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Infants of the Spring

Dr Nicholas Birns writes about the first volume of Anthony Powell's memoirs, Infants of the Spring. (Heinemann, 1980).

Anthony Powell said many times that, in his view, autobiography was different from fiction because the latter was true, whereas the former was all made up! This may be one of the reasons why his memoirs are more difficult to summarize than his fiction; another is that the memoirs deliberately avoid traditional autobiographical structures (ie. they are about other people as much as the writer himself), which accounts for much of their interest as well as their ability to register social realities.

Infants of the Spring is the first volume of the four-volume series with the overall title To Keep The Ball Rolling, (each volume derives its title from a line in Shakespeare). It should properly begin with the three genealogical chapters but (at least in the US edition published by Holt Rinehart, and Winston) presumably at the publisher's behest they were placed in the back. [In the original UK edition published by Heinemann these chapters occupy their rightful place at the beginning - Ed.] Chronologically, at least, they should be examined first, and perhaps any residual queasiness about genealogy being boring or irrelevant has now subsided.

The Powell family originated in Radnorshire some miles west of the traditional Anglo-Welsh border. They were distantly descended from the Lord Rhys, who effectively controlled all Wales in the late twelfth century; more immediate forebears were prominent local Radnorshire landowners, successful tanners, and, starting in the eighteenth century, soldiers and sailors.

The family of Powell's mother, the Wells-Dymokes, originated in Lincolnshire; the Wells and the Dymokes were members of the same extended family who frequently intermarried with each other. In the fifteenth century, the Dymokes, headquartered at Scrivelsby in Lincolnshire, became hereditary King's Champions, succeeding the Marmion family later (fictively) portrayed in Sir Walter Scott's poem of that name. Powell's ancestors were not the main line of the Dymokes; at one point they seemed poised to inherit the Championship, but the honour devolved upon another cousin, and a counterclaim put in by Powell's great-grandfather did not succeed. Powell then describes his immediate ancestors, leading up to his parents, Philip Lionel Powell and Maud Wells-Dymoke, and the course of their idiosyncratic but strikingly successful marriage.

Powell was born on December 21, 1905, and was "expected to survive at most two days" (ironic for someone who was to live for ninety-four years). Spending his earliest years in London, he moved around as his father, an infantry officer, was posted to various stations. One of the family's longer residencies produced the model for 'Stonehurst' in The Kindly Ones and evidently had similar ghosts! Powell goes to prep school during the First World War, of whose shadowy impact on the young boys a vivid account is given (especially interesting as these years of the narrator's experience are not directly covered in Dance). Here he meets his first literary friend, Henry Yorke, eventually the novelist Henry Green.

Sending their son to Eton is not without its financial obstacles for the Powell family, but nonetheless education comes first. The account of the Eton years in Infants interestingly varies from its very vivid analogue in the school scenes of Dance. More time is spent in the memoirs both on school traditions and their demythologisation, and there is far more emphasis in Dance on the cultural traditions the boys inherit, particularly as glimpsed in the scene where Le Bas has the three boys guess who is the author of the 'Theocritus' poem.

Powell's interests become less athletic and more artistic as his time at Eton progresses, and he not only meets future belletrists such as Cyril Connolly and aesthetes such as Harold Acton, but has the sense of participating in a world of imagination that, though still feeling Victorian inheritances, is distinctly contemporary and twentieth-century in flavour. This sense is fortified by Powell's acquaintance, made during breaks from school where he stays with his parents at their home in St John's Wood, with the bookstore-proprietor, 1890's relic, and noted eccentric Christopher Millard.

While not sentimental about his time at Eton, Powell's memories of it are largely idyllic and certainly wholly positive. His impressions of his subsequent time at Balliol College, Oxford, are more mixed. Though he likes his tutor, Kenneth Bell, Powell does not particularly distinguish himself in academic terms, taking only a Third in history "without the satisfying conviction that I had never done a stroke of work". He becomes a member of the salon held by the young academic CM Bowra, only to offend Bowra by pointing out limitations in the milieu of Oxford of which Bowra is utterly incognizant. The atmosphere of the Hypocrites Club, though occasionally too much of a hothouse, attracts a gallery of aesthetes and eccentrics among Powell's own generation. Other portraits offered in the Oxford section include Robert Byron, Peter Quennell, Hubert Duggan (also at Eton), and, of an older age-group, Lady Ottoline Morrell.

One of the most interesting parts of Infants is the account of Powell's foreign travels, not only because these provide the basis for Venusberg and Agents and Patients but as they give a memorable picture of an inter-bellum Europe soon to be swept from the scene. Powell's travels are a mixture of undergraduate adventures and visiting his father who is posted abroad as a military attaché. Paris, Belgrade, Budapest, Tallinn (then Reval) and, with especial verve, Helsinki are described. The account of Belgrade tackles a city which has seen many changes, political and otherwise, during the years since Powell visited, but the brief, lively description still holds up.

After his undergraduate years are over, Powell goes down to London to work in publishing for Duckworth. Though no decisive moment of maturation has occurred, Powell as represented at the close of Infants of the Spring is ready to face the world.

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