Saturday, July 10, 2010

Notes from the Anthony Powell Society

A few months ago I received a note from Stephen Holden, editor of the newsletter of the Anthony Powell Society, requesting permission to reprint a post I’d written about Venusburg, which I gladly granted. So many people have written about Powell that I tend to doubt whether I have anything new to offer aside from a lure to new readers, so I was pleased to learn that a devoted Powell fan thought I’d hit on something interesting.

I now have the new issue of the newsletter in hand, and it makes me wonder why I’ve never joined the Society. Its thirty-two pages are full of thoughts and tidbits sure to interest and amuse any Powell fan. The most interesting article is one from Jeffrey Manley that clears up something I’ve long wondered about: whether Powell was a Barbara Pym fan--as he clearly should have been--and, if so, why he never reviewed any of her novels. It turns out that, like many readers, he came to her late, and even then took a while to fully appreciate her. By 1992, however, he was writing in his journal,
From being merely tolerant of [her] as a novelist, I have now got into the swing of her style and characters, find the books very amusing. . . . She is one of the few novelists I regret never having met.
In addition to that article, in the Cuttings section we get an amusing anecdote from the life of Lady Violet Powell, taken from a March 26, 2010 obituary for one of her sisters, Lady Mary Clive:
On her return to London she shared a studio with a friend on the top floor of a house in Jubilee Place, Chelsea. Her younger sister, Violet (who was to marry the novelist Anthony Powell), posed nude for her, until news reached them that the mechanics at the motor-works across the road were making ribald remarks about “the young lady they could see undressing in Lady Mary’s studio.”
From Cuttings, we also learn that Hilary Spurling, whose new biography of Pearl S. Buck has just arrived in stores, still plans to tackle Powell next. In addition we get a quote from a blog post by Lance Mannion that nicely marks the primary difference between Powell and Waugh:
For Waugh, bad behaviour is mainly defined as what other people do to offend people like him. For Trollope and Powell, bad behaviour is what we all do as a matter of course along with the good.
The most unexpected perspective on Powell comes from the opening article by Nick Birns. Adapted from his foreword to a new collection of writings on Dance by high school students, it manages to make that seemingly unpromising concept sound interesting--one student decodes the economic references in Widmerpool’s excruciating Old Boys speech!--while reminding us that reading Dance attentively when young could offer advantages:
But reading Dance so early will give these young women and men important gifts to have at their disposal throughout their lives, a gift that will never stop giving. They will have a stock of archetypes with which to associate acquaintances. When they have to talk about current politics as a way of breaking the social ice, they will reap the humour of the resemblance to uttering “It seems the nationalists have reached Peking” in 1928. They will learn how to deal unflappably with the wide range of preposterous situations, all the while facing melancholy ones with poise and resolution, having been partially made immune to the depredations of the world’s Blackheads and Widmerpools and Pamelas and Murtlocks, and made receptive to the joys of the world’s Stringhams, Morelands, Barnbys, and Umfravilles.
I tend to think of lessons learned from literature as a secondary benefit at best, but looking back on my teenage self, I do think he could have used a dash of the patience, perspective, and openness to idiosyncrasy that he could have learned from Nick Jenkins.

And now to go join the Society!


  1. @Levi ... Thank you for that very appreciative post! We'll be delighted to welcome you to the Society.
    Keith Marshall
    Hon. Sec., AP Soc.

  2. Thanks, Keith! I look forward to being a member.

    You might also enjoy my attempt at a Powell pastiche, written a couple of summers ago for Maud Newton's blog after she told of an instance of eavesdropping that felt quite Powellian to me.