THE BLACKTHORN WINTER
An excerpt from the Introduction
by Glen Cavaliero
(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 Chydyok Farmhouse, 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’
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 (1927-2019), Fellow Commoner of St. Catharine’s
College, Cambridge, was a noted poet and critic. Among his books were The
Supernatural and English Fiction (1995) and The Alchemy of Laughter (2000).
He published nine collection of poems, the last volume: The Flash of Weathercocks (2016).
* * *
foretaste of how unusual and original a book it is"
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
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
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)