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Why ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ features little Catholicism but a lot of mumbo-jumbo

Anthony Powell, by Henry Lamb (National Portrait Gallery)

For many, myself among them, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Anthony Powell were the outstanding English novelists of the middle decades of the 20th century, and I have been reading and re-reading them since I was a schoolboy more than 60 years ago. There aren’t many novelists one doesn’t tire of, but repeatedly returns to.

They were born within a few months of each other and all belonged to the upper-middle class. Waugh’s father was a publisher and author, Powell’s an Army officer, Greene’s a schoolmaster (with family money from the Greene King brewery). The Waughs originated in Scotland, Berwickshire farmers. Greene, by way of his Balfour mother, was a second cousin, perhaps once removed, of Robert Louis Stevenson. Powell, whose social manner suggested he was the most conventional of almost-upper-class Englishmen, was happy to call himself Welsh, a remote ancestor having been a petty king in south Wales in the 7th or 8th century.

Powell was educated at Eton, Waugh at Lancing (High Church Anglican), Greene at Berkhamstead. All went on to Oxford. Waugh loved his time there and recalled it magically in the early chapters of Brideshead Revisited. Greene drank heavily and morosely. Powell was bored, and wrote of the melancholy and tedium of undergraduate life, nevertheless recreating it admirably.

Waugh and Powell were friends, admiring each other’s novels, with more reservations on Powell’s part than Waugh’s. Powell disliked Greene’s novels, though insisting in his Journals that he had nothing against him as a man and would be quite happy to meet him again. I rather question this. Waugh and Greene, scarcely knowing each other at Oxford, became friends in middle life, when both were established as Catholic novelists. More of that, I hope, in a later article.

It is perhaps on account of writing this column that I have become aware of the strange absence of Catholic characters from the 12 volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time. The novel is not autobiographical, though it runs in parallel with Powell’s life, and it would be surprising if he hadn’t other Catholic friends besides Waugh. Indeed, his brother-in-law Frank Pakenham, Lord Longford, was a prominent Catholic (also a convert), so that Powell had Catholic nephews and nieces, among them Lady Antonia Fraser. Longford claimed to have been the model for two Powell characters – the Red peer, Erridge (brother of the narrator Nick Jenkins’s wife) and the appalling if irresistible Widmerpool. (“It’s ridiculous,” Powell said to me, “Frank can’t be both. He must make up his mind which he is.”)

Actually, religion plays little part in Dance. Nick attends church for funerals, a wedding and the end-of-war thanksgiving service in St Paul’s (where he muses on The Ingoldsby Legends). In The Valley of Bones, when he is a subaltern in a Welsh regiment (the men miners, the officers mostly bank managers and bank clerks), there is a rather fine sermon delivered by the Anglican padre, though it seems to me more Welsh Methodist or Baptist. But the only Catholic I recall in that novel is Fr Dooley who “cares for the souls of the RCs”. He is a flat comic character who likes to show himself a good fellow at the bar. None of the major characters is a churchgoer or has any feeling for anything more than the most lukewarm conventional Anglicanism. In this one must assume the novel faithfully reflects Powell’s own attitude and views.

On the other hand, there is a lot of mumbo-jumbo, spiritualism and esotericism. When Nick has tea with his unsatisfactory Uncle Giles (one of my favourite characters), another resident in the hotel, Mrs Erdleigh, is urged by Uncle Giles to “lay out the cards”. She foretells that Nick is about to meet a woman he will fall in love with. This is Jean Templar, sister of his schoolfriend Peter.

Mrs Erdleigh reappears throughout the sequence, once presiding over a game of planchette where the sceptical, materialist, left-wing intellectual Quiggin is alarmed by a spiritual message that apparently comes through, and sufficiently perturbed to act on it at once. Then in war-time during a bombing raid, she reads the palm of the femme fatale Pamela Flitton (later married to Widmerpool) and sees horrors there.

So Powell gives some credence to Mrs Erdleigh, who is also an associate of Dr Trelawney, magus and practitioner in dark mysteries, a character who owes something to Aleister Crowley, then popularly known as “the wickedest man in the world”. Finally, in the last volume, Hearing Secret Harmonies, there is the young New Age cult leader Scorpio Murtlock, who sees himself as Trelawney’s heir – perhaps reincarnation. Widmerpool will eventually join his cult, compete with him for mastery and die absurdly, still striving to be first.

Dance is essentially a comic novel sequence, in this as in other respects like Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, to which it has often been compared, and certainly one can read Trelawney, Mrs Erdleigh and Scorpio Murtlock as primarily comic characters, revealed as such by the inflated, pretentious and absurd manner in which they speak. Yet the churches have always held that dabbling in esoteric matters is dangerous, and there is at least a whiff of sulphur about young Scorp, who is a sort of protégé of an Anglican clergyman, apparently an acknowledged expert on alchemy. Moreover, Powell seems to take them seriously; up to a point anyway.

The perplexing question is of course: how much of this stuff did Powell himself believe? He was vague when I asked him about it, saying, as to the spiritualism and table-turning, there was “a lot of it about at the time”. This was certainly so, especially in the 10 or 15 years after the 1914-18 war. Perhaps his interest went deeper, not something his social manner or indeed his Journals would suggest. All a bit rum – to employ a favourite adjective of Waugh’s.

Allan Massie is the Catholic Herald’s chief book reviewer