The diary of John Cowper Powys, 1939

Reference: NLW MS 22215B

Here we have the diary of John Cowper Powys for the year 1939.  Powys is considered one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century. He was also a prolific poet, a literary critic and a popular philosopher. The National Library has a rich and extensive collection of his manuscripts, which includes literary drafts and correspondence.; It also holds a complete run of his diaries, from 1929 to 1961 (NLW MSS 22206-41B, 22807A).

John Cowper Powys

Powys was born in Shirley, Derbyshire, in 1872.  He was the eldest of eleven children, in a family notable for its individualistic characters. His brothers, Theodore Francis Powys (1875-1953) and Llewelyn Powys (1884-1939), also became important writers. Their father, a clergyman, took great pride in his Welsh ancestry; their mother was descended from the English poets William Cowper and John Donne.

When John Cowper Powys was a boy, the family moved to Dorchester, Dorset, and afterwards to Montacute, Somerset.  Thus the landscape of the old kingdom of Wessex (the setting for Thomas Hardy’s novels) came to play an important part in his imagination.  Powys published his first volume of poems in 1896, and his first novel, Wood and Stone, in 1915.

For twenty five years he earned his living as an itinerant lecturer in America, and made a name for himself as a charismatic and inspired orator.  During a visit to Missouri in 1921 he met Phyllis Playter (1894-1982) who became his partner and a powerful influence upon his literary career. Powys reached his maturity as a writer in 1929, with the publication of his fifth novel, Wolf Solent. It was followed by two other novels of immense scope and psychological subtlety: A Glastonbury Romance (1932), and Weymouth Sands (1934). In the same year he published his very revealing Autobiography. Although written in America, these books are full of sensuous descriptions of the Wessex landscapes of his youth. Like Powys himself, the protagonists of his novels are introspective characters who seek to come to terms with the world by developing a personal mythology.

In 1935, Powys and Playter moved to Corwen, Meirionnydd, and afterwards, in 1955, to a quarryman’s cottage in Blaenau Ffestiniog.  He learnt to read Welsh, immersed himself in the history and mythology of the country, and became a close friend of notable Welsh figures such as Iorwerth Peate and Elena Puw Morgan.  It was during this period that two of his greatest masterpieces were composed: the historical romances Owen Glendower (1940), and Porius (1951).  Powys continued to write books and to keep a diary until shortly before his death, at the age of 91, in 1963.

The diary

Powys’s diaries are an important part of his literary output.  They throw a good deal of light upon his creative processes, and upon his relationship with Phyllis Playter.  In them, she is referred to affectionately as ‘the T.T.’, or ‘Tiny Thin’. The diary for 1939 reveals much about their life in Corwen, and about Powys’s struggle to complete Owen Glendower. In particular, it shows how Phyllis Playter influenced the final form of that novel.  It also records Powys’s response to the death of his brother Llewelyn on 2 December 1939.

Further reading

  • Krissdóttir, Morine, ed., Petrushka and the Dancer: the Diaries of John Cowper Powys, 1929-1939 (Carcanet Press: Manchester, 1995).
  • Krissdóttir, Morine, Descents of Memory: the life of John Cowper Powys (Overlook Duckworth: London, 2007).
  • National Library of Wales: John Cowper Powys and Phyllis Playter Papers.

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