A Dance to the Music of Time, volume 1: A Question of Upbringing, Anthony Powell (1951)
What it’s about: The first of a series of 12 novels written by English author Anthony Powell between 1951 and 1975, tracing the lives and fortunes of a group of upper-middle class Englishmen from the 1930s, through the Second World War and into the turbulent social change of 1960s Britain. The story is narrated by Nick Jenkins, describing his boarding school friendships with feckless aristocrat Charles Stringham, dashing ladies’ man Peter Templar, and lower-middle-class parvenu Kenneth Widmerpool. Volume 1, A Question of Upbringing, takes Jenkins and his friends from school through university and into the world of the late 1930s, on the cusp of war with Germany. Stringham, who lives in the shadow of his glamorous mother, disappoints in adult life and spirals into alcoholism while Widmerpool is in the ascendant, displaying efficiency and ruthlessness in his social and professional life.
Why it’s a classic: One suspects this series is a classic because of its Proustian length, prompting the kind of colossal reading exercise that’s increasingly challenging in our atomised and soundbitten world. For anyone who likes books set in the monied world of the English upper classes, it’s like comfort food – think private schools, crumpets being toasted in front of fireplaces in dormitories, gentlemanly games of rugger, weekend tennis parties at country houses, cocktails in evening dress, and a lot of unchecked white male privilege. Our narrator Nick operates as a double agent, comfortably at home in his cloistered world, while providing acerbic observations of social mores and razor-sharp comic dissections of his fellow toffs. Much of the action – and cruel comedy – focuses on Widmerpool, the clownish outsider of the group, whose desperation for acceptance and ambition for power is both funny and sinister. Powell’s writing fuses the comic panache of Nancy Mitford with the melancholy of Evelyn Waugh, inviting us to mourn the passing of a lost world and the thoughtless optimism of youth.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A polite and very English round of applause. I’m looking forward to (eventually) reading the other 11 volumes. If you can overlook its manifest political incorrectness, A Question of Upbringing is a entertaining and highly satisfyingly forensic examination of the English upper crust. It’s also a sobering reminder that the ruling classes haven’t changed enormously since the period being described. Most of our prime ministers, politicians and statesmen are still drawn from a handful of private boys’ schools like the one Powell describes, and they still socialise and marry almost exclusively within their own circle. For better or for worse, Powell teaches us that upbringing is everything, that the wealthy will always look after their own and close ranks on the rest, and that the Widmerpools of the world will never be part of the cool group.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Powell causes a lot of headaches for contemporary readers. While it’s a delightful read – witty, observant, brilliantly detailed – A Question of Upbringing is also something of a guilty pleasure, describing and feeding nostalgia for a world of class inequity, casual sexism and rampant snobbery that should’ve been outlawed decades ago. Powell was a horrible Tory snob, and seems mostly uninterested in writing female characters, who are either marginal or dreadful. As in Brideshead Revisited, the male-female crushes described are much less compelling than the intimate (if unsexual) relationships that the young men have with each other. It’s not too much of a stretch to draw a line between the world Powell describes – a bloated Empire drunk on its own power and already reminiscing about past glories – and Britain’s impending exit from the European Union.
Quotable Quote: “It is not easy – perhaps not even desirable – to judge other people by a consistent standard. Conduct obnoxious, even unbearable, in one person may be readily tolerated in another…. apparently indispensible principles of behaviour are in practice relaxed… in the interests of those whose nature seems to demand an exceptional measure.”