In an undated ( but probably late 1980s ) catalogue numbered ‘25’ from the American dealer David J Holmes are some genuine literary treasures and possibly some bargains. Letters from Henry James, A. E. Housman, W. S. Gilbert, and Lewis Carroll, together with manuscripts from Washington Irving and Vita Sackville West stand out. But at a mere $1,500 the undoubted bargain on offer is the typescript created by Alyse Gregory, wife of the writer Llewelyn Powys, of some of his letters, 1900 – 38.
The letters begin when Powys was at Sherborne School and end a few months before his death in 1939 at the age of 55 from complications resulting from a stomach ulcer. As Holmes remarks, the typescript is a unique resource, since many of the letters were destroyed after the author’s death. However, his wife only selected the ones she considered worth publishing, which is a shame. The correspondents included his brother, the acclaimed novelist John Cowper Powys, A. R. Powys, Philippa Powys, Gertrude Powys and H. Rivers Pollock, a barrister, and show how avidly he followed the burgeoning literary career of his brother and also how his tuberculosis was a constant worry. For instance, in September 1915 he declared:
‘I am happy, yes, I am happy, but do not think if my health remains to me I will work always…God—-but my sickness is persistent –it eats away at me always. I am surely doomed. I am as good as dead already…’
Ten years on the letters from the coastguard cottages at White Nothe, three miles south of Owermoigne, East Dorset, where Powys and his wife moved in 1925 and where Arnold Bennett and other literary figures came to visit, reflect his contentment with simple country life. When, a little later the couple moved a mile eastwards along the coast to the remote Chideock Farm (still there ), Powys’s two sisters, Philippa and Gertrude moved in to adjoining cottages. Although the letters written from here to brother John tell of his rising literary success, they also hint at his fear that he might have little time left to take on more books. At Christmas 1935 he signed a note :
‘Yours, Lulu, alive, alive, alive!’
These letters must have been worth publishing. I wonder if the lucky buyer of item 19 in Holmes’ catalogue ever did so. [RMH]