A Dance to the Music of Time

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.

For the painting, see A Dance to the Music of Time (painting).

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] The BBC ranked the novel 36th on its list of the 100 greatest British novels. [3]


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.


  • Powell's official biographer, Hilary Spurling, has published Invitation to the Dance – a Handbook to Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. This annotates, in dictionary form, the characters, events, art, music, and other references. She has also calculated the timeline employed by the author: this is used in the synopses linked from the novels below.
  • The various aspects of the novel-sequence are also analysed in An Index to 'A Dance to the Music of Time' by B. J. Moule.[4]

The novels

Published dates are those of the first UK publication. The narrative is rarely specific about the years in which events take place. Those below are suggested by Hilary Spurling in Invitation to the Dance – a Handbook to Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time.

OrderTitleStory timelinePublished
1A Question of Upbringing1921–19241951
2A Buyer's Market1928 or 19291952
3The Acceptance World1931–19331955
4At Lady Molly's19341957
5Casanova's Chinese Restaurant1928 or 1929, 1933–19371960
6The Kindly Ones1914, 1928 or 1929, 1938–19391962
7The Valley of Bones19401964
8The Soldier's Art19411966
9The Military Philosophers1942–19451968
10Books Do Furnish a Room1945–19471971
11Temporary Kings1958–19591973
12Hearing Secret Harmonies1968–19711975

Principal characters

Character Details Historical inspirations[5]
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 C. P. 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 Bradnum 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.[6] 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.[7]

Character1997 TV series2008 radio drama1979 radio drama
NarratorCorin RedgraveNoel Johnson
Kenneth WidmerpoolSimon Russell BealeAnthony Hoskyns
Mark Heap
Brian Hewlett
Nicholas JenkinsJames Purefoy
John Standing
Tom McHugh
Alex Jennings
Gareth Johnson, Noel Johnson
Charles StringhamPaul RhysDavid Oakes
Timothy Watson
Simon Cadell
Peter TemplerJonathan CakeJolyon Coy
Ronan Vibert
Christopher Good
Jean TemplerClaire SkinnerEmma PowellJane Asher
OrnDag SoerlieChristopher Bidmead
LindquistChristian RubeckEric Allan
Prof. SilleryAlan BennettPaul BrookePreston Lockwood
J.G. QuigginAdrian ScarboroughJulian KerridgeGordon Dulleu
Gypsy JonesNicola WalkerEmma PowellSusan Sloman
Barbara Goring
Abigail HollickJosie Kidd
ErridgeOsmund BullockJonathan KeebleAlexander John
MonaAnnabel MullionAbigail CruttendenTamara Ustinov
Lady Molly JeavonsSarah BadelHeather TracySian Phillips
Lady Isobel TollandEmma FieldingZoe WaitesElizabeth Proud


  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. Ciabattari, Jane (7 December 2015). "The 100 greatest British novels". Time. Retrieved 8 December 2015.
  4. 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
  5. "Anthony Powell Society – A Dance to the Music of Time Character Models". Anthonypowell.org.uk. Retrieved 15 May 2011.
  6. Marshall, Keith (15 February 2005). "Dance on BBC Radio 4". Archived from the original on 20 September 2008.
  7. A Dance to the Music of Time on IMDb
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