A Dance to the Music of Time, book 1 – A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell

First published in 1951, A Question of Upbringing is the first novel in Anthony Powell’s masterly twelve-part cycle, A Dance to the Music of Time, a series which explores the political and cultural milieu of the English upper classes in the early-mid-20th century. It’s been on my radar for quite a while, mostly due to conversations with MaxJonathan and Ali who have written about the books in some detail. The final push came towards the end of last year when the Backlisted team covered book ten in the series, Books Do Furnish a Room, on their Christmas podcast.

Having drawn a line under my three-year Classics Club project, I now have the headspace to read a long sequence of novels – hence my decision to begin the Dance. While I can’t promise to write about every book in the series, I will try to post some thoughts every now and again, just to capture a few observations. In the meantime, here are a few reflections on the first instalment, A Question of Upbringing.

As the novel opens, the narrator – a man named Jenkins – is observing the movements of some workmen in his street when he is reminded of Poussin’s great painting, A Dance to the Music of Time, in which the Seasons move in rhythm to the notes of the lyre.

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 recognisable 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. (p. 2)

It’s a striking image, one that prompts Jenkins to think back to his youth, a time when so many things, hitherto unfathomable to him, were starting to become a little clearer.

Immediately we find ourselves back in the 1920s where Jenkins is in his final year of public school, destined to progress to a notable University, almost certainly Oxford. Most of his spare time is spent messing around with two companions, Stringham and Templer, whose temperaments, Jenkins observes, appear to represent two different facets of life in spite of their outward similarities. Stringham is something of a romantic and an eccentric, perhaps destined to play a somewhat different role from the one he truly desires. Templer, on the other hand, is more practical, valuing the tangible things in life, though he is not particularly ambitious.

The boys enjoy a feisty relationship with their punctilious housemaster, Le Bas, a situation which prompts Stringham to devise a devious joke at the tutor’s expense. The incident culminates in Le Bas being mistaken for a petty fraudster who is wanted by the police. Rather amusingly, Le Bas believes Templer to be the orchestrator of the prank, especially once the boy’s tobacco pouch is found near the scene of his arrest. It’s a very funny story, one that soon spreads around the network of boys as the episode becomes public.

While at school, Jenkins also encounters Widmerpool, a rather isolated, awkward boy who cuts a lonely figure marked by an air of greyness. A year or two older than the other boys, Widmerpool is destined to reappear in Jenkins’ orbit in the years to come.

Following these reflections on the boys’ schooldays, the novel then goes on to shadow Jenkins as he pays visits to Stringham’s home in London and the Templers’ residence near the sea. While staying with the Templers, Jenkins comes into contact with Sunny Farebrother, an amicable business associate of Templer senior. Farebrother also finds himself the butt of a joke when Templer’s brother-in-law, the rather objectionable Stripling, attempts to place a chamber pot in Farebrother’s hat box before the businessman’s departure. However, the plot is foiled when Farebrother surprises Stripling in the midst of enacting the trick.

When reading the novel, we view everything through Jenkins’ perspective, observing the movements of the other characters in relation to each another. It soon becomes clear that Jenkins is a little naïve, certainly more so than many of his peers. Nevertheless, there is a sense of him maturing as the novel progresses, a feeling that he is beginning to understand a little more about the business of life.

Clearly some complicated process of sorting-out was in progress among those who surrounded me: though only years later did I become aware how early such voluntary segregations begin to develop; and of how they continue throughout life. (p.69)

It is during his stay at the Templers that Jenkins first becomes aware of the possibilities that love might offer in the course of one’s existence – not just in terms of a physical attraction to someone, but a deeper, more emotional force too. This realisation is sparked by his observation of another of the Templers’ guests, the intoxicating Lady Reith. Although Jenkins is not seriously tempted by the prospect of Lady Reith, he does recognise her magnetism and power over the opposite sex. Instead, Jenkins considers himself to be in love with his schoolfriend’s sister, the somewhat remote Jean Templer.

Before heading off to university, Jenkins spends the summer in France, staying with a wartime friend of his father’s, Commandant Leroy. Also visiting the Leroys that summer is Widmerpool, who in spite of a little window dressing still retains much of the aura of the odd-boy-out from school.

Widmerpool had tidied himself up a little since leaving school, though there was still a kind of exotic drabness about his appearance that seemed to mark him out from the rest of mankind. […] His familiar air of uneasiness remained with him, and he still spoke as if holding a piece of india-rubber against the roof of his mouth. He also retained his accusing manner, which seemed to suggest that he suspected people of trying to worm out of him important information which he was not, on the whole, prepared to divulge at so cheap a price as that offered. (p. 118)

There is something rather secretive and unpleasant about Widmerpool at this stage, a feeling that leaves me interested to see how his character evolves over time. Currently articled to a firm of solicitors, it is clear than Widmerpool believes himself to be destined for greater things – either in the way of business or politics or both.

Once again, there are some beautifully observed scenes in this section of the story, particularly the amusing tennis matches involving two somewhat idiosyncratic Scandinavians – one from Norway, the other from Sweden – who clearly dislike one another.

The final chapter of this novel sees Jenkins in his first year at University, attending Sunday afternoon tea parties hosted by the wily Sillery, an influential don whose primary aim is to uncover and exploit any connections that might be of use to him. Stringham is also studying at the same University, although his arrival is delayed by an accident which puts him out of circulation for several months. Unlike Jenkins, Stringham is unhappy at the college, and it is not long before he convinces his mother and stepfather to allow him to depart. Other young undergraduates float in and out of Jenkins’ orbit during this period, although the significance of these figures remains to be seen.

As the novel draws to a close, Jenkins parts company with Stringham, and there is a sense that a particular chapter in his life is coming to an end.

I knew now that this parting was one of those final things that happen, recurrently, as time passes: until at last they may be recognised fairly easily as the close of a period. This was the last I should see of Stringham for a long time. The path had suddenly forked. With regret, I accepted the inevitability of circumstance. Human relationships flourish and decay, quickly and silently, so that those concerned scarcely know how brittle, or how inflexible, the ties that bind them have become. (p. 229)

It is observations like this that really stand out for me – Jenkins’ (or Powell’s) reflections on the nature of life alongside his wry asides. How relationships develop and then dissipate over time; how complex and powerful the business of love can be; how our personalities are often formed in the years of our youth, thereby setting the pattern for much of our lives. These are just some of the points that strike me on reading this book, but there are many more. Above all, it is not what you know, but who you know that seems most important here: a person’s social class and background; which school and college they went to; their network of influencers. These are the things that appear to matter most.

I’m looking forward to seeing how these individuals develop over time as they move in and out of one another’s lives. No doubt several new characters will be introduced as the Dance takes shape. I do hope we see Jenkins’ Uncle Giles again, a man whose liaisons with various members of the opposite sex are as dodgy and indiscriminate as his business dealings. I’ve run out of space to say any more about Giles in this piece, but maybe another time; he is a marvellous creation.

A Question of Upbringing is published by Arrow Books; personal copy.

48 thoughts on “A Dance to the Music of Time, book 1 – A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell

  1. Jonathan

    I think you’re going to enjoy the rest of the series, Jacqui. I was amazed how Powell kept introducing new, fascinating characters. Don’t worry though as most of the older characters re-appear at some point. I really liked Uncle Giles as well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, that’s good to know. I am beginning to get that sense of characters appearing briefly, then cropping up again a number of years down the line. Quiggin and Manners, for instance. Hopefully I won’t have too long to wait before Uncle Giles steps back into the frame.

      Reply
  2. Radz Pandit

    Great review, Jacqui! I had read A Question of Upbringing some years ago, but then for some reason never went on to read the rest of the books in the twelve part cycle. As a result, I had no recollection of the book other than some vague impressions, until I read your review.

    I now find myself in a position where I want to continue with the series, but do not want to re-read the first book. However, now that I have some idea, maybe I will delve straight into Book 2 and see how it goes.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Radhika. I’m sure you could pick up the series again if the idea appeals. It shouldn’t take too long to get back into the sing of things, even after a bit of a break. :)

      Reply
  3. Max Cairnduff

    Firstly, the good news is that Powell lands the ending. Obviously I won’t say anything about how the series progresses, but I do think it’s useful to know when starting a 12 volume novel sequence that the whole is greater than the parts.

    Anyway, lovely review as ever Jacqui. It is good isn’t it? When I read these I committed to reading them as every other book I read – i.e. I read whatever I fancied, then a Dance, then whatever else struck me, then a Dance. I’m not remotely saying that’s necessary, but it helped me work through them.

    Anyway, you’ve a definite treat ahead. I have so many memories of these books and the characters in them. It’s hard to pick favourites.

    Looking forward to seeing how you get on with them.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, wonderful. On the basis of the first book alone, I can tell I’m going to be in for long haul. It’s good to know how you felt about the series as a whole, both the nature of the ending and the synergistic effect across the complete cycle. As you say, it’s useful to have a sense of that at the outset, a sort of reassurance that the series is going to be worth the investment in time.

      As for the pacing, that’s a good way of approaching it. I may well do something similar, although probably one every third or fourth book rather than one in two. It feels important to leave a bit of space between the volumes, just to clear the mind a little – but not too much in case the characters and their circumstances begin to fade.

      One thing I neglected to mention in my piece (in fact it’s probably only just struck me) is Powell’s references to paintings – not just the eponymous Poussin, but other works of art too. Maybe I’m just imagining it, but they seem to crop up every now and again in relation to character and scene. Was that something you recall noticing too?

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui. The book sounds like a great start to what seems like an ambitious series of novels. I also took a look at the Wikipedia entry entry on the series. The whole thing sounds a little like Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Books. Powell’s works were first however. All the books look to be worth reading.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. It does feel like an ambitious series, a sense of range or scope alongside the minutia of character. I’m looking forward to see how it all unfolds in the future. That’s an interesting comparison to Roth’s Zuckerman books – not a series (or writer) I’m terribly familiar with, but I know they are very highly regarded.

      Reply
  5. Tredynas Days

    I’ve picked up some random volumes from the series over the years, but never got round to starting it. I recall the TV dramatisation some years ago, but didn’t catch all the episodes, so obtained a rather disjointed impression. Maybe I deliberately did this with a view to reading them first; dramatisations can often spoil a subsequent first reading, I find. I remember Simon R Beale as Widmerpool as a standout performance. Just looked it up online: it was way back in 1997!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, definitely. I’ve held off from watching the TV adaptation of this (and Manning’s Fortunes of War) for that very reason. Simon Russell Beale, though…that is a major selling point for the series. He has that ability to elevate pretty much any drama whether on stage or screen. (As a slight aside, have you seen the Armando Iannucci film, The Death of Stalin? He’s predictably excellent in that, amongst a very high-calibre cast.)

      If it’s any incentive, I think you’d have a ball with the books. The insights into character are both detailed and fascinating, a joy to behold.

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great post Jacqui! I read through the sequence a few years back and thought it was marvellous. The characterisation is wonderful and you come to regard some of them as old friends. I’m glad you’re interested in Widmerpool – I shan’t give anything away, but you’ll go on some amazing journeys with him! Look forward to following your reading of the books! :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s wonderful about Widmerpool. I definitely get the sense of there being so much scope for the development of his character, just from the first book alone. It’s one of the joys of a series like this, that sense of returning to old friends – even when the characters are a million miles away from your own sphere in real life! I’m so glad to hear that you loved the series too – that’s very reassuring.

      Reply
  7. Caroline

    Lovely review, Jacqui but I don’t see myself embark on this journey. Twelve volumes is a lot. But the quotes are wonderful. Danielle from A Work in Progress read and reviewed it ages ago and I remeber her liking it a great deal to, just like those who commented here.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Samgrass…it’s been such a long time since I read Brideshead I can barely recall the supporting characters. Sillery is very slippery, if that makes any sense!

      Reply
  8. Lady Fancifull

    I have started this series 3 times, and for some reason, I don’t get beyond the first three books, despite enjoying them hugely.

    It may be time to make a fourth attempt. I haven’t read them back to back as it were, its just for some reason that I don’t seem to time right the embarkation into book 4!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, interesting. Is number 4 the start of the ‘War’ section, by any chance? I’ve heard that can be the most challenging part to get into… As you say, maybe a back-to-back approach is the way to go for you. Personally, I think I’d need to read something else in between each volume, but a full-on blitz would have its merits!

      Reply
      1. Lady Fancifull

        I think (if memory serves) it may be. I must not have been clear, I don’t think I’d be able to back to back – too much else calls, but that’s the problem. Might you, when Powell wrote them, no one could have back to backed, but would have to wait for the next volume

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, no worries at all…I think it was my misinterpretation of your original comment! Mind you, that’s a good point about the sequencing of the original publication dates – it must have been hard for readers to wait 2 or 3 years for each new instalment! I hope you do find a way to get back into the series at some point. Everything I’ve heard suggests it’s worth the investment in time and energy.

          Reply
  9. heavenali

    I loved this sequence of novels, though Powell isn’t always easy. I so enjoyed spending time watching these characters develop and of course age throughout the sequence. Such memorable, vibrant characters and the opening to this first book is very memorable to me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the imagery in the opening section is very vivid, isn’t it? The workmen warming themselves by the fire in the street on a cold and wintry day. It’s so easy to visualise in the mind. I think I’m in for the long haul now, challenging passages and all!

      Reply
  10. Scott W.

    I came close to buying the whole set when a second-hand bookshop went out of business not too long ago, but hesitated when I flashed on an image of my limited shelf-space. Still, I’m tremendously curious about the series and look forward to following your reading of it. And how nice for you that you’ve freed up your time now to take on something this big and immersive!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hey, are you sure we can’t tempt you to join us, especially as Dorian is planning to read the series this year? It would be great to hear your thoughts on it. (No pressure, though – only if you want to. I’m sure you have plans of your own for 2019.)

      In the meantime, you can read along with us vicariously, so to speak, enjoying the delights of Jenkins, Widmerpool, Sillery et al as the sequence unfolds. .

      Reply
      1. Scott W.

        Oh I’m tempted all right, so thanks. But given that I’m not even halfway through one 1,700 page work and only a fifth of the way through another monster, I wonder…but whatever plans I have for reading seem always made to be broken.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grant. Oddly enough, it doesn’t feel too daunting a prospect, especially as the first book proved to be so absorbing. Plus the one-book-a-month approach feels about right. I think I’m going to enjoy spending time with these characters as their lives unfold and develop. It’s going to be an interesting ride…

      Reply
  11. gertloveday

    What a treat in store for you Jacquie. The books, in my view, get better and better. Widmerpool is one of my favourite literary characters, funny but quite terrible.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great to hear, especially as I enjoyed book one so much! Widmerpool definitely feels like a focal point, even at this early stage in the sequence. Some priceless moments ahead, no doubt.

      Reply
  12. Pingback: January 2019 in Review | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

  13. Izzy

    I started reading The Dance two years ago but I’ve only completed Spring so far. Must get back to it ! The fourth volume is At Lady Molly’s, and it’s not about the war yet, it’s about married life, but Hitler is looming in the background. The war occurs in the third part, Autumn. Oh now I can’t wait to pick the series up again where I left it ! And do have a look at the Anthony Powell Society online, it’s very helpful. I often turned to it to refresh my memory about characters I’d forgotten, but they also provide lots of essays on each book. Enjoy !

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thanks! I will definitely take a look at the AP Society website. It sounds like a great resource for insights into the sequence. I’ve been a little worried about the challenge of keeping all the various characters in my head as the sequence unfolds, so it’s good to know there’s help at hand if I get stuck (which I undoubtedly will). Best of luck with the rest of the series – I hope you get a chance to return to it soon!

      Reply
  14. madamebibilophile

    I’m so impressed at your undertaking Jacqui, it definitely sounds worthwhile. This cycle has been in the back of my mind as a reading project for a while, so I’ll be really interested in your progress. Maybe I’ll do it once I’ve finally got round to finishing Richardson’s Pilgrimage sequence ;-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, for some reason it doesn’t feel like a major undertaking – possibly because I enjoyed the first two books so much (I’ve just finished the second, A Buyer’s Market). Also, I’ve pretty much decided that I’m not going to write about each book, which takes the pressure off somewhat, particularly in terms of trying to say something about them without revealing any spoilers! I’m just going to enjoy the experience and see where it takes me.

      How have you been getting on with Pilgrimage? I’ve noticed quite a few people reading it over the last two or three years.

      Reply
      1. madamebibilophile

        That’s great to hear Jacqui and I’m sure the no pressure approach is the best to take!

        I’ve read the first two in the Pilgrimage cycle and really enjoyed them but apparently it becomes a bit more impenetrable as you go along…

        Reply
  15. bookbii

    Excellent review, Jacqui. I really admire you embarking on such a huge read, my experience is that there’s a certain mindset needed (the headspace you mention at the beginning, I think) but they are also hugely rewarding. I think at a time when our attention is so clamoured over, being able to focus on something which takes investment is a truly valuable activity. It also sounds like the initial book, at least, suggests the rest of the series will be worth that investment of time.

    I look forward to reading about the remaining books you choose to write about.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. The series feels like a good fit for me, especially given my interest in the era. I’m sure it will be worth the investment in time and mental energy, plus I’m intrigued to see how Widermerpool shapes up as the years go by.

      Reply
  16. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  17. Pingback: Recent Reads – Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell | JacquiWine's Journal

  18. Pingback: A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, books 5-9 | JacquiWine's Journal

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.