chapter  5
26 Pages

Dancing to the Music of Widmerpool – The Gentleman in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time

Anthony Powell started writing A Dance to the Music of Time in the late 1940s.1 It was a project which kept him occupied for over 25 years, taking his cast of more than 300 characters from the pre-war years to the mid 1970s, sustaining him through social, political and economic change within England and throughout the world. Before the Second World War, Powell had already made a name for himself with the publication of five light-hearted, satirical novels, reminiscent of the early social satire of Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley.2 Powell’s early work can be considered modernist for his use, not only of humour and social satire which shows a dissenting view of society, but also of modernist techniques such as montage.3 A Dance to the Music of Time, however, was to make a clean break with Powell’s earlier work, both in tone and scope: in it, Powell attempted to provide a comprehensive social sketch of half a century of British life, beginning the narrative in 1919 and ending it in the 1970s. It is the sheer time scale of the 12-volume sequence that makes it such a pertinent social and historical document. Steven Connor writes that ‘the novel has always been a useful resource for history and historians. Typically, the novel promises a view of that fine grain of events and experiences which otherwise tend to shrink to invisibility in the long perspectives of historical explanation’.4 During

the course of the narrative of Dance, Powell follows a group of old schoolfriends through several decades of their respective lives, charting different social terrains as well as working through key historical events, and thereby providing his readers with a social history of Britain which spans over five decades.5