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Judith Stinton’s 1988 study of the Powys brothers and sisters when they lived in the Dorset village of Chaldon Herring in the 1920s and 1930s, is not for beginners in the subject. You do need to know where Gertrude, Theodore (T F), Llewelyn, John Cowper and Katie Powys came from to make much sense of their lives in this village. Unfortunately, I didn’t, and have only read one Powys novel (Mr Tasker’s Gods, reviewed here). I came to the Powys phenomenon through Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, about whom I have read much more. In their lives, the Powys brothers are dark, looming, epic presences of literary obscurity and greatness in the village where Warner and Ackland first came together as a couple. Warner was a great friend of T F Powys, sponsoring his writing to the London literati.
The village is very important. It’s nothing much when you’re there (I did visit it, years ago when I lived in Purbeck, an hour’s drive to the east), just a clutch of houses, its pub The Sailors Return, and the church and its graveyard where Warner and Ackland are buried, with some Powyses there as well. What’s important is its setting, folded into an astonishingly beautiful group of chalk hills with curves like those you find in Orkney landscapes, showing how the wind has shaped the land, and stopped things growing tall in its path. It is typical of the passionately selfish Llewelyn Powys that he decreed that he would be buried in the nearby chalk cliffs overlooking the sea, and his grave topped by an immense stone monolith hand-carved in situ by the Chaldon sculptor Elizabeth Muntz with his self-chosen epitaph. The site is in the Purbeck Heritage Coast, near the route of the South West Coast Path, so you can get to it fairly easily now. In 1947 it must have been so much work to get his ashes up there, dug into the earth, and to lower the Portland stone in place: you have to believe in the greatness of the man and his writing to be suitably impressed or moved by that, and I wasn’t. Because Judith Stinton is writing for true believers, the effect of her book on the newcomer is not persuasive. The readers are expected to be devoted acolytes at literary shrines, and some will simply not be bothered. However, if you are interested in how a place can be affected by the people who arrive to live in it, Stinton’s Chaldon Herring is an excellent case study.
None of the writers who made the village famous among Bloomsbury hangers-on in the 1920s came from Dorset: they merely arrived, liked the isolation and its beauty, and moved in. T F Powys had moved from Sussex to the Dorset coast near Poole, and then, disliking the crowds, he took up his stick (according to brother Llewelyn) and walked west. East Chaldon, or Chaldon Herring, was hard to find, so he thought he would be safe from intrusion, and so he lived there from 1904 until 1940 when he moved elsewhere in Dorset due to the war, dying in 1953. He was one of eleven children, originally from Somerset. (None of these details are in Stinton’s book: we are expected to know them.) What did he live on? Stinton occasionally mentions money inherited from the Rev. Powys, the family patriarch, but the Powyses were not a rich family, and all the siblings worked. Working through literature was desperately unremunerative for T F until the later 1920s (thank you, Miss Warner), so farming, perhaps, may have been how T F supported his wife and children. Mrs T F Powys was a village girl, and Stinton dwells on how despite T F marrying below his class, the marriage was successful because Violet Powys was properly subservient to the Great Man. Her devotional attitude makes me even less sympathetic to the inconsistencies in her writing style which are scattered through her account, giving it an amateur tone. Put her personal views to one side: the story is fascinating.
Once T F was installed, Llewelyn and his American wife Alyse Gregory arrived in 1924. She is the real hero in this family vortex because she gave up her editorship of The Dial, an important American modernist magazine, to accompany him to a dilapidated farm labourer’s cottage and to live next door to two of his sisters. Katie (real name Philippa) Powys was a fey and inspirational novelist, poet and farmer, perpetually disappointed in love. Gertrude Powys was a formidable artist, a strong figure among the emotional dramas that would swirl about the village over the decades. Katie Powys fell in disastrously in love with local fishermen. The sculptor Stephen Tomlin arrived to live in Chaldon Herring in 1922 after visiting it on a walking tour. He brought Sylvia Townsend Warner, who bought the late Miss Green’s cottage; David Garnett, who wrote a novel about The Sailors Return; and Elizabeth Muntz, who brought her sister the historical novelist Hope. The novelist Liam O’Flaherty had arrived some time before and was living in a tent behind the old vicarage. Naomi Mitchison came to visit several times, considered having the love affair urged upon her by Llewelyn, and put the Powys social atmosphere into The Corn King and the Spring Queen, a novel of Classical-era primal rituals.
T E Lawrence showed up to check out the scene, arriving by motorbike from his military camp at Bovington. Lady Ottoline Morrell arrived for a grand visit since T F would not visit her. Valentine Ackland arrived in 1925, had an affair with Katie Powys and then moved into Miss Green’s cottage with Sylvia Townsend Warner. Gamel Woolsey followed Llewelyn to Chaldon Herring from New York and was pregnant by him by 1928. Alyse Gregory suffered their affair for years, but then Gamel married the novelist Gerald Brenan. He was on the rebound from an affair with Bloomsbury artist Carrington, who was still in love with Lytton Strachey despite her marriage to Ralph Partridge. Brenan perhaps didn’t realise when he married Gamel that she wasn’t actually divorced yet from her American husband, the one she abandoned for Llewelyn. John Cowper Powys arrived with his American partner in 1934, but they rapidly left again for Wales, and I can quite see why.
This tiny village had a significant population of arty types and their visitors, which must have altered the socio-economic balance considerably. (The Sailors Return let its three guest-rooms profitably for many years.) Stinton does a good job of filling in the history, archaeology and social dramas of the village, including a long discussion of the arty types’ role in bringing to light (or victimising) the affairs of a mother and daughter who were paid by the council to house and train local ‘mentally deficient’ girls for kitchen work. This episode is quite uncomfortable to read, since it reveals the feudal attitudes of these upper-class incomer artistic types who objected to the girls’ apparent ill-treatment and unhappiness. They took this social injustice all the way to the courts, and paid their fines for interference, since the accused women were found to have committed no crime, and left the area soon after. We are made strongly aware how vulnerable people could be mistreated without anyone noticing, how close-knit and defensive a small village could be, and how the local establishment stands up to the modern ideas of people who have barely lived in the area for a decade. Chaldon Herring is deeply interesting as the locus for a social phenomenon, and is probably unique as a location saturated in literary, poetic, artistic and philosophical effort.
Judith Stinton, Chaldon Herring. The Powys Circle in a Dorset Village (The Boydell Press, 1988)
Fascinating! I wish the book was not so riddled with the author’s prejudices – I’d rather like to read a more fact-filled and objective look at the Powyses!
Love this – thank you! I found out about Chaldon Herring only from my reading around STW and Valentine Ackland. There is more than a tiny hint of Cold Comfort Farm about all this – I keep thinking I’ve found the prototype of Mr Mybug, and here is yet another list of contenders (male and female).
Could I suggest for those new to the Powys brothers, Richard Perceval Graves’ biography, “The Brothers Powys”. Out of print, I think, but available second hand. Also John Cowper Powys’ “Autobiography”. Happy reading!
Yet to read “Chaldon Herring”. Looking forward to it.
” Stinton dwells on how despite T F marrying below his class, the marriage was successful because Violet Powys was properly subservient to the Great Man.”
The marriage was probably successful also due to Violet’s background; I’m sure she was far better equipped to make ends meet on whatever Powys was able to earn from writing and farming than any Bloomsbury type would have been.
This book does sound interesting, despite its flaws (and the knowledge they expect you to have) – thanks for bringing it to attention, Kate! I also took a trip there once, a little pilgrimage to STW’s grave. And now – well, in Jan – I will have something in common with the Powys brothers: my father will also be vicar of Montacute.
now THAT is a literary link!
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