Monday, November 5, 2007

A review of A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell

Anthony Powell’s “A Question of Upbringing” is the first part of his mammoth twelve novel epic “A Dance to the Music of Time”. He writes with wit, humour and not a little sarcasm, describing a quintessential Englishness that perhaps was never representative of the society and has, arguably, disappeared. He wrote this first volume in 1951 and, though the book starts with a London scene from that era, the majority of the book deals with the characters’ school and university experiences and recalls a time passed.

The main character is Jenkins. I will follow the author’s lead and use surnames only for males, surnames plus titles for married, older or otherwise unavailable women, and Christian names for eligible women, whether they be of a certain class or prone to wear flowery dresses while standing next to post boxes in the street. As his friend, Stringham, discovered, even some of the surname plus title women at times can prove highly eligible.

The book’s form is both simple and intriguing. It is so effective we almost miss the ingenuity of its construction. There are just four chapters, each in excess of fifty pages and each focused on one particular episode. We have school, a social gathering, a holiday in France and college undergraduate life. Powell’s writing has such a lightness of touch that we forget how intensely we are invited to analyse the circumstances of each chapter and how penetratingly we discover the characters’ lives. There is considerable innuendo, much gossip and usually piles of money, along with social status and influence wrapped up in every household.

The quintessence of their Englishness, like characters in the novels of Evelyn Waugh, arises out of their apparent inability to question – or perhaps even notice – their privilege. It’s a state they inhabit without either reflection or gratitude, so much taken for granted that it lies beyond doubt, its achievement apparently assumed, not expected. School means one of the better “public” schools. Going “up to university” assumes Oxbridge as a right, though Powell tinges this with the perennial blight of the English upper classes, intellectual paucity, by having several of his keen entrants “decide” not to complete a degree. One assumes that many of the others will take thirds before assuming their company chairs or ministerial portfolios. The army figures large in family histories, always at officer class, of course, and so does the City, where one can always become “something”. Even Americans, however, can be described as having “millionaire pedigree” on both sides, an economic status that presumably compensates 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 really was a quintessence of Englishness, it was a pretty rare ingredient. Maybe one or two per cent of the population went to the right school. Only about five or six per cent attended higher education of any sort, let alone a university one “went up to”. Neither Sandhurst nor corporate board rooms were populated by the masses. (They still aren’t!) And so this was a quintessence of separateness, of rarefied heights in an extended class system and, certainly by the 1950s, some of these peaks had been scaled by other aspirants, using new climbing techniques eschewed by the incumbents of years.

And so “A Question of Upbringing” reveals its duality. It’s a tale that celebrates a time lost, a nostalgic peek into a remembered adolescence where a hand placed apparently carelessly and always momentarily upon that of a member of the opposite sex remained a daring highpoint of teenage years.

Nostalgia is always tinged with loss, however. Early in the book, Powell describes the school thus: “Silted-up residues of the years smouldered interruptedly – and not without melancholy – in the maroon brickwork of these medieval closes: beyond the cobbles and archways of which (in a more northerly direction) memory also brooded, no less enigmatic and inconsolable, among water-meadows and avenues of trees: the sombre demands of the past becoming at times almost suffocating in their insistence.”

And how about this for a presumption of affluence: “It was a rather gloomy double-fronted fa├žade in a small street near Berkeley Square: the pillars of the entrance flanked on either side with hollow cones for the linkmen to extinguish their torches.” And we notice we are in a different age when Powell has his lads pick up two girls off the street to joy-ride in a new Vauxhall. Without a suggestion of tongue-in-cheek or indeed relish he can write that: “The girls could not have made more noise if they had been having their throats cut.”

When I first read Anthony Powell, I could not get past my ingrained hatred of this class and its power-assuming, wealth-inheriting inhabitants. It was a country that was not mine. I come to it now a little wiser and a little richer myself, richer in experience at least, and now I can appreciate the irony that my previous naivety ignored. I now look forward with some relish to the next eleven episodes. “[book:A Dance to the Music of Time|16113]” is certainly a masterpiece to be revisited.

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