Margaret Drabble on the paradoxical and perplexing work of John Cowper Powys
The realm of John Cowper Powys is dangerous. The reader may wander for years in this parallel universe, entrapped and bewitched, and never reach its end. There is always another book to discover, another work to reread. Like Tolkien, Powys has invented another country, densely peopled, thickly forested, mountainous, erudite, strangely self-sufficient. This country is less visited than Tolkien's, but it is as compelling, and it has more air.
Powys's work is full of paradoxes and surprises. He was extremely prolific, yet a late starter; his manner was heroic, yet bathetic. He was a writer of tragic grandeur and of everyday comedy, of sexual perversion, and of bread and butter and cups of tea. (More bread and butter is consumed and more tea drunk in the novels of John Cowper Powys than in the whole of the rest of English literature.) He wrote poems, and essays, and gargantuan epic fictions, and manuals of self-help, and innumerable letters. Words poured from him, and he was famous for never rereading any of them. It is left to us, the readers, to lose ourselves in his creation, and to try to emerge from it and to make some sense of it. It is no wonder that mainstream literary critics have avoided him, and that a handful of scholars and addicts have clustered round his oeuvre. He is so far outside the canon that he defies the concept of a canon.
During his lifetime, he was admired by writers as diverse as Theodore Dreiser, Henry Miller, JB Priestley, Iris Murdoch, Angus Wilson and that unconventional scholar LC Knights (who was fond, as he wrote in later years to Powys, of performing Shakespeare wearing as few clothes as possible). Powys continues to attract acolytes. In 2002 the educationalist Chris Woodhead delivered a remarkable paper to the Powys Society describing how he had been influenced as a schoolboy by the chance purchase of a Penguin Classic of Wolf Solent, and AN Wilson has recently written a new Penguin introduction to the same novel. Yet it is hard to know how to tempt new readers into the charmed stone circle. His six major novels - Wolf Solent (1929), A Glastonbury Romance (1932), Weymouth Sands (1934), Maiden Castle (1936), Owen Glendower (1940) and Porius (1951) - are formidably long, and not always in print, although they reappear in various guises with a stubborn regularity. Most of his shorter novels are too bizarre to do him justice, although they have paragraphs of dazzling originality - his science-fiction anti-vivisection novel Morwyn (1937), which contains much abstract debate about the nature of sadism, also provides arresting descriptions of the behaviour of his dog that justify the whole crazy enterprise. But Morwyn, despite the portrait of "Old Black", does not make a good point of entry into the Powys world.
The most accessible of his important publications is probably his Autobiography (1934), one of the most eccentric memoirs ever written. Powys states elsewhere (Confessions of Two Brothers) that he takes Pepys, Casanova and Rousseau as his models, and his autobiography has justly been compared to Rousseau's Confessions. It rivals them in its frankness and its evasions, in its inconsistency and its emotional intensity, in its egoism and its self-abasement, and in its keen response to the natural world. Both Rousseau and Powys make compelling reading. Rousseau notoriously reveals much about his sexual deviations, embarrassments and social humiliations, yet fails to dwell on the fact that he, the preacher of natural childhood and domestic love, fathered five children by his servant and left them all in a foundling home. There is an even more startling void at the heart of Powys's apparently open and detailed account of his childhood, family life and sexual adventures. He writes much about his father and his many siblings (he was the oldest of 11, two of whom, Theodore and Llewellyn, were to become distinguished writers), but hardly mentions the existence of his mother, his wife or the woman with whom he was living in America while he was writing this volume, and with whom he was to live for several decades until his death, in his 90th year, in 1961.
The woman-free story that Powys chooses to tell us offers great riches to the analyst in all of us - and unlike Rousseau, Powys was well-acquainted with the works of Freud and Jung and Kraft-Ebbing. (He preferred Jung, but he read them all.) His recall, of what he chooses to recall, is astounding. Although his works identify him as a Wessex man with Norfolk blood, who in later years reinvented himself as a wizard Welshman of the line of Merlin and as a descendant of the Neanderthals, he was in fact born in 1872 in Derbyshire, where his father was then vicar at Shirley, near Dovedale. Powys writes of the landscapes of his infancy with a lyric clarity, and he also records the earliest infantile manifestations of the temptations towards sadism that tormented him violently for most of his life, and which he was to satisfy largely through reading French pornography. He insists here and throughout his writings and correspondence that his only physical indulgences in this mental vice involved tadpoles and worms and small birds, but one may well wonder whether he protests too much.
Moving from Derbyshire to Dorset, the growing family soon settled in Somerset, in the vicarage at Montacute, one of the most beautiful and historic villages in England. This was a setting of exceptional natural and architectural beauty. Here the Powyses pursued a life of comfortable upper-middle-class eccentricity, of botanising and sermonising and antiquarian research. The Powyses were not rich, but they were well born, and had some private means. Mrs Powys claimed literary ancestry, through the poets Donne and Cowper, and was said to have inherited Cowper's melancholia.
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