A Dance to the Music of Time

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A Dance to the Music of Time is a 12-volume roman-fleuve by English writer Anthony Powell, published between 1951 and 1975 to critical acclaim. The story is an often comic examination of movements and manners, power and passivity in English political, cultural and military life in the mid-20th century. The books were inspired by the painting of the same name by French artist Nicolas Poussin.

The sequence is narrated by Nicholas Jenkins. At the beginning of the first volume, Jenkins falls into a reverie while watching snow descending on a coal brazier. This reminds him of "the ancient world—legionaries ... mountain altars ... centaurs ..." These classical projections introduce the account of his schooldays, which opens A Question of Upbringing.

Over the course of the following volumes, he recalls the people he met over the previous half a century and the events, often small, that reveal their characters. Jenkins's personality is unfolded slowly, and often elliptically, over the course of the novels.

Poetry in the sequence has been explicated by Bernard Stacey who provides provenance and the poet as well as facts surrounding its use. [1]

Time magazine included the novel in its list of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005.[2] The editors of Modern Library ranked the work as 43rd-greatest English-language novel of the 20th century.[3] The BBC ranked the novel 36th on its list of the 100 greatest British novels.[4]


Poussin's painting, c. 1636, which gives its name to Powell's sequence of novels, Wallace Collection, London

Jenkins reflects on the Poussin painting in the first two pages of A Question of Upbringing:

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.

Poussin's painting is housed at the Wallace Collection in London.


  • Powell's official biographer, Hilary Spurling, has published Invitation to the Dance – a Handbook to Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time.[5] This annotates, in dictionary form, the characters, events, art, music, and other references. She has also calculated the timeline employed by the author: this is used in the synopses linked from the novels below.
  • The various aspects of the novel-sequence are also analysed in An Index to 'A Dance to the Music of Time' by B. J. Moule.[6]

The novels[edit]

Published dates are those of the first UK publication. The narrative is rarely specific about the years in which events take place. Those below are suggested by Hilary Spurling in Invitation to the Dance – a Handbook to Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time.

Order Title Story timeline Published
1 A Question of Upbringing 1921–1924 1951
2 A Buyer's Market 1928 or 1929 1952
3 The Acceptance World 1931–1933 1955
4 At Lady Molly's 1934 1957
5 Casanova's Chinese Restaurant 1928 or 1929, 1933–1937 1960
6 The Kindly Ones 1914, 1938–1939 1962
7 The Valley of Bones 1940 1964
8 The Soldier's Art 1941 1966
9 The Military Philosophers 1942–1945 1968
10 Books Do Furnish a Room 1945–1947 1971
11 Temporary Kings 1958–1959 1973
12 Hearing Secret Harmonies 1968–1971 1975

Principal characters[edit]

Character Details Historical inspirations[7]
Nick Jenkins Narrator A cypher, everyman; Powell himself
Isobel Tolland One of the Tolland sisters, whom Jenkins later marries Lady Violet Pakenham, third daughter of the 5th Earl of Longford and Powell's wife.
Kenneth Widmerpool A mediocre student whose rise seems unstoppable. Powell confirmed character inspired by Col. Denis Capel-Dunn, under whom he served in the Cabinet Office. Plus an element from Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller's schooldays. Soviet bloc connection may be intended to suggest Labour MP Denis Nowell Pritt.
Charles Stringham Schoolfriend of Nick's. A romantic. Drawn from Hubert Duggan, whose glamorous mother married Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India. Not, as is often supposed, based on Powell's friend and fellow author Henry Green.
Uncle Giles ("Captain Jenkins") Nick's uncle, unreliable and usually untraceable.
Peter Templer Raffish schoolfellow of Nick's based on John Spencer, friend of the author's.
Jean Templer Peter Templer's sister; Nick's lover
Bob Duport Jean Templer's first husband, businessman
Sillery Manipulative Oxford don Professor Sir Ernest Barker, and "Sligger" Urquhart. Not Sir Maurice Bowra as often suggested.
Myra Erdleigh Clairvoyante
Pamela Flitton Femme Fatale based on Barbara Skelton, tempestuous sometime wife of Cyril Connolly.
Mark Members Promising poet Peter Quennell, all-purpose literary personage, poet, and cultural historian. The name and the conference-going suggest Stephen Spender.
Maclintick Music critic Peter Warlock.
Audrey Maclintick Married to and widow of Maclintik; later companion to Hugh Moreland
Edgar Bosworth Deacon Painter and antique dealer Combination of Mr Bailey, an alcoholic antiques dealer, and eccentric bookseller Christopher Millard.
Dr Trelawney Occultist Aleister Crowley, self-styled Great Beast 666
The Field Marshal Leader of desert warfare Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein
X. Trapnel Novelist and parodist Julian Maclaren-Ross
Russell Gwinnett Biographer of X.Trapnel and academic.
Hugh Moreland Composer Constant Lambert
St John Clarke Passé author John Galsworthy
Max Pilgrim Entertainer in the manner of Noël Coward inspired by Douglas Byng
Gibson Delavacquerie Poet, public relations at Donners-Brebner Laurence Cotteril, Poet/businessman Roy Fuller and also V.S.Naipaul, novelist from Trinidad
Scorpio Murtlock cult leader
Sir Magnus Donners Magnate and government minister partly drawn from Lord Beaverbrook
J. G. Quiggin Marxist writer
Erridge (Earl of Warminster) Socialist peer; Jenkins's brother-in-law The Earl of Longford, Powell's brother-in-law. Also Powell's friend George Orwell – lives as a tramp for a time, fights in Spanish Civil War, dies in his forties.


The cycle was adapted by Frederick Bradnum as a Classic Serial on BBC Radio 4. In order to fit the material in, it was broadcast as four separate serials each based on a set of three books: the first three serials had six episodes, the last eight. The series were broadcast between 1979 and 1982.[8] The cycle was adapted again as a six-part Classic Serial on BBC Radio 4 from 6 April to 11 May 2008, directed by John Taylor. The cycle was adapted as a four-part TV series A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell and Hugh Whitemore for Channel 4 in 1997, directed by Christopher Morahan and Alvin Rakoff.[9]

Character 1997 TV series 2008 radio drama 1979 radio drama
Narrator Corin Redgrave Noel Johnson
Kenneth Widmerpool Simon Russell Beale Anthony Hoskyns
Mark Heap
Brian Hewlett
Nicholas Jenkins James d'Arcy James Purefoy
John Standing
Tom McHugh
Alex Jennings
Gareth Johnson, Noel Johnson
Charles Stringham Luke de Lacey Paul Rhys David Oakes
Timothy Watson
Simon Cadell
Peter Templer Jonathan Cake Jolyon Coy
Ronan Vibert
Christopher Good
Jean Templer Claire Skinner Emma Powell Jane Asher
Bob Duport Nicholas Jones
Orn Dag Soerlie Christopher Bidmead
Lindquist Christian Rubeck Eric Allan
Prof. Sillery Alan Bennett Paul Brooke Preston Lockwood
J.G. Quiggin Adrian Scarborough Julian Kerridge Gordon Dulleu
Gypsy Jones Nicola Walker Emma Powell Susan Sloman
Barbara Goring
Abigail Hollick Josie Kidd
Erridge Osmund Bullock Jonathan Keeble Alexander John
Mona Annabel Mullion Abigail Cruttenden Tamara Ustinov
Myra Erdleigh Gillian Barge
Lady Molly Jeavons Sarah Badel Heather Tracy Sian Phillips
Lady Isobel Tolland Emma Fielding Zoe Waites Elizabeth Proud


  1. ^ Stacey, Bernard and Anthony Powell Society. Poetic Dance: A Catalogue and Analysis of the Poetic References Found in Anthony Powell's a Dance to the Music of Time. Anthony Powell Society 2018.
  2. ^ "All-Time 100 Novels". Time. 16 October 2005. Archived from the original on 13 March 2010. Retrieved 15 May 2011.
  3. ^ "The Modern Library, 100 Best, Novels". Randomhouse.com. Archived from the original on 7 February 2010. Retrieved 15 May 2011.
  4. ^ Ciabattari, Jane (7 December 2015). "The 100 greatest British novels". BBC. Retrieved 8 December 2015.
  5. ^ Spurling, Hilary. (2005). Invitation to the Dance: A Handbook to Anthony Powell's a Dance to the Music of Time. London: Arrow. ISBN 0-09-948436-6. OCLC 60511965.
  6. ^ The time-line of the novels, how the various episodes recur in the movement of the Dance and the career, character and relationships of Kenneth Widmerpool are analysed in extracts taken from An Index to 'A Dance to the Music of Time' by B. J. Moule (published by consent). The latter extract is accessible in standard format at Kenneth Widmerpool
  7. ^ "Anthony Powell Society – A Dance to the Music of Time Character Models". Anthonypowell.org.uk. Archived from the original on 22 July 2012. Retrieved 15 May 2011.
  8. ^ Marshall, Keith (15 February 2005). "Dance on BBC Radio 4". Archived from the original on 20 September 2008.
  9. ^ A Dance to the Music of Time at IMDb

External links[edit]