Hilary Spurling's biography of Anthony Powell contains a surprising revelation: that Powell's wife had an affair during the Second World War
Anthony Powell with Violet in the 1930s (©Powell Estate)
The new biography of Anthony Powell by Hilary Spurling (Hamish Hamilton, £25) has been deservedly praised by the critics. Most of them (Jane Shilling in the London Evening Standard being an honourable exception), appear, however, to have missed its most surprising revelation: that Powell’s wife Violet (née Lady Violet Pakenham) had an affair during the Second World War, during which her husband was away from home for long periods on Army service. It was no passing fling; according to Spurling, Violet told Sonia Orwell that “he was the love of her life” but she never revealed his identity, which remains a secret to this day, as far as we know.
Spurling goes on to write that Powell found out what happened later, “probably in 1946 when he plunged into a black hole of depression, exhaustion and almost insane overwork”. But by 1954, when he wrote The Acceptance World, the third in his 12-volume masterpiece A Dance to the Music of Time, the Powells were long reconciled. Spurling says The Acceptance World deals, in the words of narrator Nicholas Jenkins (Powell to all intents and purposes), with “the ecstasies and bitterness of love” and, says Spurling, it “held a special significance for [Violet] ever after”. Spurling attributes Jenkins/Powell’s bitterness to the sudden end of Jenkins’s affair with a married woman, Jean Templar, which echoed Powell’s own pre-marriage attachments to a string of women.
But perhaps Spurling is downplaying the long-term impact on Powell of his wife’s romance. After reading her biography, I reread the entire Dance sequence, parts of which took on a new significance in the light of the affair — one episode in particular. In volume eight, The Soldier’s Art, partly set in wartime London, a central episode involves Jenkins unwillingly being confronted in the Café Royal with his sister-in-law Priscilla Tolland (his wife’s closest sister, who is married to his old friend Chips Lovell), and her lover, Odo Stevens, a brash young Army officer also known to Jenkins. Lovell is stationed at a remote location away from London, affording Priscilla every opportunity to carry on behind his back. The meeting is painful in the extreme for Jenkins, whose loyalties lie with Lovell and the wider Tolland family, into which he has married.
It seems reasonable to speculate that the Priscilla-Odo romance mirrors Violet’s own wartime affair in a way that amateur Powell scholars could not have imagined before the revelation in Spurling’s biography. Powell kills off the romance by having Priscilla die in an air-raid later that night, along with poor old Chips in a separate bombing on the same night. In the light of what we know now, was Powell finally putting paid to the affair that had caused him such anguish in the bleak post-war years?