Kenneth Widmerpool

Kenneth Widmerpool

Kenneth Widmerpool is a fictional character in Anthony Powell's sequence of novels, "A Dance to the Music of Time".

The author's most famous creation, Widmerpool appears in all twelve books comprising the cycle: by turns villain, victim, manipulator, fool, murderer, cuckold and traitor, with bizarre sexual tastes, Widmerpool simultaneously appalls and engages readers from his first appearance at school, wearing "the wrong kind of overcoat" in "A Question of Upbringing.


A certain mystery surrounds Widmerpool's name. When they are both staying at La Grenadiere in "A Question of Upbringing" Widmerpool confides to Jenkins (the narrator) that his paternal grandfather was a Scottish businessman called Geddes. Geddes married above himself and took his wife's name of Widmerpool to improve his social status.

Years later, after Widmerpool's engagement to Mildred Blaides, Jenkins implies in conversation that Widmerpool's connection with Nottinghamshire has deeper roots than the coincidence of a grandmother's maiden name, mentally justifying himself with the thought that Widmerpool himself considered this 'in no way a departure from the truth' "(At Lady Molly's)". What Widmerpool actually said about this is not revealed in the novels but as Widmerpool in Nottinghamshire was until 1924 an estate village belonging to the Robertson family, who owned all the surrounding land, any claim he made would not have carried conviction with the people he was, presumably, hoping to impress, i.e., those taking an interest in county society. Dr Nicholas Birns has pointed out in "Understanding Anthony Powell" that Powell would have come across the name of Widmerpool in "Lady Lucy Hutchinson's Memoirs", where it belongs to a Roundhead Captain of Horse. Certainly the Blessed Robert Widmerpool, had his name been known to Powell, would have been a less appropriate namesake.

Widmerpool's Christian name of Kenneth is not revealed until the end of the second volume, "A Buyer's Market", when, typically, in the middle of delivering officious advice to Jenkins about his undesirable acquaintances - one of whom has persuaded Widmerpool to pay for her abortion - he insists that they should henceforth be on first name terms. Only in the fifth chapter of the ninth volume, "The Military Philosophers", do we learn that he is Kenneth G. Widmerpool, and what the G stands for remains a mystery. [ Terence Empson, Anthony Powell Society, November 2005]


Widmerpool does not attend university, but on leaving school is articled to a firm of solicitors, Turnbull Welford and Puckering. Six or seven years later he secures a position at Donners-Brebner, the financial conglomerate headed by Sir Magnus Donners. An early enrollee in the Territorials, Widmerpool moves quickly into the regular army during wartime, serving as the Deputy Assistant Adjutant General at a divisional headquarters, where, in exercising his taste for intrigue, he over-reaches himself, incurring, but through a fortunate concatenation of circumstances escaping, the General's wrath.

He is transferred to London to work in the Cabinet Office where his mastery of bureaucratic manipulation comes to the fore and he is promoted full Colonel. His new influence is deployed to settle old scores, resulting in the death of his old school fellow, Peter Templer. He is still seen to be living with his mother, a formidably bourgeoise matron.

After the war, Widmerpool is elected a Member of Parliament in the Labour landslide of 1945; losing his seat in a subsequent election, he is made a Life Peer in 1958. After his disgrace in the Belkin espionage scandal and the notoriety caused by his wife's necrophiliac death, Widmerpool spends some time in the United States.

He returns to the UK to serve as the chancellor of one of the new redbrick universities being built in the 1960s, espousing the cause of rebellious youth. He soon becomes part of a pagan cult led by the sinister Scorpio Murtlock, and jettisons all the social respectability he had once sought after to end ignominiously as a powerless member of this group.

Character development

Widmerpool is portrayed as a man of will, whose emotional and intellectual development is skewed by his pursuit of power. The implicit suggestion is that he would rather be feared than loved, perhaps because he is aware of his inner corruption. Nevertheless he is not shown to be a man of courage, preferring to exercise his malice behind a smokescreen of office. His initially conservative instincts, social and political, are transmuted into adherence to the Left when the political wind is seen to blow in that direction, offering the possibility of advancement. Within a brief span of time in the 1940s, he progresses from a desire "to rule black men" to the conviction that his calling is to serve the people as a Socialist MP.

This leads to involvement in espionage against his own country on behalf of an unnamed Soviet bloc power. In a later development of his political ideology he espouses the cause of youth in a form of anarchism, articulated with his usual incoherence. (Widmerpool's speeches are treasured by Powell aficionados for their opaque verbosity and satire upon the utterings of public men). By the end of his life he has joined a pagan cult and is seen indulging in satanic ritual. Even here the author has couched his conversion to the occult in terms of a power struggle with Scorpio Murtlock, the cult leader. In losing Widmerpool falls back upon his incipient masochism.

Powell's genius is to make of such an ill-formed individual a character of depth, and even to render him at times sympathetic. Like some of Dickens's monsters, Widmerpool evokes a fascination to see what malignity he will commit next. His wartime struggle with Sunny Farebrother, and machinations at divisional HQ, would have stood the test of publication in installments, and worked particulay well when adapted for radio serialisation by the BBC.

Has Widmerpool a heart? There is evidence that he does, but that it is well-defended. His romance, perhaps more properly arrangement, with Mildred Blaides is presented with undertones of pathos when it fails in the bedroom. Widmerpool's subsequent exculpation to Jenkins is a minor masterpiece of characterisation, albeit in the understated manner of Powell at his sardonic best. Curiously, we are left to speculate about their motives when he and Pamela become betrothed. Is it about power, possession of a beauty craved by others, or some depraved sexual attraction that binds them? This, too, is part of Powell's technique: he allows us to fill in the emotional gaps, much as we do in real life.

From the age of seventeen to late middle-age Widmerpool's evolution is depicted as that of one who ages convincingly, while achieving minimal emotional maturity. His last years are characterised by an infantilism that owes nothing to second childhood. Even so there is much about Widmerpool's pretensions, figleaves to hide his shame, which are noteworthy: that one so keen to assume the dignity of office and rank should be prepared to make himself profoundly ridiculous speaks not just of a lack of self-awareness, but of a deep inner wound, inflicted in childhood, deepened at school, the natural healing of which is never permitted to take place. In this context his association with the Quiggin twins may be seen as an attempt to relive an alternative youth that is the opposite of his own adolescence. In failing, as it must, this strategy is pursued to its ultimate in becoming the obedient child to Murtlock, the strict father he never had.

Widmerpool's father had died young; Widmerpool maintains a close relationship with his mother, living with her for most of his life until his comparatively late marriage and portraying his mother as a central aspect of his ensemble. When he marries Pamela, though, Widmerpool's mother, by now advanced in age, becomes inconvenient to his plans and is bundled off to end her days in Kirkcudbrightshire in Scotland. Widmerpool and his mother jokingly used to imagine her as a potential mate for Joseph Stalin. In a final bit of irony, it is Widmerpool's mother's house in the country, near Sir Magnus Donners' former residence at Stourwater, that is turned over to the Murtlock cult.

Character model

Powell, reluctantly, admitted his source when confronted with an educated guess. The principal character model was Col. Denis Capel-Dunn, an officer under whom Powell had served briefly when posted to the Cabinet Office in 1943. ["Models for Characters in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time", Dr Keith Marshall and Julian Allason,] Widmerpool was hitherto believed to have been based upon Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, known at the Bar as 'Bullying Manner', who became Lord Chancellor in Harold Macmillan's government, having been elevated as Viscount Dilhorne. [Anthony Powell, Journals 1990-1992, p 162] One episode which the author admitted drawing from Manningham-Buller was his getting a schoolfellow sacked from Eton for making improper advances to another boy. [Anthony Powell, quoted by the biographer Kenneth Rose] .

The novelist had planted clues to Widmerpool's true identity in the third volume of his autobiography. He refers to the nickname of an unnamed officer under whom he worked briefly in the Cabinet Office during the war. It is The Papal Bun - "a play upon his double barreled surname, creed, demeanour, personal appearance ... a never failing source of laughter." [Anthony Powell, "To Keep the Ball Rolling: Faces in My Time", pp 155-6] Kenneth Rose discovered that the historian Desmond Seward had managed to deduce Widmerpool's identity. This Rose put to Powell, who, in his elliptical way, replied: "My impression is that Seward, a most amusing fellow, is on to something there ...". [Sunday Telegraph, 29 Dec 1991] The identification of Widmerpool as based upon Denis Cuthbert Capel-Dunn was then confirmed in Powell's "Journals". [Anthony Powell," Journals 1990-1992", pp 151, 161-2]

The son of a consular clerk in Leipzig, Capel-Dunn became a barrister, rising to colonel in the Intelligence Corps, under whom Powell served on attachment to the Cabinet Office for nine weeks in 1943. When Powell, an acting major, asked to be retained in his post for a further fortnight in order that his rank might become substantive, Capel-Dunn refused on the grounds "My nerves wouldn't stand it". [Desmond Seward, Anthony Powell Society]

As Hugh Massingberd pointed out in "Daydream Believer", Capel-Dunn could not have provided the total model for Widmerpool as he was not with Powell at Eton.

"Like Widmerpool, Capel-Dunn was a very fat, extremely boring, overwhelmingly ambitious arriviste. His conversations were hideously detailed and humourless", noted John Colvin, former British ambassador to Mongolia, who was a member of the same club, the St James, where Capel-Dunn was known there as 'Young Bloody'. [Daily Telegraph, 30 Dec 1991] The 7th Earl of Longford claimed to be a source for later parts of Widmerpool's life, upon which Powell commented "Lord Longford would like to think so."

Widmerpool's espionage career appears to have been based upon the cases of the Labour MP Denis Pritt, a GRU (Soviet Army Intelligence) agent involved in pre-war espionage, who, in the early fifties was expelled from the his party for Stalinism. [Nigel West, The Illegals, Hodder & Stoughton, 1994] The other possible source is Jeremy, later Lord, Hutchinson QC, who was suspected by MI5 of running a Communist front organisation for lawyers. He defended George Blake, the Russian spy in SIS. [Nigel West, A Matter of Trust, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1982]

Capel-Dunn died in an air crash in 1945 returning with other officials from the San Francisco Conference that established the United Nations. As Kenneth Rose has pointed out, had he not sacked Powell the novelist would probably have shared his fate. "As it was, the subordinate survived to make his boss immortal". [Kenneth Rose, Sunday Telegraph, 29 Dec 1991] Rose seems to have had this from direct from Powell who repeated a similar, if more modest, assertion in "Faces in my Time". [page 160]

TV portrayal

Following a successful BBC TV radio dramatisation of "A Dance to the Music of Time" some years earlier, in 1997 Channel 4 filmed an adaptation for TV. In it Widmerpool was played throughout by the Shakespearean actor Simon Russell Beale, for which he won the Best Actor category at the British Academy Film & Television Awards in 1998. Surprisingly his portrayal met with the approval of both academic critics and Powell enthusiasts, resulting in him being invited to become President of the Anthony Powell Society, an office he still holds.

The Widmerpool Award

An annual Widmerpool Award is made to the public figure judged to have behaved in the most Widmerpudlian fashion during the previous twelve months. Nominations are proposed and voted upon by members of the Anthony Powell Society [] . Past winners have included:
*British Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg,
*Republican electoral advisor Karl Rove, and
*former newspaper editor Sir Max Hastings. Misfortune has appeared to dog winners of the award, who receive "an engraved wrong sort of overcoat".


External links

* [ "The Anthony Powell Society]

* [ Adapted in part from material published by the Anthony Powell Society with consent]

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