Flash Post; Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time.”

Anthony Powell’s twelve volume cycle of related novels was published over a 24 year time span, from 1951-1974. In its entirety, “Dance to the Music of Time” is a major arrow in the quiver of any serious Anglophile. The series chronicles a fifty year period of British culture and manners through the reminiscences of one character, Nick Jenkins
(think Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby.) It’s wonderful fun to see how his chums and acquaintances at University come in and out of his life, in evolving circumstances of their own. From school days, Deb Balls, and country weekends, we start to see the outline of romances and incipient careers that are to define them all. We see The Spanish Civil War, WWII, (with flashbacks to WWI,) through post war changes and evolutions in everyone’s life. It is especially delicious to watch the introduction and rise, of Nick’s great nemesis, the despised Widmerpool. He is originally mocked as awkward and incompetent, and barely tolerated by the group, but of course, rises to great position and power.

In the words of the critic, Robert Selig, ” This twelve volume sequence [ A Dance to the Music of Time] traces a colorful group of English acquaintances across a span of many years from 1914 to 1971. The slowly developing narrative centers around life’s poignant encounters between friends and lovers who later drift apart and yet keep reencountering each other over numerous unfolding decades as they move through the vicissitudes of marriage, work, aging, and ultimately death. The standard excitements of old fashioned plots…seem far less important than time’s slow reshuffling of friends, acquaintances, and lovers, in intricate human arabesques.”


The series is named after the famous painting of the same name by Nicholas Poussin, done in 1638. The painting is considered to represent the passing of time and the different stages of the “wheel of fortune.” These are poverty, labor, wealth, and pleasure. The cycle starts with the male in the back representing poverty. He longingly glances at labor, the muscular woman to his right. She eagerly grasps wealth, who is dressed in gold skirt and sandals. She, in turn, locks hands with pleasure, who glances knowingly back at us. Too much pleasure can lead back to poverty, with whom she, in turn, is also bound.

Anthony Powell was an insider in London’s heady, literary Bohemia. He was close to Evelyn Waugh, A. N. Wilson, and Kingsley Amis. Many of the characters in “Dance” are based on real people whose identities were obvious to those contemporaries in the know. The books received critical praise as they were released and were also, commercially successful. Although twelve volumes in length, “Dance To the Music of Time” reads easily. I found myself reading the whole thing in about a year, reading other books at various points in between. Sometimes I would read two or three in a row, other times, interrupting the flow with several other books between volumes. Individually, and as whole, they are uniformly fun reads, with enough substance to maintain a long term commitment. The whole cycle was adapted both as a radio, and later, a TV series. While not as deep, or quite as well written, as “Brideshead Revisited,”  ” Dance to the Music of Time” is an absolute  must, and a serious pleasure, for anyone interested in 20th century English culture, history, politics and manners.

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9 Comments on "Flash Post; Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time.”"

  1. Kathy says:

    I’ve heard of this series of books, but never what they were about, and 12 volumes seemed overwhelming. But, I like the idea of reading them over a year’s time, and breaking them up with other books when I like. They sound like fun, and not at all what I expected. Also, had no idea about the Poussin painting being the force behind the name. Great post.

    • David Leeds says:

      They are perfect to read that way because each book is truly self contained. Though I must say, there are times you get so caught up you feel the need to go back to back. It so satisfying to know there is more to come. How many times with a favorite book or film do you wish that you didn’t have to leave those characters, or that you could just sit and watch, endlessly, at will?

  2. Ulf Skei says:

    Sounds very interesting, and funny you mentioned ‘Brideshead revisited’, that’s a thought that struck me, it sounds like something in the same line, and as I completely love that one, I might very well enjoy this one too. If I can get hold of it at the library, it’s a bit much to buy twelve volumes, even if it is a classic.

    • David Leeds says:

      Ulf, it’s out in paperback in three volumes. If you liked Brideshead, I think you’ll really enjoy this. It’s also available on amazon as used paperbacks-very cheap.

  3. David, I am so glad you wrote about this. I am one of those people interested in English culture, history, etc. I will be reading this series of books. Thank you so much for the reminder!

  4. Thank you for all your valuable efforts on this web site. Kate take interest in going through investigations and it is obvious why. A number of us learn all of the powerful means you produce insightful tips and tricks via this web site and therefore increase participation from others about this area and our own girl has been studying a whole lot. Take advantage of the rest of the year. You are performing a fantastic job.

  5. Susan Tiner says:

    We are major Brideshead (and Downton Abbey) fans. The series sounds great! I just checked and it’s available on audible.com as a downloadable book. Lucky for me as I primarily take in fiction as audiobooks while working out. Otherwise, I read non-fiction.

    Thank you for describing that amazing painting.

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard