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On Capturing the Banality of History

In the first chapter of the sixth book of A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell’s twelve-book series chronicling upper-class English social life in the early twentieth century, Powell recounts what at first feels like an irrelevant flashback to his protagonist’s childhood. The previous novels are all set in the ‘20s or ‘30s and focus on either the bohemian circles frequented by Powell’s narrator, Nick Jenkins, or the world of aristocratic social gatherings where he often finds himself, and they detail in mildly comic and occasionally melancholic fashion the personal, artistic, and occasionally political ambitions of a range of characters mostly based on Powell’s acquaintances, each of whom represents an aspect of the social scene of early twentieth-century London. It’s surprising then that this sixth novel, titled The Kindly Ones (a reference to the Eumenides, or Furies, of Ancient Greece), begins with a lengthy and seemingly out-of-place story from Nick’s childhood (I’ll confess, reading it, I was anxious for the story to get back to the more interesting 1920s).

The chapter centers on a silly domestic drama that occurs at Stonehurst, a country house the Jenkins’s are temporarily renting—to put it succinctly, one of their servants, the maid Billson, is in love with the cook, Albert, though Albert doesn’t reciprocate her feelings. On the day the flashback is set, Nick’s parents are having their family friend General Conyers and his wife over for lunch. Just before the General arrives, Albert receives a letter informing him that a woman he slept with was with child, so he informs the Jenkins’s that he’ll have to leave their service to marry her, as is the honorable thing. Billson is distraught over losing Albert, and in a hysterical fit she ends up wandering naked into the dining room during lunch. Everyone is paralyzed, but General Conyers, with military decisiveness, covers her with a shawl and escorts her back to her room.

At first, the story appears to be an amusing and irrelevant anecdote about a woman going mad over love, perhaps a commentary on the folly of passion, or something. But towards the end of the chapter, Nick’s Uncle Giles arrives, bearing with him a bit of news, which he tosses off nonchalantly while he and General Conyers are discussing motorcars:

“Never driven one in my life,” said Uncle Giles. “Not too keen on ‘em. Always in accidents. Some royalty in a motorcar have been involved in a nasty affair today. Heard the news in Aldershot. Fellow I went to see was told on the telephone. Amazing, isn’t it, hearing so soon. They’ve just assassinated an Austrian archduke down in Bosnia. Did it today. Only happened a few hours ago.”

And suddenly, the chapter makes complete sense: the reason Nick remembers this day with such vivid clarity is because it’s not simply an ordinary day, but the day the Great War, the day World War I, essentially began, June 28, 1914—the day Europe, the world, and the 20th century irrevocably changed. And the domestic drama, therefore, that took up most of the chapter, the apparently silly story of Billson the maid going hysterical, was actually Powell’s commentary on the larger historical change. Billson’s hysteria was a domestic reflection of the world’s larger impending hysteria—and while General Conyers, hero of the Boer War, symbol of British imperial confidence, and most importantly a second and more authoritative father-figure to Nick, was able to easily solve that situation, to use his authority to shepherd her quickly from the room, the reader soon realizes that this General, great as he might seem to little Nick, will be unable to solve the bloodshed that will follow.

The chapter thus exemplifies what Powell does so brilliantly throughout the whole twelve-volume series—capturing the banality of the way ordinary people experience history. The grand events that shaped the twentieth century, World War I, the rise of Hitler, the ultimate allied victory, always happen in the background in Powell’s series, behind the interpersonal social dramas of his various characters. Some might argue that this betrays Powell’s myopia, the class prejudice that kept him in his secluded world of debutante balls and fancy parties at rich houses, but I think it’s actually an insightful commentary on how most of us experience history. We today are also living through extraordinary times, with the rise of right-wing figures like Trump and the decline of the liberal order that’s kept our society prosperous and stable—yet most of us go on with our daily lives, and our small dramas still occupy more of our time than larger events. After all, it’s so difficult to understand in real time what events will end up having historical significance. Nick himself, with the privilege of hindsight, reflects on this very idea during the flashback chapter, just after Uncle Giles delivers his unknowingly monumental news:

Uncle Giles muttered, almost whispered these facts, speaking as if he were talking to himself, not at all in the voice of a man announcing to the world in general the close of an epoch; the outbreak of Armageddon; the birth of a new, uneasy age. He did not look in the least like the harbinger of the Furies.

Ultimately, Powell was never considered a great writer by literary critics—while Dance was highly admired, he was often compared unfavorably to Evelyn Waugh, who people found sharper, funnier, and ultimately more insightful. Powell, by contrast, was dismissed as a pretentious snob, and his book a well-written but ultimately limited look at the experience of a certain kind of person in twentieth-century London, just a thinly veiled autobiography of Powell’s own experiences. But I think the critics miss the fundamental genius of Powell—his brilliant ability to link the historical with the banal. The seemingly unimportant vicissitudes of daily life, the marriages, the affairs, the broken friendships, the failed ambitions, all serve as reflections of the larger events of history, minor-key variations, so to speak, on the era’s grander musical theme. And so what if the events of Dance are mostly taken from Powell’s life and Nick Jenkins simply a cipher for Powell himself? Powell was, after all, born in 1905 and didn’t die until the year 2000. His life is literally an encapsulation of a twentieth-century experience—perhaps not everyone’s twentieth-century experience, but certainly an interesting one. When he was born, cars had just been invented and when he died, the dot-com bubble had just burst. He spent his early years in an ordered, privileged world, and over the course of his adult life, he watched that world destroyed, and then watched a new one emerge in its place.

For a series of novels that tries to make sense of such monumental change, this flashback chapter is clearly an essential moment. It’s the beginning of the historical change that will come to determine the trajectory of Nick’s (and Powell’s) life, “the close of an epoch” and “the birth of new, uneasy age”—or, as Nick puts it in the final paragraph of the chapter: “Childhood was brought suddenly, even rather brutally, to a close.”