A Dance to the Music of Time

Poussin's painting, c. 1636, which gives its name to Powell's sequence of novels, Wallace Collection, London.
For the painting, see A Dance to the Music of Time (painting).

A Dance to the Music of Time is a 12-volume cycle of novels by Anthony Powell, inspired by the painting of the same name by Nicolas Poussin and 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 sequence is narrated by Nick Jenkins in the form of his reminiscences. At the beginning of the first volume, Nick 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. Little is told of Jenkins's personal life beyond his encounters with the great and the bad. Events, such as his wife's miscarriage, are only related in conversation with the principal characters.

Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.[1] The editors of Modern Library ranked the work as 43rd greatest English-language novel of the 20th century.[2]


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.


The novels

(dates are first UK publication dates)

  1. A Question of Upbringing – (1951)
  2. A Buyer's Market – (1952)
  3. The Acceptance World – (1955)
  4. At Lady Molly's – (1957)
  5. Casanova's Chinese Restaurant – (1960)
  6. The Kindly Ones – (1962)
  7. The Valley of Bones – (1964)
  8. The Soldier's Art – (1966)
  9. The Military Philosophers – (1968)
  10. Books Do Furnish a Room – (1971)
  11. Temporary Kings – (1973)
  12. Hearing Secret Harmonies – (1975)

Principal characters

Character Details Historical inspirations[4]
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's sister; Nick's lover
Sillery Manipulative Oxford don Professor Sir Ernest Barker, and "Sligger" Urquhart. Not Sir Maurice Bowra as often suggested.
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.
Edgar Deacon Disreputable 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
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
Sir Magnus Donners Magnate and government minister partly drawn from Lord Beaverbrook
J G Quiggin Marxist writer Conflation of Powell's enemies, novelist CP Snow and critic F R Leavis.
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 Bradnumas 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.[5] 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 by Anthony Powell and Hugh Whitemore for Channel 4 in 1997, directed by Christopher Morahan and Alvin Rakoff.[6]

Character 1997 TV series 2008 audio drama
Narrator Corin Redgrave
Kenneth Widmerpool Simon Russell Beale Anthony Hoskyns
Mark Heap
Nicholas Jenkins James Purefoy
John Standing
Tom McHugh
Alex Jennings
Charles Stringham Paul Rhys David Oakes
Timothy Watson
Peter Templer Jonathan Cake Jolyon Coy
Ronan Vibert
Jean Templer Claire Skinner Emma Powell
Orn Dag Soerlie
Lindquist Christian Rubeck
Prof. Sillery Alan Bennett Paul Brooke
J.G. Quiggin Adrian Scarborough Julian Kerridge
Gypsy Jones Nicola Walker Emma Powell
Abigail Hollick
Erridge Osmund Bullock Jonathan Keeble
Mona Annabel Mullion Abigail Cruttenden
Lady Molly Jeavons Sarah Badel Heather Tracy
Lady Isobel Tolland Emma Fielding Zoe Waites


  1. "The Complete List , TIME Magazine – ALL-TIME 100 Novels". TIME. 16 October 2005. Archived from the original on 13 March 2010. Retrieved 15 May 2011.
  2. Search for a Title or Author. "The Modern Library , 100 Best , Novels". Randomhouse.com. Archived from the original on 7 February 2010. Retrieved 15 May 2011.
  3. 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
  4. "Anthony Powell Society – A Dance to the Music of Time Character Models". Anthonypowell.org.uk. Retrieved 15 May 2011.
  5. Marshall, Keith (15 February 2005). "Dance on BBC Radio 4". Archived from the original on 20 September 2008.
  6. A Dance to the Music of Time at the Internet Movie Database

External links

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