Chaldon Herring: The Powys Circle in a Dorset Village, |
Boydell and Brewer, 1988, £14.95.
Judith Stinton has found an interesting and original approach to writing about the Powys family and their circle by taking as her focus the village in and around which several of them lived in the 20s and 30s, Chaldon Herring, or East Chaldon, tracing its history and modest claim to having been, in the words of the blurb, "almost [. . .] a literary colony". It was the fame of Theodore Powys that made the village conspicuous. He had moved to Chaldon in 1904 and married Violet Dodd, a local girl, the following year, but it was not until 1921 that he and his work were discovered almost by accident when the sculptor Stephen Tomlin came to stay in the village. Tomlin thought he had found the perfect retreat, unspoilt, remote and embellished with "a most remarkable man [. . .] a sort of hermit" as he described Theodore in a letter to Sylvia Townsend Warner. It was letters such as that one, and Tomlin's enormous enthusiasm about the village that intrigued his London friends and incited them to go and see for themselves. Thus began the process by which Theodore's work became published and widely known and the village gradually filled with outsiders.
By 1930, Powyses and Powys friends made up a significant proportion of the Chaldon population. Theodore and his family lived at Beth-Car, Llewelyn Powys and Alyse Gregory lived at White Nose, Katie and Gertrude Powys were at Chydyok; Betty Muntz, the sculptress, lived at Apple Tree Cotttage in the village and Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland lived at Miss Green's cottage. Friends and relations of all these were constantly coming and going, but the most famous visitors were to Beth-Car. David Garnett, Ottoline Morrell, Augustus John and T. E. Lawrence each visited Theodore at various times (and, incidentally, earned themselves a place on the cover of this book as a result). Theodore's devoted publisher, Charles Prentice, wanted to retire to Tadnol, only a mile and a half away. Theodore's influence, both personal and literary, was a strong one, and it is significant that the Chaldon "spell" seemed to snap with his decline as a writer and eventual removal to Mappowder in 1940.
Judith Stinton abandons strict chronology in her book to sustain the geographical approach with a chapter on the Five Marys which outlines the history of the village and the Duchesse de Berri's excavations in 1830, a chapter on Theodore Powys at Beth-Car, one about the inn, one about the church and school, "The Vicarage", which incorporates the story of the 1935 libel case against Llewelyn, Valentine Ackland and Sylvia Townsend Warner, "Rat's Barn", with its portrait of Katie Powys, and the final chapter on Chydyok, mainly about Llewelyn, Alyse Gregory and Llewelyn's tiresome affair with Gamel Woolsey. This structure is helpful, not to say essential, in dealing with the great variety of material which the author uses. It is one of the book's virtues that Judith Stinton has done a good deal of original research; the information she provides about the history, archaeology and toponymy of Chaldon and its surrounding area is both interesting and illuminating.
It is also pleasing to read a book on the Powys family which takes some account of Katie and Gertrude Powys, two remarkable women who are usually tagged onto their brothers like footnotes. Judith Stinton has used Katie's journal, papers at Austin and Alyse Gregory's notes to reveal a little of Katie's strong character, and though there is scant mention of Gertrude's paintings, especially her portraits, there are some details about the household at Chydyok which bring her alive.
The chapter on the church and school is full of new information, and I especially liked the portrait of the Rev. Joseph Staines Cope, whose odd influence still hung over the village in Theodore Powys's day.The other notable inclusion is Stephen Tomlin, whose friendship with Theodore was wholly responsible for Powys's work coming to light when it did. Tomlin, a highly intelligent and tormented character, has really never been given his due in this matter, nor is his sculpture as well known as it deserves to be. The photograph of him with the head of Theodore which was later broken, and the photograph of Theodore and Violet together are two of the most interesting illustrations in a book notably full of good pictures.
Ms Stinton's sources, listed by chapter at the end of the book, show the extent and thoroughness of her research, but for some reason are not attached to quotations in the text by the usual method of numbered notes. I count this a serious defect, especially since the author has made use of a certain amount of "personal information", the reminiscences of local people, which ought to be more clearly identifiable. Also Ms Stinton specializes in an odd brand of seemingly inadvertent pun which becomes irritating after a while; she talks, for instance (on the same page) of "whorled sculptures" which "roundly recall" curves of the landscape and the "slick menace of oil".
Chaldon Herring is "a haunted village" as Theodore Powys once called it. It lies on the edge of Winfrith Heath, Hardy's mysterious Egdon, and seems also "A Face on which Time makes but Little Impression". In an unpublished letter to Bea Howe, Powys once wrote, "I think the village has a primitive and gentle soul. A soul inclined to go to sleep and never wake up any more". An old place like Chaldon remains, in the long term, unaffected by almost everything, and literary colonies pass painlessly through its history. Yet in the mid-20s it seemed to Stephen Tomlin that his "discovery" of Chaldon had brought about its ruin and he fled to Swallowcliffe in Wiltshire. "It now seems to be the best known village in England", he wrote to Powys. "Dear Theo, we ought to have kept it a secret".
Ed. I am grateful to Judith Stinton for making available the photographs reproduced in this review.
|The Powys Review||Number 23||Volume VI, iii|