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Lodging with Uncle Tony. Lady Antonia Fraser tells Harry Mount about staying with Anthony Powell

Blog | By Harry Mount | Nov 02, 2023

Antonia’s room was by the blue plaque, Regent’s Park

On 16th September, the Anthony Powell Society revealed a blue plaque on the writer’s home at 1 Chester Gate, just off Regent’s Park. My father, the writer Ferdinand Mount, Anthony Powell’s nephew, said a few words. Also there was his elder son, the film director Tristram Powell. His younger son, John Powell, is Patron of the Society. Powell (1905-2000) and his wife, Lady Violet Powell, lived at the house from 1937 to 1952. There Powell began his 12-novel sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time. And it was there in 1949 that the Powells’ niece, Lady Antonia Fraser, then 17, came to lodge.

Antonia, now 91, was also at the ceremony at her old home. She moved there from Hampstead Garden Suburb, where her parents, Frank and Elizabeth Pakenham (later Lord and Lady Longford), lived.

Antonia says, ‘I greatly disliked Hampstead Garden Suburb because it was too far out for a boy to take me home in a taxi as it was outside the limit for a normal London cab.

‘I felt this hampered my social life and Violet, who was a very generous and warm-hearted woman, took pity on me. Tristram and John were still very young and I felt very much at home and at the same time free.’

Antonia remembers Powell embarking on his magnum opus.

She says, ‘We used to have breakfast and then came the time which I now treasure, when Violet would say, “Buck up, Antonia, and finish your breakfast. I need to clear the table so Tony can write his novel.” And of course this turned out to be A Question of Upbringing, the first volume of Dance.’

She says, ‘I chiefly remember the need to get out and let him work. This was very different to the situation I had grown up in as my father, who was a don at Oxford, left the house each morning to go and work at Christ Church.

‘So Tony settling down to work every day at the kitchen table made a great impression on me and I remember feeling that this was a pleasant way to work.

‘I appreciated from being with them how much fun being a writer could be and that it would be a wonderful life for someone who was a compulsive reader, as I was and still am.’

Antonia went up to Oxford in 1950. When the first volume of Dance came out a year later, she became addicted to the sequence. Her favourite is The Soldier’s Art (1966).

Critics rushed to identify real-life people who inspired Powell’s characters, chiefly Kenneth Widmerpool, the crass politician-on-the-make. Frank Longford supposedly nominated himself as the inspiration for Widmerpool.

Antonia thinks not: ‘I never heard him say that and I think it more likely that someone else made that comment, which my father then repeated. I don’t think he was like Widmerpool in the slightest. If there is a character who might have been partly inspired by Father, then I think it would be Erridge.’

In the series, Erridge, a socialist peer, is the brother-in-law of the narrator Nick Jenkins, as Lord Longford was Anthony Powell’s brother-in-law. Still, others (including A N Wilson, see page 37) think George Orwell inspired Erridge.

While Antonia was lodging with the Powells, she was plunged into the heart of literary London. She says, ‘I remember seeing Malcolm Muggeridge at Chester Gate, as he was a really close friend of Tony’s at this period and lived nearby.’

During her stay in Chester Gate, in 1950, Orwell died of TB. Powell and Muggeridge arranged his funeral at nearby Christ Church, Albany Street.

After Antonia left Chester Gate, she remained in close contact with the Powells. In 1961, she went on a Swan Hellenic cruise with them.

Antonia says, ‘There is a scene in Temporary Kings [1973] featuring a Tiepolo ceiling and, on that cruise, I was actually with Tony when we looked at a Tiepolo ceiling in Venice, so this is a proud memory for me.’

Antonia later invited Powell to a performance of Mozart’s Seraglio in her Holland Park garden.

She says, ‘He asked me what people would normally comment on when they were at the opera. Luckily, I had a review from the Financial Times, which said one character was more of a baritone than a bass but this was normally the case with this character. This comment then appeared in Temporary Kings.

‘So I did see then how he would adapt life into his fiction, but also his care in getting things right.’

Antonia’s Oxford tutor, Anne Whiteman, inspired Emily Brightman in Dance: ‘Anne was very proud to have been the inspiration behind the character. This always amused me as Dr Brightman is a bit of a nightmare, being terribly bossy – most unlike Anne.’

The Powells also got on well with Antonia Fraser’s late husband, Harold Pinter. Antonia says, ‘Like Tony, Harold loved literature and the English language was everything to him. And then there was red wine, which they both enjoyed.’

Before Antonia married Pinter, Powell asked her, ‘What is Harold? How do we describe him?’

She said, ‘Well, you can call him my companion.’

Powell said, ‘You mean like an old lady?’

There was a pause and Antonia said, ‘Exactly like an old lady’ – and Powell roared with laughter.