A few weeks ago I spent an enjoyable week’s holiday down in north Cornwall. One wet afternoon we ventured into Truro to have a potter around and my friend spotted a welcome second-hand book shop, which turned out to be stocked with a good range of quality novels. Browsing the shelves up the staircase, I came across the best part of a set of Anthony Powell’s epic work, A Dance to the Music of Time. Sadly, three of the twelve novels were missing, but I decided to buy the nine that were there, with the hope of finding the remaining three some other time. (It’s the fifth, sixth and twelfth books of the 1980s Flamingo edition that I’m missing, in case anyone knows where I could get hold of them…?)

A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell

The twelve novels that make up A Dance to the Music of Time were published between 1951 and 1975 and cover the life of the narrator, Nick Jenkins, along with a few other key characters, from their school days in the 1920s through to old age.

A Question of Upbringing opens with Jenkins at his public school (an unnamed institution, though reputedly based on Powell’s own experiences of life at Eton), where we are introduced to his friends Stringham and Templer, and, later, to the eccentric Widmerpool. Powell’s style is episodic, so the whole novel actually only contains a few scenes, and these are but loosely joined together. However, the episodes that are presented to us are superbly crafted, cleverly capturing the subtle intricacies of the different characters and the complex social relationships that exist between them.

The novel reads like a journey, with Jenkins forming his opinions of those around him slowly over time. First impressions are often significant, but newer encounters with past acquaintances often act as opportunities to reassess prior judgements and to see new aspects of personality revealed. Thus, although the novel has a reminiscent feel to it, as it brings into focus a way of life now for ever gone, it is also a probing investigation into the changing nature of interpersonal relationships. Although I do not intend to read the series all at once, I am certainly looking forward to seeing how the saga progresses.

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