Signs and Wonders
The Conference was held at the Hand Hotel, Llangollen Friday 21 to Sunday 23 August 2015.
The road that leads from Ruabon to Llangollen passes through the deep green valley of the river Dee amidst tall hedgerows, verdant pastures, and flowering meadows. You know you are approaching Llangollen, when, after a sharp bend in the road, the ruins of Castell Dinas Bran, standing on top of a steep sided hill, rise up immediately in front of you, a black silhouette etched against a faint blue sky, “its foundations...sunk in that mysterious underworld of beyond reality”, says JCP at the beginning of Owen Glendower. This is a perfect Powysian place. Here the silent signs of history meet the wonders of myth and legend, where the stones themselves seem to exhale the spirit of the past: The views from Dinas Bran are impressive and extensive – you can see the flat Cheshire plain, Valle Crucis, Eglwyseg rocks and the little town far below. When he climbed up to Dinas Bran with Phyllis, Marian and his dog, the Old, on 28 August 1935, JCP observed a double rainbow. A photograph, in The Dorset Year, shows JCP leaning against a medieval wall. He has been distracted and looks away from the camera. Perhaps he was thinking of writing Owen Glendower and sinking, in his imagination, into, what Thomas Mann called, “the world’s abysmal past”. Our venue is, once again, the Hand Hotel, as familiar to us, by now, as an old friend, and situated, appropriately, in the shadow of Dinas Bran, close to the fast running waters of the river Dee as it rushes beneath the arches of Bishop Trevor’s bridge in the centre of the town. The title of the conference refers to a quotation from TFP, which has biblical connotations: “We must show them signs and wonders”, says Mr Weston.
Our speakers promise to reveal Powysian signs and wonders. In my talk I propose to uncover some of the signs that point to hidden meanings, references and allusions that lie just below the surface of Wolf Solent, including some surprising hidden references to the American art collector E.P.”Ned” Warren, with whom JCP was acquainted during the 1890s whilst he was living at Court House; John Gray makes a very welcome return to the conference and will explore approaches to religion in the writings of JCP, TFP and Llewelyn. We are delighted to welcome Nicholas Birns to the conference for the first time. Nicholas is the official representative of the Powys Society in North America. His talk will lead us into JCP’s radical vision of the past in Owen Glendower as well as the “marvels and wonders” of Porius; Robert Caserio also makes a welcome return to the conference, from the USA, and will discuss TFP’s writings, especially, Unclay, in the context of the signs of the times, alongside literary trends, themes and subjects which he shared with other English writers and novelists of the 1930s. We are also very pleased to welcome Kathy Roscoe to the conference. She is planning to publish, later this year, an e-book of selections from JCP’s philosophical books. She will present a talk on JCP’s life philosophy and lead a discussion with members.
During our free afternoon members will have the opportunity to explore the sites around Llangollen and Corwen which have Powysian associations. For Saturday night we are planning an evening of readings from books by the Powyses, selected and presented by members, followed by an open discussion.
Chris Thomas is Hon.Secretary of the Powys Society. He is a graduate of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, where he studied English literature, and the history of art and was a senior scholar. He also studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. He has had a varied career in business, bookselling and the Civil Service and is now a full time private researcher. He has published articles, features and notes for the Powys Society website, la lettre powysienne and the Powys Society Newsletter (he was guest editor of NL 83, November 2014) and has contributed to the Powys Journal. He is also a regular contributor to The Dorset Yearbook. In his talk Chris will examine some of the sources that inspired JCP during the writing of Wolf Solent. Reference will be made in the talk to JCP’s friends, the Californian poet George Sterling, and the biographer and poet Edgar Lee Masters from whom JCP obtained some of the source material for Wolf Solent. Reference will also be made to JCP’s use of other sources such as theosophy, esoteric Buddhism, Celtic folklore, Nietzsche, and the theme of transfiguration and transformation. A key part of the talk will focus on JCP’s familiarity with the visual arts, his many allusions in Wolf Solent to painters and paintings and a consideration of the influence on JCP of his acquaintance with the wealthy American collector of art and antiquities, E.P. “Ned” Warren, memories of whom may be briefly discerned in Wolf Solent. Previously unpublished documentary evidence will be presented which provides first hand testimony, by JCP himself, of his meetings with Warren and the Lewes House ‘brotherhood’ in the 1890s.
John Gray is well known as a broadcaster, commentator and writer on literary, philosophical and political topics as well as the history of ideas. He has held teaching posts at the University of Essex, Oxford University, Harvard and Yale Universities, and is Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics. John Gray is the author of numerous books including Straw Dogs (2003) (see John Hodgson’s review in PS NL, No 57, March 2006), Black Mass (2007), False Dawn (2009), The Immortalisation Committee (2011), and The Silence of Animals (2013), which includes a chapter devoted to Llewelyn Powys. His most recent book is The Soul of the Marionette: a short inquiry into human freedom (published by Penguin in March 2015) which contains a short section on TFP focusing mainly on Mr Weston’s Good Wine. John Gray is a keen advocate of the writings of the Powyses. He presented a talk, “Three Powys Philosophies”, at our conference at the University of Chichester in 2006 (see PS NL, No 59, November 2006); he reviewed Petrushka and the Dancer, in the Powys Journal, Vol.5, 1995; he has also written articles on Wolf Solent for The Guardian (17 February 1995), a profile of TFP for The New Statesman (3 December 2001), a brief survey of the Powyses for Slightly Foxed magazine (Spring 2012), and delivered a talk on the Powyses to an appreciative audience at the Oxford Literary Festival in March 2012. In December 2014 he selected the new edition of Mr Weston’s Good Wine as his book of the year for The Guardian. John Gray’s talk will examine the different approaches to religion exemplified in the work of JCP, TFP and Llewelyn Powys.
Nicholas Birns is Associate Teaching Professor at Eugene Lang College at the New School for Liberal Arts in New York. He was editor of Powys Notes, the Journal and Newsletter of the Powys Society of North America (from 1998 to 2002). He is the author of Understanding Anthony Powell (University of South Carolina Press, 2004) and the co-editor of A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900 (Camden House, 2007), which was named a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Book of the year for 2008. of His book Theory After Theory: An Intellectual History of Literary Theory From 1950 to the Early 21st Century appeared from Broadview in 2010, and his monograph Barbarian Memory: The Legacy of Early Medieval History in Early Modern Literature came out with Palgrave Macmillan in 2013. He is the editor of Antipodes: A Global Journal of Australian/NZ Literature. He is working on two books about Australian literature. Nicholas’s talk will examine the different historical settings that separate Owen Glendower and Porius. The novels are at either end of a ‘long medieval’ period. Porius offers a deep archaism, an other world of dark energy and religious, fictive and sexual pluralisms, while Owen Glendower looks forward to the modernizing process of the Renaissance and has as one of its chief dilemmas whether Owen himself stands aside or athwart them. Whereas other modern historical novelists used the medieval period to either critique the modern or make the modern feel good about itself, Powys’s radical medievalism sees the past as other, but also as an inventory of the present. And for Powys the past is present: not only was he living in Wales when he wrote these books, but the world is immured in a cataclysms of turmoil that makes these earlier ‘dark’ ages look light by comparison. Powys takes the traditional role of the medieval in historical fiction from Walter Scott onward, to provide an authorizing lineage in the past, and both accelerates and annihilates it.
Robert Caserio is Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. His areas of specialist interest include 19th century British literature, modernist studies, contemporary literature and theory and cultural studies. He is the author of over sixty articles about English and American literature in various books and periodicals. He has written two books and is co-editor of The Cambridge History of the English Novel (2012), editor of The Cambridge Companion to the Twentieth-Century English Novel (2009) and associate editor of literary entries of Twentieth-Century Britain: An Encyclopedia (1995). Robert Caserio is a member of the Advisory Board of The Powys Journal. He presented a talk to the Powys Society conference in Llangollen in 2013 on “Powys among the Autobiographers, 1900-1940”, which was published in The Powys Journal, Vol.XXIV, 2014. Robert’s talk will explore the relation of TFP’s Unclay and its disturbing content to the question of political and social responsibility in the 1930s. To explore the question more fully, and to bring TFP’s lesser-known work into relation with its literary-historical context the lecture will open a dialogue between Unclay and other works of fiction and non-fiction that are generically and politically relevant to reading it (by way of contrast as well as likeness). Although this discussion will look back to the 1920s (especially to Mary Webb), examples of works of fiction from the 1930s will also be referenced including works by authors such as Forrest Reid (Uncle Stephen ), Walter de la Mare (Ding Dong Bell, re-issued in 1936), Left Review writing (Valentine Ackland’s rural sketches from 1934-35), Charles Williams (War in Heaven), Stella Gibbons, Flora Thompson, and—for the clear contrasts with progressively motivated literary realism—Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936) and Lettice Cooper’s National Provincial (1938). The examples of non-fiction will include reference to Orwell and Priestley. A leading aim of the talk will be to bring TFP’s work into dialogue with the contemporary critical views of William Empson and his proletarian sympathies, as well as to continue critical engagement with Glen Cavaliero’s The Rural Tradition in the English Novel, Jed Esty’s A Shrinking Island, and Alexandra Harris’s Romantic Moderns.
Kathy Roscoe is a Social Sciences graduate and has been a nurse, Deputy Manager of a Citizens Advice Bureau and latterly, a learning mentor to disabled undergraduate students. She is embarking on a career as a writer and undertook a nature-writing course last year. She has had essays published in walking and outdoor magazines. The years working directly with people have given her a profound and privileged insight into the human condition. These and her own personal experiences convinced her that there has to be more to life than the mundane routine of modern society. It was while seeking answers that she stumbled upon the life-philosophy of John Cowper Powys and his message and practical philosophy resonated deeply with her. She has compiled an anthology of JCP’s life-philosophy and is seeking a publisher. At present, she is writing a summary of his philosophy and its relevance today.