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Authors: John Cowper Powys

After My Fashion

BOOK: After My Fashion
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JOHN COWPER POWYS

After My Fashion

Foreword by Francis Powys

Foreword

by Francis Powys

John Cowper Powys had already written
Wood and Stone
and
Rodmoor
which were published by Arnold Shaw of New York. The reviews of both these early books were encouraging but the sales were infinitesimal. 1916 was no time to issue a novel in America. J.C.P. however was already thinking of a third book, one which had Sussex for a background, with nature obtruding itself less, a quieter novel, free from the influence or suggestion of any other writer – Thomas Hardy, for instance, to whom he had dedicated
Wood and Stone
and who was indeed a good friend.

During this period J.C.P. met Isadora Duncan and he speaks of her in a letter to one of his sisters.

    

Do you know Isadora sent me a telegram once from San Francisco to New York which said ‘I am thinking of you as I dance here tonight – love Isadora.' And she danced the Marseillaise for me once in New York. That was one day when I found her reading Nietzsche's
Birthday Tragedy
. I first met her in Marian's [another sister's] shop in Washington Square. Marian told her fortune and in her mischievous way kept saying ‘Why don't you two go to Spain?' She is the only one who ever gave your eldest brother – the veteran Chatangua lecturer – hundreds and hundreds of red roses, so that my little room in 12th Street was flooded with them.

   

There can be no doubt but that Isadora Duncan is the model from which Elise the dancer in
After my Fashion
was drawn, though she herself was born in San Francisco while Elise was born in New York.

The novel begins with the return of Richard Storm (in many ways a projection of J.C.P. himself) from Paris where he has left his mistress Elise. He has had some poetical success in the French magazines but now wishes to assess his thoughts over Elise and also visit his grandparents' grave in the village of Littlegate. He stops at the ancient town of Selshurst and walks over to Littlegate nearby. While there he meets the vicar's daughter, a beautiful girl, and also her fiancé, a war hero and painter with curious manners. Returning to Selshurst Richard finds that the girl, Nelly, has made a deep impression on him. He cannot believe that she is really in love with
the painter; indeed he finds out later that she is marrying him chiefly to help her father, a naturalist, who has neglected his parish and is about to be retired by the bishop.

Intermingled with the story of Richard Storm, the dancer Elise, Nelly, her father, Robert Canyot the painter and others are many beautiful descriptions, not only of the country town of Selshurst, the village of Littlegate, the lanes, fields and downs, so reminiscent of his homes in Sussex near Lewes and at Burpham, but also the streets and buildings of New York and especially Greenwich Village where J.C.P. himself lived for so many years.

It is doubtful if any publisher's reader even looked at
After My
Fashion
in those difficult days, let alone gave it his serious consideration. J.C.P. rarely re-offered a book after it had been turned down and
After My Fashion
seems no exception. His
Keats
, a critical work, he refused to alter even slightly and when sent back it was put aside and eventually lost.

J.C.P. had no real wish to become a writer. His ideal future he wrote in one of his letters was to be a famous actor living with Nelly (his favourite sister) for he says: ‘She and I were alike exactly in our mental life, our aesthetic or artistic life, our emotional and our erotis life.' But it was not to be, as she died of peritonitis at the early age of thirteen. In spite of chronic ill-health he started his tours, becoming no ordinary lecturer but one who was able to enter the minds, the bodies almost, of those on whom he was speaking. He actually seemed to become his subject. His only difficulty, he himself said, was his inability to stop. ‘I used to try to stop and even begin my peroration, but something, some delicate nuance, some metaphysical nicety would come sliding into my brain and I would go whirling on.'

This is what Maurice Browne the theatrical impresario had to say of him: ‘Once I heard him talk on Hardy for over two hours to an audience of two thousand in a huge auditorium in the heart of Chicago's slums. Throughout those one hundred and thirty minutes there was not a sound from his listeners save an occasional roar of applause or laughter. And when he had finished speaking we rose like one person demanding more. The man was a great actor.'

The books that he had written between ‘mean jumps', as his manager Arnold Shaw called his journeys from coast to coast and into Canada, were already published and when ill-health forced him
to retire he went to live in Hillsdale.
A Glastonbury Romance
, probably his greatest work,
Weymouth Sands
and the
Autobiography
were among the masterpieces written during this period.

In 1934 J.C.P. returned to England, settling first in Dorset and later in North Wales where he turned out novels and philosophical works in rapid succession. Great though he undoubtedly was he remained a neglected author. Maybe, at last, through the efforts of some discerning publishers he will come into his own. He is of the same mould as Hardy, perhaps even greater; only time will tell.

By the time he left the train at Selshurst, and bag and stick in hand started resolutely upon his five mile walk to the village of Littlegate where his family associations lay, Richard had succeeded in thrusting Elise Angel into temporary oblivion. He concentrated his mind, as he followed the little by-street towards the centre of the cathedral city, upon those aspects of his life which were independent of the beautiful dancer.

He had not seen England for some twenty years and the last four out of that twenty had held him captive in a small French town doing unheroic but necessary work at a certain military base. His war record, as he looked back on it now, had been neither especially noble nor especially mean. He had paid the penalty of his lack of heroic impulse by his lack of any particularly dramatic memories.

What he felt now, in regard to so many of his French friends, who were lying dead in their crowded graves, was a deep desire to justify the accident of his own escape by some really adequate contribution to the bitter-sweet cup of the world's hard-wrung wisdom.

Such a contribution in his case could only be in the form wherein he was already a tolerable adept and with a fair reputation. It must in fact be some species of what we call Literature, and his prayer to the gods was that it might prove to be poetry – poetry different altogether, and far more human and original, than the easy charming verses, with a faint fragrance of morbidity, which had so far contented him.

Such reputation as he had already won was rather of the critical than of the creative order and was mostly due to his ‘appreciations' of the more modern poets of France; among whom he still numbered the only intimate friends he had, and in whose society he had almost continuously lived through a vividly crowded youth.

Though he had seen comparatively little of its real horror, the war had profoundly affected him; and one of its most noticeable effects was a sudden strange restlessness and a curious dissatisfaction with his Paris life and with his poet-friends.

They had behaved heroically in the deadly struggle, much more heroically than he had himself. And yet, now the thing was over
and he was free, he found himself, for some deep reason he could only very crudely analyse, out of touch with them and out of sympathy with them. He had changed, he had most drastically changed; and they – those of them who were left alive – seemed to have become more violently, more dogmatically than ever, their old, fierce, hard, fantastic, hedonistic selves.

What he, Richard Storm, was really ‘after' now, what he was in search of, what he actually wanted to express, in this new poetry he intended to write, he himself could hardly have said. But whatever it was, it was something that, even in its cloudy and embryonic fumblings after a living identity, was strong enough to break up and shatter to bits his contentment with his previous existence.

The hard, clear-cut, artificial fragilities of his French friends seemed only to fret and tease him now. A certain craving for air, for space, for large and flowing movements, for unbounded horizons, had suddenly come upon him and had ruined the peace of his days as he returned to his old haunts. He found himself weary of his old critical subtleties. Some queer unexpected stirring in his soul seemed driving him forth into a world larger and more onward-looking, if less clear cut and complete, than the one he had dwelt in contentedly for so long.

He found himself trying to visualize Russia and the exciting world-shaking experiments there; and it was as if he were gazing into some turbulent cosmic workshop where the world-gods, in heat and sweat and dust and smoke, were hammering out a new groove for the great wheel.

Elise had certainly upset his old life – the war and Elise! Those two together had taken him by the hair of his head and pulled him up by the very roots out of his old pastures.

He had run away from Paris without a single day of farewells. Never before in his life had he fled from an adventure. Well! he must not think of that any more; not any more; lest he curse himself as a cowardly fool. Ah, those eyes, those hands, that unequalled woman's body! Was it really some actual Socratic demon that had snatched him away from her and hurled him into the train for Havre just when his chances with her were at their hopefullest?

As he made his way now through the leafy purlieus of Selshurst Cathedral that tantalizing figure hovered maddeningly before him. It mingled with the green moss and with the ancient ivy of the
episcopal garden wall; and it interfered with his delight in those pleasant places and with the thrill of remembering that it was here that Keats must have composed his fragmentary ‘Eve of St Mark'.

It was strange that he had not a living relative in England; nor any friend beyond mere acquaintanceship. All his emotional as well as all his professional entanglements had been associated with Paris; and Paris at this moment, with the weight of memories it contained, was reduced to the dimensions of one solitary figure, dancing on an empty stage against black curtains!

His own parents had been long dead; dead years before the war; and it was only the knowledge that his father's parents – the old Benjamin and the old Susanna – lay buried at Littlegate, that had induced him in his craving for some foothold in his native land, to make his way into these Sussex fields.

He did not enter the cathedral, though he saw one of. its cool cavernous doors wide open. He felt the need of rapid movement and the need of a completer solitude.

He hesitated for a moment between two rival tea shops which faced one another across the narrow street. But there were cheerful citizens of Selshurst drinking tea in both of them, and he continued on his way. Finally he obtained a glass of milk in a tiny dairy shop in the outskirts of the town, upon the polished counter of which stood an enormous china cow and a glass full of buttercups.

Directed by a voluble signpost at the first crossroads to the north of the little city, a signpost that seemed to have room for every village on the sea-side of the Downs, he found his road speedily narrowing into a most agreeable country lane between high hedges white with hawthorn.

For two miles he followed this lane, getting constant glimpses of light-foliaged woods in front of him, of upward-sloping parklands and, above these, of the naked crest of the Downs, mistily blue through the mid-May haze.

At last, a little tired and heated by rapid walking, he climbed over a gate into a small field shadowed by oaks and put up for hay and, sinking down among buttercups and clover, he set himself to take stock of his surroundings.

The spire of the cathedral rose nobly out of the pasture lands, the vaguely outlined roofs of the city beneath it mingling with trees and hedgerows so as almost to efface themselves. The broad meadows
stretched away, flat and monotonous, in one unbroken level of living greenness until they reached the edge of the sea. Storm was not high enough up yet to get a glimpse of the water. The sea's edge from where he lay was dimly marked by a sudden arrest of that flowing stream of leafiness, an arrest which took place before the natural horizon could have been reached; the sea-banks being further indicated by the isolated look of individual objects, such as windmills, gates and solitary trees, presenting that peculiar suggestion of an unbounded expanse behind them which dwellers by that particular portion of the English Channel come to know so well.

As Storm stretched himself out on the cool grass, with the constant scent of the clover in his nostrils and the far-blown gusts of bitter-sweet fragrance from the May-bushes coming and going on the light wind, he felt a deep thrill of pure delight to be once more in the land of his own people.

He found himself instinctively offering up a votive prayer to the souls of the dead, and the souls of the maimed and blighted, who had thrown their breathing, vibrating, passionate youthful bodies between the cruel engines of the invader and this fair country.

As a philosopher he was well aware of the sinister ambiguities of most patriotic moods, but something subconscious and very deep in him drove philosophy away at that moment. Whatever might be the responsibilities of rulers and governments, he felt a thrill of plain gratitude in that hour to those who had suffered so incredibly that these fields might remain as they had remained since the waves of the sea receded from the face of the land.

Philosophy might whisper that it was not the tillers of these pastures who got the good of them or who gained most from this great escape; but into
that
matter our returned wanderer had no intention of entering on this pleasant afternoon. English labourers, English farmers, English squires, English shopkeepers, English tramps, he was prepared to rejoice with them all, that they could renew their private and particular controversies in profound peace! Might the fathomless Unknown be propitious, that those who had endured so much for the sake of the future should not be altogether forgotten and betrayed by those who lived on!

The sweetness of his mid-May afternoon in these incomparable
fields sank so deeply into Storm's soul that he never afterwards quite forgot that walk to Littlegate.

It returned upon him with all its strangely mingled impressions, again and again in later days; and it always returned with a kind of symbolic value.

The remaining three miles of his road were taken more leisurely. He stopped frequently to listen to the birds. He lingered over the fast fading hedge plants of the earlier spring, such as celandines and cuckoo-flowers. He clambered down a steep bank to the margin of a slimy pond to touch with his fingers the cold wet roots of the water ranunculus. He waited long for the reappearance of two swift-winged butterflies, marvellous specimens of the Red Admiral species, who floated over the hedge making love to each other.

    

Advancing thus slowly it was after six o'clock when he arrived at the hamlet of Littlegate and made his way to the churchyard.

Littlegate church was one of those typical smaller Sussex churches, looking as if it had been made out of the fabric of some huge barn, with the little squat erection, half-tower, half-spire, like an extinguisher upon an extinguished candle, plumped down upon its. west end.

In place of yew trees there were two tall ilexes on each side of the graveyard; and, in the field adjoining it, stood four or five enormous sycamores which added as much perhaps to the monumental dignity of the scene as did the roof of the church. It was certainly the roof of the church, high-tilted and sweeping down almost to the ground, that gave the building its character. It was covered with brilliant orange lichen, and Richard thought he had never seen so imposing a roof except upon certain great barns in the north of France.

He was surprised at the smallness of the village and found himself regretting that he had not secured a room for the night in some Selshurst inn. There was evidently no inn of any kind in the hamlet of Littlegate. There was nothing that he could see from where he stood at the church porch except a rambling old farmhouse, a row of ancient cottages facing a still more ancient-looking pond, and a small, neat, nondescript dwelling, which he assumed to be the old parsonage of the place adapted to modern ideas of cleanliness and light.

He promptly made up his mind that it was in that particular house, behind the churchyard wall, that his father had been born and had spent his childhood.

It looked a charming place now but, for all Richard knew, it might have been altered out of all recognition. It might be a completely new vicarage. He found himself without rhyme or reason suddenly prejudiced against the present incumbent of his grandfather's living, and he gazed at the top of that wall, over which a spray of red roses was waving in the wind, with something bordering upon hostility.

He moved hastily around the church, surveying it from every quarter, and then began searching among the graves for Benjamin and Susanna.

He soon found the place. The old people's headstone was still legible enough after its fifty years of Sussex rains and frosts and Richard, mechanically removing his hat, as he had got into the habit of doing among the too crowded cemeteries of Catholic France, read without any cynical afterthought the unquestioning assurance of the pious epitaph. Over his head, as he bent above the grave, the long shadow of the little squat tower fell upon the uncut grass and upon the oblong mounds new and old. Above the tower rose the golden weathervane, pointing now towards the east; and above the weathercock darted the great swifts on their clean-cutting, sharply curved wings, as they had done since the day in King Stephen's reign when the place had been consecrated.

All at once Richard Storm became aware that he was not alone. His pious vigil was being shrewdly and shamelessly observed from a sunny nook under the mossy wall between two upright tombstones. Richard hastily put on his hat and shot an angry glance at the intruder.

A rubicund, quizzical eyed young man he appeared to be, the sleeve of his right arm hanging empty, his left hand holding a paint brush. By his side was a small easel; and on the grass at his feet a cup of water and a palette. He was evidently sketching the church.

Instead of looking away when Richard frowned at him, the young man laid down his brush, threw back his head till it rested upon the surface of the wall, gave a queer little jerk with his shoulder to the stump of his missing arm, and stared at the wayfarer with a fixed and rather supercilious smile.

Confound the fellow!
thought Richard.
Why the devil can't he go
on with his silly picture? Does he want me to go over there and
admire it?
To indicate how little interest he took in this arrogant young man's proceedings he turned sharply on his heel and entered the church. When he had carefully closed the heavy door behind him, he obeyed an irresistible impulse and shot the gigantic iron bolt, barring himself in. The coolness of the interior was quite a shock after the hot sunshine; and for a moment the place seemed dark and tomb-like.

BOOK: After My Fashion
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