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The Derbyshire Powys' - A Forgotten Literary Family

The Derbyshire Powys'

A Forgotten Literary Family - by Tom Bates

Did you know that the most successfully accomplished family in British literary history once lived in Derbyshire? Or that four of them were born here and went on to publish over one hundred books between them? No? then read on!

English literature is hardly blessed with many great literary families - (`literary families' in the accepted sense, are families where more than one person becomes a successfully published author); in fact during the past hundred and fifty years only two such literary families immediately spring to mind; the Brontes of Haworth, (in Yorkshire), and the famous Derbyshire family of the Sitwells at Renishaw Hall.

Three of the Bronte sisters were published authors, although only Emily and Charlotte achieved full recognition by the literary establishment, Anne having written just one minor book before her early demise and burial at Scarborough.

The Sitwells could also boast three published authors in Dame Edith, Sir Osbert, and Sir Sacheveral Sitwell and all three are mentioned in the standard guide to literary accomplishment, the Oxford Companion to English Literature - giving them the edge over the two Brontes.
But the most amazing family in literary history was that of the Rev.Charles Francis Powys and his wife, Mary Cowper Johnson, who claimed direct descent from both John Donne and William Cowper, two giants of English literature.
The Powys' family of eleven children produced no less than seven who became published authors!

Of those who didn't, one farmed in Africa in the old Belgian Congo and was awarded the Croix de Guerre de Leopold for his war exploits; one was a trained artist who exhibited in London and Paris, and another became a world authority on lace making, with an exclusive shop on Lexington Avenue in New York City.

Of the published authors amongst them, the same four can be found in Who's Who? and the Oxford Companion to English Literature - and three of them, two known famously as "˜The Powys Brothers' - were born in Derbyshire!

Rev. Charles Francis Powys was the great nephew of Thomas Powys, created the first Lord Lilford in 1797, and the Powys' were also cousins of the Shirley family who held the living of the parish of Shirley in Derbyshire and were direct descendants of Earl Ferrers, the first Sheriff of the County.

Charles Francis Powys was vicar of St. Michael and All Angels Parish Church, Shirley between 1871 and 1879.
John Cowper Powys (1872-1963); Littleton Charles Powys (1874-1955); Theodore Francis Powys (1875-1953), and Gertrude Mary Powys (1877-1952) were all born at Shirley Vicarage, near Ashbourne in Derbyshire. Another child, Eleanor Powys was born in 1879, just prior to Charles Powys removing to the living of St. Peters in Dorchester and then six years later to Montacute in Somerset where he remained vicar from 1885 - 1918.

Three more Powys children were born in Dorchester, Albert Reginald (1881), Marian (1882), and Llewelyn (1884) - and yet three more at Montacute, Somerset; Catherine Edith Philippa, known as Katie (1886), William Ernest (1888) and Lucy Amelia (1890).

Sadly Eleanor died from a burst appendix in 1893, aged 13.
Of the four remaining "˜Derbyshire Powys', the eldest, Cambridge educated John Cowper went on to become a writer whose lengthy bibliography puts most in the shade and whose genius is largely responsible for the inspiration behind a literary society which today spans the entire globe.

John Cowper Powys died at his home in Wales in 1963 aged 91, and during his long and illustrious career he published 23 novels, 17 biographical and autobiographical works, 10 books of literary studies, 16 books of philosophical essays and 9 books of poetry and drama; in addition he wrote introductions to dozens of books and contributed hundreds of essays to magazines and newspapers in both England and America - all of which makes him undoubtedly Derbyshire's most prolific and successful author.

Like his father before him and his younger brothers afterwards John was educated first at Sherborne School, and later at Cambridge University (1891-94).
He became first a schoolmaster in Sussex, and after marrying Margaret Lyon in 1896, lectured all over England for the Oxford University Extension Authority.
In 1904 he first visited the U.S.A and over the next 25 years became one of the most popular speakers in America, lecturing on English literature in every single state and drawing crowds of two and three thousand people. Ezra Pound attended his lectures, as did Henry Miller and Charlie Chaplin, who invited him to Hollywood where he was making "˜The Pilgrim' and `Jack' Powys, as he was known was lauded wherever he went.

He eventually returned to England in the 1930's and finally settled in his ancestral home of Wales in 1935. In May 1936 at a Druid ceremony at Corwen Eisteddfod he was invested with a Bardic title and continued writing until he was over ninety years old!

His most successful books include, Autobiography (1934), and the novels Wolf Solent (1929), Weymouth Sands (1934), Maiden Castle (1936), and the remarkable A Glastonbury Romance (1932). This book was re-issued last year (2004) and became a best-seller sixty-five years after it was first published!

George Steiner in his review calls it, "The only novel produced by an English writer that can fairly be compared to the fictions of Tolstoy and Dostoievsky"?
Littleton Powys became the Headmaster at Sherborne School, where he remained for many years; he later married the novelist Elizabeth Myers, and his books include The Joy of It (1937), Still the Joy of It (1956) and The Letters of Elizabeth Myers (1951). He latterly ran the Powys Bookshop in Hastings, and at his death in 1955, one of his former pupils, the poet Louis MacNeice wrote of him as `a Gentle Knight.'

Theodore Francis Powys was also born in derbyshire, but he married a local Dorset lass and lived the rest of his life in that county. He was regarded as a hermit, was a friend of Thomas Hardy, as were his other writing brothers, wrote in the style of a biblical patriarch and attracted a cult following of artists and writers to the little village of East Chaldon during the 1920's and 30's. Theodore's published books include The Soliloquy of a Hermit (1918), and his most successful novels include Mr. Tasker's Gods (1925), Innocent Birds (1926) Mr.Weston's Good Wine (1927), and Unclay (1931). In addition he wrote six other novels and 30 books of short stories. He died in Mappowder, Somerset in 1953.

The final one of the "˜Derbyshire Powys' was Gertrude Mary Powys, a very talented artist who first studied in Paris in 1913. She travelled extensively but never married and devoted her time to looking after her father, brothers and sisters following the early death of their mother, Mary Cowper Powys in 1914.

Gertrude farmed in Dorset and eventually returned to Paris to study in 1923 when she was 46. She later exhibited her paintings in both London and at the National Gallery in Paris. She died in 1952 in Dorset aged 75.
It is worth noting that of the other seven children of the Rev.Charles Francis Powys born outside Derbyshire, Llewelyn Powys, invalided by tuberculosis for much of his life was the author of some 30 published books, including some of the finest and most beautiful prose ever written in the English language, and included among his many correspondents were both Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and the President himself!

Albert Reginald Powys was a respected architect and Secretary of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings and author of The English House (1929) Repair of Ancient Buildings (1929) and The English Parish Church (1930).
Marian Powys was the author of Lace & Lace-making (1953), and Katie Powys, the poetess of the family, wrote a well received novel, The Blackthorn Winter (1930) and published an excellent collection of poetry, Driftwood (1930); Driftwood & Other Poems was published by the Powys Society in 1992.

The amazing Powys Family are unique in the literary world - and yet nowhere in any literature about Derbyshire-born authors will you find the name of Powys!
This unaccountable lapse is perhaps explained by the Welsh-sounding name and the fact that the most famous of the writing brothers, John Cowper Powys lived latterly in Wales, was invested with a Bardic title, and claimed to be a descendent of the ancient Princes of Powys. But surely Derbyshire can be justifiably proud and lay claim to it's own illustrious "˜Derbyshire Powys' - all four of them!
*The old Powys home at Shirley vicarage, is now the home of Viscount Tamworth.

This article has been brought to you by our resident peak district writer Tom Bates