Adventures with Lord Jim

No-one would argue there’s a scarcity of published letters by John Cowper Powys. Too many maybe. And yet whenever there’s another collection – like the new Powys and Lord Jim: The Correspondence between James Hanley and John Cowper Powys 1929-1965 – a further pool of colourful and flavourful insights is revealed. 

Like this, when Powys remembers the family legend of efforts to save their famous relative William Cowper from his fear of Hell, “driven mad very largely by some religious wretch talking of damnation”:

my great-grandfather, a youth just down from Corpus [Christi College in Cambridge], pretended to be God & whispered to him thro’ the keyhole: “You’re saved Cowper! You’re saved! You’re saved!” But it was no good.

Chris Gostick’s running commentary turns the batches of letters into a very readable narrative. And with such a complex character as Powys, there’s also the great value of reading about James Hanley’s perspective, built from intimate experience and conversations. This from Hanley struck me as getting to the very heart of what makes a Powys novel so unlike any other.

The bloodiest battle being fought today is that in which the imagination of men is slowly being murdered by knowledge. Mr Powys, from his secluded corner of the Berwyns, knows this, and from time to time strikes great blows in defence of it.

JCP understood that people more often hide behind formal knowledge and its conventions than they do imagination. Reading fiction isn’t necessarily an escape. We engage with reality more honestly through imagination, when there’s a conversation with everything around us and everything it makes us think and feel; more than we ever could do by sticking to the facts as revealed by formal education and knowledge. Powys is always stripping back, shaking the world free from its tired, dull, cynical, modern gaze.

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