The Powys family produced many writers and artists, three of those writers attained enduring fame, John Cowper Powys, Theodore Francis Powys and Llewelyn Powys
The three brothers were members of a family of eleven children born to the Reverend C F Powys, vicar of Montacute for thirty-two years, and his wife Mary Cowper Johnson. All the children were formidable individualists but Louis Marlow once wrote that when they were together they became “one huge many-headed Powys”. It was their strong sense of family and their passionate love of nature that united them; it was their sometimes anguished quests for separate identity that drew them into a remarkable variety of careers: from schoolmaster to farmer, from poet to architect. Among them, Gertrude Powys was a painter of power and insight, Marian Powys an authority on lace and lace- making; A R Powys, Secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, published a number of books on architectural subjects. Philippa Powys was a novelist and poet, as was Lucy Powys’s daughter, Mary Casey. Littleton Powys published two volumes of autobiography; he was married twice: his second wife was the novelist Elisabeth Myers. Llewelyn Powys was married to the American writer Alyse Gregory.
The Powys’s inevitably attracted a wide circle of friends and admirers, many of them writers themselves. Among them were the novelist and autobiographer Louis Wilkinson (Louis Marlow) and his first wife Frances Gregg; the novelist, poet and short story writer Sylvia Townsend Warner; and the poets Valentine Acland and Gamel Woolsey. In America John Cowper Powys was friendly with the novelist Theodore Dreiser and the poets Edgar Lee Masters, E A Robinson and Edna St Vincent Millay; in Wales with the poet Raymond Garlick and the novelist James Hanley. The Powys family and their friends constitute an unusually wide-ranging spectrum of social, literary and imaginative interests.
John Cowper Powys (1872-1963)
John Cowper Powys was born in Derbyshire. The eldest of the eleven children. He was educated at Sherborne School and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. His childhood was spent on the Dorset-Somerset border, his father having taken a post as curate in Dorchester, before being appointed vicar at Montacute. Many of Powys’s novels are set in this area. There followed some years working as a teacher and failing to live a happy married life in Sussex (he married Margaret Lyon in 1896). From 1904 onwards, success a touring lecturer in the United States lead to Powys spending an increasing portion of his time there, eventually moving to New York, living first in the city and then in a cottage upstate. In 1921, through his lecturing, he met Phyllis Playter, who remained his companion for the rest of his life. They returned to the UK in 1934, living briefly in Dorchester before settling in North Wales, where Powys lived for the rest of his life, first at Corwen, then at Blaenau-Festiniog.
Powys came to novel-writing relatively late, and only wrote his major works after the age of fifty, although his first novel, Wood and Stone, was published in 1915. Previously having been known mainly as a mesmerizing speaker on the North American circuit. His success as a novelist began with Wolf Solent (1929). This established the blend of realism and the fantastic, and the use of a Wessex setting, which was to be employed and developed in the next three major works, A Glastonbury Romance (1932), Weymouth Sands(1934), and Maiden Castle (1936). The move to Wales is reflected in the Welsh focus for the next two major novels, Owen Glendower (1940), and Porius (1951). Here Powys’s ‘certain combination of realism and magic’ is further complicated by the historical references. In later novels, including Atlantis (1954) and The Brazen Head (1956) the element of the fantastic becomes more pronounced, and the writing stops developing, with many stock devices recurring. However, with the final novels and stories from Up and Out (1957) onwards, Powys finds a new voice in the total abandonment to fantasy, creating what he calls ‘space fiction’, which is less science fiction than fiction about fiction as a privileged space in which anything can happen, which is the logical conclusion towards which his writing had been moving since the twenties.
Theodore Francis Powys (1875-1953)
The Powys brother who wrote most successfully within the conventions of the novelistic form as seen in the mid-twentieth century. A man who rarely left home or traveled in a car, who claimed to love monotony, and who ‘never gave so much as a sunflower-seed for the busy, practical life’ – this was Theodore Francis Powys He ran his own farm, White House Farm at Sweffling, Suffolk (1895 -1901) before “retiring” to Dorset, determined to write. In 1904, he settled in East Chaldon, ‘the most hidden village in Dorset’, and there he remained until 1940, when the war drove him inland to Mappowder. In 1905, he married Violet Rosalie Dodds, a local girl; they had two sons and an adopted daughter.
Theodore’s unorthodox version of Christianity reveals strands of mysticism, quietism, and pantheism, but the major influence upon him was the Bible, and he claimed that Religion ‘is the only subject I know anything about’. Sometimes savage, often lyrical, his novels and stories explore universal themes of Love, Death, Good and Evil within the microcosm of the rural world. In spite of the apparent realism of his settings, Powys is a symbolist and allegorist. Major works include The Soliloquy of a Hermit, Mr. Weston’s Good Wine, and Unclay; his Fables and short stories are also much admired.
Llewelyn Powys (1884-1939)
Llewelyn Powys is still unduly neglected. Born in Dorchester, he spent his childhood at Montacute, Somerset, and as an adult lived for varying periods in Kenya, the United States, Dorset, (Chaldon Herring) and Switzerland. His twenty-six books include a novel, Apples be Ripe, a biography, Henry Hudson, essays descriptive and polemical, memoirs and reminiscences. Of all the Powys brothers, Llewelyn was recognized as the most cheerful, the most at ease with existence: the only one for whom a title such as Glory of Life could hold not a shadow of the ironic. Llewelyn’s epicurean philosophy is intimately related to the tuberculosis with which he struggled for thirty years which were to lead to his early death.
Llewelyn Powys wrote several remarkable travelogues; his books on colonial Africa, Ebony and Ivory and Black Laughter are particularly striking. Llewelyn Powys deserves recognition as one of the major essayists in the English language of the early twentieth century. On the hill between Chaldon Herring and the sea there is a memorial stone to Llewelyn which bears the inscription.
13th Aug 1884
2nd Dec 1939
The Living, The Living, He shall praise Thee.