This is probably the major novel of T.F. Powys, one of the talented family of Powys brothers, who were all writers, but it is not widely known. Theodore can simplistically be characterised as the gloomy hermit in the family, contrasting with the joie-de-vivre evident in Llewellyn Powys. His world is very religious, without appearing to believe in any conventional Christian theology. His world is thoroughly rural – the author hid himself in the Dorset countryside, and became less and less willing to meet people, as he became older.
This book is set in a rural village, drawing deeply on East Chaldon, where he lived for many years. This creates a hermetically sealed world, where Powys can develop an intense and allegorical ethos. It is a world with traditional, even feudal, relationships, laced with extraordinary suppressed violence and strange sexual relationships. This is by no means a cosy English village. Violence breaks through in the brutal beating of a dog, in what amounts to a domestic rape scene.
However – and this is hard to explain – it is also a deeply comic novel. Powys comes alive in writing about the innocent clergyman Mr Hayhoe and the local squire Lord Bullman, as well as the villagers with their strange obsessions – like the woman who thinks she is a camel and the man who thinks nut trees will defend him from love. The main character of the book is Death himself – John Death, dressed in smart clothes and frequently carrying a scythe, who gets the job as the local gravedigger! Death is a direct allegorical character, and it is daring of an author to write so directly, to give his positive message that death is a release from the pains of life.
The clergyman Mr Hayhoe meets Mr Death in a country lane scratching his head looking for something he has lost. Ludicrously, Mr Hayhoe wonders if he is an insurance agent, but he flashes darkness from his eyes and causes a “curious feeling of cold dread”. Mr Death has lost a vital parchment which God has given him with orders to kill two people in the village – but Powys uses the curious and evocative word “unclay” for his task of relieving people from the sad pains and burdens of life and love.
Mr Death decides to stay in the village for a while and the book is built around his time there, until the climactic ending. After the energy of being introduced to the many quirky characters of the village, and the boldness of this narrative of Death, as well as the stimulation from Powys’s direct, bald yet florid writing style, I confess that the book sagged in the middle for me. There is no strong central story to drive forward the reader, and I found the book meandered too much and got stuck in too much aphoristic statement making. It took me many weeks to read through this book, and I felt reluctant to pick it up again at times, feeling it was too heavy and that I was possibly too stupid to understand the book’s purpose. However I was eventually rewarded, when the pace speeded up again and the high comic spirit returned to create a great ending to the book.
One of the characters of the book is the authorial voice. This voice makes many comments and statements that take one aback, or seem to hover between madness and profundity, or between simple beauty and banality. These aphoristic comments are not entertaining like Oscar Wilde, but have a heavy, individualistic, pessimistic tone. I clearly detected Theodore Powys’ character directly in this authorial voice.
In one short section in chapter 49 the author suddenly and touchingly uses the personal possessive: “Was it a mere chance that a yellow leaf, driven before the wind, lifted up and blown here and there along the lanes, until at last a wilder gust, or a swirl of eddies, carried the leaf into my room and placed it upon the paper beside my pen? Has the leaf a known purpose? Does it come to ease me of my care, or has it come to say that it loves me? What is it that takes a man, as well as a leaf, out of his path, and bids him follow a road that he has not intended to travel?”
This unintended path leads us to one of the climactic scenes of the book: Dodder churchyard, with Death about to strike a naked girl with his scythe. Two men happen to take a walk to the churchyard and come upon the scene just in time. Death desists saying “Love is as strong as death, and it is not given to me now to dispute a man’s right to a mortal girl. My time will come. He, under Whom I have my dominion and my power, is a dark star. Who can escape Him? I thought to have enjoyed Susie and to have forsaken for ever the hard task that has been laid upon me, and I almost attained to that freedom.”
It is hard to wring a consistent metaphysic from Powys’s utterances. But you realise he is not being deep and serious, but actually deeply and darkly comic. This is illustrated a few paragraphs down when Death talks about literature. Of all the books in English literature to choose from, he cites ‘The Watsons’ (by Jane Austen), which is a quirky Powysian choice, the reading of which “can give a greater happiness than a whole night with a Helen or Lais”. I think Powys is joking with us, in an eccentric, sardonic fashion. My conviction that he is tongue-in-cheek in the midst of this dramatic churchyard scene is confirmed by another strange comment of death’s, referring to God: “If only my Master had been educated at Benet College in Cambridge instead of in Palestine, perhaps He might have thought a little differently about prose writers. But as it is, He always preferred a short story to a novel, viewing a parable and a short story as the same thing.”
So my two messages about this difficult book are 1) persist to the end, if you have the courage to start reading it, and 2) view it as a comic novel through and through, if you want to understand the author’s purpose in writing it.