A Letter from Glen Cavaliero (NL53, Nov 2004)

Revisiting John Cowper Powys: Novelist (OUP, 1973)

Dear Kate,

The other day you were wondering what I now felt about John Cowper Powys: Novelist, a book I wrote over thirty years ago. So I re-read it, and here is the result.

The book has dated in at least two respects. Most obviously it takes no account of After My Fashion (1980) - surely the most precious paperback in the Powys canon? - nor of the complete version of Maiden Castle (1990); and if the possibility of a complete Porius is at any rate mentioned in an appendix, I none the less find it frustrating that accounts of these books are omitted from one that was undertaken with a view to vindicating the claim that JCP was a major novelist and not simply an eccentric cult author in the literary hinterland.

Ironically, that very purpose accounts for the other aspect in which the book may be said to have dated. It was written at a time when the influence of F. R. Leavis and his disciples was at its height: high seriousness, adult maturity, social relevance, an earnest attitude towards what was all-envelopingly referred to as‘life’ were the fashionable literary credentials. Leavisite critics were extolling the work of T. F. Powys at his brother's expense and the championship of Wilson Knight cut little ice with the Cambridge school, he being regarded as extravagant and freakish and altogether over the top. In such an intellectual climate it was impossible to ignore the contentions of the current pundits, with their emphasis upon a ‘great tradition’ defined by the morally engaged novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Conrad and D. H. Lawrence. None the less, I knew that Powys was a great novelist and set out to demonstrate it to the opposition on their own chosen terms. To that extent the book is of its time; but it served its purpose. Oxford published it and John Brebner's book coincided with it and editors saw the possibility of a review - which thanks to Angus Wilson and George Steiner the books received. After that JCP was respectable enough for me to be asked to supervise dissertations on him for the Cambridge tripos!

What would I now wish to change? Very little in the way of actual alteration, but rather more where critical emphasis is concerned. Morine Krissdottir's work on the symbolism, Harald Fawkner's on the philosophy would have to be taken on board, as would Jeremy Hooker's and Herbert Wlliams's discussion of Welsh influences. And of course umpteen articles have enriched my understanding. I would be more outspoken as to Powys's faults as a writer, now that he no longer needs defending in the way that he did when my book was written. For his faults are a part of him and call for understanding. But do such judgements matter outside the world of literary critics and the politics of academe? I think they do: Powys is one of our supreme champions of the sovereignty of the human imagination, and the novels dramatise the implications of that contention. All his writings follow that path - which is why I now wish the book were called John Cowper Powys: the Novelist, so as to acknowledge his other writings by implication. (Its title was my publisher's idea, not mine: he thought it would be an eye-catcher challenge to Leavis's book on Lawrence.) However, I stand by what I wrote in the book itself, and it remains the only one so far to describe in detail Powys's methodology as a novelist and the particular aesthetic quality of the world he creates. I continue to read him with enormous pleasure and with the regularity I accord to Dickens, Scott, and all the other English novelists I love so well. He, like them, is inexhaustible.

Yours, Glen