A Dance to the Music of Time 1: A Question of Upbringing

Dancing Powell

A Question of Upbringing 

Looking out of his window at some workmen around a brazier, Nicholas Jenkins is reminded of the four seasons on Poussin’s celebrated painting (detail above), and the passing of time in his life.

The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving had 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 stesp of the dance. Classical associations made me think, too, or days at school, where so many forces, hiterto unfamiliar, had become in due course uncompromisingly clear.

Powell 1Immediately we are introduced to one of the key characters in the series – Kenneth Widmerpool, going for a run on a foggy winter’s day. Widmerpool is a bit of an enigma, he ‘himself had proved indigestible to the community.’ Outsider he may be, but even later in this first volume, we will come to see his strength of character, and sense that he will endure.

Our narrator Jenkins, now enters the school boarding house and we meet his slightly older roommates – Stringham and Templer. On first glance, Stringham seems a good sort and Templer more mischievous, but after Jenkins’s Uncle Giles comes to visit and nearly gets them expelled by lighting a cigarette, it is Stringham that plays a particularly evil practical joke on housemaster Le Bas after noticing his resemblance to a wanted criminal. Stringham gets away with it too.

It is the boys’ last year at school; Stringham leaves early to stay in Kenya for a while. Jenkins spends some time with Templer’s family in London, falling madly in love with his sister Jean and experiencing the Templer brand of practical joke on a poor chap residing with them called Sunny Farebrother. Then in the summer he goes off to an educational establishment in France where he falls in love with someone else – and encounters Widmerpool again before going up to university where he begins to see how the old boys network really works when he is adopted by one of the professors, (think Slughorn ‘collecting’ Harry Potter for an analogy).

These four sections of school, London, France and university form the four long chapters of the novel – its own seasons if you will.

We find out very little about Jenkins himself – he doesn’t give much away, just observes and absorbs rather than doing much himself. Is he just a hanger on? I guess we’ll see, but he certainly seemed like that in this first volume. In a way he reminded me of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, another accepted outsider narrator.

Stringham and Templer and their well-heeled families were straight out of the bright young things of the 1920s. Uncle Giles however, who crops up several times, is a sort of failed Army officer who’s slightly on his uppers and needing a new opportunity in life – I hope we’ll hear more of him. The one character I long for more of though is Widmerpool – he is so intriguing, and seems bound to make something of himself despite what others may think.

Powell’s language is rich and dense and took some getting used to. I’m glad he started us off with Jenkins’s schooldays, as the scenario is familiar enough to give one time to get into the habit of reading his typically long sentences, which meant I was able to cope with this 70 word one by page 149!

The curious thing was that, although quite aware that a sentiment of attraction towards Suzette was merely part of an instinct that had occasioned Peter’s ‘unfortunate incident’ – towards which I was conscious of no sense of disapproval – my absorption in the emotional disturbance caused by Jean and Suzette seemed hardly at all connected with the taking of what had been, even in Templer’s case, a fairly violent decision.

So to summarise, volume one is really a scene-setting introduction – enjoyable in its way, but promising many more riches to come. I shall definitely proceed onto number two – A Buyer’s Market. (8/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Question Of Upbringing (Dance to the Music of Time 01) by Anthony Powell, Arrow paperback 240 pages. Other editions available.


13 thoughts on “A Dance to the Music of Time 1: A Question of Upbringing

  1. Lovely review, Annabel. I haven’t read these novels, but they come highly recommended by a couple of friends of mine. Your opening quote reminds me of passage from The Good Soldier where Edward likens his relationship with the Ashburnhams to performing a minuet with not a hand or foot out of place. Life as a dance to the music of time…

    • Thanks Jacqui. The Good Soldier was so good – great reminder. I’ve been meaning to read this series for so long, and am crossing my fingers that I don’t slip on my schedule. I suspect you’d probably enjoy them too.

  2. Fear not Annabel – there will be much Widmerpool to come!! So glad you are reading this series – I think I found this first book hardest, but once you get used to his prose you’re fine! 🙂

    • Excellent news. I’d been thinking about reading Dance for ages, so I tried only to skim yours and Ali’s posts last year, but have been back to read both of your first ones earlier which confirmed to me that you can’t start writing about this series of books without at least part of ‘that’ quote at the top!

  3. I read the odd book or two from this series back in my late teens or early 20s, although I think not this first one. I read it because I loved any and every mention of Britain – and this is such a panorama of Englishness over a significant period in its history. I wonder if I would find it too ‘Downton Abbey’ nowadays…

  4. He was unsung hero of bright young things really a bit younger than waugh and green I loved this but never got further than second book in this series although hope to when get other books in series .also it’s free to watch the series on 4od

  5. As you say you do need to get used to Powell’s style but his way of writing long complex sentences soon becomes familiar. Glad you enjoyed it. I need to get the dvds now I have finished them all.

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