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MS 434

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MS 434


Anthony Powell archive



Administrative / Biographical history

From the ODNB: "Powell, Anthony Dymoke (1905–2000), writer, was born on 21 December 1905 at 44 Ashley Gardens, Westminster, London, the only child of Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Lionel William Powell (1882–1959) CBE DSO, of the Welch regiment, and Maud Mary (1867–1954), second daughter of Edmund Lionel Wells-Dymoke, whose family owned land in Lincolnshire. A passionate genealogist, who said his hobby underlined ‘the vast extent of human oddness’ (Powell, Infants of the Spring, 2), Powell claimed descent from Rhys ap Gruffydd (1132–1197), ruler of south Wales. By Elizabethan times, when the family had begun to call itself Powell (pronounced ‘Poel’), their estate had shrunk to a few hundred acres on the marches. It disappeared entirely in the eighteenth century, after which the Powells left Wales for good. But Powell considered himself Welsh and was angry when people disputed this. Although privileged in many respects, Powell experienced just enough of the ‘moderate unhappiness in childhood’ (Powell, Under Review, 304) he thought a writer needed to get him going. His father was largely to blame for this. Like the narrator's father in A Dance to the Music of Time, Colonel Powell was a difficult man, highly strung, caustic, often morose. His wife, fifteen years older, dedicated herself to his welfare, a task made no easier by the number of times the family had to move in the course of his career. Powell was not exactly neglected as a child, but, brought up never to draw attention to himself, he was often rather bored and lonely. Powell had a gentleman's education, beginning in 1916 at the New Beacon preparatory school in Kent, which he loathed, continuing at Eton College, which he enjoyed, and concluding at Balliol College, Oxford, in which he was disappointed. At Eton, where he overlapped with Eric Blair (pseudonym George Orwell), Cyril Connolly, Henry Yorke (pseudonym Henry Green), and Harold Acton, his happiest hours were spent in the studio, a meeting place for boys of all ages ‘whose adventures took place in the world of the imagination’ (Powell, New English Review, 11 Sept 1945, 468). It was here that Powell began to grasp what an exciting period this was for the arts. At Oxford he was handicapped by being neither rich nor homosexual, and despite attending some amusing parties was often sunk in gloom. Later he concluded that ‘to the egotism of adolescence … there is nothing to be offered short of growing up and a life of one's own’ (Powell, ‘Youth in the twenties’, TLS, 9 Nov 1951, 703). Powell left Oxford with a third in history and in 1926 joined Duckworth, the publishers, where one of his jobs was to read unsolicited manuscripts. He said he learned more about writing from this chore than from reading the classics. Another influence was Hemingway, who, as Powell said, ‘cleared the ground of extraneous matter in the Twenties’ (Powell, Miscellaneous Verdicts, 225). But first Powell had to grow up, a process that accelerated once he graduated from débutante dances to bohemian routs, with their quota of what were once referred to as ‘Arts, Barts, Smarts, Tarts and Upstarts’. He captured the seedier side of this milieu in his first novel, Afternoon Men (1931), described as ‘the party novel to end all party novels’ (‘From a chase to a view’, TLS, 16 Feb 1951). Two other novels quickly followed, Venusberg (1932) and From a View to a Death (1933); all three were distinguished by their deadpan humour and underlying melancholy. But by now the party was over for young writers like Powell whose commitment was to literature, not politics. His marriage on 1 December 1934 to Lady Violet Georgiana Pakenham [see below] was the one bright spot in an otherwise depressing pre-war period when he struggled to make himself heard above the clamour for a popular front. Much to his regret Powell never saw action in the Second World War, his military career duplicating that of Jenkins in the Music of Time: eighteen months as an infantry subaltern in Ulster, followed by four years in the intelligence corps as military liaison officer to various allied governments in exile. This, he maintained, was the hardest work he had ever done in his life. He was demobilized in the rank of major and awarded the orders of the White Lion (Czechoslovakia), Leopold II (Belgium), and Oaken Crown and Croix de Guerre (Luxembourg). Fiction was out of the question for Powell in wartime, but he did manage to assemble some notes for his first post-war book: John Aubrey and his Friends (1948), a biography of the seventeenth-century antiquary and biographer whose intense curiosity about his fellow men he shared. He then began to write A Question of Upbringing (1951), the first instalment of A Dance to the Music of Time, the twelve-volume novel on which his reputation rests. This covers more than fifty years in the life of Nicholas Jenkins, who is, like Powell himself, an urbane, yet sharply observant novelist married to the daughter of a peer. But the novel is less about Jenkins than about the world he belongs to, in which the more raffish elements of the establishment commingle with the upper echelons of bohemia, the usual catalysts being their wives, mistresses, and lovers. Observing how these incoherent bodies interact, and the bizarre unions that result, Jenkins discerns a pattern dictated by the rhythm of life—hence the theme of the novel, which is that its characters, like the Seasons in Poussin's painting, are engaged in a ritual dance to the music of time. His contemporary Evelyn Waugh likened Powell's huge cast to ‘a continuous frieze in high relief, deep cut and detailed’ (E. Waugh, Essays, Articles and Reviews, 1983, 548). One figure in particular stands out: that of Widmerpool, the obtuse, inelegant, yet indefatigable striver, living by the will, dedicated to ‘getting on’; his quietus in the final chapter bears out another of the novel's themes, that ‘in the end most things in life—perhaps all things—turn out to be appropriate’ (Powell, Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, 1960, 2). What was not appropriate, in Powell's view, was the way in which people would try and ‘pin his characters down’, particularly Widmerpool, whose supposed identity was the subject of endless debate. Paradoxically, he gave his own opinion on this contentious subject to a character of his who does appear to have been drawn from life, X. Trapnel, a projection of the Fitzrovian writer Julian Maclaren-Ross. ‘Human beings aren't subtle enough to play their part’, says Trapnel. ‘That's where the art comes in’ (Powell, Books do Furnish a Room, 1971, 215). For Powell, literary art was like alchemy, a mysterious indefinable process by which the commonplace was transmuted. But art alone was not enough. Writing a novel, so he said on several occasions, was ‘appallingly hard work’ and there were times when, like Kipling (a favourite of his), he would get up from his chair feeling he would never be able to write another line. But of course there he would be next morning, in front of the typewriter. It was all a question of guts. Powell was a conscientious and prolific literary journalist. From 1947 until 1952 he supervised fiction on the Times Literary Supplement, leaving to become literary editor of Punch under Malcolm Muggeridge, who had recommended the Music of Time to Powell's publisher, Heinemann. Powell was created CBE in 1956 and in 1958 his novel At Lady Molly's won the James Tait Black memorial prize. Also in 1958 he left Punch and for the next thirty years reviewed a book every other week in the Daily Telegraph. He also wrote a good deal about art, in which he took as much pleasure as in writing. From 1962 until 1976 he was a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, which contains a drawing of him by Hubert Freeth, and a painting by his brother-in-law Henry Lamb. Powell was also drawn by Augustus John, Nina Hamnett, and Adrian Daintrey. In 1974 Powell was made an honorary fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and awarded a DLitt at the University of Wales and several other universities. Temporary Kings, the penultimate volume of the Music of Time, won the W. H. Smith award. Powell was made a Companion of Honour in 1988. Two large collections of his essays and reviews, Miscellaneous Verdicts and Under Review, were published in 1990 and 1991. Powell thrived on gossip, and in a long life he accumulated an impressive haul. Some of this found its way into his Memoirs and Journals, which should be read by anyone interested in the cultural history of twentieth-century Britain. The Journals, begun in 1982 when he was seventy-seven, are also notable for their spleen, which up until then had been largely absent from his writing. The last work of his to appear was A Writer's Notebook, published posthumously but dating from about 1930, containing ideas, aphorisms, and quotations which had taken his fancy. Of medium height, with bushy eyebrows, a long upper lip, and plenty of white hair which he would smooth back with both hands when being interviewed, Powell was once described as looking like a cross between a duke, a don, and an actor. His Edwardian upbringing left its mark on him: he was courteous, but not pliable, and by no means everyone felt at ease with him. But to those who were on his wavelength he was the best of company: amusing, generous, loyal, and as eager to hear a good story as to tell one, at which he excelled. He was a good judge of wine, liked making curries, and was particularly fond of cats (he had a theory that people who preferred dogs craved power). In 1952, having lived in London since their marriage, he and Lady Violet, together with their two sons, moved to The Chantry, a grey stone Regency house in its own grounds near Frome in Somerset. Powell died at The Chantry on 28 March 2000 and following his cremation his ashes were scattered on the lake there. Powell's wife, Lady Violet Georgiana Powell [née Pakenham] (1912–2002), writer, was born on 13 March 1912 in Mayfair, London, the third daughter and fifth of the six children (two sons and four daughters) of Brigadier-General Thomas Pakenham, fifth earl of Longford (1864–1915), army officer, who was killed at Gallipoli, and his wife, Lady Mary Julia, née Child-Villiers (d. 1933), daughter of Victor Albert George Child-Villiers, seventh earl of Jersey. Francis Aungier Pakenham, seventh earl of Longford, was her brother. She was educated at St Margaret's School, Bushey, Hertfordshire, and Queen's College, Harley Street, London, then went on to study social sciences at the London School of Economics. After a spell writing for various newspapers she took over her sister Lady Mary Pakenham's ‘Mary Grant’ column in the Evening Standard. She had first spoken to Anthony Powell when she phoned him, pretending to be a disgruntled parlourmaid, to invite him to a party given by her eldest sister, Lady Pansy Lamb. They met properly at Pakenham Hall, co. Westmeath, in the summer of 1934 when Powell was having his portrait painted by Henry Lamb (Lady Pansy's husband). Many decades later Powell said ‘I had never asked another woman to marry me—and … have never wished to be married to another woman’ (Times, 16 Jan 2002). After their marriage, as well as bringing up their two sons, she reviewed books for the Daily Telegraph, the Times Literary Supplement, and Apollo. She also wrote more than a dozen books. These included studies of Jane Austen, Flora Annie Steel, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Margaret Kennedy, and E. M. Delafield, and three volumes of autobiography. Her own favourite among her books was her biography of her maternal grandmother, Margaret, countess of Jersey, published in 1978. During her husband's final years she saw the three volumes of his Journals through the press. She also arranged the publication of his A Writer's Notebook (2001). She took great delight in the success of her sons, Tristram, a television director, and John, a journalist, and in the company of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She died less than two years after her husband, on 12 January 2002. Her ashes, like her husband's, were scattered on The Chantry's lake. In May 2005 a tablet was dedicated to her memory in Holy Trinity Church, Chantry, beside the memorial to her husband." Michael Barber, ‘Powell, Anthony Dymoke (1905–2000)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2010 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/73965, accessed 1 June 2015]



Extent & medium

10 boxes and 2 folders

Content description

The Anthony Powell archive consists of typescript material relating to both his literary and journalistic work. Although the typescripts and working papers of his literary work are fragmented and incomplete, the collection is still significant. In terms of his journalistic work, this collection includes complete typescripts and other working papers of Powell's articles, reviews, obituaries and introductions, and offprints of articles on the history of the Powell family. There is also a collection of autograph letters from and to Powell, research material, personal papers, photographs and material about the archive itself. It should be emphasised that Powell's initial drafts were always typed rather than handwritten; the typescripts in this collection are effectively his manuscripts, often corrected by hand. Powell 'composed on the typewriter' and corrected in pencil. Occasionally a page might need to be retyped, when the original would be scrapped or, on occasion, turned over and used again on its verso, perhaps for quite a different book. There is a lot of evidence of this in the collection.


Bequeathed to College Library by Lady Violet Powell on Anthony Powell's behalf. A small amount of material was given later by John Powell, their son. When this is the case, it has been specified at file or item level.

Associated material

Eton College Library also has some postcards from Anthony Powell in the Wyndham Lloyd archive (MS 737), catalogued separately.

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