He Kept his Spirits Down on Purpose: Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys

George Steiner has famously compared Powys’s writing to Tolstoy but when reading Wolf Solent I had the feeling I was occupying a world similar to those created by Dorothy Richardson or Virginia Woolf. The eponymous character of the novel, thirty-five year-old Wolf Solent, has been fired from his job as a history teacher at a grammar school in London. He finds new employment in Ramsgard as a literary assistant to a peculiar old squire who is writing a scandalous history of Dorset as well as a part time position in another grammar school. We view the world of Dorset and its quirky residents through Wolf’s private thoughts and meditations. The term “stream-of-consciousness” can be applied to the narrative, a central part of which is concerned with what Wolf calls his personal “mythology.” He enjoys taking long walks, communing with nature, and avoiding the complexities and entanglements of human society:

He asked himself lazily why it was that he found nature, especially this simple pastoral nature that made no attempt to be grandiose or even picturesque, so much more thrilling than any human society he had ever met. He felt as if he enjoyed at that hour some primitive life-feeling that was identical with what those pollard elms felt, against whose ribbed trunks the gust of wind were blowing, or with what these shiny celandine-leaves felt, whose world was limited to tree-roots and fern-fronds and damp, dark mud!

The aspect of Powys’s writing that particularly reminded me of Richardson’s Pilgrimage is the gaps or silences in the text that the reader must fill in. For example, Wolf’s newly discovered half-sister, Mattie, has a crying fit at a dinner just before her wedding. Another guest at the table mentions the wedding preparations and Mattie bursts into tears and calls for her long-dead mother. Wolf doesn’t ask any questions or wonder what is going on with his sister but, instead, he simply gets up and excuses himself from the house. So we are left, on our own, to wonder if Mattie is having a case of prenuptial nerves, is having second thoughts about her fiancé, or is just emotional because of the stress of planning a wedding. There are many such gaps in the text, some of the most interesting of which involve Wolf’s young wife, Gerda.

Wolf’s “mythology” which has kept him sheltered from the harsh realities of human life, is shattered when he settles into a rural, English town in Dorset. Hints of murder, suicide, incest, and love affairs disturb the quiet recesses of his mind into which he likes to withdraw. The various scandals in Dorset read like a Greek tragedy as Powys is fond of dabbling in the same taboo topics with which ancient mythology dealt. And whenever Wolf is upset he utters, “Ailinon!”, the ritual cry used by the distressed chorus in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. But the greatest destruction to Wolf’s peace-of-mind is the result of his own choices: he decides to marry Gerda, the beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter of the local tombstone carver which he very soon regrets: “This killing of his ‘mythology’ how could he survive it? His ‘mythology’ had been his escape from life, his escape into a world where machinery could not reach him, his escape into a deep, green, lovely world where thoughts unfolded themselves like large, beautiful leaves growing out of fathoms of blue-green water.”

It is difficult to sympathize with Wolf, however, because he chooses to let go the one thing that would make his existence happy. Just after he marries Gerda, Wolf realizes that he is deeply in love with Christie the local bookseller’s daughter. Christie offers him all of the things his marriage is lacking—meaningful conversations with an intellectual woman who is also physically more of the type of woman to whom he is attracted. Even though he calls her his “one true love” and has the opportunity to build a life with her, his inertia and inability, and even unwillingness, to upset his carefully constructed, English life holds him back. When Wolf is speaking with a cousin, Lord Carfax who has visited from London, he notes about the man’s appearance: “His compact, sturdy figure, his formidable, level stare, presented themselves to Wolf like the embodiment of every banked-up and buttressed tradition in English social life.” Wolf is bogged down by and unwilling to throw off his own English social life–his wife, his neat cottage in Preston Lane, and his respectable but miserable job as a teacher. He quietly moves along in his wretched days in order to keep up the semblance of his neat, carefully ordered, little life: “He kept his spirits down on purpose, visualizing the innumerable moments of discomfort, of nervous misery, that lay before him. He stretched out his hand to pluck at those wretched future moments, so that he might appropriate them now, grabble with them now.”

My original plan was to read Powys’s Autobiography and his Glastonbury Romance but his writing is so rich that I need to take a bit of a break from it and continue to digest this first novel I’ve read.

14 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics

14 responses to “He Kept his Spirits Down on Purpose: Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys

  1. Skimming your review, Melissa, because I want to read this myself (it’s not as if I haven’t had a copy for decades), and I did get well into it once. Interesting that you feel the need to take a break – sometimes a book is so rich that it seems wrong to just rush onto the next one by an author.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ali

    Okay–you’ve sold me. I’m going to try to make time for this sometime this year. By the way, I did pick Daniel Deronda back up, and I’ve made the resolution to finish it. (I think I mentioned that I’m also reading Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus on a different post of yours, and that’s still in rotation, too.) But this book looks very good!

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    • It’s definitely a masterpiece, up there with Deronda. Happy reading to you, Ali! I’ve no experience with Hazzard. I will have to look her up. Thanks for the tip. Very much appreciated!

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      • alilauren1970

        PS: I’m glad I picked Daniel Deronda back up! I am very much enjoying it. This year I have made it a goal to read longer books and spend less time on social media. My next big read is going to be War and Peace. I even have a friend who is going to read it with me. Once I am done with Daniel Deronda, I’m going back to your posts on it. And I’ll do the same with War and Peace.

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      • Oh, I’m so glad to hear about Deronda and War and Peace. Happy reading! Pop back and let me know what you think about Deronda as you finish up!

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  3. Oh – this is really interesting, he was apparently a favourite writer of Iris Murdoch’s so I’ve been meaning to get into him for ages. Sounds like rich stuff indeed, though …

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jonathan

    I’d been meaning to read something by Powys for years after becoming aware of his work through Henry Miller. HM had only good things to say about JCP. I read WS last year but never got round to writing a review, though I intended to do so. His books are thick but his writing is beautiful and very readable.

    The only thing I thought was a bit clumsy was the way he kept on referring to his ‘mythology’ and the ‘face at Waterloo Stn’. I can’t remember now but did Wolf elaborate on his mythology?

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    • From the quote I included above, I gather that his ‘mythology’ was basically the happy place he would retreat to in his mind to shield him from reality and the outside world. He especially liked to retreat into his ‘mythology’ when he was walking.

      I think that the face from the Waterloo station went along with the theme of death that was also pervasive in the novel. He keeps visiting his father’s grave, etc. and the face tends to appear when he is contemplating death or other upsetting things.

      Do you think you will read any more Powys, Jonathan?

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      • Jonathan

        Yes, I will definitely read at least one this year. Like you I’m hoping to read ‘A Glastonbury Romance’ as it’s the second Wessex novel. I don’t have a copy though – there was a copy of this at my local library but it disappeared. Unfortunately they have a habit of getting rid of books that I want to read.

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  5. I’ve long had a hankering to read Powys – probably since the days his books were readily available in bookshops! I’ve no time to take on such a challenge now so I shall make do with reading about your experience, which has certainly not put me off.

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  6. I’ve only read Weymouth Sands though I have Wolf Solent on the shelf. I agree that Powys is closer to Woolf than to Tolstoy, much deeper into his characters’ subconscious than the 19th-century writers usually got.

    Iris Murdoch is a good place to go to after/alongside Powys. I read Nuns and Soldiers a few months ago. We have a shelf of Murdoch; so much to choose from.

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