the sundial press
David Garnett Alyse Gregory H. A. Manhood Phyllis Paul Littleton Powys Llewelyn Powys Philippa Powys
T.F. Powys Forrest Reid Gamel Woolsey Roger Norman Peter Tait David Tipping Supernatural


Two previously unpublished novellas by PHILIPPA POWYS

 With an Introduction by CICELY HILL 

and Editorial Note by Louise de Bruin

philippa powys, sorrel barn, the tragedy of budvale, katie powys, peter ursem, chaldon herring, east chaldon In these two West Country novellas, never before published, Philippa Powys pursued a theme that was central to all her fiction - the entanglement of human passions caused by unrestrained desire. 
In The Tragedy of Budvale, written in the 1920s, the love of Christopher Cary for his cousin Mary is set against her own attachment to her curious suitor, the mild-mannered artist Wilfred Wurton, as well as the unreciprocated feelings of the milk-maid Hazel Lee for the broody and impulsive Cary himself, whose jealousy culminates in acts of violence that seal the fate of all concerned.
Sorrel Barn is the tale of an outsider – the vivacious Romanian Zola – and her struggle to adapt to English country life with her boorish husband Frank and the initially unnerving attentions of his employer, the farmer John Marsh, himself the object of desire of a shy local girl. This more mature work, finished at some point in the 1930s, centres on the anguish of a passionate woman trapped in a passionless life, depicting loves denied, embraced and lost.
A Limited Edition Hardback with endpapers, silk ribbon, gold foil blocking on front & spine of boards, in dustjacket
Price: 29.50 ISBN-13: 978-1-908274-02-1   Number of pages: 304
Book Dimensions: 234 156 mm x 21.3 mm  Weight: 460 grams
Publication date: 16 August 2011   Available
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When you buy a copy of SORREL BARN you'll also receive a free copy of the author's DRIFTWOOD And Other Poems (1992 complete edition)

SORREL BARN Chapter titles: Death in the Fields; Sorrel Down; The Water Carriers; The Stone Worshipper; The New Impression; The Cider Cellar; Sheep-washing; Returning Home; The Nether End of the Farm; The Treacherous Hoofs of Love; A Game of Draughts; The Lunch Hour; The Dawn of the Festival; The Night of the Festival; Turning Hay; The Hour of Sunset; Below the Beeches; The Drive Home; Love Unrequited; In the Tower; When the Cat Leapt out of the Bag; Gathering Apples; A Wild Night; The Breakfast.
‘IT WAS again a lovely morning. All life was awake to the joy of spring. The wind had dropped and the air was warm, as the sun with radiance covered the land. The rooks cawed incessantly above the cottages. They vied with one another in their eagerness to build their nests. Their voices appeared ever as an accompaniment to the distant sounds in the valley below, the bleating of lambs and the blearing of young calves and the barking of a dog.
No one felt more conscious of the spring air than Zola as she stepped through her open door, with her husband’s rush basket slung over her shoulder. All the annoyance of her existence faded away like the snow clouds of the past months, causing her neighbour’s blunt remarks to fall as harmlessly as the crumbs from her apron.’ (From Chapter IV of SORREL BARN)
philippa powys sorrel barn & budvale , east chaldon
Back, Spine & Front cover
  Impossible Longings  
    by John Hodgson

Recalling his meeting with Philippa (‘Katie’) Powys shortly before her death, Glen Cavaliero writes, ‘she was, if one may say so, ultra-Powys. With her cropped hair, weatherbeaten face, stooped figure and corduroy trousers, she resembled an old countryman; her voice was vibrant and emphatic’. The Blackthorn Winter, recently republished by The Sundial Press, was the only one of her novels to appear in her lifetime. Several more remain in manuscript, and here we have two of them, The Tragedy of Budvale, written in the 1920s, and Sorrel Barn from about ten years later.

Katie’s life was tragically scarred by unrequited love, and it is the violence of frustrated passion ‘nearly beyond the control of the mind’ and its concomitant jealousies that propel her stories. In Budvale, Kit Cary is driven to rape and murder by his ungovernable passion for his cousin May. In Sorrel Barn, the Romanian Zola, unhappily married to the boorish ex-soldier Frank, is in love with the farmer John Marsh. Although her love is reciprocated, the impossibility of this relationship unhinges the farmer’s brain. The authentic ferocity of the anguish in these stark stories commands respect, but it must be admitted that Philippa’s psychological range is narrow, and in each story the only way out of hopelessness is in melodrama. In her sensitive introduction, Cicely Hill quotes Llewelyn Powys writing of Philippa, ‘… if only the gods had given her the mastery of language that she has of imagination, the world would have welcomed more of her novels’. But the truth might be the other way round, for it is their evocation of the Wessex countryside that makes these stories memorable.
Philippa writes with an unmistakeably Powysian voice which is yet entirely different from any of her brothers. Philippa’s countryside is a place of work, and she writes vividly of agricultural tasks, milking cows, making cheese, washing sheep. Philippa’s cows and horses live and breathe with a vivid presence that recalls her beloved Whitman – ‘I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d’ – and they are everywhere. Even a mat on the floor is ‘dog-lain’. Her ‘bird haunted’ landscapes are precise, beautifully spatial, economical, punctuated by sounds: ‘The weather for the last two weeks had broken up, and there had been a spell of rainy days, with winds that made the leaves rustle and laid low the coming corn.’
Philippa’s natural world offers no assuagement or philosophical consolation: her cabbages ‘sleep a vegetable sleep’ without becoming symbolic or metaphysical. Her descriptions of village life are also busy and populated. Her villagers are not comic rustics, but are gossipy and intrusive and express themselves in a version of Dorset dialect that is more fluent and less mannered than we are used to in John Cowper or T. F. Powys.
Philippa’s writing is most successful when it makes least effort. Her narrative climaxes are cries of despair, but besides ‘the frustrations of impossible longings’ that are Philippa’s theme, there is still an indomitability of spirit and steadiness of vision that give these stories life.
The book has been published by The Sundial Press, with evident love and dedication, as a handsome and opulent hardback. This limited edition of 100 copies is not aimed at a wide audience, but no Powysian advanced motorist will want to be without it.
The Powys Society Newsletter No: 74 



 With an Introduction by GLEN CAVALIERO

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

philippa powys, the blackthorn winter, glen cavaliero, chydyok, east chaldonIn 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: 19.50   Hardback   ISBN-13: 9780955152320    Book Dimensions: 210 148 mm  Sold Out


From 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 sister

Lucy, 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.   .....

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).

* * * * * *


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

A Review


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.


Her new companions are not, like gypsies in most of the stories and paintings of the time, particularly decorative or wholesome. Nancy has to share sleeping quarters with Mike's old grandmother: "... the limited space of her present abode was stifling hot, and was pervaded by a clinging and unwholesome smell which met her at every indrawing of her breath". Writing of a woman in love, Philippa Powys is no sentimentalist. One or two of the women treat Nancy kindly, but she is lonely, and in the days that follow, though she comes to enjoy life in the open, times are hard. Mike is volatile and unfaithful; others among the male gypsies are worse. Walter comes to fetch her back but, under Mike's spell, she remains. A child is born and various troubles in the camp force Mike and Nancy to leave. Nancy is ill after walking long in the rain and later, abandoned by Mike, she arrives near the village she left just after her baby has died in her arms. She meets her faithful Walter again but, consistent with her truthfulness to life, Philippa Powys leaves the story with a doubtful ending.


The name "blackthorn winter" is given to that time of year, usually at the end of March, when the sloe is in bloom and Spring is halted by a second brief very cold spell. It arrives symbolically for Nancy after a day when she wakes to the feel of pure air and the sound of lark song above the cliffs and rejoices in her life. Drenching rain and cold bring an end to her short-lived contentment.


Louis Wilkinson writes of the "stammer" in Philippa Powys's writing. "Unless its stammer can be cured, her work will never be generally received; but it has already been received by more than a few as a thing of value, a wholly separate thing." [2]


Not surprisingly, she is most free of her "stammer" when she is writing of the country, which she does in fine and loving detail, always correctly: she knows how clouds are likely to look at a certain time of day in a particular place and season; that blackberry leaves go purple in autumn. She writes not out of a world of her imagination, but from the world she sees, knows and describes with imagination and startling exactness, calling actual places to readers' minds and senses -- heathland with bilberries, wasteland with ragwort; the sound of cartwheels, the feel of the shaking cart; the touch of a gate hasp under the hand, of turf underfoot. Her actuality is magical.


Nancy is not only at home in the outdoor world and the elements, she is part of nature. Governed largely by her instincts and seeming, at times, hardly an agent -- any more than a rainbow or a waterfall could be said to be an agent. She courts disaster. Her folly is utter and her creator describes it all with a degree of honesty still not yet entirely usual in the fiction of the time. More rare even is Powys's refusal to idealize or defend. Nancy is not placed in a predicament which might seem to pardon her waywardness. The company of her good man Walter is unsatisfying, but her escape is not presented as a bid for some idealized freedom. She goes with the gypsy because she wants the gypsy.


Whether in company or on her own, Nancy is always alone. All the events are focused on her and the story is told consecutively. Secondary characters are sketchy or absent. We know nothing of her parents. But for the difficulty of language and dialect, the book could well have been written in the first person. The author identifies closely with the heroine, freeing the story from an omnipotent narrator's voice. Alone with grief, hunger, bad weather and downright cruelty, Nancy is totally without self-pity and she is not meant to invite pity.


Words beloved of former writers -- "wronged", "betrayed", "seduced", "ruined" -- apply to Nancy. She is, wittingly though unwarily, seduced; wronged by ill treatment and abandonment. Not "ruined" -- she is what would now be called "a survivor". More significantly, she is, like all her fictional predecessors, a victim; not the victim of villains, nor a plaything of the gods or of God, but, in the tradition of great tragedy, the victim of her own folly.


There are terrible events and terrible images in The Blackthorn Winter and it is hard not to believe that more of them than we might like to think must have been known, in some way, at close hand, to Philippa Powys -- who never writes about what she doesn't know. The story of Nancy Mead is told proudly, directly, classically, and the teller offers no verdicts.

[The Powys Society Newsletter]

[1] "Sea-Eagle": John Cowper Powys's nickname for Philippa (Katie).
[2] Welsh Ambassadors (Bertram Rota, London 1971), page 20.

* * * * *

philippa powys, gertrude powys, glen cavaliero, montacuteCatharine Edith Philippa Powys (1886-1963) was born at Montacute in Somerset, the ninth of eleven children in a multi-talented family. She had no formal education and much of the knowledge she acquired in youth was self-discovered. Her early adult life was spent farming, but in a family of prodigious writers – notably John Cowper Powys, T. F. Powys and Llewelyn Powys, but also Littleton Powys, headmaster of Sherborne Prep School, and the architect A. R. Powys – it was no surprise that her own creative energies were channelled into literature from an early age.
Despite never achieving the success of her literary brothers, she produced a large body of work. In the 1920s she wrote at least two novels that were never published – The Tragedy of Budvale and Joan Callais – as well as a play, The Quick and the Dead. Subsequent novels included The Path of the Gale and Further West, but these too never saw the light of day. In 1930, she had a collection of poems published titled Driftwood. That year also saw her only success as a novelist with The Blackthorn Winter, published by Constable in London and by Richard R. Smith in New York, and now reissued for the first time. 


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