the story of an unloved waif
in Weymouth Sands
by John Cowper Powys
(summarised by Ian Mulder)
|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 bookin fact she is very much a minor characterbut her portrayal
has depths that beg to be explored.
Shes an unloved waif, trapped in the vacuum of a lonely middle-class existence, unsure if shes 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 shes been mistress of the household, but its a threadbare mausoleum to her mothers memory and shes not allowed to change anything. Shes 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 doesnt 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.
|Pegs 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. Its
in the darkness of the cinema, and by dint of being very forward, that she
establishes a budding relationship with Jimmy, though its plain hes too young
for her, even as Dog Cattistock would be too hopelessly old. She pretends not to care.
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.
Pegs 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 culminate in her visit to Girodels infamous Sark House, whence she steps out into the drenching 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 Girodels sleazy salon, decked with old prints of Queen Victoria at public ceremonies. Weymouths most decadent citizens are gathered in the room, intent on drinking, gossip and immoral assignations. Dog Cattistock, her fathers 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 womans sexual freedom, to the point where shes 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 Pegs 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 its 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 whos 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. Pegs clouded face lit up with the first gleam of spontaneous pleasure it had known for many a day, to be humiliated afresh by the dancer Tossty who scornfully overrules her lover and pulls him away. But Pegs anger quickly subsides. Her complaint is against God alone, and so she slips out of Sark House into the rain to seek oblivionyes, 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.
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 . . . !
|A jumble of impressions, memories and
pessimistic thoughts goes through her head. But somehow, there is a turning point, and a
redemptive lifeline is granted her, and she finds her footsteps being directed to the
fishmongers 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 Jobbers voice, which is thrilling enough; but
then Sylvanus enters the shop and
Something in the tempo of this persons 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: Dont catch cold, little sleeper, now youve come back from the Dead! a seemingly jocular yet prophetic utterance. For his part, Sylvanus recalls that moment later:
The author makes clear its 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 Pegs 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.
Well, 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
finds solace in her so far merely mental promiscuity:
For his part, Richard has the vice of seeing everything on earth as raw material for his philosophy. So when she asks if its wicked to want to look at boys all the time, he replies,
But she just wants to be taken to the theatre show, for shes a child at heart, who likes to paddle in the sea, and be taken notice of, and invited to participate in fun. We hope shell be able to help Richard Gaul be a child too, as they both find redemption in simple things.
|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 anyones guess. His characters are defined by their introspection and their insights into one another, not by the authors 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 readers emotion, and he doesnt do that.
Though he describes some scenes in the minutest detail, with carefully choreographed movements, as in the scene at Sark House, he also leaves plenty to the imagination. For example, what does Peg do on an average day? Other characters are provided with a context, that gives them continuity off the page. Formally, Pegs portrayal is faulty and unfinished, but the power and poignancy stand out all the same. Powys creation of Peg is not illumined by a psychological theory or a philosophy; but, as he says in the preface to Wood and Stone,
So let it be also in this homage to his art. I have not written as a critic, to analyze
his technique, for anyone who reads this can pick up Weymouth Sands, and see for
|For more about Powys, and avirtual
tour of Weymouth, see see www.powys-lannion.net
Weymouth Sands was first published in 1934 in the US. The first British edition in 1935 was entitled Jobber Skald, to avoid the risk of libel writs, a fate which had befallen his earlier novel, A Glastonbury Romance.
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