Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, alma mater of the Powys family, retains some timeless qualities. Entering via the darkness of a medieval gatehouse, you come to the worn paving stones of the courtyard, stone walls softened with age, the stump of an ancient wisteria and some new green shoots promising a summer festoon. It was all strikingly sunlit for the Powys Society’s 50th anniversary meeting at the weekend.
JCP wrote only in passing about the details of his time at Corpus in the early 1890s, some about the characters he met, much more about the continued shaping of his very individual psychological character (twisted and bent like a bonsai tree). Being at Corpus made me think more of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Gate of Angels (1990). A short novel set in 1912 (so some 20 years after Powys) and a fictional Cambridge college of St Angelicus, Fitzgerald evokes beautifully that insular, redolently male world of academe, the damp chambers and smoky fires – and, most importantly, the intellectual dramas of older faiths versus a noisily assertive science. Can all things really be explained so simply?
Fitzgerald shows her hand as being on the side of those who feel there might be more going on than physics. Through all of her novels she displays all kinds of sympathies with a Powysian outlook, her interest in outsiders, how people live on the edges of conventional society, in the value of kindness, a muddle of faith and humour. There’s a particular idea expressed in her novel about the German Romantic Novalis, The Blue Flower (1995), that could have been written by JCP:
Courage is more than endurance, it is the power to create your own life in the face of all that man or God can inflict, so that every day and every night is what you imagine it. Courage makes us dreamers, courage makes us poets.
Yet, despite her wide reading and long career teaching English literature, there’s no sign of her having read Powys. I hope she hadn’t dismissed him too quickly.
The Society meeting was fascinating, as ever, in telling the story of its early days, the stories and people involved – all heightened by the evocative Corpus surroundings. There’s nothing dry or staid about the Society either, as demonstrated by some of the anecdotes. Vice-chairman and founder member David Goodway described how one of the many early special guests to a conference was Laurence Pollinger, an eminent literary agent of the time. G Wilson Knight, giving one of his typically frank and eccentric talks, was making repeated references to Powys and masturbation. Pollinger had also brought along his wife to this literary event, and her face, it was said, “was a picture”.