The Powys family is one of the most remarkable in the history of English literature. The eleven children born to Charles Francis Powys and his wife Mary Cowper Johnson were all formidable individualists yet united by their passionate love of nature and strong sense of family. C.F. Powys was for many years Rector of Montacute, Somerset, and the children would always regard the West Country as their home. Among the brothers, one became a schoolmaster, another an architect, and another a farmer in Kenya. Of the sisters, one was a poet, another a painter and one, in New York, the leading authority on lace. But it is three of the brothers, John Cowper, Theodore Francis and Llewellyn, who as writers were the best known members of the family; their books and papers form the bulk of the collections held here.
John Cowper Powys the novelist, poet, philosopher, essayist and letter writer was the eldest child and was educated at Sherborne School and Cambridge, graduating from Corpus Christi College in 1894. Powys married Margaret Lyon (a close friend's sister) in 1896; in 1902 his son and only child, Littleton Alfred, was born. Powys taught at schools in Sussex and then worked as a lecturer, all around England, for Oxford University's Extension Movement for Adult Education. In 1905 he began lecturing in the United States, where he was to remain for thirty years. He lectured across the continent and in almost every state, and became famous also as a writer, not only of novels but of essays and books of philosophy aimed at a wide readership. Powys's first publication was 'Odes and Other Poems' (1896); his first novel, 'Wood and Stone' was published in New York in 1915; this was followed by 'Rodmoor' in 1916. His third novel 'After my Fashion' was written in 1919, inspired in part by his friendship with Isadora Duncan, but found no publisher until 1980. The first of his novels to bring him critical recognition was 'Wolf Solent' (1929), set around the Dorset-Somerset border.
In 1921 Powys met Phyllis Playter with whom he would remain
for the rest of his life; retiring from the lecture circuit to a house in upstate New York, from 1930 he was a full-time writer. There he wrote two more novels set in the West Country, 'A Glastonbury Romance' (1933) and 'Weymouth Sands' (1934), as well as his 'Autobiography' (1934), regarded by many as among his best works and one of the most imposing autobiographies of the twentieth century. After returning to England in 1934, and writing 'Maiden Castle' (1937) while living in Dorchester, Powys moved to north Wales a year later and wrote his Welsh chronicles: 'Owen Glendower' (1940) and 'Porius' (1951). He received the Plaque of the Hamburg Free Academy of Arts in 1958, and was appointed honorary D.Litt. by the University of Wales in 1962, the year before his death.
Theodore Francis Powys was born in 1875 and was educated at Eaton House School in Suffolk where he met his lifelong friend Louis Wilkinson. Powys started farming in Suffolk in the 1890s, but moved to Dorset in 1901 to write. He lived for many years in Chaldon Herring, near the coast, until 1940 when he moved to Mappowder in north Dorset. He married in 1905 Violet Rosalie Dodds, and they had two sons and adopted a daughter.
Powys's first publication was 'An Interpretation of Genesis' (1907) but it was only later that he was taken up by Chatto & Windus who between 1923 and 1932 published nine titles, including 'The Left Leg' (1923), 'Black Bryony' (1923), 'Mark Only' (1924), 'Mr Tasker's Gods' (1925), 'Mockery Gap' (1925) and, most famously 'Mr Weston's Good Wine' (1927) which in 1937 would become one of the first Penguin books. Theodore Powys's work is today less well known though his still has many admirers and is thought by some to be the best writer of the three brothers. Theodore Francis Powys had a stroke in 1937, and wrote very little thereafter until his death in 1953; he is buried in Mappowder churchyard.
Llewelyn Powys was an essayist polemicist and writer of memoirs. He was born on 13th August 1884 at Rothesay House in Dorchester, educated at Sherborne School, then at Corpus Christi College. After leaving Cambridge, Powys became a schoolmaster but suffered from poor health and in December of 1909, was sent to a sanatorium at Clavadel in Switzerland for 16 months. In 1914, he travelled to South Africa to stay on his brother's farm, and when at the outbreak of war his brother joined the army, Llewelyn managed the farm for the duration of the First World War. After the War he spent some time with his brother John Cowper in New York where Llewelyn met and in 1924 married the editor and writer Alyse Gregory. Powys's first book 'Ebony and Ivory' was published in 1923 and was a memoir of his years in Kenya. Returning to Switzerland for his health in 1936, Llewelyn died on 2nd December 1939 in Clavadel; his ashes were brought back to Dorset after the Second World War and buried on the cliff above Chaldon Herring; there, at 'Chydyok' he and his wife had lived from 1931 to 1936. Llewelyn Powys's major works include 'Thirteen Worthies' (1923), 'Black Laughter' (1924), 'Skin for Skin' (1925), 'The Verdict of Bridlegoose' (1926), 'Henry Hudson' (1927), 'The Cradle of God' (1929), 'The Pathetic Fallacy' (1930), 'Apples Be Ripe' (1930), 'A Pagan's Pilgrimage' (1931), 'Impassioned Clay' (1931), 'Glory of Life' (1934), 'Earth Memories' (1934), 'Damnable Opinions' (1935), 'Dorset Essays' (1935), 'The Twelve Months' (1936), 'Rats in the Sacristy' (1937), 'Somerset Essays' (1937), 'Love and Death' (1939) and 'Swiss Essays' (1947).
Although less well known than their brothers, Gertrude Powys was a painter, Philippa Powys was a published novelist and poet, Marian Powys was an authority on lace and lace-making. Of the other brothers A. R. (Bertie) Powys was Secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and published a number of books on architectural subjects; Littleton Powys became the headmaster of Sherborne Prep. School and published two volumes of autobiography ('The Joy of It' and 'Still the Joy of It'); he also edited the Letters of his second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Myers. Writings by all of these are represented in the collections.
The Powyses attracted a wide circle of friends and admirers, many of them writers themselves. Among them were the novelist Louis Wilkinson (Louis Marlow) and his first wife Frances Gregg; the novelist, poet and short story writer Sylvia Townsend Warner; and the poets Valentine Ackland and Gamel Woolsey. John Cowper Powys was friendly with the novelists Theodore Dreiser, Henry Miller; James Hanley and James Purdy, and with poets including Edgar Lee Masters, Edna St Vincent Millay and Huw Menai.
The Powys family and their friends constitute a wide-ranging spectrum of social, literary and cultural interests. The creator names given refer only to members of the family and circle with substantial material relating to them in the archive.
Please note: This collection description has been created with the assistance of the Powys Society using information taken from P. J. Foss, 'Powys, Llewelyn (1884-1939)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, online edn, Sept 2012, Wikipedia, Glen Cavaliero, Lawrence Mitchell, Charles Lock and Morine Krissdóttir.