The union of Reverend Charles Francis Powys and his wife Mary Cowper Johnson evidently contained some rare creative power, producing as it did eleven children, seven of whom became published authors. (The Powys Society website ably chronicles and celebrates this family saga.)
The most celebrated of the offspring was, of course, John Cowper Powys (1872-1963), he of Wolf Solent (1929) and A Glastonbury Romance (1932), the latter famously rated by George Steiner as ‘the only novel produced by an English writer that can fairly be compared with the fictions of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.’
Since 2008 Finds has returned to print a selection of JC Powys’s earlier novels – Wood and Stone (1915), Rodmoor (1916), After My Fashion (1919), Ducdame (1925) – and also of those that followed his greatest successes – namely Morwyn (1937), The Inmates (1952), Atlantis (1954), and The Brazen Head (1956). Late last year this republishing plan resumed with his Autobiography (1934), in which he asserted:
‘I have tried to write my life as if I were confessing to a priest, a philosopher, and a wise old woman. I have tried to write as if I were going to be executed when it was finished. I have tried to write it as if I were both God and Devil.’
This is merely to give some flavour of what JC Powys tried that so few then or since would or could hope to emulate… We follow on this month with the reissue of his The Meaning of Culture (1929) and In Defense of Sensuality (1930).
Meantime we proceed also with the returning to print of John’s but-slightly younger brother Theodore Francis (T.F.) Powys (1875-1953), a decidedly more ascetic figure but no less of a literary powerhouse. Mr. Tasker’s Gods (1925) opened our republishing, this month we have his selected stories, God’s Eyes A-Twinkle, and to follow in coming months are Mark Only (1924), Fables (1929), Innocent Birds (1926) and Mockery Gap (1925).
For those coming fresh to the Powys’s works, back in 2001 the philosopher and critic John Gray wrote a splendid comparative appraisal of JC and TF in the New Statesman. He noted first the enduringly ‘modern’ sensibility of John Cowper:
‘His novels are studies in introspection, in which only subjective sensation has reality and the central business of life is the search for a personal mythology. Seeing human relationships as encounters between solitary consciousnesses, he has no interest in class or ambition. He writes about sex without the least trace of moralising. An inveterate sceptic, he sees religions and philosophies as works of art, to be used for their aesthetic qualities and discarded when they cease to please. Even today, these are faintly subversive attitudes…’
By comparison Theodore Francis is the sort of writer whose work might be as easily blazed in mosaics in some moss-grown temple as printed on demand and in e-book… But this deep-rooted quality is what should speak to the contemporary reader. As Gray goes on:
“By all conventional standards, T F Powys is the least modern of writers. His novels and short stories are set in a landscape as far removed as possible from anything smart or urban – a fantastical version of English village life, in which human emotions work themselves out against a backdrop of brooding countryside… He sets his tales in a grotesquely exaggerated rural landscape, not because he has any nostalgia for the way of life it may once have contained, but because, by doing so, he is free to strip human beings down to their barest elements – their lust, greed, cruelty and stupidity, and the mixture of dread and yearning with which they respond to the prospect of death… The greatest value of his work, though, is in showing that it is still possible to write about the primordial human experiences to which religion is a response. Secular writers tend to steer clear of them, and end up stuck in the shallows of politics or fashion. On the other hand, Christian writers are mostly precious and unpersuasive, like T S Eliot, or else more or less openly fraudulent, like Graham Greene. Very few 20th-century authors have the knack of writing convincingly of first and last things. A religious writer without any vestige of belief, Theodore Powys is one of them.’