Theodore F. Powys (TF) is the younger, lesser known brother of John Cowper Powys, who wrote (among many other works) A Glastonbury Romance. Like the BTheodore F. Powys (TF) is the younger, lesser known brother of John Cowper Powys, who wrote (among many other works) A Glastonbury Romance. Like the Brontës, many of the Powys clan wrote: There was John; another brother, Llewelyn; sister Philippa; and Theodore himself. I learned of TF’s existence through the good offices of my current literary love interest, Sylvia Townsend Warner. I had read somewhere that she admired him, and, as anyone who rated a “thumbs up” from Miss Warner was by default of interest, perforce I had to seek out examples of his work. Fortunately, the LA County Libraries came through for me with this collection of short stories (and his novel Unclay but that’s still on HOLD; I imagine it’s because they can’t find the book :-( ).
Miss Warner was right. TF is a dexterous writer of often humorous tales set in the English countryside of the early 20th century. But he’s not just a writer of biting satires, he’s also capable of exploring more profound issues as well.* Most of the stories are humorous (some laugh-out-loud so). Some are extraordinarily tragic. And many present an unflattering portrait of the petty viciousness and ignorance of British society. But it’s too simplistic to dismiss Powys as cynical or his stories as hateful satirizations of people he despised. Despite their manifest flaws, Powys likes his characters (most of them). And there’s a powerful theme of Christian humanism that informs many of the tales. TF ruthlessly castigates the small-mindedness and hypocrisy of clergy and congregation but he fervently believes in the Gospel message of “love thy neighbor” and the beneficent results of charity and compassion. This is clearly evident in the final story, “Gold,” where the simple goodness, charity and sacrifice of Rev. Hayhoe and his wife, Priscilla, are contrasted to the greed of Farmer Beerfield and the more general miserliness of the village. The ending is also typical of Powys, who believes that sinners do pay for their misdeeds. In this case, Beerfield shares the fate of Ananias and Sapphira.**
A similar story is “Christ in the Cupboard.” When the Pies were poor, they were generous, sharing what little they had. When their fortunes change and they become reasonably prosperous, they become progressively less generous. At one point, Christ shows up and begs a meal, which the Pies provide, but they then lock him up in a cupboard so their good fortune will continue. Over time the man in the cupboard grows less and less Christlike and more and more satanic, mirroring the moral decay of his captors. This story reminded me of Tanith Lee’s “Paid Piper,” in Red as Blood by Tanith Lee, a version of the Pied Piper legend, where a god of love is transformed by his worshippers’ meanness into a god of hate. It also reminded me of Jules Renard’s observation, “A believer creates God in his own image; if he is ugly, his God will be morally ugly. Why should moral ugliness be respectable?”
Writing of connections, “A Box of Sweets” reminded me of the original Star Trek episode “Amok Time.” Specifically, Spock’s parting words to Stonn: “Stonn! She is yours. After a time, you may find that having is not, after all, so satisfying a thing as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”*** Young Henry Simpson sees Widow Edith on her farm as his train passes by every day and he develops a desire for her. She turns out to be a harridan who makes his life miserable. (It’s a measure of Powys ironic wit that Henry first notices Edith on the day when her first husband’s body is carted off to the cemetery.)
Some of my other favorites include:
“The White Paternoster,” which is the first story in the collection and gives the tyro reader a taste of Powys’ prose style:
“Mr. John Wigg, whose usual employment was that of hay-trusser, had discovered by experience that he was a very fine artist in another kind of work. He would roam in the lanes of Crosscombe with his boon companion, Fred Pratt, never knowing – as the word goes – when the hare might jump, that is, a maid be found in her form or else a-running….
“Under the ash tree Mr. Wigg and Fred Pratt would make their plans for the undoing of the maids, for from the wood the village could be seen and the manner and behaviour of the girls could be noted. Here the gentlemen discussed the vital matter of improper loves, showing the greatest sagacity and caution, that might – some will say, perhaps – have been used to a better purpose.” (pp. 1-2)
(Betty Moggs, the maid these two set their sights on, does escape their clutches, aided by the titular “white paternoster.”)
“Archdeacon Truggin”: This tale introduces the recurring characters of sexton John Truggin and his misogynistic master, the Rev. Silas Dottery, of Tadnol village. Here, Dottery can’t be bothered to attend to a dying woman so he sends Truggin in his stead, and the wily sexton manages to enrich himself therefrom. The two other appearances of this duo are equally delightful. In “Mr. Dottery’s Trousers,” Truggin acquires a fine new pair of trousers while saving two souls from adultery. And in “Feed My Swine,” Truggin again contrives to enrich himself at the reverend’s expense when he allows the congregation to actually read the Bible (gasp).
In “Parson Sparrow,” the upright and virtuous Sparrow takes over for the deceased, dissolute Mr. Loop, and the village’s morals take a precipitous slide until Mr. Tidd explains to the good reverend how to save them.
“The Rival Pastors” starts out like many of the humorous stories when the two pastors of Maids Madder and Shelton compete to recruit a young girl into their congregation. But when the girl takes ill and dies, both men find comfort in each other:
“But all Mr. Dirdoe’s wonderful arguments were forgotten when he saw his rival, for Mr. Hayhoe, with his arms thrown out before him and his head resting upon the great Bible, was weeping bitterly.
“He recovered himself as Mr. Dirdoe entered and, grasping the rival pastor’s hand, nodded to a picture upon the wall that showed the lost lamb being carried to its fold in the loving arms of the Good Shepherd.
“The church bell tolled.
“The rival pastors, weeping together, embraced one another.” (p. 115)
“A Pretty Babe” is a good example of Powys’ humanism where a good shepherd is helped by the Good Shepherd.
“What Lack I Yet” and “The Hunted Beast” are examples of Powys in a darker, more somber mood. Be warned, in the former there’s a rape, a premature death and a suicide. In the latter, Rev. Gidden comes face to face with the cruelest aspects of human nature in himself and is broken.
All of the stories in this collection are good, and Powys shows an equal deftness in handling profound subjects and less portentous foibles. Highly recommended; I’m looking forward to the day my library can finally scare up that copy of Unclay.
* It occurs to me while writing this draft that Powys reminds me a bit of Chekhov in his portrayals of “simple” folk. Both authors are sparing in their judgments about their characters, both have an affection for their characters, and both are deeply spiritual though unsparing in their opinions about religion.
** It’s in the Acts of the Apostles. And that’s as much hand-holding as I’m willing to do – look it up. ;-)
*** Actually, I’m quoting from the Blish adaptation in Star Trek 3. The lines from the show are slightly different but the meaning’s the same....more