[ilds] cowper powys (miller/durrell)

slighcl slighcl at wfu.edu
Fri Dec 7 18:58:13 PST 2007

This clipping is admittedly tangential in its address of Durrell, but I  
forward it here since, like Durrell, John Cowper Powys is a writer who 
still seemingly defies broad acceptance into our official histories of 
the twentieth century.  The police are ever vigilant.  Both writers now 
find themselves falling afoul of critics made uncomfortable with their 
sexual adventures and their politics.  Outriders, then and now.  Perhaps 
there is a vertu in that? 

Another perhaps more sympathetic review of the Cowper Powys books 
appeared in the TLS a few numbers ago.

A bold claim:  If left to my own inclination, I would reread again and 
again Cabell's /Jurgen /or the opening paragraphs of /The Glastonbury 
Romanc/e or the whole of /Justine/, /Mountolive/, and /Prospero's Cell 
/before I will make a quick and voluntary return to any Joyce or 
Woolf.   I suppose that my maps are just drawn in a different way.


My head began bursting as I read'

Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 08/12/2007

Peter Stanford reviews Descemts of Memory: the Life of John Cowper Powys 
by Morine Krissdóttir and Porius by John Cowper Powys, ed by Judith Bond 
and Morine Krissdóttir

John Cowper Powys is one of those novelists adored by critics and other 
writers but today largely shunned by readers.
John Cowper Powys
Don't mention his mother: John Cowper Powys*

Martin Amis and Margaret Drabble are fans. George Steiner once claimed 
that Cowper Powys was the only 20th-century English writer on a par with 
Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

*Henry Miller, on reading his A Glastonbury Romance, wrote to Lawrence 
Durrell: "my head began bursting as I read. No, I said to myself, it is 
impossible that any man can put all this - so much - down on paper. It 
is super-human."*

Miller meant it as a compliment, but lesser mortals who have picked up 
Cowper Powys's best-known work will recognise, perhaps with a sinking 
feeling, his description of the concentration necessary to cope with the 
book's 50 or so main characters, its endless plot twists around the 
staging of a Passion play, its daring manipulation of myth, its 
ever-present air of magic, and its focus on what goes on in the mind. So 
many aspects in one novel can overwhelm even those aware of the quality 
of what they are reading.

In this first comprehensive biography of Cowper Powys, Morine 
Krissdóttir has a wonderful opportunity to stiffen our resolve. For if 
we know more about the life of the author, it may help us to navigate 
his panoramic and sometimes unwieldy novels, including Porius, his final 
work of fiction (more of a prose poem), first published in 1951 and now 
reissued in unabridged form.

Cowper Powys, she states at the outset, was an autobiographical writer. 
All his heroes were based on himself. If only it were that 
straightforward. He was also expert at covering his tracks or, more 
accurately, at leaving so many that it is almost impossible to work out 
which are worth following.

So this biography has to address several versions of Cowper Powys: the 
myth that he created about himself in his autobiography, letters and 
public statements; the picture of him and his preoccupations that 
emerges from the novels and his once popular works of popular 
psychology; and the known facts about his life.

In trying to bring together the three, Krissdóttir ends up with a book 
as complicated and demanding as any of the novels.

The eldest of 11 children of a Dorset clergyman, Cowper Powys was born 
in 1872, a direct descendant of the poet John Donne. His relationship 
with his parents and his siblings was complex. He claimed that he only 
started to live at the age of 50, when his father died. His 
autobiography does not mention his mother, while he simultaneously 
bossed around and passionately loved his many and talented brothers and 

Success came late. By 1925, when his novel Wolf Solent established his 
literary reputation, he was 53. Before that he had made a precarious 
living touring America giving lectures with great theatre and 
exaggeration. He had left his wife Margaret and their son, Littleton - 
"Mag and her kid" as he referred to them - in West Sussex. He was 
generous with the money he sent back, but otherwise was hardly an ideal 

Morine Krissdóttir seems willing to forgive Cowper Powys even the most 
outrageous behaviour - or to report it without any attempt to probe 
further. Take the women he abused. Most of them are little more than 
shadows in this telling of his story.

He was, she writes, a slave to his sexual fantasies. These were varied, 
heterosexual, occasionally bordering on the paedophilic, and shared out 
loud without embarrassment. He did not like penetration, unless it was 
by enema. Masturbation was his obsession - from the cradle, by his account.

After a long and largely unhappy infatuation with Frances Gregg, his 
"girl-boy", who also had an affair with Ezra Pound, Cowper Powys found a 
sort of contentment with the much younger Phyllis Plater, whom he met in 
1921 and who became his lifelong companion first in America and later 
north Wales until his death in 1963.

Krissdóttir is, in fairness, much stronger on Plater and shows 
convincingly how this turbulent but endorsing relationship enabled 
Cowper Powys to write the novels for which he is now remembered.

It is not always necessary for a biographer to like his or her subject - 
or even to convince readers that they have redeeming features. But it 
does make it hard going when the subject is so remorselessly 
unattractive, yet the biographer is apparently blind to it.

A neutral tone, allowing readers to reach their own conclusions, is one 
thing. What feels like an apologia for an undeniably inspired but in 
most ways monstrous man is another.

Information appearing on telegraph.co.uk is the copyright of Telegraph 
Media Group Limited and must not be reproduced in any medium without 
licence. For the full copyright statement see Copyright

Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
Wake Forest University
slighcl at wfu.edu

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