John Cowper's fees and responsibilities towards his family in England


    We may well wonder why John Cowper had decided to leave his native country to try his luck in America. After Cambridge where he had studied with no particular zeal, not wishing to become a clergyman like his father, he had worked in Sussex as a visiting lecturer at two girls' schools in the Brighton and Hove area. In the autumn of 1898 he was appointed as a travelling lecturer by the Oxford Extension Committee. It was immediately such a great success that soon John Cowper was travelling all over England and even in Germany, at Hamburg, Leipzig and Dresden.
    In 1896 he had married the sister of a friend of his, Margaret Alice Lyon. Some critics think she may have inspired, at least partly, the character of Gerda in Wolf Solent. She seems to have been a quiet, conventional girl with the prejudices of her class and with the normal expectations of a young bride. She certainly knew nothing of the inhibitions and revulsions her young spouse nurtured concerning usual sexual relationships. Strangely enough, a few years after their marriage, they finally begot a son, Littleton Alfred, in 1902, which John Cowper thought was something of 'a miracle'. He showed himself to be a difficult companion, often leaving Margaret to take walks by himself or even going to Paris alone for a fortnight. In short, it soon appeared that their marriage was a failure.
    His new job as a lecturer enabled him to escape his family life and to become acquainted with different milieux of English society, thus enlarging his experience of life. He soon showed his extraordinary gifts for lecturing, without notes and with a really inspiring empathy with his subjects. Those ten years which he spent lecturing in England were going to provide an excellent training for his later carreer in the States. He was so popular that soon he was asked to be lecturer for Cambridge and London universities as well as Oxford.
    In 1904-05 he was invited to lecture in America for the first time. For a long time (until 1927 at the least) he had the financial well-being of his wife and his son to consider, and he always took good care that they should not suffer from his choices and different way of life. He lived very simply himself, his only 'luxury' being his fare to go back to England every two or three years. During those years of touring America and lecturing, he never knew what his income would turn out to be, so that getting a substantial sum of money for his lectures was in fact vital and explains the excitement of some of his letters.
    In September 1917 John Cowper, suffering badly from his ulcers, had decided to have a serious operation before facing a long tour in California. A month later, he wrote to Llewelyn:
I must live on from day to day and hope for the best. I have asked father to lend me 200 and to send it to Margaret, for I don't see much chance of my being able to keep her going at present.
(17 October 1917, Letters to His Brother Llewelyn)
     A few months later JCP knew difficulties when trying to obtain lectures, and was worried about his future. Thus he writes to Llewelyn on the 8th of January 1918:
I am still a little depressed over my career - who wouldn't be? so difficult to get any lectures at all. I have a few at Brooklyn for Atkins, who as you know is now head of the Brooklyn Institute in place of Dr Hooper, dead. I go to Chicago from the 15th of January to the 15th of February. Then return to New York till the middle or end of March. Then Arnold proposes that I risk my postponed Californian trip - our only chance of making any money at all this year, it seems. The Chicago lectures are so few that it is only just barely worth the trip, and the railways are so upset that I dread the journey.
     And thinking about his wife's finances, he has to admit:
I have suggested to Margaret that she borrows money on a mortgage on the house that seems to me the only thing to do - for she and my son will both be very harassed if they have to let the house. I don't know that I should be very happy hanging round at Burpham this summer, with no work and probably a difficulty in getting a passport when I wanted one to return to America in the fall. But on the other hand the lectures here are so bad that it might be a good thing to drop out for a season.
    If only I could get a lectureship at a University over here - but, as I say, the university circle suspect me as a dangerous radical, and I cannot see any of them either in England or America giving me a job.
    Thus John Cowper was never quite relieved of anxiety for the welfare of his family until the beginning of 1920, when propects began to brighten up. Towards the end of 1921, the year he met Phyllis Playter in Kansas, he wrote triumphally :
As for me, I have had two very successful lectures, one at Kenosha and one at Duluth (Wisconsin and Minnesota), and I have tried to persuade them to have three successive lectures in both places on Shakespeare, which I pray and hope they may do later in the season, possibly at the end of January — for it would be possible to demand no less than a sum of $400 for the Kenosha three and $550 or even $600 for the Duluth three — think of that! — about a thousand in a week if it were arranged!
     Unfortunately, events took a bad turn when he went over to California, 'coached' by Jessica Colbert who seemed more interested in theatrical ventures than in finding lectures for him:
I have had the greatest difficulty to get her to lend me in advance the 100 for my son which was only cabled a week ago — no! I wrong her in saying the greatest difficulty — I exaggerate. But over the phone she gave me a nasty little flick in the face by saying 'I hadn't earned it' and of course I haven't! And now this morning after putting it off as long as I dared, I asked her for the 50 to keep Margaret going and I got a second still harder slap about not having yet earned it and the real 'season' not having yet begun. (10 October 1922)
    John Cowper, who also generously sent money to Theodore and to Frances, from time to time, had now the additional care of Phyllis, who was pining away in Kansas, working for the Haldeman-Julius Co., in Girard, Kansas, ('Little Blue Books'), and he had to find a way of helping her:
I have put aside a little sum of 60$ out of what Doubleday paid me for my Wilde preface — to wire her at any desperate pinch; so that she could, at least, reach New York, and you and Alyse, if matters in Girard became really too intolerable for her. She has been on the edge of 'breaking down', once and again... (Letters to His Brother Llewelyn, 10 October 1922)

By the gods it'll be a difficult thing to get me out to the Pacific again when once I get to you. I have never been so entirely isolated for so long and so left stranded as it were on a South Sea reef. I am getting so dissatisfied with Jessica that if I only dared I would give her the chuck now. But how should I get to New York? That's the problem. And just at this moment with my son's last term beginning, don't you see how caught I am? (Letters to His Brother Llewelyn, 14 April 1923)
    In December 1925 he wrote to Llewelyn:
But why aren't these good Middle Western Tours as formerly? How can I tell? But there are various lectures round New York that ought to provide about seventy dollars a week to be divided between the upper room and Burpham. But think of the days under Arnold when I used to take home a clear 1,600 — 800 for Margaret and 200 for myself! — beyond and above my expenses over here which in those times must have been about 600 I fancy. My total income has dropped from 1,600 to 600 or less. But of course this that I have would be riches if I had not Burpham to keep up. But I have it — and so there it is! But if this book were a success — two vols. at $5 and say 15 per cent on each set, sold in a neat cardboard cas with a picture of Melbury Bub or Babylon Hill on it! eh? (John Cowper Powys, Letters to His Brother Llewelyn)
    By 1930 he had decided to stop and to live by his pen only, and was thus heading towards more financial problems.