Disorder in public life, the decline of the upper classes, their breaking up as a homogeneous whole, and the decadence of England as a powerful nation, these are paralleled in the sequence by confusion in private life and failure in personal relationships. The parallel is particularly striking in Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, in which marriages break up or prove sterile, while England finds itself unprepared on the eve of the Second World War. Together with will-to-power, sexuality is a prime force in the alteration of social patterns; it helps lower-class women to reach a higher social status, while upper-class women are attracted by the apparent vitality of the coming men. Marriage is thus another cause of the mixing of classes, though most unions among the younger generation soon break up. The sequence contains a remarkable number of marriages, divorces and regroupings, which illustrate Powell’s image of life as a dance, but one in which people frequently and inconsiderately change partners. Actually the instability of personal relationships is one of the main causes of social disorder. Even the professionally successful men fail lamentably as human beings. Widmerpool is of course the typical example, and the revelation of his impotence shows the price he has had to pay for neglecting human values. Peter Templer also fails in human relationships, not through lack, but through excess, of sexuality, and his dissolute life drives his second wife mad. Just before the Second World War Betty Templer breaks down while watching Peter act lust in a tableau representing the Seven Deadly Sins. This reminds Jenkins of a similar scene which took place in his home just before the First World War, when their maid broke down and rushed naked into the living room, where General and Mrs. Conyers were on a visit. General Conyers took charge of the situation, and soon afterwards Uncle Giles arrived and announced the assassination of the Austrian Archduke at Sarajevo. There is no one to take charge when Betty Templer breaks down, and immediately afterwards Widmerpool enters the dining room, “a sinister, threatening figure, calling the world to arms.”14

  • 15 The Acceptance World, p. 121.

27Although Powell writes about a troubled and exciting period in history, his characters are most of the time involved in strikingly trivial situations. They are aware of their social and historical background, but their motives of action are generally selfish or petty. True, Erridge devotes much of his time and money to causes, but he is indifferent to his fellow-men. The sincerity of Quiggin as a marxist is not questioned, but his behaviour merely brings out his vanity and ambition. When he succeeds in superseding Mark Members as secretary to St John Clarke, Jenkins observes that “the dismissal of Members might almost be regarded as a landmark in the general disintegration of society in its traditional form.”15 Indeed, Members is more cultivated, civilized and refined: he is a gentleman. Actually, both Members and Quiggin hope to make themselves indispensable to St John Clarke, who is a bachelor, and to inherit his fortune. When it becomes known after the latter’s death that he has left his money to Erridge, who is a peer and rich, Jenkins understands that it is in fact St John Clarke who has used Members and Quiggin for his own purposes. Self-interest prevails everywhere. There is no human solidarity, no indication that men are sometimes moved by passion, or if they seem to be, they are made to look ridiculous. Nothing recalls the extragance, the eagerness in the pursuit of pleasure, nor the anxiety and the political excitement of the years between the Wars. Everything is reduced to mediocrity and insignificance: Jenkins is able to recall the twenty years of his life when a man is supposed to live most intensely and consciously, without remembering having encountered beauty or goodness, or, for that matter, real evil. Life seems to be a mere succession of events and actions which bring to light the awkwardness, blindness, and purposeless-ness of men.

28In spite of flashes of high comedy, the sequence as a whole lacks vividness and fails to render the richness and variety of real life. This is due to the deflation of events and to the author’s superficial approach to his characters. In addition to this, the complexity of life is presented, as already suggested, through what the characters do, through a series of anecdotes, rather than through what they are, i.e., through analysis of their motivations or a real exploration of personal relationships. Powell seldom ventures beyond the world of appearances. Moreover, he tends to rely on chance to provoke revelations that will throw light on past events. Chance is also a convenient way of re-introducing characters in the sequence or of bringing people together after a long separation. It may sometimes seem contrived, but it fits in with the carefully elaborated structure of the chronicle. As instalment after instalment appears, the reader will notice that most details about the life of a character are recalled to strengthen the impression he makes or to show him in a different light. The sequence is obviously built according to a strictly pre-ordained pattern defined by Jenkins’s memory. Gradually, through the continuity and careful design of his narrative, he points to the necessity of order and continuity in life and society, while showing that they are repeatedly disturbed by the ambition or the folly of men.

  • 16 The Soldier’s Art, p. 80.

29Powell’s intention to imitate Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is barely concealed: the title of his chronicle, the manner in which each part of the sequence is introduced, the parallels he frequently draws between his characters and figures in famous paintings, these naturally invite comparison with Proust’s work, and critics have not failed to draw it. Powell himself refers openly to the Proustian character of his undertaking in The Military Philosophers, in which Jenkins discovers that he and his fellow-officers have spent the night in the original of Balbec. Significantly, most of them fail to respond to the occasion, and even Jenkins cannot do so as intensely as he would have expected to. Both Proust and Powell explore the past and convey their vision of a changing order, but they have little in common as artists. One need only compare A Question of Upbringing with the first part of Du Côté de chez Swann to realize how different from Proust’s Powell’s approach to his subject is. Admittedly, the latter is not interested in childhood; his novel is merely concerned with pointing to such elements in the education of an upper-class adolescent and to such inclination in his character as will be decisive in his choice of a way of life. Compare, however, the extreme sensitiveness and the rich emotional life of Marcel as a child with Jenkins’s passivity, or the detailed analysis of Swann’s moods when he is in love with Odette with the unexplained, irrational attitude of Mona and Matilda in their numerous changes of partners. As we have seen, Powell reconstructs the past methodically and chronologically without referring to the inner life of his characters; he relies almost exclusively on facts to describe relations between individuals or between the individual and society. He is more interested in the possible consequences of action than in elucidating complex psychological states, whereas it is precisely Proust’s extraordinary insight into human character that gives depth and significance to his work. Experience in The Music of Time is sometimes reduced to a series of anecdotes. “‘My dear Nick,’” Stringham tells Jenkins, “‘You know everybody. Not a social item escapes you.’”16 One is sometimes tempted to endorse V.S. Prit-chett’s assertion that the sequence is turning into a gossip column. Proust’s work may have been that too, but it was something else besides.

  • 17 James HALL, “The Lises of Polite Surprise,” in The Tragic Comedians, Bloomington, 1963, p. 132.

30This predominantly anecdotal character of the sequence makes it often immature. True, we do get a sense of the movement of life, of all sorts of people coming and going, of a variety of attitudes illustrative of human folly. Powell’s satire is of a refined quality, and it is often tempered with the sadness and dissatisfaction which he sees as the reverse of eccentricity and frivolity. But as an interpretation of the times the sequence is unsatisfactory. The characters’ life is all on the surface, with Jenkins pulling the strings of action but carefully avoiding ideas and emotions. “The essence of understanding the past,” James Hall writes, “is loss of the particular excitements, angers, and hopes that give the present its complexity and incomprehensibility.”17 In Powell’s work, however, these excitements and hopes are mostly ignored or ridiculed. Real life is stifled by petty motives and grotesque postures. Powell shows the ruling classes falling into mediocrity and being replaced by more efficient, though unprincipled, men. But he does not clarify the passions which urge men to action or to self-destruction, and the characters’ fate seems too often determined by the category to which they belong rather than by what they are. As the sequence progresses, only Widmerpool, with his indomitable will-to-power and his spiritual poverty, remains something of a fascinating character and keeps arousing the curiosity of the reader.

31The flatness of the narrative is to be ascribed to the personality of the narrator. He remains too long an impassive observer, and his unobtrusiveness together with his attitude of “polite suprise,” as James Hall calls it, are often irritating. True, his self-control and detachment suit him as conductor of The Music of Time. He himself knows where he is going and bends his ambition to his own pace. He becomes creative in his own time, and we may assume that he progresses towards some kind of fulfilment. But whole areas of his own life remain secret, for instance, that of personal relationships, and in view of his superficial treatment of other people, we may question his perceptiveness and sensibility. On the other hand, Powell’s satire may not be wholly compatible with a deeper exploration of human motives. His manner is that of social comedy, and almost inevitably, he fails to match the ambitious design of his chronicle with the depth that should characterize a work of that scope.

  • 18 The Military Philosophers, p. 205.

32To some extent, this is compensated for by the structure of the sequence, which gains by being considered as a whole. In his orchestration of The Music of Time Jenkins brings out progressively, through cumulative incident, the forces and tendencies at work in society and the gradual shift of values. Without losing sight of the whole, he draws attention to the themes interpreted by individual performers. Each character represents a particular type of disorder, each novel portrays a particular aspect of life between the Wars: A Question of Upbringing describes a typical middle-class education in the Twenties; in A Buyer’s Market the party is presented as the central social event it was between the Wars, while the young people are faced with choosing between the various opportunities offered to them in their personal and professional lives. The Acceptance World introduces the theme of the struggle for power. At Lady Molly’s emphasizes the inadequacy of human relationships and the way in which they are affected by will-to-power; Casa-nova’s Chinese Restaurant draws a parallel between the confusion and instability of private life and the disorder in public affairs. The Kindly Ones shows England – more particularly its upper classes – morally and spiritually diseased and unprepared for the coming struggle. In The Valley of Bones the leading forces in society are reorganized according to a new pattern, while The Soldier’s Art and The Military Philosophers finally assert the victory of the new men over the old Establishment. During the Victory Day Service Jenkins remarks that England itself is worn out. But the men of will do not fail to exploit the new situation. “I have come to the conclusion that I enjoy power,”18 Widmerpool says. Towards what destiny will he and his kind take England? This disturbing question implicitly follows his self-satisfied statement. But we must not expect the remaining instalments to answer it, for the sequence is unlikely to take us to the present time; it is only a sad comment on the past.


1 Anthony Powell, A Question of Upbringing, London, 1952, p. 52.

2 In his introduction to The Complete Ronald Firbank (1961) Anthony Powell writes that it was at his suggestion that the publishing firm for which he was working reprinted Firbank in 1949, the date of the first Firbank revival.

3 Anthony Powell, Afternoon Men, London, 1952, p. 1.

4 Anthony Powell, Agents and Patients, London, 1955, p. 2.

5 Anthony Powell, Agents and Patients, London, 1955, p. 2.

6 Anthony POWELL, From a View to a Death, London, 1954, p. 41.

7 Bernard Bergonzi, Anthony Powell, Writers and their Work Series, London, 1962. p. 27.

8 W.D. quesenbery, “Anthony Powell: The Anatomy of Decay,” Cri-tique, VII, 1 (Spring 1964), 5-26.

9 Anthony Powell, The Music of Time, including: A Question of Upbring-ing (see p. 499, note 1), A Buyer’s Market, 1952, The Acceptance World, 1955. At Lady Molly’s, 1957, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, 1960, The Kindly Ones, 1962, The Valley of Bones, 1964, The Soldier’s Art, 1966, The Military Philosophers, 1968.

10 Ford Madox ford, Last Post, p. 185.

11 Arthur MIZENER, “A Dance to the Music of Time: The Novels of Anthony Powell,” The Kenyon Review, XII, 1 (Winter 1960), 82.

12 The Acceptance World, p. 209.

13 The Acceptance World, p. 153.

14 The Kindly Ones, p. 133.

15 The Acceptance World, p. 121.

16 The Soldier’s Art, p. 80.

17 James HALL, “The Lises of Polite Surprise,” in The Tragic Comedians, Bloomington, 1963, p. 132.

18 The Military Philosophers, p. 205.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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