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The strange experience of England

A. N. Wilson on the life and letter of John Cowper Powys

13 February 2008

12:00 AM

13 February 2008

12:00 AM

Powys and Emma Goldman: The Letters of John Cowper Powys and Emma Goldman edited by David Goodway

Cecil Woolf, pp.188, 30

Powys and Dorothy Richardson: The Letters of John Cowper Powys and Dorothy Richardson edited by Janet Fouli

Cecil Woolf, pp.272, 30

Descents of Memory: The Life of John Cowper Powys Morine Krissd

Duckworth, pp.464, 25

The Wessex novels of John Cowper Powys — Wolf Solent (1929), A Glastonbury Romance (1933), Jobber Skald (also published as Weymouth Sands, 1935) and Maiden Castle (1937) — must rank as four of the greatest ever to be written in our language. Even those who do not feel ready for the 1,000-page novel based on Arthurian Britain, Porius (1951) which some consider to be the master work, it should be clear that here we have a truly major figure.

Every now and again there is an attempt at a revival. A brave publisher will reissue one of the novels and print on the jacket the plaudits which Powys has received: ‘The only novels produced by an English writer that can fairly be compared with the fictions of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’, wrote George Steiner. ‘To encounter Powys’ (Henry Miller this time) ‘is to arrive at the very fount of creation’. Angus Wilson, Margaret Drabble, Iris Murdoch and Simon Heffer are among the faithful. But many university students taking a course in the English literature of the 20th century could achieve their degree without so much as hearing Powys’s name. And yet he is an author whom, once you have discovered him, you will go on reading for the rest of your life. He has lowered his bucket deeper than most into the mystery of things. He is able to write not only about the experience of memory, love, obsession, sex and childhood experience. More than that, he has his ear cocked to the life of the universe itself. I was fascinated to read, in a letter to Dorothy Richardson (another forgotten writer):

I have got Wordsworth here and am reading his Prefaces as well as the Excursion (every word) — I tell you I have discovered the trick of ‘getting the best’ of Wordsworth (in both senses) — disregard completely his Christianity, his morality, his chat about duty etc and read with meticulous care all he says when he is describing things or sensations, or theories about sensations.

He wrote that in 1929, the year in which Wolf Solent, the first great novel, was published. Dorothy Richardson, the first writer of fiction to whom the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ was applied, was one whose novels he admired. He earned his living as a freelance lecturer in the United States, and he first met her on a trip to London in 1929, when he called on her and her artist husband Alan Odle in St John’s Wood. Both sides of the correspondence survive, because Richardson typed and kept carbons. The letters have been in the Beinecke Library in Yale awaiting an editor, and thanks to the enterprise of Cecil Woolf, who has already brought out ten volumes of Powys letters, we are now able to enjoy both these, and, in another volume, his letters to the American anarchist Emma Goldman. Both volumes cover the period of his greatest creativity, the 1930s. Since he was born in 1872, it will be seen that he was that rare thing in a writer, a late developer.

It had all been ripening inside him, the whole strange experience of England. He had grown up the son of a clergyman. He was the eldest of 11 and of his remarkable siblings, Theodore (T. F. Powys, the author of Mr Weston’s Good Wine) deserves a mention as another writer who far outshone his contemporaries. Most writers are not speakers. Tolstoy never made a public speech of any kind, and you could almost say as a general rule that utterance kills the written word. But there are exceptions, of whom Dickens is the most obvious. Dickens wrote to be performed. With Powys it was the other way around. He was a performer from the beginning. He always writes well about the power of the spoken word over mass audiences — a key theme of the 1930s. The power mania of Jerry Cobbold, the stand-up comedian in Weymouth Sands ,is contrasted with the ranting preaching of his mad brother Sylvanus who has unwholesome designs on little girls. Powys, needless to say, ‘is’ all these people. For most of his adult life, before his writing came into focus, he was tramping about the United States lecturing on literature, and holding large audiences spellbound. Without the long period of exile in America, it would have been impossible for him to bring his England, almost an alternative-universe England, into being.


There is a marvellous early letter to Dorothy Richardson, who has asked him why he does not write about the country he has seen the most of, in the previous decades, that is to say America? He replies with a superb prose-poem evoking the quiet of his part of Manhattan on a Sunday morning. Then he adds:

A year or two later he is able to confide in Richardson the peculiar personal circumstances in which he lives, and which explain the need, even after his 60th birthday, to be exacerbating his stomach ulcers by an exhausting programme of lecture tours. He needs to pay money to assuage the guilt of a failed marriage:

The non-syntax here is suggestive. What was he trying to say? That the wife he had deserted after a disastrous marriage was really all right, or that his strange son had been undamaged by the experience? Incidentally, the newest biography tells us that he did not tell his wife and son about the Sin and Adultery for another four years. I wonder which is right?

And what of the companion, Phyllis Plater, a young American 22 years his junior, with whom he lived until his death in a tiny house in Blaenau Ffestiniog, North Wales, in 1963? We already know a lot about her, especially since Morine Krissdóttir published in 1995 Petrushka and the Dancer: The Diaries of Powys, 1929-1939, with an introduction which is an intrusively devastating analysis of the relationship. Phyllis Plater was Powys’s child-bride. He saw her as his Petrushka, and he nicknamed her the Tiny Thin, or T. T. The diaries chronicle her rages, her painful menstrual cycle, her violence and her domestic incompetence. But she was also his muse, his secretary and his beloved companion.

Krissdóttir, who has also written on Powys and magic (John Cowper Powys and the Magical Quest, 1987) and who is herself a psychologist, has now come up with a biography. Many of Powys’s admirers must have felt some misgivings as they awaited the publication of this book. The brew has been bubbling in Krissdóttir’s cauldron for a very long time, and while retaining her sense of Powys’s genius, she seems to have lost her personal sympathy with him a long time ago. True, he writes in his letters and journals a great deal about his stomach ulcers, his constipation, his perceived need for enemas, administered by the Tiny Thin, his obsessions with the bodies of little girls, his fondness for masturbation, mutual and otherwise, and his only occasional desire to make love to the T. T. in the normal way. Any biographer would be called upon to make sense of all this stuff, and to disentangle the webs of myth from truth-telling. True, Powys was a very rum bird indeed, but clearly the Autobiography is a sort of novel, and it should be obvious that part of Powys’s oddness was a need to show off, to be a buffoon.

So although these aspects do dominate Powys’s life from his fifties onwards, it is hard to know whether it was right to give them so much space in a third- person narrative. Would not any great person — Churchill, say, or George Eliot — seem ridiculous if their biographies were written in terms of bowel movements and sex, or its lack? There were times in Krissdóttir’s book when I felt that a medical casebook had turned into a brief for the prosecution in some unlooked-for trial. Also that much of the literary criticism was pedestrian and unlikely to awaken a passion for the great books in one who had never tried them. She gives us much of Powys the magician and the symbolist, but not much of Powys the orator, prophet, jokester and literary ventriloquist who is among other things one of our greatest comedians, or of Powys the poet of the humdrum — is there any novelist who better evokes the consolations and irritations of such day-to-day necessities as doing the washing-up?

That said, Krissdóttir is a real authority on Powys. She has been studying him throughout a long life, she knows the material well and she has produced a book which no reader of Powys will want to be without.

An earlier, more genial book, Richard Perceval Graves’s The Brothers Powys, tells us on the final page that a friend visited Powys in hospital on the last day of his life and found him singing ‘John Peel’. ‘That last day his old head looked inexpressibly noble against the pillows in his bed.’

Noble he was, in appearance, in utterance, and, I believe, in character. As a keen cigarette-smoker to the end, who indulged in paedophile fantasies and liked singing the anthem of the hunt, you could say he was the embodiment of nearly all that New Labour Britain disapproves of. As such, he surely deserves a monument in Westminster Abbey. Krissdóttir ends her book, however, with old Powys in the cottage in Blaenau, staring miserably into space. There then follows a coda in which she herself corresponds with Powys’s nephew, Peter Grey. ‘Powys died, aged 90, apparently a happy man. In October, 1992, the doomed Peter sent me his last journal and committed suicide.’ Aged seven, little Peter had spied on his old uncle ‘pump-shipping’ (i.e. urinating in the garden). The two had a row, Powys shouting that he hated the child, and the Tiny Thin trying to kiss away the boy’s tears. This happened in 1930. Peter’s ment
al illness and death over 60 years later were no doubt extremely sad, but they surely can’t be attributed to Powys losing his temper on this occasion? Krissdóttir offers her complicated, largely hostile, vision of JCP to this tormented nephew as a way of unravelling the mazes which Powys used to draw for him when he was a child.

Central to Powys’s writings, fictional and non-fictional, is that we all have what he calls a life-illusion, which, if we can cultivate it aright, will enable us to overcome all our psychological inadequacies, all our fears and angers and look upon life in a healthy, cheerful, defiant mood. Powys was bold enough to write a book called The Art of Happiness and he seems to his admirers to be someone who has mastered that art and passed it on to others. For that, and for the books he wrote, we shall always be grateful. His faults were glaringly obvious, and he acknowledged them. From a biographer, it would have been good to read a bit more well-deserved praise.


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