A Glastonbury Romance

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Read 01/03/2021-14/03/2021

Rating 4 stars

A Glastonbury Romance is an incredible piece of literature. It won’t be to everyone’s taste. It rambles and gets bogged down in verbiage at times, but it also soars. I was utterly absorbed and entertained by it. The story examines the nature and meaning of life on Earth through the peccadilloes of its characters and John Cowper Powys’s commentary on various philosophical ideas, from religion to politics via environmentalism. I think it portrays human nature honestly, for the most part, but also reveals that Powys at best didn’t understand women, and at worst was a chauvinist.

The novel starts in Norfolk, on a crisp March day, with the funeral of Canon William Crow, before moving to Glastonbury and a battle between the forces of industrialism and religion, and between the traditional way of things and modernism. The significance of its Norfolk beginning becomes clear late in the book, as the ancient conquest of the Celtic Britons by the Anglo Saxons is played out again between the Norfolk natives and the descendants of the Glastonbury Celts.

The second in John Cowper Powys’s Wessex novels, first published in the US in 1932 and in the UK the following year, the book has a floridness of language typical of an earlier time. After a run of very modern books, it took a couple of paragraphs to find my reading rhythm. I can imagine some readers might give up on Powys’s verbosity quickly and don’t think this is a book for everyone by any means. I found it fascinating as an example of progressive writing from the first half of the 20th century that is simultaneously antiquated from the perspective of someone living 90 years later. There’s a healthy dose of satire in the mix, too, leavening what some might find pretentious or affected.

My copy was given to me 25 years ago by my boss at the record office I worked at in Plymouth. I’ve been waiting for the right moment to read it, because it’s a 1,174 page whopper.

I alighted on it now because of my recent reading of Notebook, and thoughts of Tom Cox’s imminent first novel Villager. Something about the way Cox writes, in particular his writing about Somerset in Ring the Hill, and my intrigue about what his novel will be like, reminded me that A Glastonbury Romance was sitting on my bookcase. Starting it also coincided with a week’s holiday and I got very little else done that week, so engrossed did I become.

John Crow arrives for the reading of his grandfather’s will from France via London. En route to Northwold, he’s given a lift by his Aunt Elizabeth, along with another of his cousins, Mary. John and Mary have a childhood connection and quickly rekindle their fascination with each other. The cousins are an unusual pair, fizzing with youth, hedonistic and seeking adventure. This, Powys intimates, will not last.

The will reading unleashes a mess of family intolerances. The dead grandfather cut all of his neglectful grandchildren out of his will and, aside from an annuity of £200 for his remaining spinster daughter, gave everything to his valet, John Geard. Eldest of the cousins, Philip Crow, is Geard’s benefactor, having introduced him to Canon Crow, and now his natural enemy. Persephone Spear and her husband David are idealistic young communists who abhor private property and had hoped to turn whatever inheritance they might receive to a greater common good. Mary and John are the only ones among the cousins who expected nothing from their grandfather.

Throughout the book, I liked Mary the most, and wished Powys had made more of her as a character. She has peaks and troughs, and Powys writes the best of her early on in the narrative. I found her early insouciance charming and her inner thoughts true. Those inner thoughts reveal the maturity of her thinking, but on the surface she is all casual indifference. There’s a wonderful throwaway line at the end of a paragraph describing the facial tic shared by members of the Crow family when trying to contain their discomfort at a situation.

It appeared now indeed more emphatically than Mary had ever seen it in any of her relatives’ faces except once when she had asked her grandfather at breakfast, as he dreamily looked out over that smooth secluded lawn, what the word “whore” meant.

As things progress, though, Mary’s decision to throw her lot in with John Crow is shown to be a bad one. I found myself urging her to cut her losses and run, but Powys isn’t a feminist writer, so suffering it had to be. Powys sets out his stall for this trajectory right at the start, when he tells us that John’s prayer to an ambiguous god brings down bad luck on the relationship instead of good.

From the off, Powys introduces the tension between the rational and the mystical. He places not only the geographical landscape into the novel as a character, but also the spirit of nature, the soul of the earth, which he tells us is a jealous and hostile god. There are large sections of writing scattered through the novel in which Powys expands on his theory of the interconnectedness of all things and the false separation of good from evil. I could have done without most of it, as it didn’t really add anything to the narrative for me, but Powys clearly thought the novel was partly there for him to disseminate his philosophical musings. He does it with other theories, too.

Through his use of landscape in his novels, Powys earned the reputation of being the successor to Thomas Hardy. His description of John Crow’s tramp from Norfolk to Glastonbury via Stonehenge justifies this reputation, with its atmospheric depiction of the ancient stones and the land they stand upon. Powys goes further than Hardy by including all aspects of nature as characters, from trees to horses to newts. There’s nothing sentimental or twee in their characterisation. Nothing off-puttingly magical, either. Nature is as cynical and egotistical as the humans it supports.

The heart of the novel is life in an English rural town, with its intrigues, hierarchies and inconsistencies. The relationships between different inhabitants would have been at home between the pages of one of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries. Some of the characters are as grotesque as those Christie created, patinaed with the respectability of social standing.

One aspect of the human relations in the town of Glastonbury wouldn’t have been depicted as forthrightly by Christie as they are by Powys. In this, he’s closer to D H Lawrence. There’s nothing salacious, but there is plenty that would have scandalised people at the time. Adultery and non-marital sex, bisexuality, homosexuality and lesbianism are all treated as the normal part of life that they are by Powys, who has even the local vicar, Mat Dekker, accepting his son Sam’s love affair with a married woman, Nell Zoyland. Powys himself had lived extra-maritally with an American woman for half of his married life. Surrounding this modern attitude to sex is Powys’s chauvinistic belief that women are largely passive in their relationship with men, simply waiting to be possessed by a man. It makes for unintentionally hilarious reading as he describes the thoughts of various lusting males. If the women have thoughts about sex, they’re dismissed as romantic fluff. Powys uses the novel as a vehicle to propound his thoughts on intimacy and the difference between the sexes. There’s a modicum of interesting stuff in there, but most of it is twaddle and gets in the way of the story telling.

Nell is another character that I liked. She’s married to a much older man and content if not happy in her marriage, until she meets the vicar’s son and dreams of him taking her away. Sam Dekker is a weak-willed man, though, who wants both to possess Nell but also to be free of encumbrance. Nell’s character trajectory sees her change from a flighty and passive plaything of the two men in her life into a woman who takes control of her life. The moment when she realises that the game she’s part of isn’t one she wants to play anymore is glorious.

There’s also a strand within Powys’s personal philosophy that draws on Dostoevsky and perhaps also Kafka in the way Powys uses insects as analogous with human nature. John Crow imagines a version of himself as a human louse that echoes Raskolnikov’s feeling for the pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna and Kafka’s Gregor Samsa. Sam Dekker also muses on bugs and their relationship with their environment when considering how his personal religious faith and the political faith of his communist employers intersects with the suffering of the poor in Glastonbury.

The town’s local politics are interesting in the way the aspiring communards of the area seek the election as mayor of a man they view as a fool to be manipulated by them to their ends. There are supposed fools elected to leadership throughout history, and we have only recently seen the effects it can have. It’s no different in the Glastonbury of this book. Geard, the man the local communists seek to elect, has his own agenda, based around Glastonbury being a very particular English town, with layers of myth and legend around the Tor and Abbey, including those of Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail and King Arthur.

A Glastonbury Romance is most of all a Grail novel. Various cups stand for the Grail, from the local madam’s silver punchbowl and a gold christening cup to a vision of a crystal chalice holding Ichthus, the Fish of the World that symbolises the Christ.

One of the characters, Owen Evans, is convinced that Glastonbury has a connection to Wales through the druidical tradition represented by Merlin in the Arthurian myth. For Evans, the Grail is pagan, in its original meaning of rustic and pre-Christian, brought to Glastonbury by Merlin, and hidden by him in Chalice Hill. Much of Evans’s theorising is based on the 13th century Black Book of Carmarthen, which contains earlier descriptions of Merlin (or Merddyn) than those found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s chronicles. He also draws on the Book of Taliesin, the Mabinogion and the Red Book of Hergest, to support his claim that Glastonbury and Somerset, or Gwlad yr Haf, were originally Welsh in culture.

The novel’s Welsh folklore aspects chimed nicely with beginning to read it on St David’s Day. Although Powys wasn’t Welsh – he was born in Derbyshire and grew up near Glastonbury – he moved to Corwen in Merionethshire a couple of years after publishing A Glastonbury Romance. He lived there for 20 years before moving to Blaenau Ffestiniog for the last 8 years of his life. This novel is the first of five novels in which Powys draws on his interest in Welsh mythology. For that reason, I’m counting it towards this year’s Dewithon.

The first half of the book builds ominously to Geard’s tourism driven Midsummer festival. As well as temporal tensions between capitalist pragmatist Philip Crow and communist idealist Dave Spear over the best way to run a factory, and between Crow’s industrial approach to the financial stability of the town and Geard’s rather hollow pageantry, many of the older townspeople sense a more spiritual cataclysm on the horizon.

The pageant itself is farcical, with its serried ranks of dignitaries, foreign visitors and ordinary townsfolk witnessing the intended protest of Red Robinson, the anarchist fomentor of civil action, fizzle out in the face of police apathy, distracted as they are by drunken merrymakers on the fringe, moments before Geard’s Passion play with a difference is due to start. The am-dram chaos of the performance combined with the chaos of the confused proletarian protest could have been written by Victoria Wood.

The second half of the book felt less coherent. It drifts for long periods before delivering a jumble of Powys’s philosophical thoughts on the nature of the world and grotesque vignettes that reveal the corruption in the hearts of some of the key characters. Whatever release Geard’s bizarre pageant felt like it was going to deliver doesn’t happen.

People’s lives move on in some ways and remain static in others. The key events are Philip Crow discovering tin deep in Wookey Hole and planning his next capitalist venture, contrasted with the local communists obtaining the leasehold lands of the town from under Philip Crow in a plan to effectively nationalise Glastonbury, contrasted again with Geard’s attempts to build a Lourdes-like reputation for Glastonbury.

Between these strands, Powys weaves an undercurrent of the old ways of Glastonbury, involving the sentience of a stormy night, pagan rituals to bring down perceived enemies, and a supposed miracle in the Chalice Well, renamed the Grail Fountain by Geard in his latest tourism driven venture. Even Philip Crow’s attempts to impress his illegitimate daughter with his modernising plans reveal that respect for the old ways of Glastonbury run deep among its native residents, even those as young as Nelly.

It’s the old ways that win out in the end. Less than 80 pages from the last sentence, there’s a violent tragedy that stems from one Glastonbury resident’s belief in the ancient religion of that place, encouraged by Geard’s performed mystical religiosity.

The novel ends in catastrophe on a Biblical scale. Nature, reclaiming the land exploited by humankind, removes all trace of Geard and his new religion, breaks up Philip Crow’s new road and bridge, turns the residents against the commune.

For all its faults, mostly its verbiage and self-indulgence, I was entranced by this novel. I was on leave from work when I started it and found myself reading for hours, immersed. Each time I emerged, I felt a bit woozy, as though I’d somehow time travelled or slipped through a crack to another dimension. It’s been an unusual reading experience, for sure.

17 thoughts on “A Glastonbury Romance

  1. Maybe the portrayal of the natural world might draw me in, but I’m in no mood for a doorstopper this substantial, and nor have you sold story or style to me in this instance. Sorry, I think I’ll pass …

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    1. You’re welcome, Paula. My next read is very different, and a couple of coincidentally appropriate books came in the post recently that will potentially bump Jon Ronson off the list!

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  2. I’m intruiged because I like many of the authors you compared him to, Hardy, Lawrence, and Dostoyevsky, but wow, 1,100 pages! I liked that throw away line 🙂

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    1. It’s a beast of a book, Laura, that’s for sure! If I’d been his editor I’d have suggested cutting a quarter of the text, mostly the personal philosophy stuff which I skim read to get the gist of. The core story is great, and I enjoyed the characters, but it’s a hard one to urge people to read!

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  3. Jan, you have me sold. I’m not saying I’ll be reading it any time soon but I’m intrigued enough to be pleased that it’s available on kindle and hopefully one day I’ll get started on it. Once started, I suspect it will take me months – years – to finish. I’m a fan of a doorstopper read in small daily chunks and this would fit that brief.

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    1. I thought I’d replied, Sandra, but it looks like I didn’t – reading it on Kindle is a good idea. My copy is the 1933 hardback and I was glad that I didn’t have to read it on a bus commute! I wonder how your daily chunks will go. There were moments when I couldn’t put it down, I was so immersed in the world Powys had created. Maybe one day, in months or years, we’ll compare notes on it.

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    1. It is a beast of a book. If I hadn’t been on holiday from work for the first week of reading it, I wouldn’t have finished it as quickly as I did. I like the sound of The Life of Rebecca Jones that Chris at Calmgrove reviewed recently. I’m currently re-reading The Owl Service by Alan Garner, that I first read nearly 40 years ago. It takes inspiration from the Mabinogion and is full of weird goings on. Not as terrifying as pre-teen me found it, though!

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