Tuesday 15 September 2009

'The Blackthorn Winter' by Philippa Powys

This book needs to be considered on its own merits, separated from the context of the rest of the large, talented Powys family. This was the only book published by the author, in 1930. It was out of print until re-published by the Sundial Press in 2007.

It is a relatively short novel, of less than 200 pages. The style is direct and focused, which I find powerful. Philippa Powys tells us the essentials, as she sees them, and does not meander in the story, nor philosophise. She does not consider it necessary to give us any background to the heroine, Nancy, except that she is a dairy-maid, ‘walking out’ with the Blacksmith’s son.

However the author considers it important to embed the story in the English countryside, with frequent lyrical and poetic descriptions of natural phenomena. She describes skies, rain, hedgerows, trees, cattle and horses. These have a vividness that could only have come with deep personal experience.

The story concerns her encounter with a handsome young gypsy, which happens in the very first chapter of the book. I wondered in the first few chapters if this was a ‘Mills and Boon’ type romantic novel. But I have never read ‘Mills and Boon’ books, so I have no standard of comparison. Whatever they may be, I believe this rises to a level of literature.

The book stands in a the shadow of Thomas Hardy, and is undeniably influenced by his Wessex novels. The style and ethos remind me of Hardy frequently, but the author creates her own territory.

The other influence seems to be DH Lawrence, with the emphasis on irrational passion and internal mental conflicts. Having read some Lawrence in recent years, I would boldly claim that Philippa Powys comes out well in a direct comparison. She gets to the point, and pares her narrative down severely, while Lawrence is often frustratingly vague and indigestible.

There is a Victorian modesty about sex, and the modern reader must wonder if various encounters in haylofts and woods involve just kisses, or full penetration. In a way, it is good to leave it to the imagination, and avoid the full-frontal starkness of a ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. In another way, the story is incomplete without conveying the physical ecstasy of sexual feelings that can override prudence and societal morality.

Instead we are given brilliant objective correlatives in the weather, animals, trees and such. Thunder crashes, a cow licks a still-born calf, a horse lies dead on the ground with foam in its mouth and an Elm tree is split by lightening – all conveying the intensity and directions of human emotions. Her psychological descriptions are brief, sometimes unconvincing and often non-existent. These are substituted by the objective correlatives in a poetic way, so that we appreciate dramatic mood changes, tenderness, despair and guilt.

Interestingly there is no divine dimension. The world of the book is without religious reference. We are in a Godless world. Fate drives Nancy downwards, but we are not encouraged to think about meaning or philosophy. There is an astonishing purity and focus in the book, as if the author is slightly dislocated from the world.

I particularly appreciated the West-Country and Gypsy dialogue and diction for its realism and colour. To me it seemed genuine, though I am no linguistic expert: “I’s naught. I’s only ‘ee.” “Ain’t ‘ee got no biving for a fellow? And starving at that.” “’Twere somewhat I thought thee’d like. Mother gave it I. ‘Twere her mother’s afore her.” “Law! How you harp on them gypsies. Think they’d a kissed you by the way you keep on.”…

This is a book worth reading. It will not require a large investment of time, and it may set you thinking how many minor novelists remain in the thickets of English literature to be (re)discovered. Sundial Press have done us a great service here, and may they persist in their endeavours. It is also a joy to own and display on one’s shelves such a beautifully produced physical object, with well-chosen jacket design.

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