A book like this gives rise to divergent opinions, with each individual drawing their own unique meaning from it. ‘A Glastonbury Romance’ is large (1120 in my Overlook Press edition) that it provides an astonishing richness of character and event. It is a treasure-trove of language, myth, legend, place, philosophy, literary allusion, conflict, humour and much more.
Powys was an erudite man, who often lectured on English literature for his living. He wrote this novel in what one could call the Nineteenth Century tradition, emulating models such as Dickens, Hardy and George Eliot in England, and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in Russia, to cite but a few influences. He explicitly refers back to deep legend from Welsh, French and English sources, by using the nexus of stories concerning King Arthur and Merlin. He also employs the many stories invented in Glastonbury about Joseph of Arimathea, the thorn tree, the holy grail, the chalice well and so forth. Yet he is also a modern Twentieth Century novelist, dealing openly with sexual matters, communism and new technology, such as aeroplanes.
The story centres for most of the book on the small town of Glastonbury, a cradle of English national identity (however fraudulent). At one level he is exploring the nature of Britishness (I say that advisedly, since he is also concerned with nearby Wales). He does this by presenting the lives of many characters in the town, creating a complex web of concurrent, intertwining stories, just as George Eliot did for the fictional town of Middlemarch. I cannot think of a novel that explores a single town with such loving detail, as Powys does of Glastonbury.
Powys spent much time researching the town, and is extraordinarily detailed and faithful in his presentation. There are minor errors of fact, such as Mat Dekker looking West over the Bridgwater bay at the purported rising sun. There are deliberate liberties taken, for the sake of the dramatic action. He has a tin mine dug at Wookey Hole, and a road constructed across the Somerset Flats. He puts an upper floor in St Michael’s tower on the Tor. He imagines that an aeroplane could land on the constricted space of Wirral Hill. This is easily allowable to the omnipotent narrator.
Some commentators think Powys is an obscurantist, seduced by the silly legends of the town, yearning for a non-existent romantic past, after the horrors of the First World War. I think that is a false judgement. Powys is his own man, and he frequently pokes fun at the myths and legends, while being fascinated by their literary and cultural power. His whole outlook on life is dualist. He loves to conjoin and contrast the quotidian and the cosmic, the material and the spiritual, the ancient and the modern, the good and the bad.
For example he has Sam Dekker experience religious ecstasy in a coal barge: “He had ceased to be a man sitting on a coal sack at the stern of a barge. He had become a bleeding mass of darkness. His consciousness was a dark surface of water; and up through this water, tearing it, rending it, dividing it, turning it into blood, shivered this crashing stroke, this stroke that was delivered from abysses of the earth, far deeper than the bottom of the Brue”.
This leads us to his metaphysics, which some people find irritating and objectionable. Certainly his frequent reference to ‘The First Cause’ is startling and idiosyncratic. He boldly rejects the conventional Christian view of the moral universe, but paints a picture of a cosmic force that is simultaneously evil and good – in other words dualistic. This insistence on spiritual forces and even angels influencing and intervening in the lives of men is hard to reconcile with the modern, sceptical parts of the book. It seems to reflect an almost Medieval view of the world, and it impossible to tell if Powys is being ironic or tongue-in-cheek in these passages. They are certainly challenging – and I can imagine him in a pub or at a dinner table stirring up debate for the sheer love of intellectual stimulation and the exploration of points of view.
The challenge starts with the long first sentence of the novel, which has probably deterred many browsers in bookshops from buying the book! “At the striking of noon on a certain fifth of March, there occurred within a causal radius of Brandon railway station and yet beyond the deepest pools of emptiness between the uttermost stellar systems one of those infinitesimal ripples in the creative silence of the First Cause which always occur when an exceptional stir of heightened consciousness agitates any living organism in this astronomical universe.” Personally I was intrigued by this sentence and felt a need to walk a journey with the author, although I knew it would be a long, hard road.
The author assumes a very God-like status in the book, looking down on “this microscopic biped” from a great height, and then zooming in, much further than a Google Earth map into the hearts and thoughts of his characters. He vouchsafes them visions of Excalibur and the Holy Grail, and finally washes them in a mighty flood, like the old testament God.
The challenge and excitement of Powy’s idiosyncratic genius hit me when he starts conveying the point of view of plants: “The now darkened conservatory listened to the placid sub-human breathings of heliotrope and lemon verbena, the latter with a faint catch in its drowsy susurration…” Then he talks about the house as if it had its own consciousness too: “Silent and alone the broad staircase fell into that trance of romantic melancholy which was its invariable mood when the hall lamp was first lit”.
So in this novel we live in a universe of multiple consciousnesses, at many levels: cosmic, natural, human, cultural and more. I think he wants to jolt us out of our dullness into a more vivid plane of thinking and feeling, and he succeeds. However, there are some aspects of Powy’s authorial point of view that are difficult to swallow. His pronouncements on how women feel and think (eg. “in a trance of mindless passivity”) seem objectionable at times, though delicate at others. His obscure references to the erotic sadism that preys on the mind of Mr Evans (purportedly a self-portrait) seem frustratingly obscure and helpful to me, though they play an important part in the plot.
Different people in the book want to turn the town into something new to fit their personal views of the world. Philip Crow, a businessman, want to modernise and enrich the town and “beat down this pious Glastonbury legend, this piece of monkish mummery.” The evangelical preacher Geard, wants to utilise the legends to further his own power, and express his enigmatic faith. Sam Dekker wants to explore sensual erotic passion, but later converts to a mystical asceticism. Red Robinson, Paul Trent and others want to overturn the current order of society and bring in a communist/socialist heaven on earth. John Crow, Edward Athling and others want to express themselves in pageants and poetry. There are many other currents that reflect on the overall development of British society in the 1920s. In that respect it is a deeply interesting reflection of society, culture and politics of the age, just as ‘Middlemarch’ reflects the society of the 1840s.
If one persists with the book (and frankly it took me many months), one becomes drawn into the characters and wants to discover how the many currents of their aims develop. The book starts in too leisurely a fashion, but rises to a fast-paced climax in the latter pages that is exciting, vivid and rewarding. On reaching the end, I felt an urge to start reading it again. I resisted this temptation, having other objectives in my life than reading books, but dipping into the earlier chapters again revealed a richer texture in the tapestry than I had first appreciated.
One may receive the impression from what I have said and quoted so far that the book is all portentous and high-flown. Far from it. ‘Glastonbury’ is lightened by many fine passages of conversation, delightful Somerset dialect, humourous touches, comic moments and light poetic perceptions. There is much to entertain the reader along the way. I find the light and the dark, the heavy and the light entwining in Powys’ fertile, dualistic brain. This is a characteristic he shares with his brother Theodore Powys, who wrote the novel ‘Unclay’ – a parallel work to this, set in a Dorset village.
Of the all the influences on Powys, apart from his own talented family, I think Thomas Hardy is the most prominent. I believe the brothers met the great man in person, and they certainly read many of his famous novels. They follow in his footsteps of creating a great native body of fiction rooted in the ‘West Country’ of England. Hardy created tragedies in the backwaters of Wessex, and the Powys family succeed in doing the same. However ‘Glastonbury’ cannot be simplistically labelled a tragedy. The word ‘Romance’ is wholly appropriate in the title of the novel.
‘Romance’ is a tricky word, since it is used in many different senses. The sense in which Powys used it, and which I say is appropriate, it chivalric romance, drawing on the tradition of High Medieval stories about heroic knights. This links directly with the most popular cycle of romances about King Arthur and the knights of the round table. Powys weaves in many references to the Arthurian legends, and he sets out to portray struggles and spiritual journeys, and several love stories. There are no crude references to damsels in distress or dragons, though you might identify Nell Zoyland and the aeroplane as such, if you choose.
The book is enriched by drawing on folklore, sagas, ghost stories and even satirical takes on the romance genre, such as ‘Don Quixote’ or ‘Sir Hudibras’. In this manner Powys aims to absorb, without judgemental condemnation, the many contradictory strands of human life. J.C. Powys was one of the earliest readers of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, and he succeeded in creating a work of comparable resonance and many layers.