Theodore Francis Powys

‘A Mystical Fabulist’

T F Powys, book covers

‘T.F. Powys, that master of rural understatement whose wry humour and warmth, and whose marvellous narrational “pull”, are irresistible.’ — Ronald Blythe

"Theodore Powys wrote extraordinary fables of English country life. Bloomsbury admirers hailed them as the singular works of a dark and brooding genius." — P. Wright

“The renewed availability of Powys’s earlier novels allows one once again to survey and admire the whole valley. More readers should pay it a visit.” — Michael Caines, TLS

"Theodore Powys, the brother of Llewelyn, is a rare person." — T. E. Lawrence

About T. F. Powys (1875–1953)

t f powys, goat green

In the remote Dorset village of East Chaldon, T. F. Powys wrote a steady succession of novels, novellas, fables and short stories which first appeared in print during the 1920s and early 1930s. These tales of startling originality, strange beauty and shocking revelations, offer wry observations on the human condition, the enigma of God, and arresting insights into the nature of good and evil, infused with subtle and dark humour of the rarest vintage.

Author of Soliloquies of a Hermit, a remarkable trinity of novels: Mr. Weston's Good Wine, Unclay, and Kindness in a Corner as well as the extraordinary Fables and arresting The Only Penitent.

From the opening chapter of Innocent Birds

‘A village is like a stage that retains the same scenery throughout all the acts of the play. The actors come and go, and walk to and fro, with gestures that their passions fair or foul use them to.

Sometimes the human beings who occupy the stage, that is, the farms and village cottages, remain the same—or almost the same—for many years; sometimes they change more quickly.

A country village has a way now and again of clearing out all its inhabitants in one rush, as though it were grown tired of that particular combination of human destinies, and shakes itself free of them as a tree might do of unwelcome leaves.

This shake comes perhaps like the last trump, with a loud noise; as when Farmer Mew set afire his gunpowder, and so caused the people to go off in all directions: some far and some near, but all bent on going.’

T.F. Powys's best known fiction

Mr. Weston’s Good Wine

t f powys, mr weston's good wineAmong the residents of a small Dorset town called Folly Down, an unlikely struggle between the forces of good and evil is taking place. For a single winter's evening, Time stands still and the bitter-sweet gift of awareness descends upon the people.

From the vintage Penguin paperbacks blog:

‘Mr. Weston, for a common tradesman - and the most princely of merchants is only that - possessed a fine and creative imagination. And, although entirely self-taught - for he had risen, as so many important people do, from nothing - he had read much, and had written too. He possessed in a very large degree a poet's fancy, that will at any moment create out of the imagination a new world.

Mr. Weston had once written a prose poem that he had divided into many books, and was naturally surprised when he discovered that the very persons and places that he had but seen in fancy had a real existence in fact. The power of art is magnificent. It can change the dullest sense into the most glorious; it can people a new world in a moment of time; it can cause a sparkling fountain to flow in the driest desert to solace a thirsty traveller.

t f powys, mr weston's good wineMr Weston is a genial old man, with a head of hair as white as wool concealed beneath his brown felt hat. He was once a writer, the composer of a prose poem, but these days it is difficult for him to find anyone interested in his literary work. He is travelling through a small part of Dorset in an old Ford van which bears his name on its side, intent on supplying his good wine to any inhabitants willing to drink or receive some, and he is accompanied on this journey by a companion named Michael who has an unusually detailed understanding of the interests, thoughts and hopes of the locals, and who can describe at length all recent events in the area.

The pair enter Folly Down late in the afternoon, and by means of some mechanical contraption they illuminate the sky as evening falls, advertising themselves and their wares; a little later they head to the local inn in search of custom. But something strange happens when Mr. Weston enters Angel Inn: the clocks throughout the village cease recording the passage of time at exactly 7pm, and steadfastly hold to that time as long as Mr. Weston remains in the village’.

Read the full Vintage Penguin paperback No. 73 article

“Generally considered his masterpiece” — The Washington Post

“Grimly brilliant” — John Carey, The Sunday Times

Mr Weston's Good Wine is a book without parallel. It is an allegory, it is a bucolic farce, it is a religious (or anti-religious?) masterpiece.” — A N Wilson

Fables

Inanimate objects take life and animals speak in T. F.'s collection of fables, which was first published in 1929: a dish-cloth and an old pan, lying on a rubbish heap, discuss the emotional intricacies of the household that has discarded them; the efforts of a determined spinster to marry off all her furniture end in tragedy; a rabbit takes advice from a viper to avenge the death of her son. Set in the Dorset countryside that also inspired Powys's novels, these are tales of morality, original and surprising, as all good fables should be.

t f powys, fables‘In all the world there lived no one who thought more of weddings than did Miss Hester Gibbs. She lived in a little cottage at Madder, and kept it so clean and tidy that not a thing was ever out of place, nor a spot of ugly dust seen anywhere.

Even when Hester Gibbs was a very little girl she plainly showed that she had a whimsical mind. This mind of hers, that seemed to be settled somewhere under her dark hair— that never had a curl that wasn't as it should be—had ever pursued into many strange windings all the mysteries of matrimony.

But Hester soon found, even though she followed her natural studies bravely, and noticed the behaviour of men, beasts and birds, that nothing so odd or so very queer occurred. She would wish that far stranger weddings happened in the world than anything that she saw or heard of at Madder. She needed much more than plain Madder life to interest her—some events more like a proceeding that had happened in a book of fables that she had once read, where a little mouse wished to be joined in holy wedlock with a lioness, who, unluckily going out to meet her little dear before the wedding, chanced to set her foot upon him’.

The Seaweed and the Cuckoo-Clock

‘Even though we waves lie for centuries in the deeps of the waters, so deeply buried that no man could think that we should ever rise, yet as all life must come to the surface again and again, awakening each time from a deep sleep as long as eternity, so we are raised up out of the deeps high above our fellows, to obey the winds, to behold the sky, to fly onwards, moving swiftly, to complete our course, break and sink once more.

We, who are waves, know you, who are men, only as another sea, within which every living creature is a little wave that rises for a moment and then breaks and dies. Our great joy comes when we break, yours when you are born, for you have not yet reached that sublime relationship with God which gives the greatest happiness to destruction’.

John Pardy and the Waves

t f powys, God's Eyes A-Twinkle (faber finds) ‘These stories treat of the general and unalterable, with subtlety of thought and feeling, and with simplicity of presentation. Wisdom and humour are embedded in them. They reveal the infinite mystery, the fluid inconsistencies of life. They are delicate, wiry and human. God's eyes are a-twinkle; but the main business is the incalculable doings of that oddity, Man. ... Powys's unorthodox version of Christianity reveals strands of mysticism, quietism, and pantheism, but the major influence upon him was the Bible, and he claimed that Religion 'is the only subject I know anything about'. Sometimes savage, often lyrical, his novels and stories explore universal themes of Love, Death, Good and Evil within the microcosm of the rural world. In spite of the apparent realism of his settings, Powys is a symbolist and allegorist’.

From the Preface to God's Eyes A-Twinkle by Charles Prentice.

Kindness in a Corner

t f powys, kindness in a cornerKINDNESS IN A CORNER is among the most purely enjoyable of T. F. Powys’s books and is thus a good introduction to its author’s rustic world. On the face of it a quaint and mannered piece of amiable literary whimsy full of touches of light satire, it introduces us to an absent-minded scholarly bachelor clergyman,t f powys kindness in a corner, the sundial press devoted to his books, to his armchair, and to his dinner, a man who lives in a benevolent tranquillity cared for by a tactful housekeeper and protected by the resourceful sexton, Mr Truggin. The setting is the village of Tadnol and the author provides Mr Dottery’s parishioners with dialogue in the picturesque tradition already familiar from the novels of Thomas Hardy; and the narrative proceeds through simple statements of fact, authorial rejections and apophthegms of a tendentious nature – altogether a relaxing literary methodology. The scene conjured up is just such a one as the more acidulous imagination of M. R. James had already subjected to invasions of a malign and preternatural character, and the Reverend Silas Dottery seems clearly marked out for disturbance in his serene and comfy corner. But the disturbances turn out to be of a humorous and farcical character rather than of a disabling kind.

‘Theodore Powys is a master of English, and for this, for the exquisite texture of expression, he should be read, if for nothing else. But the reading will disclose much else, and especially a genius so rare it seems not of this earth, a humanness of spirit not frequently to be encountered, and a wit so exotic it will seem at times little other than perverse. And Kindness in a Corner displays all the Powys characteristics in their fullness and at their best.’

New York Times

Unclay

The author's last novel and final masterpiece is a work of great originality and imagination.

t f powys, unclay'Unclay, the most affectively powerful of Powys's novels, much bleaker than Mr. Weston's Good Wine (and less popular in consequence) but at least equal to it in literary worth.' — Barron

'In my view, Unclay is Powys's crowning achievement, since it contains the fullest artistic expression of his meditations on life, beauty, evil, love, and death.' — Marius Buning (author of T.F. Powys: A Modern Allegorist)

From Chapter Four of Unclay:

'Tell me your name,’ asked Mr Hayhoe, who began to think that the poor man must have escaped from a madhouse, 'so that, if I have the good fortune to discover your property, I may be able to restore to you what you have lost.’

'My name is Death,’ answered the man.

'A Suffolk family?’ rejoined Mr Hayhoe, 'for I know a village in that county where your name is common, and I have seen it too written upon a tombstone in this neighbourhood. But I trust you will not think me rude if I ask you to tell me your Christian name too?’

'I have never had one,’ replied Death simply, 'though in coming here this morning I met a little girl who made fun of my beard and called me “John".’

An excerpt from Modernity and Medievalism in T.F. Powys‘s Mature Fiction by Marius Buning:

A similar allegorical journey or imaginative quest for ultimate reality is undertaken in Unclay, Powys's last novel, which can again be read on different levels: psychologically, as a search for identity and self-knowledge; philosophically, as an examination of the relation between love and death; artistically, as an exploration of the t f powys, unclay, john gray, the powys society, sundial press creative process and the way we as readers respond to it, and (most importantly) as a religious quest in search of the ground of man's being. In Unclay John Death, whose appearance and behaviour remind us at times of his medieval predecessor on the stage, visits a Dorset village in order to carry out the divine command to 'unclay', that is to kill a pair of young lovers and two villains. Both he and the narrator present love throughout in terms of pain and sorrow, which can only be alleviated by Death, 'God's best gift', since it releases us from the burden of life (the pensum vitae) and the bonds of time. This theme is dramatically presented in the transfiguration scene at the local churchyard, where John Death is seen to divide the living from the dead: "upon this side, the folly of passion, suffering, and pain . . . upon the other side, the sweet silence of God. Although love and death are depicted as opposing forces, fighting each other like husband and wife, they form actually an indissoluble pair.

Then the change comes in life. The first change - the forerunner of Death - is Love. When the sun of Love rises, and a man walks in his glory, he may be sure that a shadow approaches him - Death. Love creates and separates; Death destroys and heals.

This quotation highlights the novel's central paradox: Death is both love and death, pain and peace, existence and non-existence. In my view, Unclay is Powys's crowning achievement, since it contains the fullest artistic expression of his meditations on life, beauty, evil, love, and death.

Major Works of T. F. Powys

  • Soliloquies of a Hermit (1918)
  • The Left Leg (1923)
  • Black Bryony (1923)
  • Mark Only (1924)
  • Mr Tasker's Gods (1925)
  • Mockery Gap (1925)
  • Innocent Birds (1926)
  • Mr Weston's Good Wine (1927)
  • The House with the Echo (1928)
  • Fables (1929)
  • Kindness in a Corner (1930)
  • The White Paternoster (1930)
  • The Only Penitent (1931)
  • Unclay (1931)
  • The Two Thieves (1932)
  • Captain Patch (1935)
  • Bottle's Path (1946)
  • God's Eyes A-Twinkle (1947) Anthology

PUBLISHED POSTHUMOUSLY

  • Rosie Plum (1966)
  • Father Adam (1990)
  • The Market Bell (1991)
  • Mock's Curse (1995)
  • The Sixpenny Strumpet (1997)
  • Selected Early Works (2005)

OF BIOGRAPHICAL INTEREST:

  • Cuckoo in the Powys Nest by Theodora Gay Scutt (2000)
  • T. F. Powys: Aspects of a Life by J. Lawrence Mitchell (2003)

CRITICISM

  • The Ordinary and the Short Story: Short Fiction of T.F. Powys and V.S. Pritchett by Milosz Wojtyna (2015)

Theodore Powys and The Paradox of Immortality

Are people foolish to crave everlasting life? Writer Theodore Powys' reflections on immortality capture the paradox - and downsides - of living forever, says philosopher John Gray. John Gray reflects on the paradox of immortality as captured by the writer Theodore Powys, ‘The longest life may fade and perish but one moment can live and become immortal.’

Read John Gray's article on the BBC News website

Listen to it here

T. F. Powys, an English Tolstoy?

Powys began to write Mr Tasker’s Gods during the First World War, almost a decade before its publication. It alludes darkly, more than once, to what was going on elsewhere in the world, perhaps not that far from Powys’s home on the coast of Dorset – across the English Channel, say – without referring to it directly. The style is typical of early Powys (much admired by Q. D. Leavis, who quoted approvingly and at length from Mr Tasker’s Gods in Fiction and the Reading Public), a thing of biblical cadences and a plain yet resonant vocabulary. Like David Garnett, Sylvia Townsend Warner, T. E. Lawrence, Liam O’Flaherty and other literary mavericks, Dennis Wheatley responded strongly to this earthy, unfashionable fiction, calling Powys the “English Tolstoy”. Others called him a heretic; Frank Kermode saw him as, above all, an ironist. His brother John Cowper Powys repeatedly hailed him as an “original”.

From: ‘T. F. Powys, an English Tolstoy?’ by Michael Caines. Read the full TLS article

From Mr Weston’s Good Wine:

With the first lighting of a cottage candle a man becomes an entirely new being, and moves in a totally different world to that of daytime. He is now born into a world whose god is a rushlight, and a man’s last moments in this world generally come when the light is extinguished and he creeps into bed.

Every common appearance that during the day the vulgar sun has shown, becomes changed by candlelight. For now a thousand whimsical shapes, dim shades and shadows, come, that no daytime has ever seen or known. The bright sun of heaven that has made all things upon earth only too real is not now to be feared by the housewife as a telltale, for all is become magic and a pretty cheat. Dust upon a book or in a corner, a straw upon the floor-cloth, show now only as objects of interest. The black stain that the smoke from the lamp has made upon the ceiling becomes colour and is not unlovely. The cheap wallpaper, though wrinkled and torn, has now a right to be so, and is not regarded with displeasure. Nothing after sunset need be looked at too closely, and everything pleases if regarded in a proper evening manner.

Man is drugged and charmed by this beneficent master whose name is darkness; he becomes more joyful, and thank goodness, less like himself. With the first lighting of the lamp, love and hatred, the sole rulers of human life, take a new form and colour. Love becomes more fantastical in the darkness and malice less logical, and both the one and the other are more full of the strange matters that dreams are made of.

Duration itself has a mind to dance or stand on one leg, for a winter’s evening here is often felt to be a period of time as long as a lifetime, and is filled more fully than ever a lifetime can be with unlikely happenings. Even the soft mud of a road in late November, and the little clinging drops of misty rain that may be falling, change their aspect in the darkness and become different in character from what they were known to be in the daytime…

Michael would have said more, only Mr Weston interrupted him.

Video of Chaldon Herring (East Chaldon)

Featuring Beth Car, ‘The House in the Pasture’, home of Theodore Powys, the Old School (now the village hall),
The Church of St. Nicholas: Graves of Philippa (Katie) Powys, Sylvia Townsend Warner & Valentine Ackland and Janet Pollock, nee Machen. [Video filmed on a pocket camcorder by Frank Kibblewhite]

t f powys, goat green, gwenda morgan engraving
T F Powys GOAT GREEN
Gwenda Morgan engraving

Soliloquies of a Hermit:

‘Though not of the Church, I am of the Church. Though not of the faith, I am of the faith. Though not of the fold, I am of the fold; a priest in the cloud of God, beside the Altar of Stone. Near beside me is a flock of real sheep; above me a cloud of misty white embraces the noonday light of the Altar. I am without a belief; — a belief is too easy a road to God.’