Art | The Reconnoisseur

The society where literature and mischief collide

It’s boisterous fun, but packs a powerful academic punch, too

The society where literature and mischief collide

July 18 2010
Julian Allason

Literary societies: the very notion conjures up academic disputation, dry as Bodleian dust. Not this one, though. The Anthony Powell Society, formed a decade ago to celebrate the work of one of England’s greatest 20th-century novelists (pictured), is a blast. I attribute this to the membership, a combustible mix of dons, bohos, debutantes and low lifes – very much like the characters colliding in Powell’s 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time, probably the longest novel in history and a chronicle of life from the 1920s to the 1970s.

The Society, whose membership circles the globe and includes enthusiasts from Sweden and Japan, engages in a remarkable range of activities characterised by mischief. The website, for example, carries a crib page disclosing the real-life models for Powell’s immortal characters including the egregious Widmerpool. Some of these are household names, so one hopes that the page has escaped the attention of libel lawyers. There is also an annual Widmerpool Award presented to the public figure to have acted most like Powell’s great villain. I suspect that only receipt of the Bad Sex Award would be more humiliating.

Despite the boisterous element, the Society packs a powerful academic punch with its journal, Secret Harmonies, conferences at venues such as Eton, Balliol & Washington DC addressed by such critics as Tariq Ali, and an annual lecture at The Wallace Collection in London, home to Poussin’s masterwork, A Dance to the Music of Time. The odd thing is that one does not even have to be a Powell enthusiast to join. Enjoyment of the BBC and Channel 4 dramatisations would qualify. Or just a love of books. But I would rather be banned from Soho than have to surrender membership of the Society and miss out on the most fun you can have with an open page.

Membership costs £22 per year for UK members, £28 for non-UK.

See also

Clubs, Books