T. F. Powys

aspects
of a life


by

J. Lawrence Mitchell

 

T. F. Powys's reticence and the supposed uneventfulness of his life set hard tasks for a biographer. Professor Mitchell's painstakingly thorough researches throw a surprisingly full and clear light on some of the hitherto obscure periods of Powys's life. Why, having missed a university education, did he initially try hard to be a farmer, and why and how did he then have an even harder apprenticeship in writing before becoming one of the great authors of the twentieth century? Professor Mitchell answers the questions with accounts of Mrs Stracey as godmother of Powys's writings as well as his children, and of the long, discouraging search for a publisher. The closing chapter finally disposes of the myth (for which he was himself partly responsible) that T. F. Powys was a kind of hermit. He is shown as the influential centre of a wide artistic circle. These biographical studies, together with Theodora Gay Scutt's personal memoir Cuckoo in the Powys Nest, will make this still underrated author less enigmatic to a widening circle of readers.

174pp. + 8pp. of illustrations   royal 8vo   paper covers   978 0 907839 86 6    £14.40

 

Reviews

 

The two reviews immediately below are reproduced from The Powys Society Newsletter no. 56, November 2005, by kind permission of The Powys Society.


T. F. Powys is an intrinsically elusive subject, a man who protected the heart of his mystery. As J. Lawrence Mitchell acknowledges, “we know all too little aboutTFP’s early life and less still about the forces that shaped his mental life.” With the publication of this book, however, we are in a position to know more about both the man and the influences upon his work. The main “aspects” Professor Mitchell illuminates are: TFP’s education, his years as a young man farming in East Anglia, and the support he received in his initial literary endeavours from his friend Mrs Stracey, dedicatee of An Interpretation of Genesis, about whom little was known before Professor Mitchell undertook his researches. Other aspects helpfully considered include the publishing history of Mr. Tasker’s Gods and Mr. Weston’s Good Wine and TFP’s preoccupation with death, a preoccupation integral to his being, but reinforced by the murder of his son, Dicky, in Africa.
        The story of T. F. Powys’s life is all the more fascinating for his reticence and the myths surrounding it, such as the idea that he was a “hermit”. Professor Mitchell shows that “TFP was remarkably lucky, as a writer, in his friends and acquaintances.” Whatever his early sense of having disappointed his parents and of inferiority to his Cambridge-educated brothers may have been, this was also true of the support he received from family members. Family, of course, is crucial to understanding any of the Powys brothers. Yet to my mind it is a pity that Professor Mitchell begins the story of T. F. Powys with a detailed account of Powys family history reaching back a century and more before his birth, since the vast array of names and connections is as bewildering as the cast of characters in a Russian novel. It is when the focus switches toTFP himself that, for me, the book comes to life.
        Professor Mitchell carefully reconstructs the chronology of TFP’s education, an endeavour that lends credence to his view that “it would barely be an exaggeration to say that his real education did not begin until after he left school.” He shows, indeed, TFP learning about the land and farming as a young man in East Anglia and at the same time developing his literary and philosophical reading—taking, as it were, instead of his brothers’ Cambridge studies, a course in sheep and mangolds, and the Bible and Nietzsche. TFP experienced failures as a farmer, as many did during “The Great Depression” in British farming, but Mitchell demonstrates that the idea that his life as a farmer was comprehensively a failure is a myth. Indeed, the ultimate success of TFP as a writer depended significantly on his first-hand knowledge of work on the land and rural culture—knowledge he owed to his years farming in East Anglia.
        The “mysterious” Mrs Stracey emerges from this book as, for a period early in T. F. Powys's writing life, “his audience, his critic, his Muse even”. During the years of their friendship he worked his way through the Old Testament, producing “well over two thousand manuscript pages of biblical interpretation”. By carefully considering the evidence of Mrs Stracey’s work on TFP’s manuscripts, Professor Mitchell indicates how she helped him to purge “himself of the archaic biblical language and style of his earliest phase”. We may never know more about Mrs Stracey or about TFP’s relationship with her than Professor Mitchell has been able to discover, but the evidence he adduces suggests that he is right to describe her as a significant influence upon Powys’s achievement of “a style of limpid clarity in which the biblical element was thoroughly assimilated”.
        An emphasis recurs in T. F. Powys: Aspects of a Life with which I would take issue. It may be observed when Professor Mitchell says TFP “learned to write his way out of religion (‘the only subject I know anything about’) and into life,” I don’t think the opposition here between religion and life is one that TFP would have accepted. It was his brother Llewelyn who described him as “to his very marrow bone a puritanical visionary”. Professor Mitchell, however, writes of Llewelyn as “the risk-taker, the womaniser, the bon vivant that a secret TFP would dearly have liked to be”. It may or may not have been so, but the normally careful Professor Mitchell surely goes too far in claiming to know what “a secret TFP would dearly have liked to be”. The emphasis is certainly wrong when Professor Mitchell describes Gerard Casey‘s “readiness to indulge discussion of the Theodorian canon of writers: Richard Baxter, Jacob Boehme, Meister Eckhart, William Law and, of course, Jeremy Taylor”. The Gerard Casey I knew wouldn’t have “indulged” discussion of these religious writers, he would have eagerly participated in it.
        But there will be differences of emphasis in discussions of T. F. Powys, not least because the originality of his serious yet comic treatment of religion results in profound and provocative ambiguity. With the help of Professor Mitchell’s book, the man himself however can now be seen more clearly as he guards the heart of his mystery.

 

]eremy Hooker

*

I have just finished reading Larry Mitchell’s book, T. F. Powys. Larry is an excellent writer, and his research is not merely done with unusual thoroughness, but with obvious and extreme interest in the subject. I wish I could say I’d enjoyed reading it. I suppose I couldn’t be expected to, any more than I enjoyed writing Cuckoo in the Powys Nest; after all I knew Daddy [T. F. Powys] and loved him, and I wrote my book in an endeavour to show what manner of man he really was, which wasn’t at all the sort that some people seemed to think. The thing that, to me at least, stands out clearly from Larry’s book, is a thing I’ve always suspected; that Daddy’s depression and utter lack of self-confidence were the things that caused his “failures” in life—I’d call them his withdrawals. Perhaps that’s the same thing.
        Larry is right that it’s infuriatingly difficult to find out anything about his life as a farmer—and he told me precious little about it even though he knew how interested I was—but he did tell me that what gave him his first idea of giving it up was the awful attack of flu that swept the whole country at that time; everyone on White House Farm had it, not all at once, but the ploughman took it as Daddy recovered, and couldn’t finish ploughing a certain field; he worried so about this that Daddy, as the only man on his feet, finished the job himself. This meant a lot of walking, and some lifting of a heavy plough, and doing so, when he should have been resting, strained Daddy’s heart: that’s what he told me. I don’t remember whether I remembered to tell Larry or not; if I didn’t, I should have. And he wasn’t, Daddy went on, at all happy to give orders to men to do work that he couldn’t do himself. Farming was in the doldrums at that time; he was scared to bits of owing his father money; and he’d got hold of the writings of that damned Hazlitt, which encouraged him to make the worst mistake of his life. Given time, his heart came more-or-less right; given time, so did farming; but Daddy didn’t give them time. It isn’t easy to succeed at farming, especially if one has genuine, personal ill-luck; Daddy lost a favourite mare and a beloved dog. Farming is my only interest and the only thing I can do, but in his place I might have given up too. But farming gives one the time, and the incentive, for meditation, at least it did so in the days of the horse; and certainly one can write as well. Giving up farming gave Daddy the certainty that he was a failure, and that remained with him all his life.
        Larry has made a few very minor mistakes, like writing “Eccleston” instead of “Edelsten” for the name of Daddy’s doctor in his last months, and saying that Daddy’s Book of Common Prayer is in the Bissell Collection when in fact it’s in my bookcase, but he was just given wrong information and it’s of no matter; in everything that does matter he is only too exact. I’m not surprised that Daddy’s mother was a depressive; she must have had the most appalling married life. I know she had servants, but—eleven children that lived! good grief; and small wonder she passed on her destructive depression to the child who was her closest companion. To be a woman in those days must have been evil indeed; no wonder either that only one of her daughters married, and her son brought up his adopted daughter to see men and women as equal, the only difference being (and it’s one worth consideration) that it’s the women who actually bear the children.
        I didn’t realise that Daddy felt so strongly about his lack of conventional education; he certainly contrived to educate me, even teaching me a little Latin—unfortunately he knew no French. This will be why he avoided society and why he made a less than sensible marriage; his wife, while not being in love with him, was extremely possessive, and did her best to separate him from his family and all his friends; she was even jealous of his books and his writing. In fact he married a highly attractive girl (so Louis Wilkinson, who disliked her even more than she disliked him, told me) but it will be without doubt why he didn’t seriously consider Maidie Stracey: he felt himself inferior. Francis, wrong about a good many things, was right about that—Daddy was attracted to her. I rather think she may have been to him. But one didn’t hear much about the Straceys in our family; Violet had no time for them. Why? well, when she died, Mrs Stracey didn’t leave Daddy any money! I don’t, myself, see why she should have. But Violet’s second name was Money, and she was forever at Daddy because he wasn’t rich, though we can’t have been all that poor as she nearly always had help in the house.
        Oh dear, poor Daddy—and then “Dicky’s” murder—I can’t discuss that. I fear Daddy did know what really happened. He almost never spoke of “Dicky”. He didn’t speak of those things that really hurt. Violet was inclined the opposite way and I remember going out for a walk with Daddy after she had been going on and on about her grief; and after walking in silence past the churchyard, Daddy said very bitterly, “A blaring cow soon forgets her calf!” and he said no more, merely answering my childish chatter (I must have been about twelve) by a quiet “yes, Susie” or “no, Susie”. It was his tone that made me remember his words. I don’t think he was quite fair to Violet, whose grief was genuine enough, just different from his; but what I did and do think is that a sensitive woman would have seen that to talk of his lost son gave Daddy great pain, and that if she felt she must talk, she’d have done so to somebody else.
        Yes, I have seen happier marriages, particularly my own.
        What we would have done without Sally when Daddy died, I do not know; nor without our neighbours the Kellys. Except to say that when Daddy called out “Belle, Belle!” and tried to point, it was Belle O’Neill he was greeting, that’s for sure—I’d best make no remark upon that time. I was so sorry for and grateful to Sally, and I dislike Francis so much (and I didn’t like his mother much, either) that I might well be unfair to somebody. I’ll conclude by saying again that Larry is a damned good writer and the book, to anyone not emotionally involved with T. F. Powys, is extremely interesting and enjoyable to read. I find it interesting myself, just very painful. That can’t be helped. Well done, Larry!

 

Theodora Scutt

        For Theodora Scutt’s personal memoir Cuckoo in the Powys Nest see the Shop.
       

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