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A Dance to the Music of Time

A Dance to the Music of Time is a twelve volume roman à clef by Anthony Powell, published between 1951 and 1975. Critically acclaimed on its publication, its satire on English political and cultural life in the mid 20th century seems to have fallen rapidly into public neglect, despite being adapted by Hugh Whitemore for a TV mini-series in 1997, starring Simon Russell Beale, James Purefoy and Miranda Richardson.

The sequence takes the form of the reminiscences of the narrator Nick Jenkins who falls into a reverie at the beginning of the first volume (A Question of Upbringing, 1951) while watching snow descending on a coal fire. This reminds him of "the ancient world – legionaries (...) mountain altars (...) centaurs (....)". These classical projections bring back to him his days at school which open A Question of Upbringing. Over the course of the following twelve volumes, he recalls the people he met over the previous half a century. Little is told of Jenkins' personal life outside his encounters with the great and the good, with events, such as his wife's miscarriage, only being related in conversation with the principal characters.

The title is taken from a painting by Nicolas Poussin, on which Jenkins reflects in Chapter 2 of A Question of Upbringing:

These classical projections, and something from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin's scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. 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.

The novels

Principal characters

Character Details Key
Nick Jenkins Narrator A cypher, everyman; Powell himself
Kenneth Widmerpool A mediocre student who goes on to greatness Any number of Labour MPs who rose to senior positions in World War II and were elected in the landslide UK general election, 1945 such as Robert Maxwell and Denis Healey. Many soon lost their seats and became labour peers.
Sillery An Oxford don F.R. Leavis
Howard Craggs Left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz
The Field Marshal Leader of desert warfare Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein
The C.I.G.S. General in charge of the defence of Britain Alan Francis Brooke, 1st Viscount Alanbrooke
X. Trapnel Novelist and parodist Julian Maclaren-Ross
Hugh Moreland Composer Constant Lambert
St John Clarke Author John Galsworthy
Max Pilgrim Entertainer Noel Coward
Erridge (Earl of Warminster) Socialist peer; Jenkins's brother-in-law The Earl of Longford, Powell's brother-in-law

more to be done

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