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A Review of A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell
Anthony Powell’s “A Question of Upbringing” is the first part of his gigantic twelve novel epic “A Dance to the Music of Time”. He writes with wit, humor and not a little sarcasm, describing a quintessential Englishness that was perhaps never representative of society and has probably disappeared. He wrote this first volume in 1951, and although the book starts with a London scene from that era, the majority of the book deals with the characters’ school and university experiences and reminisces about a time gone by.
The main character is Jenkins. I will follow the author’s guidance and use only surnames for men, surnames plus titles for married, elderly or otherwise unavailable women, and Christian names for eligible women, whether of a certain class or inclined to wear flowery dresses, while they stand next to the post boxes on the street. As his friend, Stringham, discovered, even some of the surname plus title women can prove to be very qualified at times.
The form of the book is both simple and exciting. It is so efficient that we almost miss the ingenuity of its construction. There are only four chapters, each over fifty pages and each focused on a specific episode. We have school, a social gathering, a holiday in France and a university course. Powell’s writing has such an ease that we forget how intensely we are invited to analyze the circumstances of each chapter and how penetratingly we discover the lives of the characters. There is considerable innuendo, much gossip and usually piles of money, along with social status and influence wrapped up in each household.
The quintessence of their Englishness, like the characters in Evelyn Waugh’s novels, arises from their seeming inability to question – or perhaps even notice – their privilege. It is a state they inhabit without either reflection or gratitude, so much taken for granted as to be beyond doubt, its performance apparently assumed, not expected. School means one of the better “public” schools. Going “to university” assumes Oxbridge as a right, although Powell juxtaposes this with the English upper class’s perennial disease, intellectual deficiency, in that several of his eager participants “decide” not to complete an education. It is assumed that many of the others will take thirds before taking on their company chairmen or ministerial portfolios. The army figures heavily in family histories, of course always in the officer class, and so does the city, where you can always become “something”. Even Americans, however, can be described as having “millionaire pedigree” on both sides, a financial status that presumably makes up for what is otherwise a palpable lack of breeding. When family members do not assume expected and assumed heights, they are referred to in hushed tones, the words “black sheep” perhaps not politically or at least socially correct even then.
But if this was truly a quintessence of Englishness, it was a rather rare ingredient. Maybe one or two percent of the population went to the right school. Only about five or six percent went on to higher education of any kind, let alone a university you “went up to”. Neither Sandhurst nor the corporate boardrooms were populated by the masses. (They still aren’t!) And so this was a quintessence of separateness, of rare heights in an extended class system, and at least by the 1950s some of these peaks had been scaled by other aspirants using new climbing techniques that was avoided by established years.
And then “A question of upbringing” reveals its duplicity. It is a tale that celebrates a lost time, a nostalgic look into a remembered adolescence, where a hand laid seemingly carelessly and always momentarily on a member of the opposite sex remained a daring teenage highlight.
However, nostalgia is always marked by loss. Early in the book, Powell describes the school thus: “Silvery remnants of the years smouldered intermittently – and not without melancholy – in the maroon brickwork of these medieval shutters: beyond cobbles and archways, where (in a more northerly direction) memory also brooded, no less enigmatic and inconsolable, among rams and trees: the gloomy demands of the past became at times almost suffocating in their insistence.”
And how about this for a presumption of prosperity: “It was a rather gloomy double-fronted facade in a little street near Berkeley Square: the columns of the entrance flanked on each side with hollow cones for the linkmen to extinguish their torches.” And we notice we’re in a different age when Powell has his boys pick up two girls off the street for a fun-ride in a new Vauxhall. Without a hint of tongue or gusto, he can write that: “The girls could not have made more noise if they had had their throats cut.”
When I first read Anthony Powell, I couldn’t get past my ingrained hatred of this class and its power-grabbing, wealth-inherited inhabitants. It was a land that was not mine. I come to it now a little wiser and a little richer myself, richer in experience anyway, and now I can appreciate the irony that my former naivety ignored. I now look forward with some gusto to the next eleven episodes. “A Dance to the Music of Time” is definitely a masterpiece that needs to be revisited.
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