The Powyses

D.A.N. Jones

  • After My Fashion by John Cowper Powys
    Picador, 286 pp, £2.50, June 1980, ISBN 0 330 26049 9
  • Weymouth Sands by John Cowper Powys
    Picador, 567 pp, £2.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 330 26050 2
  • Recollections of the Powys Brothers edited by Belinda Humfrey
    Peter Owen, 288 pp, £9.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 7206 0547 4
  • John Cowper Powys and David Jones: A Comparative Study by Jeremy Hooker
    Enitharmon, 54 pp, £3.75, April 1979, ISBN 0 901111 85 6
  • The Hollowed-Out Elder Stalk by Roland Mathias
    Enitharmon, 158 pp, £4.85, May 1979, ISBN 0 901111 87 2
  • John Cowper Powys and the Magical Quest by Morine Krissdottir
    Macdonald, 218 pp, £8.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 354 04492 3

Big guns (J. B. Priestley, G. Wilson Knight, George Steiner, Angus Wilson) have been booming the name of John Cowper Powys for many years, outraged that other big guns will not join the salute. In the first number of the Powys Review, in 1977, George Steiner blamed Dr Leavis for praising Theodore Francis Powys above John Cowper, thus denying J. C. his meed of lectures, tutorials and research students. Nevertheless, the book-addicted young, the Colin Wilsons of our time, find John Cowper instantly available in the heart of London, at the Village Bookshop, hard by Piccadilly Circus, that alternative campus.

There is here a bust of John Cowper, with large pictures of his photogenic face. There is a wall of his books which (with a few of T. F.’s and Llewellyn’s offering fraternal support) seem to dominate over the shelves of Dostoevsky, Hesse and Tolkien, while a Beethoven quartet accompanies the browsing, and little fish play in the Oriental pond by the occult books. This shop is a sort of Powys shrine: here are great names, great subjects, not examination-notes.

The Village Press offers more than sixty books by and about J. C. Powys and his brothers – and there is much more to come, numerous letters to collect. That word ‘village’ links rural Britain, Vole country, with Greenwich Village. So does J. C. Powys’s newly-discovered novel, After My Fashion, now published for the first time.

Probably all the 31 contributors to Recollections of the Powys Brothers, as well as Morine Krissdottir, Jeremy Hooker and Roland Mathias, would agree that After My Fashion is the most immediately important of the six books under review. It was apparently written very soon after the First World War, when John Cowper was in his forties, just beginning his career as a novelist. The very title reminds us he was a Victorian, only two years younger than Lord Alfred Douglas.

His most celebrated novels of English life were published in the 1930s. Then he moved to Wales, became very Cymric, historical and metaphysical; a sage, visited by disciples, he wrote of mysteries and antiquities until his death, aged 91, in 1963. After My Fashion draws us back from these later incarnations to a new writer, a middle-aged man with much experience behind him, a Victorian clergyman’s son pondering the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution and his friendship with Isadora Duncan – and his own adolescent attitude to life, unusual in a man in his late forties.

The hero of After My Fashion is a self-portrait. Richard Storm has returned to Sussex from Paris, where he has made a name for himself with his critical appreciations of modern French writers. The first man he meets is a young painter, Robert Canyot, a traditionalist who thinks Richard far too modern. Richard wins Robert’s girlfriend, Nelly Moreton, although Richard fears she is too young for him: they have much in common, Richard and Nelly, both being vicars’ children. Robert behaves with extraordinary generosity: he gives the bride away. The main theme of the novel is the difficulty of behaving with non-possessive love.

New to Powys’s readers is the quiet reflectiveness of Richard Storm, lying on the Sussex ground as a returned exile, offering a prayer for the souls of the dead soldiers who had saved his native land – while aware that the land did not truly belong to the people and ‘aware of the sinister ambiguities of most patriotic moods’. But happily familiar is his loving, sensual, tactile description of British land. Sir Angus Wilson remarks, in his foreword to the paperback reprint of Weymouth Sands, that Powys, in a Victorian manner, somehow made a contribution to the impressionism explored by Virginia Woolf: ‘the seaside of Weymouth Sands is a Boudin painted by Monet.’ Perhaps. But in After My Fashion he strikes me as more like a thoroughgoing Victorian, offering the sort of landscape painting Ruskin admired in William Dyce. (The people-crowded canvas of Frith was yet to come.)

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[*] John Dyer by Belinda Humfrey, University of Wales, 115pp., £1.95, 15 May, 0 7083 0749 3.