Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 22, 2012

A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975), by Anthony Powell

A Dance to the Music of Time: First MovementA Dance to the Music of Time: Second MovementA Dance to the Music of Time: Third MovementA Dance to the Music of Time: Fourth MovementA Dance to the Music of Time is a delicious book: I am loving every minute of reading it.  Originally comprising 12 separate novels published from 1951 to 1975 it now comes in four volumes and I’ve only read the first volume so far, but I am hooked. 

Sometimes compared to  Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Lost Time), Anthony Powell’s masterpiece might also be called a comedy of manners.  It is much easier to read than Proust, and not just because the sentences are shorter: it’s more amusing, less angst-ridden, and the ‘Britishness’ of its subtle ironies is part of its charm.

A clumsy summary might make this work seem like a soap-opera, so I shan’t try except to say that the novels follow the fortunes of a group of young men through their adolescence and adulthood, from the immediate post WW1 period to the early 1970s.  It begins when Jenkins, Templer, Stringham and Widmerpool are in the same house at Eton, and it moves on as they muddle their desultory way through and out of university and then into careers of one sort or another.  They muddle into and out of relationships too: love, business, artistic and so on.  Along the way there is a veritable cavalcade of eccentric and sometimes dubious characters from all walks of life.

The novel takes its name from a painting now in the Wallace Collection, in London, and the book-covers in the edition I have are details from the painting.

The Dance to the Music of Time, c 1640 by Poussin (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

In the very beginning of the book, the narrator, Nick Jenkins, reminiscing about the past, muses on the patterns of life:

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 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.

Jenkins is an engaging narrator. Mild and self-effacing, in this volume he is misled by his own inexperience into assumptions about his school friends; well into his twenties he is mystified by ‘girls’;  and he is naïve about ‘getting ahead’ until it belatedly dawns on him that some of his pals – including the unprepossessing Widmerpool – are unexpectedly becoming men of influence.  When he eventually begins work in a publishing house that specialises in art books, he is frustrated by the novelist St. John Clarke who’s supposed to write the introduction but delays so long that (a) a retrospective of the artist’s work comes and goes and (b) the art movement to be covered by the introduction is passé.   Jenkins does get a novel written by the end of the book, but no one seems very impressed.

The humour is subtle, but the occasional chuckle is impossible to suppress.  To give you a small taste of the author’s droll style, here’s an excerpt (from The Acceptance World, the third novel in the First Movement):

In fact to get rid of a secretary who performed his often difficult functions so effectively was a rash step on the part of a man who liked to be steered painlessly through the shoals and shallows of social life.  Indeed, looking back afterwards, the dismissal of Members might almost be regarded as a landmark in the general disintegration of society in its traditional form.  It was an act of individual folly on the part of St. John Clarke; a piece of recklessness that well illustrated the mixture of self-assurance and ennui which together contributed so much to form the state of mind of people like St. John Clarke at that time.  Of course I did not recognise its broader aspects then.  The duel between Members and Quiggin seemed merely an entertaining conflict to watch, rather than the significant crumbling of social foundations.  ( p122)

The book concludes with that most excruciating of all social occasions, a school reunion.  Widmerpool is on the rise; Templer’s wife has left him, and Stringham seems to be drinking too much.  On now to the Second Movement – what fun!

PS A Dance to the Music of Time is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (the 2006 edition).  Here is part of the citation:

…as with Proust, the joy of these addictive novels does not lie in their plots or in the portrait they give, such as it is, of half a century of largely upper-class English life. Powell’s success comes from his comedy, his characterisations, and his style – the first two of these being indivisible from the third.  Beautifully written, his assessments of the private experiences of his hero comfort us and steady our view of the world.  Everything, in his quiet but elegant prose, becomes matter for comedy and puzzlement. (p655)

Update Feb 14th 2012

Laura of Laura’s Musings is reading this too (and is way ahead of me).  See her reviews:

Update: March 31, 2012
I haven’t written a review of the Second Movement but at GoodReads have penned a summary to help me keep track of the characters and the plot.

Update: June 27, 2012
I left quite a gap between reading the Second and Third Movement.  Random thoughts are at GoodReads.  I’ll try not to leave it so long before tackling the last one.

Update: April 2013
Book 4 is on my bedside table, I will get to it soon.
In the meantime, check out Nancy’s reviews at Silver Season:

Update: June 2013

Finished.  I can’t say that I enjoyed this last volume as much.  There were snippets of commentary here and there that I found droll, but I found Widmerpool’s final years beyond eccentric, and not at all convincing.  Maybe the 1970s just didn’t suit Powell?  Never mind, overall it’s still well worth reading.


Author: Anthony Powell
Title: A Dance to the Music of Time (1st Movement)
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, 1995
ISBN: 9780226677149
Source: Personal Library



A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement
A Dance to the Music of Time: Second Movement
A Dance to the Music of Time: Third Movement
A Dance to the Music of Time: Fourth Movement



  1. I ve read the first two in this series and have books 4,5&6 also the last three all brought second hand ,just waitng for a second hand copy of book three ,I like jenkins he is an interesting character I often wonder how much of him is powell himself ,all the best stu


  2. I love Dance! I read the first two movements last year and promptly foisted it upon my husband (who loved Proust and Brideshead Revisited, so it seemed a good fit). He carried on through the entire series and loved it. I’m planning to read the third movement in February and finish the series shortly thereafter.

    And isn’t the cover art magnificent? I hope you continue to enjoy this series.


  3. Glad to hear people are enjoying Dance. Have a look at the website of the Anthony Powell Society.


    • Hello Paul, and thanks for dropping by!
      Not for the first time, I wish I lived in the UK and could attend some of those interesting events you organise for Anthony Powell enthnusiasts! Lisa


    • Paul, I’m with Lisa: I wish I could attend some of those events!


  4. Lisa, if you’re planning to read the series you might want to be on the lookout for Invitation to the Dance, by Hilary Spurling, a guide to the series. Descriptions of every character, the art, the plots, you name it.


    • I did see that, but I want to read the series first. I mean, a guide is handy for James Joyce’s Ulysses, and probably indispensable for his Finnigans Wake, but do I need it for A Dance to the Music of Time? It doesn’t seem so, so far.


  5. I’ve read a couple of random books from ‘Dance’ and thought they were wonderful, and I am planning to read more. Anthony Powell has a light touch that makes him fun to read. I like the painting too.


  6. I posted a review of the Third Movement today:


    • Thanks, Laura, I’ve added the link to the bottom of my post:)


      • Thanks Lisa!


  7. Hi Lisa, I’ve now finished the series! The fourth movement was the weakest, but overall still a very good series. Here’s my review of the Fourth Movement.


    • Oh, you are way ahead of me! I had to put it on hold while reading my way through the Shadow IFFP and Miles Franklin lists: I’ll get back to it soon.
      Thanks for the link!


  8. Congratulations on finishing the series! I agree the last volume was weak. I suppose the time period was confusing and unsettling for him, and he wasn’t able to capture it in a believable way..


    • Hi Laura, yes, I felt that he was like Jenkins, a bit bewildered by the swinging sixties, e.g. flummoxed by the twins’ behaviour with the paint, and whereas there is a sense of authorial wisdom about the early volumes, Vol 4 feels like an author who is both too close to his material to make sense of it and at the same time unwilling to leave the nostalgic past.


  9. I’m glad you liked this Lisa. I’m just about to start the 2nd movement/season which I’m reading with a GR group but I’m hoping to write a review of the 1st movement – but where to start? I love this type of book: as with Proust there’s little plot development but oodles of characters and character development.


    • Yes, I did like it, and yes, it is (as you can tell from this shambles of a post) difficult to review.
      Did you see the TV series? I took one look at it and gave up, it was so awful and the characterisation of Widmerpool was all wrong. It was as if some young creatives who’d never read the book had decided they’d do this one because they could have fun doing the sets and costumes from the 1920s…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve got the TVseries here and I’ve had a quick look at it but I don’t want to watch it until I’ve read the books.


  10. […] Four of A Dance to the Movement of Time.  I lent it, and now I can’t find it anywhere. C’est la […]


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