Anthony Powell, chronicler of Time, dies at 94
Wednesday 29 March 2000
The novelist Anthony Powell, the last member of one of Britain's most celebrated literary generations, died yesterday at his home in Somerset.
Powell, 94, was one of a group of writers that flourished in a Britain that has long disappeared and which included Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, John Betjeman, George Orwell and W H Auden.
Yesterday his editor at publishers William Heinemann, Ravi Mirchandani, said he considered Powell to be one of the "greatest English writers of the 20th century". He added: "I am a great fan. Evelyn Waugh would be the most obvious comparison, though he is no longer as well read as he was 30 years ago.
"I think he was an excellent observer of English society or else one part of English society. He was very well connected both in a literary sense as well as socially."
Described as a social comic novelist, Powell's most famous work was the 12-volume novel sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time. The work, which was adapted for television three years ago, was a detailed examination of the life of an English aristocratic family stretching from the First World War to the 1970s. It was famous for the character Widmerpool, ruthlessly ambitious and disliked but still something of an irresistible anti-hero.
While the sequence was praised for capturing a sense of time passing - an achievement compared by some reviewers to that of Proust - Powell had said that he chose to use the same characters as a means of conserving imaginative energy. The novels appeared at less than two-yearly intervals. "I didn't want to run out of steam, which I felt would be easy to do," he once said.
Educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, where he obtained a third class degree in history, he went on to work at the publishers Duckworth. It was this firm that published his first four novels, which established his reputation.
After the Second World War, during which Powell was an officer with the Welch Regiment, he worked as a literary journalist, first with Punch and later The Daily Telegraph. He resigned from the latter after a less than warm review of his prose style in that newspaper by Auberon Waugh.
Yesterday, Mr Waugh, editor of The Literary Review, said any animosity had been overplayed. "I was not a colossal fan of his but he gave lots of pleasure to a lot of people," he said. "I always found him a bit precious but I defer to him for keeping going for such a long time and bringing pleasure to a lot of people."
While his novels were generally well appreciated by reviewers, in more recent years it was a collection of his journals that created the most interest. Throughout them he sprayed a stream of acidic comments about his contemporaries: Laurie Lee was "utterly unreadable", Graham Greene "absurdly overrated", while Virginia Woolf was a "dreadful woman ... humourless, envious, spiteful".
Powell, who had two sons, moved to Somerset in 1952 where he and his wife, Lady Violet Pakenham, lived in the Regency country house, The Chantry. It was there that he died, his wife of 66 years at his side. "He had suffered a series of strokes in recent years and had been rather immobile but it was something he bore with great fortitude," she said. "It is very sad. That is all I can say."
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