In the last couple of days I’ve been horrified to discover myself becoming a hapless patient, lacking the means or strength to act in the world and thus demonstrate personhood, that prerequisite for the continued will to live. It was like being a ghost. It did not even occur to me to pray or give thanks, until I shook myself out of it and did so; not in words or any religious framework whatever, but in actions of the heart, which the world (in the form of loved ones & friends) immediately reciprocated. This blog has for eleven years provided a stage, on which to tread the boards and soliloquize. As I said in my previous audio message, I don’t presently have the mental breadth to compose anything new.
But I found myself reading yet again a novel from 1934 by John Cowper Powys, Weymouth Sands, with its cast of extraordinary characters. When I reached the first mention of Peg Frampton, I remembered I’d written a piece about her: the narrative of her life as it interweaves inconsequentially among those of the main characters. I don’t know what anyone would make of it who hasn’t read the novel first. If ever Weymouth Sands were made into a film, it might be a useful summary for the actress playing Peg. I submitted it in 2002 to Jacqueline Peltier for her Lettre Powysienne. As I recall, it was the only one of my pieces that she chose not to publish. (PS: just checked. She did publish it.) She wondered what drew me to such a disreputable young woman as Peg. I wonder myself: some affinity?
To generalize about the author, his genius or his oeuvre is not the best way to understand or appreciate John Cowper Powys. I have chosen to illustrate a little of his art by taking the story of one character, amongst his most pathetic and neglected: Peg Frampton from Weymouth Sands. In no sense is she a heroine in the book—in fact she is very much a minor character—but her portrayal has depths that beg to be explored.
She’s an unloved waif, trapped in the vacuum of a lonely middle-class existence, unsure if she’s a child or an adult. Her mother died soon after she was born. Her father is preoccupied by his business interests and secretly blames her for his widowed state. Since she was sixteen she’s been mistress of the household, but it’s a threadbare mausoleum to her mother’s memory and she’s not allowed to change anything. She’s now eighteen, and with a tiny weekly allowance, she seems to roam aimlessly, “motherless and friendless, except for a series of passionate and somewhat morbid friendships with younger boys and girls”. In her heart she is recklessly promiscuous, but a virgin in fact: we learn of a kiss from a much older man, and intense hand-holding in a darkened cinema with a younger boy. But her innocence is generally misunderstood. Her passionate friendship with a younger girl doesn’t last – Daisy finds her too wild and cynical. Jimmy Witchit, her chance acquaintance in the cinema, worries that she may be a prostitute. Only the perceptive Dr Girodel, abortionist, proprietor of a disreputable establishment (and would-be pimp?), discerns her innocence, and her eagerness to discard it in favour of experience. Gossips assume that she becomes a mistress of Sylvanus Cobbold; but in fact her devotion to the mystic is pure, and her fantasy goes no further than to be his humble servant, bringing trays up to the bed in which he lies with Marret, the Punch-and-Judy girl. Even the reclusive young philosopher, Richard Gaul, attracted initially by a distant view of her legs as she paddles in the sea, worries that he might catch a disease, when she invites him to spend the night at her house. Whether the assignation occurs or not, we never find out, as both disappear from the plot some pages before the end. Poor girl! What a fate, to be overlooked even by one’s author.
Peg’s tragedy is not just to be unloved, but to be misunderstood and belittled as well. She has always missed out on the everyday assurances and comforts of life. Her compensation is to indulge in futile dreams. When she slips into the cinema just before its closing time, she studies her face in the foyer mirror, and cannot escape the fact that “every feature of it broke the most elemental laws of feminine desirability”: we are given details of those unbeautiful features. It’s in the darkness of the cinema, and by dint of being very “forward”, that she establishes a budding relationship with Jimmy, though it’s plain he’s too young for her, even as Dog Cattistock would be too hopelessly old. She pretends not to care.
“Would I let him [Cattistock] do it, if he wanted to?” she thought.
“Oh, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care! I don’t care what happens, as long as everything doesn’t go on repeating itself!”
Even the landscape lets her down. In her lonely childhood she had felt some special kinship with the debris-strewn tidal backwater near her house: now it has been tidied up into a neat, boring pond, no longer evoking “far horizons and remote places”.
Children’s aesthetic sense is a deep half-animal feeling and when it is outraged it leaves a wound behind it that never quite heals up . . . these improvements had taken away from the lonely girl in Swan Villa something that left an unsatisfied craving in her life.
Peg’s psyche is defined, indeed, by the unhealed wound and unsatisfied craving of her deprived upbringing. She is poised to sink into alcoholism, prostitution or suicide. Powys takes her to the brink, but ensures that she remains untouched and protected from her own desperate imaginings, her urge to self-immolation. Her story, discontinuously interwoven with all the other strands that make up Weymouth Sands, begins with a series of humiliating incidents, which we shall look at in more detail later, taking her to the serious contemplation of suicide, as she steps out of the infamous Sark House in the drenching rain:
It always came back to the same thing: God not having made her beautiful. . . . O, if God could only once hear what she felt towards him . . . !
“The harbour would be the best place for a girl to drown herself in,” she thought.
But a redemptive lifeline is granted her, and she finds her footsteps being directed to the fishmonger’s shop. Here she receives pure motherly kindness from Mrs Witchit, who seeing her desolation and her shivering, makes her take off her wet clothes and puts her to bed. She weeps with the sheer relief and comfort and sleeps for two hours. When she wakes, she hears downstairs first the Jobber’s voice, which is thrilling enough; but then Sylvanus enters the shop and
Something in the tempo of this person’s intonation ran through her veins like the quiver of electricity.
She finds herself pulled by some magnetism downstairs, still in her night-dress. Sylvanus notices her immediately, though all kinds of commotion is happening in and around the shop, and addresses her: “Don’t catch cold, little sleeper, now you’ve come back from the Dead!” – a seemingly jocular yet prophetic utterance. For his part, Sylvanus recalls that moment later:
“What spiritual eyes and yet what vicious dissipated eyes that girl had! I must see her again. I must talk to her properly. She’d quickly give herself up to what I tell her.”
The author makes clear it’s no ordinary seduction he has in mind, but a spiritual communion. And Peg finds a good friend in Marret, and is not at all jealous of the fact that she sleeps with Sylvanus, albeit innocently. While the author nowhere shows any redemptive power in Sylvanus’ brand of mysticism, it seems to support a transformation in Peg’s consciousness, and give her spiritual nourishment.
Finally she meets up with a good, eligible and respectable man, Richard Gaul, though they are hardly on the same wavelength, and he is depicted as someone largely gauche and out of touch with society. They are both outcasts to the same degree. He too needs some kind of redemption, someone to bring him down from the cloudy realms of his philosophical treatise, and show him some enjoyment in this world. In a way they are made for each other, with opposite vices. She,
the poor lust-driven girl as her nature flowed and writhed like a passionate Sea-Undine round the glittering bodies of the naked lads
finds solace in her so far merely mental promiscuity:
“Why can’t you love just as you want to,” she thought, “just as much, just as often, and just as many? It’s supposed to be wicked. I wonder if it is. I don’t care if it is! I’d sooner go to Hell and be let do it, than go to Heaven and never do it again!”
For his part, Richard Gaul has the vice of seeing everything on earth as raw material for his philosophy. So when she asks if it’s wicked to want to look at boys all the time, he replies,
“. . . what you represent at present is the third rung of the philosophic ladder to the Contemplative Ecstasy. When you have reached the ninth rung you will find – you will lose – I mean you will gain –”
But she just wants to be taken to the theatre show, for she’s a child at heart, who likes to paddle in the sea, and be taken notice of, and invited to participate in fun. We hope she’ll be able to help Richard Gaul be a child too, as they both find redemption in simple things.
We must however return to that scene in Sark House, from which she stepped out into the rain, with intent to throw herself in the “kindlier salt-water”. This thin-legged, flat-chested, hollow-eyed, low-browed, droopy-lipped “pitiable figure” is found sitting all alone on a settee by the fire in Lucky Girodel’s sleazy salon, decked with old prints of Queen Victoria at public ceremonies. Weymouth’s most decadent citizens are gathered in the room, intent on drinking, gossip and immoral assignations. Dog Cattistock, her father’s business partner, brought her here, only to ignore her as soon as he discovers that dancer Tissty is for once ready to be nice to him. Girodel sidles up to Peg, using flattery and reflecting back her own thoughts about a woman’s sexual freedom, to the point where she’s ready to go with him to view the upstairs rooms. She has no illusions about what will happen up there, and passively takes his hand. Yet it is not to be, for Jerry Cobbold,
with the instinct of a born clown for certain poignant human situations; especially for such as had a touch of the grotesque, or of the pitiful, or of the tatterdemalion in them,
notices the unconscious look of desperation in her eyes, and starts to clap noisily. This puts Girodel out of his mood, and he lets go of Peg’s hand, suddenly finding an urgent need to concentrate his whole being on rearranging his hair. Abandoned, Peg stands alone in the middle of the room. Even this, her sordid rendezvous with someone who reminds her of a monkey, has been snatched from her, in a public humiliation. She approaches the mantelpiece and it’s as if Queen Victoria and her bishops and statesmen, from the engraving on the wall, are joining forces with the people in the room to make Peg feel like a little street girl who’s utterly out of place. She approaches Sip Ballard and Curly Wix, but they blank her out. Jerry Cobbold only makes matters worse when, at this point, he invites her to audition as a pageboy in his show. Peg’s “clouded face lit up with the first gleam of spontaneous pleasure it had known for many a day,” only to be humiliated afresh by the other dancer in his stage act, Tossty, who scornfully overrules her lover and pulls him away. Peg’s anger quickly subsides. Her complaint is against God alone, and so she slips out of Sark House into the rain to seek oblivion—yes, suicide. This is the all-time low in her life, as she scurries “like a rabbit seeking its well-known covert, even though its hole has been stopped up”. A jumble of impressions, memories and pessimistic thoughts goes through her head, as she ends up not drowned but at the fishmonger’s shop, where her fortune changes. Is it divine intervention that leads her to the Witchit household instead of the cold waters of the harbour? Is it the mystic power of Sylvanus which helps her find happier times, or is it simply her genuine, new-found friendship with the Punch-and-Judy girl? Powys lets us draw our own conclusions. Typically, he presents a balanced outcome, where bad and good each contain something of their opposites. Thus the happier Peg retains the same imaginary promiscuity, despite her steady relationship with the bookish Richard, who, she thinks, will not be able to slake her thirst for furious and abandoned passion.
Every novelist is God over his characters, but the art of Powys is to imitate the inscrutability and particularity of life, and not impose a philosophy. As in life, the reasons and the answers are anyone’s guess. His characters are defined by their introspection and their insights into one another, not by the author’s own commentary: at least in Weymouth Sands. He gives us lots of clues about Peg, but allows the reader to decide how much attention and sympathy to give her. To sentimentalize is to force the reader’s emotion, and he doesn’t do that.