The Quiet Man of Dorset —T. F. Powys
In a red brick cottage in the village of East Chaldon in Dorset, Theodore Francis Powys, the author of Mr Weston’s Good Wine, lived for the greater part of his life. There all his writing was done; there he married, and there his children were born.
Before he came to Dorset he had lectured on literature at schools on the south coast, and had farmed in Suffolk. I never met anyone who heard one of his lectures, but he used often to speak of the terror that possessed him on looking into the disapproving eyes of the assembled schoolmasters or mistresses, for in those days English Literature was more than suspect.
They say, however, that he was a good farmer. And he would, no doubt, have been a successful farmer had not the urge to write become so strong in him.
One day he sold his farm and moved away from the east coast, looking for a quiet spot, some backwater fit only for a hermit, or maybe a writer of books.
East Chaldon was the place he found; the ‘Madder’ of his tales, sheltering under Madder Hill. It lies between the sea and the great barren heath west of Poole Harbour, and the hill above the village that looks like a crouching lion is called High Chaldon.
In those early days in Dorset, Theodore was often filled with profound melancholy; full of doubt as to the future and the value of his work. He was like a man starting out on some quest, scanning the horizon with his anxious grey eyes, unsure of any finality save the only certain ending spoken in one of his fables: ‘Lie thee down Oddity!’
In the Soliloquies of a Hermit he wrote: ‘I am without belief — a belief is too easy a road to God.’ He seemed to have ‘lost the truth in this
world’ but simply following his own genius, in time the truth returned to him.
Theodore worked slowly. Winter and summer he would write for a few hours, copying and re-copying the sentences in long-hand, until a single page had been written, trimmed and perfected. But although he wrote so slowly he did not miss a day, year in year out.
After his morning’s work he would go out into the garden and, taking up a fork or a hoe, would attack the increasing armies of weeds, trying to coax potatoes or beans out of the shallow rocky soil.
For years this battle continued but in the end the garden got the better of him. The bindweed, the marestails and the nettles moved closer. Eventually he abandoned it to them and the tufts of couch grass, that waved in the summer wind like an old woman’s hair.
Curiously enough, this defeat did not depress him. He had never really liked gardening and now he was free to walk on the bare hills all the afternoon.
He was a great walker. In the autumn mists or the sparkling summer rain he would stride over the hills, full of his own thoughts; avoiding all strangers who happened to cross his path. Sometimes the grey woollen fog would come streaming inland and the melancholy fog-horns would moan in the channel. The bent thorn trees turned into knarled old men and the dripping gorse into crouching beasts. Theodore loved the sea mists for they matched his sombre autumnal moods.
But most of all he loved the sun and hated to turn his back to it. Then he could say with the painter, Turner, ‘The Sun, my dear, the Sun is God’.
On these walks that would often take the whole of a long summer’s afternoon many of the ideas for his stories came to him. Old village tales turned and re-turned over in his mind; an inscription on a tombstone. They grew in his thoughts as he walked until they were ready to be written down, a perfect short story or a jewel-like fable.
In these secret valleys, these hidden tracks where all the lusts and fears, and happiness too, of centuries is pent up, many episodes in his
books, like that in the hauntingly beautiful ‘House with the Echo’ happened to himself.
In the story Mr Dove leads him into his garden. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘you shall hear the echo, listen.’ Mr Dove called Theodore, Theodore!’ The echo answered.
He returns there one wild autumn evening and sees no light in the house.
‘I passed down the hill and opened the gates of the House with the Echo. I walked up the drive and knocked at the door. My knocking reverberated through the house; it sounded in all the rooms, as a knock will when a house is empty.
I stood still and listened; the only sound I heard was the rain falling. I found my way round the house and went along a path that I knew led to the place where the echo could be heard.
I called out to the echo “Theodore, Theodore!” No reply came.
And then I asked in quite a low tone. “Is Mr Dove dead?” “Dead”, responded the echo.
Theodore Francis Powys was born at Shirley in Derbyshire and later the family moved to Dorchester, the county town of Dorset, where he attended the Grammar School occupying the very seat that Thomas Hardy had used many years before.
It was a large family, for there were eleven children, all gifted in their ways either in literature or art. Theodore was the third son. His brothers John Cowper and Llewelyn are both well known as writers and at one time all three lived in or near the village of East Chaldon. Besides them Littleton and Bertie and Philippa have all written books and Gertrude was a famous artist.
John Cowper and Llewelyn first achieved fame. Theodore was slow to mature and perfect his art. For many years, publishers and editors would have none of him and Theodore worked on without recognition. His cupboards became filled with manuscripts copied and recopied laboriously in longhand. When finally he became known his books were published in quick succession, for he only needed to open one of those cupboard doors to produce a ready-made novel or a short story.
He used to say that his characters were not real people, for a storyteller is an inventor of people and things and places. But to me his characters are real enough, those timeless men of the Dorset villages, that could as easily be ancient Hebrews or Saxon Serfs. Though he has constructed them anew in his own thought and language, I can recognize many of them: Mr Balliboy, Shepherd Poose, Parson Hayhoe. His characters are real enough; unless they be God or the devil or maybe a corpse or a Holy Crumb.
To picture my father in his early days at East Chaldon one cannot do better than read this description of himself in the Soliloquies of a Hermit, in the guise of a certain Mr Thomas. He is seen through the eyes of a young City fellow who has come down from London for the shooting.
The garden that Mr Thomas cultivated was round about his house; and his house was in the middle of a grass field, and anyone going past could see the lines of potatoes when Mr Thomas planted them. And round the garden were very old railings. I was talking to Mr Thomas one day and leaning over the railings and they fell in pieces. I said I was very sorry; Mr Thomas only smiled. And I said, being annoyed: “Why can’t you get some good iron railings round your garden?” Mr Thomas looked at me in extreme sorrow.
I remember first seeing Mr Thomas under the great white nose of the Giant Cliff, for his village is near the sea. I had been shooting rabbits with a rifle, and I was beginning to climb the narrow path that leads to the top of the cliff when I noticed a man moving along by the rocks towards the path. While I was on the shore he must have been amongst the rocks, and now he began to climb the cliff behind me taking care to keep a good distance away. When I rested, he rested, and he seemed most unwilling to catch me up. He no doubt said to himself, “There is no hurry; I will wait here until that person is gone.” Well, I waited just over the brow of the cliff, where he could not see me, and when he did appear I inquired of him the way to his village. And like all nervous people he could not give me a direct answer; he spoke as if he did not know. And then he told me the different attributes of the ways that I might take; and last of all he offered to show me the way himself.
Many years later when Theodore had become well known and his books were all written; when his eldest son was dead and the weeds covered his garden like a flowering mat, bindweed and marestails and nettles woven hopelessly together; when the trees he had planted and shielded from the March winds now gave him shelter in their turn, he wrote in The Countryman Magazine an article on the cottage and garden where he had lived these forty years.
I do not know that I have seen a cottage so much like a doll’s house as ours. An ugly one, too! But here in this haunted village, where even a hedgehog has his fancies, a little ugliness may often hide more comfort than displeasure. I hate the dainty cottage of modern nicety; the build of ours is far more to my mind. One is supposed to sigh, as though one should worship, when the door is opened and one beholds a jade carving. I would prefer to see a black bottle, that a poor man may at least become better acquainted with.
Only see our cottage as it is, my dear friends. A doll’s house made of bricks that once were red, and now by the damp sea mists have lost their colour; martins’ nests under the eaves, in which the birds twitter at night as if they tell God’s secrets. A half-acre of grassy garden, the sound of trains when the wind is in the north, and the buzzing of inquisitive gnats is all we have to boast of....
Of course we are proud of our weeping ash, but we dare not hope that our weeping ash is proud of us. Though I think the pile of faggots that we have in the back garden really considers us as people of imagination because we have prepared for a cold winter, when I shall chop the firewood and wonder why I can never remember good poetry as I used to do.
If you look for sweet williams beside our door, you will only find bindweed, and in the garden you will only see haycocks where there should be potatoes.
When the grass is cut I make the haycocks, and can hide behind one of them so that I am not noticed from the road. But all things tend to their end, and even the finest haycock will settle at last into the earth. So that when November comes a little heap of sodden grass is all that remains. I suppose I ought to be more tidy, but one is as one is made to be.
A home is sweet to childhood, and sweet to age. I like to see the same fields each day. Even the very plainness of our cottage attracts me the more to it. I do not care to roam as I used to do over the far hills. My horizon is closing in. I now find myself more pleasantly diverted sitting at ease under the ash tree than stepping briskly in a wanton manner over the high downs. The tide is at the ebb and I draw to home.
Of Theodore’s early writing, his work before the great masterpieces Mr Weston’s Good Wine, Unclay, and the incomparable Fables came into being, his brother John Cowper wrote in the American Century Magazine:
He seems to write of Dorset scenery and of Dorset peasants from a point of view that isolates that devoted section of the earth as completely from all others as the Limbo in Dante’s Divine Comedy is isolated from earth and hell and purgatory and heaven. The stretch of country occupied by these luckless hamlets, overshadowed by the merciless "moods" of God, seems in fact to be lifted up or lowered down beyond the common earth level; until it is so soaked by fairy rains and so blighted by magic moons as to become rather a projection of one man’s creative mind than a reproduction of any actual human province. The country dialect as T. F. Powys uses it, becomes itself a sort of modifying and transfiguring medium through which the events are seen remotely, at a distance, as if through a filmy mist. But within that mist, within this magic circle, how we become aware of every least gesture of these fantastic and unhappy persons, of every stick and stone in these haunted roads, of every crack and cranny in these persecuted houses!
Llewelyn, his younger brother, who inspired the Fables, said to him: ‘Theodore, you can write about anything; write about a log of wood or an old boot or a flea . ..’ and wrote in his book Skin for Skin:
Never for a single moment, since he reached the age of discretion, has Theodore given so much as a sunflower seed for the busy practical life of our Western World, that shallow, unreflective life, which appears to be so exactly adapted to the taste of most Anglo-Saxons. He is like a sportsman who has left his fellow pheasant-shooters to go down into the marshlands after snipe. He is hunting a wild bird indeed, a bird that flies zig-zag. He is hunting God.
Like a melancholy-eyed beagle moving in and out of the bracken, he has smelt God and will not be called off. For more than a quarter of a century he has been the manoeuvring, incorrigible eavesdropper, who is always on the alert to hear, through cranny or keyhole, what God says when He talks to Himself.
In 1939 he became ill and when in 1940 the bombers came and the Luftwaffe flung their vaunted might on the tiny airfield of Warmwell nearby, Theodore was moved, still desperately sick, to Mappowder in North Dorset. And there he died last November, an old man that had been at peace with life and was now equally at peace with death.
In 1941 when he had recovered from his long illness he wrote to a friend: ‘I have retired. I have no book to sell, nothing for anyone. I am extremely content, writing nothing.’
He liked that word ‘retired’ and would often repeat it in connection with himself. ‘I have retired’ he would say, ‘like any honest tradesman.’ And had Theodore known that after his death the Registrar wrote in his book — ‘Occupation: Author’ and in brackets, by some curious chance, the word ‘retired’, he would have been filled with quiet satisfaction.
Now he no longer wrote. But as his strength returned to him he walked again in the quiet paths and secret valleys. Among these hills he found whatever it is that men look for, on the bare heath, in the busy streets or in human hearts. He had found the wild bird that flies zig-zag.
In his fable ‘Darkness and Nathaniel’, Nathaniel, who all his life had worshipped Light, is at last won over to Darkness as Theodore was reconciled to death.
“Light, when he was my friend, was always promising me pleasure,” said Nathaniel, holding Darkness yet nearer to his bosom. “Every morning he would say to me, in his light and airy manner, ‘Run out now, Nathaniel; on the moor or in the lanes you will meet a maid who will call to you to come to her.’ Dear Darkness, have you anything to give?”
“I give eternal Longings,” replied Darkness, “and after that true happiness.”
“And what is true happiness?” asked Nathaniel.
“Death,” replied Darkness.
Though Theodore is dead his books will live on, read always by the discerning few, when many more popular works have long been forgotten. He was one of the great writers of his age. Perhaps of any age. And in the village of Mappowder, where he died, the Quiet Man of Dorset will become a legend.