The English novelist Anthony Dymoke Powell (born 1905), a distinguished writer of social comedy, is best known for his duodecalogy called A Dance to the Music of Time.
Anthony Dymoke Powell was born in Westminster, London on Dec. 21, 1905, the son of a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army. He was educated at Eton and at Balliol College, Oxford, from which he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1926. After graduation Powell entered the publishing business in London and launched his career as a writer in 1931 with the publication of Afternoon Men, featuring a hero who lacks all ambition and who drifts aimlessly through bohemian circles, finding meaning nowhere. Powell's next novels—From a View to a Death (1933), Agents and Patients (1936), and What's Become of Waring (1939)—deal with variations on the theme of prostituted talent and the will to dominate personal relationships.
Powell married Lady Violet Pakenham in 1934, the third daughter of the Fifth Earl of Longford. In 1936 he joined Warner Brothers on a six month contract as a script writer. He soon left Warner Brothers and became a full-time writer after traveling the United States and Mexico
Sometime in the late 1930s he had the idea for a novel sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, designed to illustrate the responses to change of the British upper classes. The advent of World War II, however, forced Powell to put aside all writing. From 1939 to 1941 he served in the Welsh Regiment, and from 1941 to 1945 he was a liaison officer in the intelligence Corps. Powell was decorated often and raised to the rank of major.
The first volume in Powell's series, A Question of Upbringing, appeared in 1951. This novel introduced many of the characters who reappeared in succeeding novels and established one of them—Nicholas Jenkins—as the narrator who is a participant in, as well as an observer and recorder of, the multiplicity of events. A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer's Market (1952), and The Acceptance World (1955) form the first trilogy in the sequence. Covering the period after World War I up to the Depression, they depict the lives of Nick and his associates as they reflect upon and attempt to understand the effect of family and schooling upon character, as they examine what the world offers in the way of work and love, and as they quit their aimless wanderings and come to realize what decisions they may be capable of making.
The second trilogy covers the period from the Depression to the beginning of World War II. At Lady Molly's (1957), Casanova's Chinese Restaurant (1960), and The Kindly Ones (1962) show, respectively, the complexity of deepening commitments, the struggles and the failures of marriage, and a fresh appraisal of 20 years of personal history on the eve of political chaos.
The third trilogy, which covers the years of World War II, is made up of The Valley of Bones (1964), The Soldier's Art (1966), and The Military Philosophers (1968). These novels follow Nick through his realization that war is hardly romantic and that a fighting unit is only as effective as the men who are in it, to his perceptions of the powerful men who have directed the war and his often melancholy musings on the state of Europe and his own life.
The fourth and final trilogy Books do Furnish a Room (1971), Temporary Kings (1973), and Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975) closed out the series and covers the post-World War II years with all of its changes and modern dilemmas. In 1987 the entire twelve volume set was published as The Album of Anthony Powell's Dance To The Music of Time.
After publishing the novella The Fisher King (1986). The book is about two down-on-their-luck men who meet by happenstance and strike up a friendship even though they would initially seem to have nothing in common. In 1991 The Fisher King was adapted as a feature film directed by Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python's Flying Circus fame) and starring actors Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, and Mercedes Ruehl.
Powell is a reserved man and in keeping with his bashful tendencies (he was offered, and turned down, a knighthood from the Queen of England in 1973) now lives quietly with his wife in Somerset, England and still contributes pieces to publications. His most recent work, Journals 1990-1992, was published in 1997 and is a still further look into the man and his personal art of writing.
Further Reading on Anthony Powell
A useful overview of Powell's work can be found in Robert K. Morris The Novels of Anthony Powell (1968). See also the essay on Powell in Charles Shapiro Contemporary British Novelists (1965). Powell's memoirs up to 1992 have been published in a four volume set as To Keep The Ball Rolling (5th ed. 1983), from 1982 to 1986 as Journals 1982-1986 (1995), Journals 1987-1989 (1996), and Journals 1990-1992 (1997). Powell and his works are discussed at length in George Lilley Anthony Powell: A Biography (1994), Neil Brennan Anthony Powell (1974), and John Russell Anthony Powell, A Quintet, Sextet and War (1970). A brief biography of Powell and a list of his accomplishments appears in the 1997 edition of Who's Who. An extensive chronology of Powell's works and life is available on-line at Keith Marshall's Zen Mischief Website located at //www.ftech.net.