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THE JOY OF IT

by LITTLETON POWYS

 With an Introduction by PETER TAIT

'An invaluable text to gaining a fuller understanding of the Powys family' 

The Joy of It is the autobiography of a remarkable man, a teacher and naturalist whose optimism, knowledge and enthusiasm influenced generations of the young men under his tutelage. It is also a testament to a life lived to the full, to the bonds of love that bound the author to his parents and siblings, and to the enduring rewards that knowledge and contemplation of the natural world provide.

 
Littleton Charles Powys (1874 – 1955) was the second eldest of eleven children in a uniquely precocious family, one of the most significant in the cultural history of Britain, of whom the writers John Cowper Powys, T. F. Powys and Llewelyn Powys are the most famous. But they also included the architect and conservationist A. R. Powys, the artist Gertrude Powys, the lacemaker Marian Powys, and the poet and novelist Philippa Powys.
 
Littleton himself was one of the most distinguished schoolmasters of his day. He taught at three of the country’s leading public schools – Bruton, Llandovery and Sherborne, and was headmaster of Sherborne Prep from 1905 until his retirement in 1923. He has particular links with the Dorset town, where he was a well-known and respected figure in the community and a regular reader in the Abbey. In addition to this autobiography, Littleton Powys wrote introductions to The Letters of Elizabeth Myers (1951) and to her Thirty Stories (1954), as well as a further volume of memoirs titled Still the Joy of It (1956).
 
The Joy of It was first published in 1937. This attractive new reissue corrects several errors in the original edition and carries on the cover the first-ever printing of the superb late oil portrait of the author by Gertrude Powys.

 

A collector's item published in a hand-numbered limited edition.
Price: 25.00 ~  Hardback with coloured endpapers and silk ribbon marker ~ ISBN-13: 9781908274045  
Book Dimensions: 210 148 mm   Available


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by LITTLETON POWYS
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  ‘Powys was the first who thrilled me by reading poetry.’ – Louis MacNeice, The Strings Are False
 
‘He was a lover of life. To have been born into the world at all – a world so full of radiant and manifold beauties – he regarded as an immeasurable privilege, and his whole life was an unbroken act of praise... He never wearied in urging all whom he met to open their eyes and ears to the splendours of the Earth around them.’ – Oliver Holt, Three Sherborne Memoirs
 
‘His account of his brilliant brothers is a human document that will stand the test of time; and his reminiscences of the schoolmasters he has known is a penetrating contribution to educational history.’ – From the first edition of The Joy of It

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THE JOY OF IT

From the Introduction  by Peter Tait

littleton powysLittleton listed six reasons why, in the end, he decided to write about his life: to correct any errant impressions of his home, his family and his brothers; to express his thankfulness for his remarkably happy life; to provide a comparison for the reader with the remarkable Autobiography of his brother, John Cowper, with whom, in spite of all their differences, he had been ‘bound together by the closest ties of friendship for over sixty years’; as a tribute to the people and places that had afforded him so much happiness; to pass on his experiences as a headmaster; and finally, to express the debt he owed to nature for his happiness. In the course of the book, he accomplishes each task in turn.

The Joy of It is a celebration of a life well-lived, covering the first sixty-three years of Littleton’s life from his childhood at Shirley and Montacute, through his time as a pupil at Sherborne, to his working life at Bruton, Llandovery and Sherborne and the first fifteen years of his retirement. The first chapter, which precedes his own birth and early childhood in the book’s chronology, is an exaltation of nature and sets the tone for the remainder of the book, epitomising Littleton’s philosophy of life, his quest for happiness and his exhortation to ‘rejoice, rejoice, in all things, rejoice.’

After this homage to the natural world with which Littleton opens (and closes) his autobiography, he proceeds with an account of his early life at Montacute which provides a fascinating contrast to that of his older brother, whose recollections and memories often appear dark by contrast to his illumination. John Stallworthy, in his biography of Louis MacNeice, identified Littleton as his father’s favourite, perhaps because he had the distinguished appearance and generous nature of his supposed forebears, the ancient Welsh princes of Powysland, and perhaps also because he had not inherited from his masochistic grandmother, Mrs Knight, ‘the deadly nightshade’ said to run in the veins of his more famous literary brothers.

The relationship between John Cowper and Littleton was strong and enduring throughout their lives, despite their obvious differences. At prep school, Littleton was the sociable all-rounder whose physical prowess meant that he adopted the mantle of protector, looking after his more solitary, introspective, older brother who in turn he looked up to in matters of the intellect. The differences between them became more pronounced at Sherborne School where Littleton found himself in a form ahead of John, and at Cambridge, as Littleton’s sporting reputation and acquaintances placed him at stark variance with John’s philosophical friends. John often found himself vexed with his younger brother, criticising him for not taking his studies seriously (‘You never think, Littleton: Why don’t you think?’) and questioned his ambition, and yet there remained a bond between them that was never to be broken. In his autobiography, John Cowper wrote of how the early years he had spent at Shirley had ‘bound my life with the life of my brother Littleton in so fast a knot death alone – and perhaps not even that – can loosen it.’ And so it proved throughout their divergent and varied lives, each turning to the other during times of financial need, ill-health and marital loss.

Littleton enjoyed his childhood, was nourished by it and, over time, romanticised it. When writing of his early life, he did so with a mix of gratitude and celebration: ‘I often wonder whether ever a happier home than ours existed. It was a home of freedom.’ No one was required to eat anything they did not like, the children were allowed to do much as they pleased while their mother held only two ambitions: ‘…that her children should be happy, and that they should love one another.’ Littleton took these principles into his school-mastering, always taking onto his shoulders the responsibility of being fair and just with his pupils, of listening and weighing up concerns and always thinking the best of his charges, even when they took advantage of him. In adulthood, he was an impressively built man, nearly six feet tall, upright and with broad shoulders, as would befit a Cambridge rugby Blue, a keen games player with a booming voice and considerable presence, always well-groomed and gentlemanly in appearance. He presented himself, as MacNeice astutely observed, like a squire, but without a ‘squire’s presumption’.

After Cambridge, Littleton took up his first teaching post at King’s School, Bruton in September 1896, where he was employed to teach Latin and games. Going straight from university to teaching was a challenge for the young man, but he was well supported by his headmaster, D. E. Norton, and later acknowledged that, ‘I learnt far more at Bruton to fit me for my profession than I ever learnt at Cambridge.’ His record of his early years of teaching is full of acute observations: that no boy accounted dull at school ever failed in the struggle of life or that the boys who play hardest, if properly encouraged, work hardest too, while all the time developing his own idiosyncratic approach to school-mastering.

Whilst at Bruton, he also developed greater self-awareness: he realised, for instance, that he enjoyed studying the character of boys and had ‘a natural bent in the direction of psychology’; that life was about making mistakes, so long as one learnt from them; and that it was an ‘immense privilege ... to be a schoolmaster, and that a schoolmaster’s life could be one of the very happiest upon earth.’

littleton powys, headmaster of sherborne prepLittleton was blissfully happy at Bruton, but after a period of time in the post, he was encouraged by his friends at Sherborne, Canon Westcott and G. M. Carey, to look for a position in a larger public school and was eventually tempted to do so by an offer from the warden at Llandovery College. It was a move that met with his father’s hearty approval in that it built on the family’s links with Wales and in some vague way reunited him with their ancestors, the ‘Princes of Powys’. His three and a half years there were among the happiest of his career, culminating in his marriage to his first wife, Mabel, at Bruton in 1904. It was at that time that he was approached by his former headmaster W. H. Blake to take over from him at Sherborne Prep School, an offer he keenly accepted.

From his arrival in 1905 until 1923, Littleton’s life was centred on Sherborne Prep, and thereafter in his memory. He ran a happy school and his own ethos, which was, as he wrote, to ‘keep alive the spark of originality in the mind of each boy and to give the recognition due to his individuality’ was successfully implanted into his school. As a headmaster, he was forward-thinking, although in the Powysian scheme of things, he was no doubt conservative. It was his own more conventional life, and the world that he embraced as headmaster, full of its myriad responsibilities, strictures and conventions, that also brought him so much genuine pleasure and satisfaction. He was both respected and liked by his pupils for the trust he placed in them and his obituary in The Times, fifty years after he began his headmastership, reminded readers of how ‘... he dealt with his pupils as individuals, always seeking to foster their special capabilities and interests, and to develop the originality of thought which is their priceless possession.’

Littleton’s remarkably successful and forward-looking philosophy of education was based on the premiss that it was important for children to be given a good start in life so that they might ‘grow up healthy and happy and kind men, men who would never regret that they had been born.’ He saw his own role as being to inspire his pupils ‘to yearn for the greatness of Nature’ which, in his view, was the supreme source of happiness the world could give. His ability to enthuse children to learn the names of birds and trees and to appreciate their environment was forward-looking, as were many of his other ideas on education. He believed, for instance, in subject specialists for pupils from age nine onwards and used it as a form of teacher appraisal; he believed all children should learn the same work and therefore did not agree with setting (streaming was rarely likely to be an issue with the small numbers of pupils) although he accepted the possibility of division within the forms; he welcomed school inspectors, making Sherborne one of the first prep schools to do so. He read to the children, every year through the Michaelmas and Lent terms for half an hour each evening, determined that his charges would have an appreciation of English literature, including the adventures of Sir Walter Scott, Rider Haggard and John Buchan as well as the more usual Dickens and Bunyan. Whenever time and weather permitted, he took his pupils on long walks, most often to the ridge at Corton Denham and to Corton Beacon whereupon they would survey a view ‘second to none’ and gather specimens, usually (but not exclusively) flowers, and build up their own collections, for, as he astutely observed, boys ‘love to make collections.’ He gave considerable freedoms to his pupils, and his belief that children should not be supervised other than in class and games was remarkable, even according to the mores of the day.

The effect he had on his pupils was considerable and the song of joy he writes of in this book remained with many of them throughout their lifetimes. Some twenty years after leaving school, Louis MacNeice wrote of his former headmaster that he taught him the names of butterflies and ‘made the swallows loop and dive / from the high belfry louvers and so brought / Us children to our senses. Which were five.’ Another favoured old pupil, Oliver Holt, in his memoir Pipers Hill, published seventy years after his own time at the Prep, wrote of his fortunate childhood and noted that ‘to that piece of good fortune, another almost as great was granted me: my love of birds and flowers and butterflies (which) was ... immensely enlarged and encouraged by the Headmaster ... Littleton Powys.’ It was Holt, more than any other pupil, who encapsulated the Powysian spirit. While a pupil at the school, he had identified some fifty-five different types of birds that he had seen in the Prep grounds, a list paraded triumphantly by Littleton in his autobiography as an example of what can happen when a child is properly enthused and taught to appreciate nature in its element.

 

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Peter Tait has been headmaster of Sherborne Preparatory School since 1998, having previously taught in New Zealand. The author of 'EMMA West of Wessex Girl' and 'FLORENCE Mistress of Max Gate, plus numerous articles, mainly on education, he has written for The Powys Journal, lectured to the Powys Society and at The Thomas Hardy Society Conference (2012) and he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

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A REVIEW of this new edition

Littleton Powys: The Joy of It

 The Sundial Press, 2010. Hardback, 256pp. 25.00
(A hand-numbered limited edition of 100 copies)

    Among the various autobiographical writings of the Powys family, Littleton Powys’s The Joy of It tends to be the most overlooked. One obvious reason is that Littleton was not a ‘writer’ and left no significant body of literary work that would attract a readership or otherwise compel attention. Perhaps another is that he was not interested in the sort of self-mythologising and shape-shifting at which his brothers were so adept, as evidenced in John Cowper’s Autobiography, Theodore’s Soliloquies of a Hermit and Llewelyn’s Skin for Skin (and just about everything else). Littleton spoke, and spoke out, plainly and inoffensively, and precisely for this reason The Joy of It is an invaluable text to gaining a fuller understanding of the Powys family, and as a balance, if not corrective, to some of the views not only of John and Llewelyn but of early Powys biographers like Heron Ward and Louis Wilkinson.

Indeed, among the half-dozen reasons Littleton gives in his Preface for writing these memoirs are to counter comments in the press and other books that he felt distorted the truth about his parents and siblings, and to compare his own temperament specifically with that of his elder brother as expressed in Autobiography. He was especially close to John, despite the latter’s secretiveness in certain matters relating to his personal life, from their shared childhood and schooldays to the Norfolk trip they made in their late fifties, and into their old age when Littleton would visit John in Wales. The divergence in their lifestyles was really set in train at Cambridge, where, as Littleton wrote, ‘John’s ways were not my ways, nor his thoughts my thoughts, nor (with two or three exceptions) his friends my friends.’ From university Littleton, unlike his brother, went on to become a pillar of the community, and if in consequence he was occasionally the butt of family humour, it’s worth remembering that without their pillars communities tend to collapse. It is not difficult to see why he was his father’s favourite or why John addressed him as ‘Best of the sons’: in addition to his sense of public duty, Littleton displayed a familial responsibility not always in evidence in some of his siblings, often coming to their financial rescue.

The frequent designation of Littleton as the most ‘conventional’ of the brothers brings with it a suggestion of dullness. Littleton was anything but dull. In appearance he was strikingly handsome, always elegantly dressed and with a flower in his buttonhole, and his deep clear voice was put to especially good effect when he read the lessons in Sherborne Abbey. If that was all there was to him he would hardly have attracted in his late sixties the attentions of the young Elizabeth Myers, who at half his age became his second wife. But as she noted: ‘Littleton never fails to tell you something interesting about life and the world. Every conversation with him extends the horizon of your mind.’ It is our loss that Littleton’s forte was conversation rather than literary creativity; in particular, his knowledge of botany and ornithology, abundantly evident in his book, probably surpassed that of anyone in the family.

Littleton’s views and lifestyle were antithetical to those of the family friend and bon viveur Louis Wilkinson, and there was often an undercurrent of tension between them. Littleton had objected to certain parts of Louis’s Swan’s Milk and this tension was probably exacerbated by Welsh Ambassadors, which appeared in 1936 and in which Littleton, as Llewelyn thought at least, came off badly. ‘The book does outrage to the ethos of his circle,’ Llewelyn wrote to Louis, ‘and he will dislike being in any way involved with it.’ But he shortly mentioned also that Katie had told him Littleton did not seem at all personally disturbed by the book. Perhaps he was already writing his riposte, for in August that year Llewelyn told Louis that Littleton was reading his autobiography to him, and passed a judgement that stands the test of time: ‘It is unexpectedly good – rational, unaffected, charming – objective and unintellectual. I think it will be mightily appreciated by many readers.’

Littleton and Louis were to meet six months later, in February 1937, when Gertrude Powys had a showing of her works in London. Louis immediately wrote to Llewelyn: ‘Littleton was charming to me at Gertrude’s Private View. He talked with me in the most friendly manner, and at parting held my hand and pressed it to his side. I was delighted & amazed. What magnanimity!’ All the Powyses had magnanimity, but Littleton had it in spades and it’s one of the many qualities that shine through in The Joy of It. Another is gratitude for his own happy life and for the glories of Nature. In many ways Littleton’s is a deeply religious book, though not indeed in any conventional sense. Not long before his death he wrote to Ichiro Hara, ‘“He findeth GOD, who finds the Earth He made” is the background of my Faith’ – and it had always been so. ‘He was a lover of life,’ Oliver Holt wrote of him. ‘To have been born into the world at all – a world so full of radiant and manifold beauties – he regarded as an immeasurable privilege, and his whole life was an unbroken act of praise.’

littleton powys, the joy of it, peter tait, sundial press, sherborne school, peter taitThe world evoked in The Joy of It – of gentlemanly conduct and fair play, of individual responsibility, of a largely benevolent Nature – may seem sadly remote in an age when we are constantly encouraged to believe that Britain is ‘broken’ (a view Littleton himself would have given short shrift). But that world is not entirely gone. There are still good schools, there are still well-mannered people, there are still natural beauties in abundance. What seems to be rarer these days is an attitude – the shameless capacity for simple delight that Littleton, like all the Powys siblings, possessed, and that makes his book all the more remarkable.

This new hand-numbered limited edition of The Joy of It, the work’s first republication in hardback, is significant for several reasons. It corrects certain misprints, errors and solecisms in the first edition; it has a perceptive and informative introduction by the current Sherborne Prep headmaster Peter Tait; it is beautifully designed and produced, with coloured endpapers and marker ribbon; and its striking blue dust jacket is a perfect frame for the wonderful portrait of Littleton by Gertrude Powys that adorns the cover and which, as far as I know, has itself never before been published. It seems unlikely that The Joy of It will ever again be reissued, but certainly not in an edition as distinguished as this, a true collector’s item.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a book like this even being written today, a memoir which celebrates childhood and schooldays, family and friendships, and Nature above all – and all without a trace of cynicism or bitterness or self-pity. Littleton maintained his feelings of gratitude even in bereavement with the loss of his first wife Mabel Bennett from cancer and then of Elizabeth Myers from tuberculosis, and when illness and age set in during his last painful years.

Typical of the many incidental but movingly evocative revelations in the book is when Littleton relates how on recently opening his schoolboy copy of Horace’s Odes he noted what he had written in the margin nearly half a century earlier: ‘Powys minor, and a happy life is his.’ The Joy of It is a record of one man’s enduring gratitude for that life and happiness, and it is this quality more than any other that gives this engaging work its distinctive charm. Whether he was Mr Powys, headmaster of Sherborne Prep, or ‘Tom’ to his siblings, or ‘Owen’ in his old pupil Louis MacNeice’s 'Autumn Sequel', ‘Rejoice, rejoice’ was always Littleton’s motto:  '…on two sticks/ He still repeats it, still confirms his choice/ To love the world he lives in.’  The evidence of that love is abundant in The Joy of It and this superb new edition constitutes a fitting tribute to its author and, through him, to the whole Powys family.

The Powys Society Newsletter, No 71

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