John Cowper Powys: introduction

The overall aim of these pages is to increase the readership of the novelist John Cowper Powys, on the grounds that he is a great writer and everyone ought to read his work. To this end, I provide information about Powys's life and work, and links to other sources of information about Powys and the Powys family.

It seems that Powys's readership may be increasing anyway. BBC Radio 4's Today programme recently (15.9.98) ran a feature on Powys's resurgence of popularity, using this website for their description of Powys as 'a monument of neglect' (Amis), interviewing Belinda Humfrey, and mentioning The Overlook Press's new edition of A Glastonbury Romance, which you can get from Waterstones. The next day the Guardian ran a similar article.

Amis isn't the only one of the British postmodernist boys to have been reading Powys. At the end of Julian Barnes's new novel, England, England, children are seen enjoying a fancy dress parade. Barnes tells us

They saw all too easily that Queen Victoria was no more than Ray Stout with a red face and a scarf around his head, yet they believed in Queen Victoria and Ray Stout at the same time'

A performative representation of British national iconography will probably lead most readers to think of Woolf's Between the Acts, but Barnes is much closer to Powys's A Glastonbury Romance (1932). The central scene of this novel is a pageant, in which the inhabitants of Glastonbury act out the myth, legend and history of their town.

Powys describes the pageant as a 'Passion play', and in the miracle play the players were familiar to the audience, so the audience was always conscious of a gap between who the players really were, and who they were pretending to be. This is the case with the pageant, which shows 'God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, walking and talking like common men!' The gap is most obvious in the description of the players waiting to go on-stage. The pages are seen 'scraping at the golden thrones with their nails to see how deep the gilding went'. As he describes the players, Powys continually juxtaposes their 'real life' and 'pageant' roles, telling us,

A mitred bishop, Bob Carter from the Godney grocery, who was clinging frantically to the crown of Britain, which an agitated page, Ted Sparks from the bakery at Meare, was trying to take away from him, burst now into angry abuse of Lancelot du Lac. This melancholy MIrror of Courtesy was Billy Pratt of the St. John's Bell-Ringers.

Though Powys juxtaposes the two roles of the players, he doesn't prioritise either of them. 'Real life' and 'pageant' roles are mixed up to the extent that they mix (so that Bob Carter clings to the crown of Britain), that one stands for the other (via the commas separating the mitred Bishop and Bob Carter and the agitated page and Ted Sparks), and that one is the other (so that Lancelot 'was' Billy Pratt). The result is that though the 'pageant' world version is advertised as constructed, the 'real life' world version in which the players also participate is seen to be on the same level to the extent that Billy Pratt can 'be' Lancelot. Each role is at the same level of 'being', and that level of being, given that the pageant is shown to be a construction, is fictional.

Now, I'm not blaming Barnes for ripping off Powys: all writers steal each others' stuff. What does irritate me is that Powys and Barnes are doing the same thing: they are using novels to explore the thematic and technical implications of a pluralist philosophy. Powys is doing it better: his is a brilliantly idiosyncratic and yet remarkably comfy bespoke William James world, whereas Barnes offers off the peg M&S postmodernism. And yet Powys has been either criticised or ignored for originating his style of writing, whereas Barnes is celebrated for churning out more of the same old 'is it fact or is it fiction?' neatness we've had for several decades. Put it right! When you go to Waterstones to get England, England, get A Glastonbury Romance instead. Barnes is clever, but Powys is good.