'I have tried to write my life as if I were confessing to a priest, a philosopher, and a wise old woman. I have tried to write as if I were going to be executed when it was finished. I have tried to write it as if I were both God and Devil'. One is tempted to say only John Cowper Powys could have written that, and, beyond doubt, only John Cowper Powys could have written the idiosyncratic and spellbinding work we have here. Yes, he was influenced by Yeats and Rousseau, especially the latter's Confessions , but there is other work quite like this. It seems almost too pedestrian to say it covers the first sixty years of his life (he lived for ather thirty years) and to say anything about them, as J.B. Priestley memorably put it, 'would be like turning on a tap before introducing people to Niagara Falls'. J. B. Priestley also said 'It is a book which can be read, with pleasure and profit, over and over again. It is in fact one of the greatest autobiographies in the English language. Even if Powys had never written any vels, this one book alone would have proved him to be a writer of genius'.
John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) was born in Derbyshire, brought up in the West Country (the Somerset/Dorset border area was to have a lasting influence on him), went to Cambridge University and then became a teacher and lecturer mainly in the USA where he lived for about thirty years. On returning to the UK, after a short spell in Dorset, he settled in Wales in 1935 where he lived for the rest of his long life. Those are the bare bones of his life. In some senses they seem unimportant when set alongside his extraordinary writing career. Not only was output prodigious, it was like nothing else in English Literature. Indeed, George Steiner has made the bold claim that his works are 'the only novels produced by an English writer that can fairly be compared to the fictions of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky'. And even that doesn't touch on their multifarious strangeness. John Cowper Powys wrote compulsively: letters, diaries, short stories, fantasies, poetry, literary criticism, philosophy and, above all, novels poured out of him. He also wrote a remarkable autobiography. In addition to his Autobiography his masterpieces are considered to be Wolf Solent, Glastonbury Romance, Weymouth Sands and Porius. But his lesser, or less well-known, works shouldn't be overlooked, they spring from the same weird, mystical, brilliant and obsessive imagination. John Cowper Powys is a challenging author with an impressive list of admirers. In addition to George Steiner, these have included Robertson Davies, Margaret Drabble, Theodore Dreiser, Henry Miller, J. B. Priestley and Angus Wilson.