He was the last literary lion of his generation and contrary to the accusations of snobbery he had a profoundly democratic literary instinctby Ferdinand Mount / June 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
At three in the morning, Anthony Powell took a turn for the worse, and the doctor was summoned. He was new, youngish and he turned out to be called Powell too. While they were waiting, the novelist’s elder son, film director Tristram Powell, chatted to Dr Powell about what part of Wales his ancestors came from. It was a typical Powellian moment: unexpected, genealogical, comical, melancholy. Tony Powell died later that night, quietly, at a great age (94) after a long period of frailty, surrounded by his two sons and his wife Violet to whom he had been married for 65 years, with grandchildren and great-grandchildren asleep in the converted stables beyond the lawn. He left behind the slightly surprising instructions that his ashes were to be scattered on the lake below the Chantry, his Regency house in Somerset. The fishing syndicate, however, would need to be consulted, because they had a tricky feeding programme for the trout. Another Powellian moment: unsentimental, down-to-earth, not without a touch of the macabre.
Still, his death seemed a calm and graceful one. The huge obituaries all recognised him as the last literary lion of his generation, and his 12-volume novel series, A Dance to the Music of Time, as perhaps the greatest achievement in English fiction since the war. Yet almost at the same moment, the old chorus of detractors launched into their familiar catcalls: Powell was an incurable snob, obsessed with upper-class life, Dance was a soap opera for a closed society which was destined for the scrapheap of history-in fact, was already smouldering there. Vainly his admirers asked whether, on that account, Shakespeare was to be dismissed for his obsession with the life of the Danish court. Powell certainly was greatly interested in family trees, and the old green volumes of the Complete Peerage were always on a handy shelf, although he said that, if there was a Burke’s of Bank Clerks, he would buy that, too. But the accusation of snobbery needs not merely rebutting, but standing on its head. Powell’s fascination was not at all with the smug connections of a closed caste, but rather with the remarkable anarchic openness of English life, its quirks and eddies and, indeed, with the ups and downs of life generally-as conveyed in the torrential quotation from Burton’s Anatomy with which he closes the twelfth and last volume of Dance. As a matter…