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THE BLACKTHORN WINTER

  A Novel

by PHILIPPA POWYS

With an Introduction by Glen Cavaliero








THE BLACKTHORN WINTER
First Paperback Edition

A 'strange, wild, passionate novel – and deeply engaging.'

philippa powys the blackthorn winter, the sundial pressIn The Blackthorn Winter a band of gipsy travellers in the West Country catch the eye of a restless, young woman, Nancy Mead, in particular the seductive Mike. Leaving behind her dull blacksmith lover, Walter Westmacott, she elopes with him for a life of adventure on the road. Soon enough the powers of desire and passion set off bitter conflicts that bring remorse, revenge and death in their wake. The Blackthorn Winter is an ardent and uncompromising portrayal of life in rural England in the 1920s, and of one woman’s battle with her own emotions.

‘A sense of immediacy informs The Blackthorn Winter … The prose swerves from the abrupt to the naive; it is full of inversions, as though the author were quite unaware of the kind of language employed by her literary contemporaries. But she is not writing for a conventional novel-reading public … The book is alive with textures and smells; it is not written about country life but out of direct experience of it, the kind of life a rural readership would recognise.’ – From the Introduction by Glen Cavaliero

REVIEWS: ‘There is a distinctive energy and wildness to this work; its scenes of the harsh and peripatetic Gypsy life of the period are compelling and memorable.’ – The Times Literary Supplement (March 2007)

‘The charm of the book lies in its atmosphere – a heavy, slow, earthy atmosphere – and in the power of the author to conjure up country sounds and scents and scenes to such an extent that we almost cease to be readers and become participants in the story.’ - Spectator

Price: 12.50   Paperback   ISBN-13: 9780955152320    Book Dimensions: 198 129 mm




philippa powys the blackthorn winter, the sundial press

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THE BLACKTHORN WINTER

An excerpt rom the Introduction by Glen Cavaliero

Philippa Powys (1886–1963) was the fourth of the five daughters of the Reverend Charles Francis Powys and his wife Mary Cowper Johnson, her six brothers including the writers John Cowper, Theodore Francis and Llewelyn Powys. The eleven siblings constituted a whole society in itself, one in which later generations have become increasingly interested, not only for the personalities of its members but also as an example of how a cohesive and multi-talented Victorian family responded to the social and religious changes of the twentieth century.

Philippa, known to the family as Katie, was in some respects a tragic figure, an embodiment of unfulfilment. Her nature expressed itself both in strong attachments to particular people and in a yearning to identify herself with the simplicity and freedom of the elements and of all growing things. But she could find no adequate outlet in her personal life. Her unrequited love for the writer Stephen Reynolds was to result in nervous breakdown; her management of a small dairy farm she came to regard as another failure; and her literary efforts never approached the success enjoyed by her brothers. She spent the later part of her life with her eldest sister Gertrude in a remote dwelling on the downs above the Dorset village of East Chaldon, finally moving inland to be near her younger sisterLucy, the beloved companion of her childhood and now of her old age. But whatever worldly success may have eluded Katie, her life was not an empty one: she was held in particular affection by her family; was able to live the kind of simple life that she enjoyed, mixing easily with the fishermen of Sidmouth and the local Dorset country people; and keeping to the end of her days her mental and spiritual vitality. Even when physically infirm she still took an interest in contemporary writing: when I last saw her she was enthusiastically reading the poems of Boris Pasternak.

But her great literary mentor was Walt Whitman. A copy of his poems was a treasured possession, and his influence was as important to her writings as it was in her life: the poems gathered together in Driftwood (1930) are Whitmanesque in their rapturous self-identification with the forces of nature. Rough at the edges, often metrically clumsy, at times almost inchoate in their vehemence, they reveal an energy and graphic honesty that goes well beyond the literary sophistication of her brothers’ work. This, one feels, is the real thing. Poems such as ‘Song of the Wind’ or ‘Loved and Lost’ are at once moving in their obvious sincerity and stirring in their reflection of a human spirit intoxicated by the elements of earth and air and water. The landscape of her poems is not so much described as absorbed and felt.

A sense of immediacy likewise informs The Blackthorn Winter. This was the only one of Philippa Powys’s novels to achieve publication. It came out in 1930, a year which saw the appearance of eight other books by members of the Powys family. It seems hard on her to be but one of a number that may have distracted attention from her own book’s strikingly individual qualities. But though bearing the family stamp, this novel is no mere variant on the Powys brothers’ work.

What strikes one at first reading is a singular directness, not to say abruptness. The plot is simple: a farm girl is seduced by a young gipsy, elopes with him, abandoning her faithful blacksmith lover, and shares the hardships of a wandering life upon the roads, with disillusioning and distressing results. The outline suggests the kind of rustic romance that proliferated in the backwash of the popularity enjoyed by Hardy’s Wessex novels – unambitious, predictable and designed for a readership that likes a simple story with picturesque trimmings. But such an impression would be misleading: there is more to The Blackthorn Winter than that.   ..... (excerpt ends)

 

GLEN CAVALIERO, Fellow Commoner of St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, is a noted poet and critic. Among his books are The Supernatural and English Fiction (1995) and The Alchemy of Laughter (2000). His most recent collection of poems is Towards the Waiting Sun (2011).


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"A foretaste of how unusual and original a book it is"

An excerpt from Cicely Hill’s review ‘A WHOLLY SEPARATE THING’

 

If the first pages of The Blackthorn Winter seem unremarkable enough, the Introduction will have given a foretaste of how unusual and original a book it is. Not a difficult story to read, it is an easy story to misread.

 

Like her brother, John Cowper, Philippa Powys has a great sense of drama. Her plot is dramatically simple, her dialogue spare, and the visual beauty of The Blackthom Winter has a cinematic quality. How interesting to imagine its author making a film! Her profound sensitivity to the nature (the "life") of creatures and things would have been recognized by John Cowper as his "elementalism". Associated with it and very present in her book is his "Homeric sense" -- a certain way of looking at things, happenings and rituals and a certain way of recording them.

 

Nancy Mead is a passionate, restless young woman who works on a Dorset farm and is set to marry Walter, the worthy son of the village blacksmith. Instead she elopes with a young gypsy. It is a story of enthralment and betrayal. Nancy, in her early twenties, fits the pattern of romantic heroines in her wilfulness and changes of mood, but Philippa Powys characteristically avoids cliche and makes her heroine pretty, fair-haired and rounded -- a wood pigeon to her creator's "sea-eagle". [1]  

 

On the day the gypsies arrive Nancy sets off to explore their caravan quarters, "dauntless" and "caring for no-one". Struck by the young gypsy's beauty she feels "strangely taken aback". She is dismayed not only to have been struck by his beauty but to find that she is physically moved by it.

 

Her heart trembled within her, as the leaves of an aspen when the breath of wind is first upon it. The sensation was new; Walter had never stirred it... She dared not observe closer […]

 

He glances at her and she "leaps" to help him attach the newly-shod horse to the cart. Their fingers meet and he asks her, "Can I see thee tonight?" His hand covers hers and, again, she is dangerously moved.

 

The two meet later in the lane and, when Mike crosses toward Nancy, her apprehension amounts to terror. Her misgivings are real but fleeting; we are left in no doubt as to which way her promptings will lead her. When he asks her what she is afraid of, her answers are a quaint and touching mixture of school-playground challenge and flirtation. There is no reason to suppose that his "But I loves thee's pretty face" is not perfectly genuine but, though a beautiful young man, he is not at all a pleasant one and, with her countrywoman's knowledge, Philippa Powys has this feral wooer linger around the farmyard for three days without food in the hope of a meeting with Nancy. He is rewarded with food and Nancy's company in the hay loft. Soon after that she joins the gypsies.   ..... (excerpt ends)



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