Hilary Spurling’s works include biographies of the authors Ivy Compton-Burnett and Paul Scott and painter Henri Matisse. Now she has turned her attention to another famed English author, Anthony Powell.
Spurling’s latest book, ”Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time,” which is due out from Alfred A. Knopf on Nov. 6, was requested by its subject. The late British author first met Spurling as a young woman and, learning that she was a fan of his 12-volume series of interconnected novels “A Dance to the Music of Time,” he suggested that she write a key to it. It came out in 1977. They became friends — in the new biography, she calls him “the best listener I ever met” — and, later in life, he anointed her his biographer.
She believes that this honor may have been bestowed in part to deter others from writing about Powell during his lifetime. When he was still alive, she tried to interview him about his life — an experience she describes as ”a total fiasco.” This was partly because she was still suffused with a totally different subject, Matisse, at the time.
Powell was born in 1905 and died in 2000 and, while his books are not exactly romans a clef, their characters were often inspired by and related to his contemporaries at Oxford, in World War II and others he met in various levels of English society throughout the 20th century. Too young to be in World War I, he was not a combatant in World War II, but led a fascinating life between those conflicts. His friends at Oxford included Evelyn Waugh and Henry Yorke, who wrote under the pseudonym Henry Greene. Powell met or knew everyone else who was anybody in London at the time, among them the Sitwell siblings, Malcolm Muggeridge and Nina Hamnett. Philip Larkin became a friend after the war.
Powell was the only child of a career military man, Philip Powell, who was notably ill-tempered and did not disguise his dislike of his son. His mother, Maude Wells-Dymoke, was a beauty who was 16 years older than her husband — a shocking detail at the time, which she was quick to disguise. (She was helped in this enterprise by the fact that, for most of their lives, she looked notably young and, if anything, younger than he, Spurling writes.) Powell moved constantly during his early childhood, went to boarding school at 10 (typical of his class then) at the now-defunct New Beacon and then Eton and Oxford. During his early career, although he published five novels — “Afternoon Men,” “Venusburg,” “From a View to a Death,” “Angels and Patients” and “What’s Become of Waring” — none was a big hit. Until much later, he was regarded as far less successful than Waugh and Yorke.
While Powell started his working life at the publishing company Duckworth and held various military staff jobs during World War II, it wasn’t until he became literary editor of Punch in 1953 that he had a long-lasting steady position, although he had already married and had two sons, Tristram and John. By all accounts, his marriage to Violet Packenham, sister of Lord Longford and aunt of Lady Antonia Fraser, was a great success. Her optimism, intelligence and erudition made her an invaluable partner and she was Powell’s first, most critical, reader. She made him laugh about his impossible father and Powell pere’s frequent explosions of rage. She was also a reviewer and writer herself.
Powell has been called “the English Proust,” but Spurling points out that this designation is inaccurate in that Proust was only interested in writing about a tiny sliver of fashionable, well-connected French society, whereas Powell’s characters run a far greater social gamut.
At the time she met him, she says, Powell, now considered in England to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, was not popular with her young contemporaries, and she believes that her fandom won her his friendship. Powell was out of favor in the Sixties and Seventies because he was thought to be old-fashioned. “The war was considered to be the king at the time,” Spurling, who was born in 1940, recalls, and while Powell touches on World War II, that subject is by no means the main thrust of his novel series.
His aristocratic demeanor, way of dressing, accent — even the pronunciation of his name (think Pole, not Pow-ell) — were ridiculed. His writing style is not notably experimental, either, and he writes about aristocrats without opprobrium, both things that were distinctly unfashionable in a time of social upheaval. He mentored V.S. Naipaul, who, later in life and after Powell’s death, turned on him, something Spurling ascribes to jealousy. While the famously churlish Waugh loved Powell’s writing, his son, Auberon, hated it, and expressed it when given the chance in reviews of Powell’s 12-volume series.
Spurling and her husband, playwright John Spurling, began visiting Powell and his wife Violet at their house the Chantry, in the West Country, whenever they visited her parents in the area.
As a person, Powell was elusive and recessive. Spurling notes that he barely appears in his own volumes of memoirs, which were labeled in the press at the time as “snobby.” The narrator of his 12-volume series, Nicholas Jenkins, has also been criticized for being a cipher. But she brings Powell alive with her signature meticulous research.
The biographer’s father was a barrister in Bristol, and, after Oxford, she worked in a restaurant in London, then became a general assistant at The Spectator and later its drama critic and literary editor. Like many successful women at the time, she says her gender was an advantage because it made her memorable. (However, she does say that her father was the first barrister in Bristol to take on a female clerk in his chambers, and the way the men in his office talked about this woman made Spurling determine never to become a barrister herself.)
One of her initiatives as literary editor at The Spectator was to publish a short story every issue. She published the first story by Gabriel García Márquez ever to appear in Britain. This enterprise did not drive sales for the publication as she had hoped.
“It was fantastic,” she recalls of the position, the only full-time job she has ever held. “I could ring up absolutely anybody. [For a Christmas issue about children’s books] I rang up John Gielgud, and he wrote about E. Nesbit’s ‘The Railway Children.’”
Eventually, Nigel Lawson, the editor who had brought Spurling into the publication (and who later became Britain’s Treasury Secretary), was dismissed, and she felt that she was about to let go, too, so she resigned. At that point, she had her own first book contract and advance of 50 pounds, and she also decided to become pregnant. She and her husband had to scramble to make a living but, between books and plays and reviewing for British newspapers, were able to do so. Her books soon began winning awards, and they ultimately had three children. She says that she “became addicted” to having babies.
The writer reports that a friend of hers told her that the best biographers are women. “I had never, ever thought of it before,” she says. “The thing is that, in England, at any rate, when I was in my 20s, Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey came out. I suppose it was waiting to happen. Richard Holmes published his life of Shelley. They are two of the kind of founding fathers. Suddenly biography was the coming thing.
“It’s curious, like the lifting of a floodgate. That the best ones were by women never struck me. But maybe as a woman what you do is analyze people, take them in almost through your pores. The one thing we all have in common is that we’re human beings….”