Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros57Modernist Narrative DemocracyA Glastonbury Romance (1932) by J...

Modernist Narrative Democracy

A Glastonbury Romance (1932) by John Cowper Powys as an egalitarian narrative?

Le récit égalitaire de A Glastonbury Romance (1932) de John Cowper Powys ?
Florence Marie


A Glastonbury Romance peut avant tout être lu comme une ré-écriture moderne des légendes du Graal. J’avance toutefois l’idée que l’écriture de ce roman a aussi été pour Powys l’occasion de s’emparer de problématiques démocratiques d’un point de vue thématique mais aussi esthétique à un moment où les limites de la démocratie n’étaient que trop évidentes et ou la démocratie elle-même était en danger. Certains des aspects de la démocratie tels qu’ils ont été formulés par Claude Lefort se retrouvent dans A Glastonbury Romance, en particulier ce qui a trait à l’incarnation du pouvoir en démocratie. L’égalitarisme qui devrait être au cœur de la société démocratique paraît avoir préoccupé Powys, qui le décline au gré des caractéristiques esthétiques de cette œuvre, romance moderniste. En d’autres termes, le genre du romance n’est pas seulement en adéquation avec la ré-écriture des légendes du Graal mais aussi avec les questions démocratiques à l’œuvre. Enfin l’un des autres enjeux de toute société démocratique est la question des liens entre l’individu et la communauté, thème qu’aborde aussi Powys, même si son esquisse de solution provisoire n’est qu’artistique.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1A Glastonbury Romance, which was published in 1932, is a monumental book: ‘It is a book’, Jed Esty writes, ‘poised between grandeur and elephantiasis, by turns bloated and brilliant, turgid and lucid, self-indulgent and worldly, ersatz and inventive’ (Esty 62). Never before had Powys been so ambitious whether in the contents or the form. The novel should be read above all as a modern re-writing of the Grail legends. It is nevertheless anchored in the political turmoil of the twenties—one can infer the scene takes place in the late 1920s—and the conflicting ideologies operative during the period. This is all the more noteworthy as there had been few references if any to historical and political experiences in Powys’s previous four novels (with the exception of After My Fashion written in 1919 but issued in 1980 only). Discarding the monologism of Wolf Solent (1929), Powys also experimented with new aesthetic methods what with the shift to polyphony and the rediscovery of medieval romance as a genre. I want to argue that writing this novel may also have been for Powys an attempt to tackle some democratic issues, whether thematically or narratively.

2For the purpose of my argument, I will briefly focus on a few characteristics of democracy as they have been formulated by Claude Lefort in L’invention démocratique (1981) and as they appear in A Glastonbury Romance, written at a time when the idea of democracy was clearly in danger. I will then analyse some of the aesthetic characteristics of the novel, which, I contend, is a modernist romance because it seems to me they display some commitment to democracy. In other words, the form adopted by Powys is in keeping not simply with the re-writing of the Grail legends but also with the democratic issues at stake in the novel. Finally, I will question the links between the individual and community in a democratic society, drawing mainly on Pierre Rosanvallon’s thinking and in particular on his concepts of singularity and commonality.

‘The democratic empty space’ (Ruttenberg 7)

3Glastonbury in the late 1920s was a rural community; it is also the case in the novel despite the presence of an industrialist and capitalist, Philip Crow. Nevertheless, from the point of view of politics this rural community is far from being a monolithic whole. Something has gone awry and the ideas of inheritance and consensus usually associated with such a place are undermined right from the start. The beginning of the narrative does not take place in Glastonbury but in East Anglia with the reading of the will of Canon Crow. This will defies logic and vertical relationships since Canon Crow has bequeathed all his money to a Non-conformist open-air preacher, Mr John Geard, who was also his curate and his valet (59). Thus, right from the start conflicts come to the fore and some of these conflicts are political at that (58–63).

  • 1 It may be surprising to see all this taking place in a village but one can recall that the Fabians (...)

4Later on, once the scene is set in Glastonbury, these conflicts expand: capitalism, communism and anarchism are openly and concretely opposed when the first fully-fledged British commune is set up in a legal way thanks to the money bequeathed to Geard, who has become the new mayor.1 Thus what used to be a village based on traditional consensus and hierarchy becomes a place in turmoil teeming with political speeches and strife. Political conflicts are constitutive of the democratic space: ‘harmony and reconciliation [should not be] the goal of a democratic society’, with its ‘infinite plurality of social voices and [its] many spheres of affiliation’ (Berman 15). That the opposition between capitalism and individualism on the one hand and communism and anarchism on the other should be underlined is only logical. At the time when Powys was writing the novel (in the aftermath of the 1929 crisis) the limits of democracy in the hands of capitalists were all too conspicuous and while communists thought that democracy had not gone far enough as far as egalitarianism was concerned, anarchism implied on the other hand a criticism of the lack of liberty in parliamentary democracy (Wolf 99, 101–102). Most of the time, in A Glastonbury Romance the political conflicts do not reach any conclusion (the commune excepted); the results of each system are far from convincing and their limits always highlighted—I will return to that later on. The only system which is never realized is the anarchist commune.

  • 2 Lefort’s three images: 1) the empty space at the heart of power as a result of the eviction of the (...)

5Some symbolic episodes in the political dealings of A Glastonbury Romance point up the repeated debunking of authority that is a component of the idea of democracy in the aftermath of the disincorporation of power. The French democratic theorist, Claude Lefort, proffers three images of democracy. The first image is the empty space at the heart of power—once the Monarch, in whom power was embodied, has been got rid of, the locus of power is empty.2 In A Glastonbury Romance, the old aristocrat, the Marquis of P., who represents a former conception of authority and its privileges, is mobbed by the proletariat of the town in an ‘upheaval of class against class’:

It was as if everything in these people’s lives that they had suffered from. . . indifference. . . neglect. . . contempt. . . cold malignant distaste. . . fastidious disgust. . . everything that had weighed on them, . . . , in a tacit conspiracy to press them down and keep them down, suddenly incarnated itself in that grizzled man. (569)

  • 3 ‘“Don’t you see my good child,” [Philip] said quite gently, “that it’s always been by the brains an (...)

6That he should be rescued by the new mayor, Geard, who has democratically been elected, is revealing. First of all because Geard who is the Non-Conformist preacher to whom the late Canon William Crow had bequeathed all his money is merely ‘a man risen from the ranks’ (341). Secondly because Geard’s conception of power is at odds with that of the old aristocrat, who does believe in hierarchy and in an organic conception of society. Geard could be a charismatic leader and is considered as one by some but the least one can say is that he could not care less about his own authority, which is all the more interesting as the novel was published in 1932 at a time when there were a few charismatic leaders here and there in Europe. Paul Trent, the anarchist who appears in the last third of the novel, is baffled when he realizes that ‘Old Geard can handle them when he wants to; but he never seems to want to’ (998). Even before Trent’s arrival, this tendency of Geard’s not to make the most of his charisma is crystal-clear when he flatly refuses to take credit for the pageant he has implemented (559), when he refrains from asking the police to intervene (566) or fails to appear while everybody has gathered to listen to his very first speech as the new mayor: ‘there was no sign of the Mayor, . . . . On the empty platform were the five empty chairs’ (335, my emphasis). Geard’s ‘non-appearance’ (341) could aptly sum up his handling of democratic power as an ‘empty space’ (to use Lefort’s expression) in so far as he won’t consider that he is entitled to concentrate all the powers and all the rights in his hands. In Geard’s opinion everybody should have the right to have the same rights as he has. The ‘empty space of power situated at the heart of democratic politics’ that Lefort refers to (Ruttenberg 7) is, however, fraught with risks. Geard’s arch enemy, Philip Crow, the capitalist who has been despoiled, cunningly seizes the opportunity and steps in, as he would, embodying and believing in ‘authority’3: ‘the actual appearance of that “authority”’ (341). Meanwhile the Mayor is sleeping ‘a deep and dreamless sleep’ (333–334) in the smooth concavity of a cave, where he has gone to seek inspiration for the speech he is not to make. The opposition between the two characters is religious, social and political; it is nicely captured in the contrast between the figure of authority standing on a platform and ‘lift[ing] up his manly voice’ (341) and the recumbent form in a darkened cave (334).

7The physical opposition could also suggest more. It makes for a narrative ‘genre problem’ (Dolven). Verticality has been associated with the ideas of primacy and epic in contrast to horizontality connected with the ideas of kinship between man, plant and animal and romance: ‘Intemperate or immoderate sleep has strong affinities with romance and the romance episodes. . . . [T]o slumber is to give oneself to indulgence and “the enticements of lust,” while to awaken is to be restored to both one’s epic identity and one’s quest’ (Sullivan 16). When Geard yields to ‘immoderate sleep’ instead of addressing his audience, he seems to become ‘a champion of sleep as a way to avoid epic employment’. Now, ‘[a] sleeping character should be waking, standing, acting, and when he or she lies down, it makes for a “genre problem”’ (Dolven), which is precisely what Geard’s ‘non-appearance’ implies. This detour by sleep and romance helps me bring out the idea that it is also through aesthetics that Powys’s Glastonbury Romance displays some form of commitment to democracy in keeping with the new mayor’s.

A Modernist Romance as a Form of Commitment to Democracy

  • 4 The adjective used by Powys may not seem appropriate since some of these characters may appear of n (...)
  • 5 ‘La langue de tous n’est plus la langue commune de tous mais la communauté de tous les partages de (...)

8In the first place I would like to stress something that is not directly related to modernism or romance but has a lot to do with Powys’s best-loved novelists of the nineteenth century (Hugo, Dickens). Social classes still exist in Glastonbury and people are to a certain extent defined by the class they belong to. Now what is striking in this narrative is that almost all the different classes are present (from the aristocracy to the disreputable proletariat: there are forty-seven ‘principal characters in the romance’ [15–16, my emphasis4]) and all the subtle values and idiosyncratic ways of each class are displayed. But—I will return to this later—they are not simply present; they are embodied in several characters, who all have an individual voice so that they are more than the representatives of a class. What is also remarkable is that those who are usually marginalized or simply discreet are given a voice: children (183–192, 363–368, 507–508); young female servants (197, 200, 210, 272, 509, 659), old men (185); the underworld of destitute or mad people (929–933) and intellectually disabled people. These people are excluded from politics but their homely, ordinary or extraordinary concerns sometimes take pride of place in the narrative. One of the narrator’s passing comments on the nature of moss, could be understood as a metatextual comment on a text which includes those who are usually forgotten: ‘[Moss] vaunts itself not; it proclaims not its beauty; its infinite variety of minute shapes is not apprehended until you survey it with concentrated care’ (513). This is precisely what Powys tries to do with all the characters in A Glastonbury Romance; he ‘survey[s them] with concentrated care’ so as to rectify ‘their invisibility’. However incomplete the social picture is, the novel makes room for people coming from all walks of life and expressing themselves. Powys has been criticized for his bad rendering of the different accents and dialects to be found in the novel but at least the linguistic idiosyncratic way of speaking of each speaker can be seen and heard (170, 186–190, 166, 478), which, according to Nelly Wolf is a way of introducing popular language in democratic communication.5 Similarly the mixture of registers (from what is dignified to what is informal) and genres (poems and songs are included in the narrative from time to time) destabilizes hierarchies of subject matters. Life as a whole is the subject of this novel.

9Secondly some of the narrative characteristics of A Glastonbury Romance as a modernist novel make it possible for it to be considered as an egalitarian and anti-totalitarian one. Powys is interested in the singularity of each and every one of his characters. They are not social or psychological archetypes (unlike what can be found in the medieval romance (Beer 9)) or allegorical figures but deeply individualized characters whose thoughts are probed into in a modernist fashion. Now, ‘the deeply subjective experience [is] typical of the Modernist aesthetic’ (Letissier 140) as reflected in the stream of consciousness techniques of the time. Powys makes the most of them as when Miss Drew’s ‘thoughts flickered wildly’ (639–640) or when Philip makes plans for the future (51).

  • 6 This aspect has been analysed in detail by Charles Lock (Lock 1979, 1986), who refers to Mikhail Ba (...)

10Powys also puts into practice the debunking of authority on a narrative level. The narrator is far from humble but it is obvious that his voice, which is neither neutral nor impersonal, is simply one voice among others and does not count more than the others: ‘Powys rejects [the prerogative of the traditional novelist] because he recognises that in the pluralistic multiverse of his creation his own view is as limited as partial, as much of a life-illusion, as that of Geard or Sam’ (Lock 1979, 72).6 It follows that as readers we should not trust the authorial voice and we are left free to interpret as we wish even though it is difficult to do so.

11This typically modernist approach is at odds with what can be found in the medieval romance even if the way the writer/narrator manifests himself is similar: ‘In the medieval romance the writer is quizzically present, commenting, interpreting, offering asides to the reader’ (Beer 62) but he does so in such a way that there is no difficulty in interpreting signs and events. Such is not the case in A Glastonbury Romance. As indicated by the last word of the title, however, the work is a romance and in it Powys manages to combine the modern and the traditional, or to be more precise, to instil some modernist narrative techniques into a traditional structure. In other words, A Glastonbury Romance should be read as a ‘modernist romance’. And I argue more specifically that some characteristics derived from romance (Powys was thinking of the medieval one) also contribute to the transformation of this particular work of art into an aesthetic democratic form.

12In her introduction to an issue of Novel. A Forum on Fiction entitled ‘Is the Novel Democratic?’ Nancy Ruttenberg opposes the novel to the epic, as Bakhtin did, to show that the novel exhibits signs of democracy that are not present in the epic form (4). She does not refer to romance though, for it is unusual to associate the genre with democracy. After all medieval romances related tales of chivalry and courtly love. Northorp Frye, however, insists on the existence of two varieties of romance: the first one based solely on the quest pattern is said to be aristocratic while the second one is ‘less aristocratically fixated’ and ‘more proletarian’ (Dolzani, xxv, xxvi). Furthermore, while contrasting the two genres David Quint associates the epic genre with the victors and romance with the losers: ‘[The] romance alternative bears a subversive relationship to the epic plot line from which it diverges, for it indicates the possibility of other perspectives, however incoherent they may ultimately be, upon the epic victors’ single-minded story of history’ (Quint 34). Thus, romance has an antimonarchical potential. It would be anachronistic to assert that the form of romance was democratic but I would like to contend—and here I am using Patricia Parker’s words—that medieval romances ‘may be seen retrospectively, to have contained, or “prophesied”, a strain of which [they were themselves], so to speak, unaware’ (Parker, 10). When Powys decided to write a romance he made use of these long-dormant features at work in the old romances he read before writing his book and which are mentioned in it (357, 361). Which structural characteristics of romance can help A Glastonbury Romance display some form of commitment to democracy?

13To begin with there is the idea of ‘inclusiveness’, which is a fundamental aspect of romance as summed up by Gillian Beer, for whom, ‘[the world of romance] is ample and inclusive’ (3). The sheer length of romances adds to the impression that the people are treated equally. Such is the case in A Glastonbury Romance, which is 1,120 pages long. In fact, the narrator refers to it as ‘a chronicle’, which sounds appropriate, even if the use of the adjective ‘modest’ (‘this modest chronicle’ [904]) may be used tongue in cheek. This suits Powys’s prolixity and lack of selectivity well. He can devote several pages to characters that are simply vaguely related to the plot as he does when in the second part of the novel he introduces the reader to a certain Nancy Stickles for the first time (she is one of the forty-seven principal characters). That she is to become one of Geard’s supporters is hardly relevant. It is as if the narrator was simply indulging himself while creating this character in the same way as this character is said to enjoy life: ‘She liked to touch life, hear life, smell life, taste life, see life’ (658). These pages are purposeless when the reader only thinks of the plots; nevertheless, the character is introduced with as much gusto as other more developed ones are and her completely gratuitous presence indicates the possibility of yet another perspective on life. The same thing could be said about Dr Fell, whose hatred of his sister and reflections on the suffering of the weak (692) are not indispensable but matter nonetheless. Moreover, since Powys’s novel is a romance, we are more likely to accept what we would consider as far-fetched in a novel, in other words to accept to listen to the voice of a tree (‘All this the ash-tree noted; but its vegetative comment thereon would only have sounded in human ears like the gibberish wuther-quotle-glug’ [89]) or to a dialogue between a human louse and a wood one (706). After all the aforementioned vegetal slumber of the Mayor (333–334) may be a way of suggesting—at least this is what Garrett Sullivan implies in his study of sleep and romance—‘the kinship of humans with the lower orders’, a kinship which pre-Cartesian romance acknowledged influenced as it was by ‘Aristotelian vitality’ and the idea of ‘the tripartite soul’ (the vegetative soul, the sensitive soul and the intellectual soul) (Sullivan 2, 4). Thus, what one reads is an ‘aggregate of singular voices’ (Ruttenberg 6), which includes ‘the subhuman world” (705) and is limitless. The fact that other voices have not been added seems to be only provisional. And the reader expects till the end to come across yet another character since ‘romance is the literary kind that most resists the shape and social condition of a total plot’ (Dolven).

  • 7 ‘the romance tends to become an endless poem, going on from one story to another until the author r (...)
  • 8 On the contrary, when Philip Crow, the capitalist, imagines the future of Glastonbury he launches h (...)

14This ‘inclusiveness’ goes hand in hand with the episodic tendency which is at the core of the organisation of romance or maybe its lack of organisation. Beer mentions ‘disconnected happenings’ and ‘the easy way of calling back into activity episodes and characters long abandoned’ since ‘nothing is ever finally abandoned or circumscribed’ (77, 76, 21) in a romance. In Powys’s Glastonbury Romance, Sam Dekker, who is one of the main characters since he is embarked on a Christian quest of his own, disappears for about 300 pages (619–904) right in the middle of the narrative. Only a few words are used to sum up what has happened in his life since the reader last heard about him: ‘Sam’s attitude was the same as it had always been, since he had decided to trample down and to kill all natural sex pleasure’ (904). The episodic tendency is also triggered off by the lack of causal links, the ‘and then’ structure, which according to Frye is what distinguishes romance from the novel: ‘Romance [. . .] moves from one discontinuous episode to another’ (1976, 47).7 Now the consequences of the ‘hence narrative’ not being in the foreground are twofold: firstly whether an episode leads somewhere or not hardly matters—the aim is simply for the reader to enjoy it with the same zest as the narrator; secondly each episode is as important as another and nothing is subordinated.8 Thus in this ‘level world’ (Beer 21) created by romance Philip’s wife’s narrow-minded and petty worries and her memories of her grandmother’s tying up jam-pots (516) are not less valuable than Philip’s concerns as a capitalist. Every character, every thought, every animal is worth writing about. The lack of aesthetic constraints means the narrative of a romance is an ‘interpenetrating labyrinth’ with ‘a new kind of centreless structure’ (as suggested by Frye, Dolzani xxv–xxvi), which unfolds in a rhizomatic way. Thus, the very structure of romance questions the idea of a hierarchical scheme while hinting at some kind of hidden interconnectedness.

15It entails that the narrative has no centre, no final closure or telos. As I have already said Sam Dekker is supposedly one of the leading characters in the narrative. Thus, when he finally sees the Grail, the reader could expect the episode to be a climactic one and it is the case as far as Sam is concerned. And yet when he tries to tell people the Grail has come back nobody pays attention to him (961, 963, 966, 976). As for Geard, who is also on a quest of his own, he keeps insisting on the fact that the only thing that matters is the future (795). Similarly, the commune which is set up in the second part of the narrative is clearly not the kind of commune Paul Trent, the anarchist, is still hankering after at the end (712, 717). Nothing is ever finished; the sense of purpose or ending is not what matters. Parker sees the genre of romance as ‘a form which simultaneously quests for and postpones a particular end, objective, or object . . . . [R]omance is that mode or tendency which remains on the threshold before the promised end, still in the wilderness of wandering, “error,” or “trial”’ (4). The description fits A Glastonbury Romance perfectly. Admittedly the work does end and there is a Flood in the last chapter (during which Geard decides to drown) but the Flood is arbitrary, as contingencies are, and foreshadows another cyclical beginning, ‘forever rising, forever vanishing’ (1120). Now, the detours and postponements of romance, its lack of finality could be one of the things that democracy and this kind of narrative have in common. Indeed, Parker associates ‘the deferrals and diversions of romance [which have] come to be marked as feminine, perverse and decidedly non-Western’ (Campana 29) with Derridean différance: ‘Derrida invokes the concept as part of a radical critique of “presence,” of the metaphysical assumption of an ultimate Origin, Center, or End, and the various social and intellectual hierarchies it authorizes’ (Parker 220). This is precisely what democracy is about, which is why ‘the project of shaping cannot be completed’. This corresponds to the third image Lefort comes up with to speak of democracy. On account of the end of ‘the ultimate markers of certainty’ and of its openness to the impossibility of the closure of knowledge, democracy is forever tentative:

La société démocratique moderne m’apparaît, de fait, comme cette société où le pouvoir, la loi, la connaissance se trouvent mis à l’épreuve d’une indétermination radicale, société devenue théâtre d’une aventure immaîtrisable, telle que ce qui se voit institué n’est jamais établi, le connu reste miné par l’inconnu, le présent s’avère innommable, couvrant des temps sociaux multiples décalés les uns par rapport aux autres dans la simultanéité—ou bien nommables dans la seule fiction de l’avenir [. . .].
(Lefort 174)

16In this second movement, I have laid the emphasis on the notion of egalitarianism, a notion which is nevertheless fraught with difficulty since it can also imply fragmentation. This was clearly a matter of concern in the inter-war period. The ambiguities at work in the notion can be hinted at in Powys’s work by the ambiguous effect conveyed by words such as ‘while’, ‘meanwhile’, ‘in the meantime’, ‘at the very moment’ used to structure many a chapter. Indeed, numerous chapters give the reader the opportunity to go from one group of people to another and each new group is introduced in a very crude and repetitive way by the aforementioned phrases. For instance, the chapter ‘Wind and Rain’ does not work towards a climax but simply meanders from one group to another during the same evening: it starts with John Crow and Mr. Geard (674–682), continues with Sam Dekker and his father (682–685), then with Thomas Barter and Dr Fell (685–696) and ends with Angela and Percy (696–700). This gives the impression that nobody is forgotten and that all the groupings are on the same level. In another chapter ‘Carbonek’, the middle classes do not take precedence over the lower classes and what is going on in the kitchen matters as much as what is going on in the drawing room (197–201). On the other hand, it could be argued that each group is linked to the other groups simply on a temporal and spatial level (they are all in Glastonbury); thus, the groupings are simply juxtaposed fragments and there is hardly any sense of coherence or community. Now the balance to be found between community on the one hand and the individual on the other hand is no doubt one of the tricky aspects of democracy as made explicit by Rosanvallon when he comments on the necessity to ‘join one’s “I” to a “we”’ (‘lier son “je” à un “nous”’ (24, my translation)). Do all the singular individualities in the novel form a community? It is hard to tell. In spite of or because of his anarchist tendencies, Powys was acutely aware of the problem and of the fact that there was no easy solution. In A Glastonbury Romance he tackles it, as he has never done in his previous works, and he somehow comes up with a solution, however tentative it may be.

‘The participatory ethics’ (Esty 58)

  • 9 Emma Goldman (1856–1940), also known as ‘Red Emma’, was an anarchist political activist and writer. (...)
  • 10 Here I am referring to Rancière’s paradoxical statement when he asserts that ‘democratic government (...)

17Right after the First World War, Powys was very much interested in the communist revolution in Russia; later on, he distanced himself from the movement and became more involved in anarchism. His correspondence with Emma Goldman,9 however, suggests he had difficulty grasping ‘the theoretical basis of anarchism’ (Goodway 2006, 158). For instance, he was still referring to the concept of government in 1938, which left Emma Goldman aghast. David Goodway calls him ‘an individualist anarchist’ or ‘a philosophical anarchist’ (2006, 159), thus aligning him with the artists and intellectuals who opted for anarchism as opposed to those who chose authority in the thirties (Potter 16–17). In A Glastonbury Romance, Powys opposes the capitalist (Philip Crow), the communist (David Spear) and the anarchist. Paul Trent, the anarchist, reproaches the capitalists for taking ‘liberty away from us in the name of liberty, which, under them, means liberty to work like a slave, or, to starve’ (995); he also blames David Spear, the communist, for taking ‘liberty away from the individual in the name of the community’ (995). What he himself wishes for is ‘a voluntary association of free spirits to enjoy the ideal life’ (995). This ideal seems to be rather vague and utopian and even to recede into the future since David Spear has the upper hand on Paul Trent as far as the commune leadership is concerned. But the question is still very much to the point: what ought to be the proper relationship between the individual and the community? What kind of ‘association’ is workable in a democratic state? How can democratic life not endanger democracy?10

18On the whole in A Glastonbury Romance the moments when a sort of equilibrium between the individual and the collective is reached, however tentatively, are not directly related to the political achievement of the commune, although property has been transferred into the hands of the community (with the exception of the bank and the railway). In fact, the labouring people may sometimes be carried away by the communistic rhetorical speeches and their emphasis on sameness (1017–1018), but on the whole they find it hard to come to terms with what is imposed on them and chafe against the authority of the ‘Comrades’ or ‘dictators’ of the Commune of Glastonbury. When they speak up they insist on the singularity and the variety of their individual situation as made obvious by the anaphora of the pronoun ‘I’ and the details they give concerning their jobs, the number of children they have and their state of health (1014, 1016). They refuse not only to be dictated to but also to be melted into a ‘depersonalised’ (999) single man or to be reduced to the social class they belong to. The needs and demands and singularity of the labouring people as individuals are asserted, which endangers the commune and infuriates the leader, who accuses them of selfishness and hammers in the notion of sameness and equality: ‘We all have the same heart, . . . We are all equal’ (1017). But equality-as-similarity may not be enough and the notion ‘has been undermined as a tenable ground for democratic engagement’ (Gustafson 598). In fact, the behaviour of the labouring people in A Glastonbury Romance foreshadows Rosanvallon’s emphasis on the new age of singularity and on singularity as a way of revitalizing the ethos of democracy:

L’individu-histoire, nécessairement singulier, s’est superposé à l’individu-condition, davantage identifié de façon stable à un groupe, lui-même constitué autour d’une caractéristique centrale. [. . .]
Il s’agit de redonner consistance au mot « peuple » [. . .] De montrer qu’il n’existe qu’au pluriel, qu’il ne peut être saisi que dans sa diversité et sa complexité. (Rosanvallon 22, 12)

19In that respect, a side-effect of the commune seems to be more fruitful and to develop ‘a model of social cohesion without authoritarian control’ (Esty 96). In the municipal factory ‘a very exciting and most original school of Glastonbury design, genuinely indigenous’ (923), starts to flourish. The factory being run in ‘that sort of slipshod, amateur, arts-and-crafts way’, which Philip Crow, the capitalist, disparages (522), the young Glastonbury natives who are employed there are given ‘a completely free hand’ (923) and while being able to express themselves (‘a real movement of imaginative art’ [924]) they nevertheless succeed in creating figurines that have something in common: ‘an art which embodied in it not only the communal spirit of the town’s socialistic rulers but something—a nuance, a tinge, a suspicion—of the new religion of Glastonbury’s Mayor!’ (923)). The episode reminds the reader of William Morris’s News from Nowhere. What is most interesting here is that the output of the municipal factory is in a way the aftermath of the pageant.

20The climax of the first part of the novel—in which there is a sort of climax after all—is a long chapter (553–618) devoted to a pageant, meant by Geard to renew the attractiveness of Glastonbury as a religious centre. Powys was not the only one to include a pageant in a work written in the thirties. Some high modernists did so in the late thirties: in particular T.S. Eliot in The Rock (1934) and Virginia Woolf in Between the Acts (1937). In A Shrinking Island, Modernism and National Culture in England, Jed Esty analyses the function of these pageants and shows that they were used by some Edwardians (Louis Napoleon Parker in particular) to foster ‘a communitarian ethos’ (Esty 58) and by the high modernists several years later as a way of coping with the crisis in imperialism and in nationalism and of reviving a communal art ‘that could allow for the emergence of a choral voice, giving form to communal values rather than to individual impressions or divisive ideologies. The desirability of a collective or impersonal voice had become an urgent political as well as aesthetic matter in the period’ (Esty 87). Esty refers to Powys (62–69) but I would like to emphasize more than he does the way the relationship between the individuals and the community is renegotiated in the course of this long chapter even if there is distance and irony throughout.

21To begin with all the characters the reader has come across in the first part of the novel are gathered in the same place and it is the only time in the novel that such a thing happens. As summed up by Esty:

[H]ere Powys arranges all the major and minor characters in one scene, displaying with elaborate skill the complex webs of social rank, ideological affiliation and emotional bond in Glastonbury. Suddenly the many narrative strands take the form of an organized if multifarious, social calculus. (Esty 68)

22This is made possible by the rather limited size of the town itself, which is not a modern metropolis but a rather circumscribed and self-enclosed rural town with a personality of its own (519, 540, 999). As the chapter unfolds, the pageant is presented as a public performance where those taking part in it and those looking at it momentarily cohere into a single whole without losing their own individuality. On the one hand, the stage-directors being often at daggers drawn (600, 595), the players have sometimes been given free rein. Now, with the exception of one clown, who is prone to improvise a lot, these players are all amateurs from various social classes. Their performance is at times slightly chaotic and haphazard (586) and a lot depends on sheer chance (575, 596, 600). Besides ‘the voices of individual players [are] liable to be blown away upon the wind’ (573). On the other hand, and however paradoxical that may seem a certain sense of communality seems to have been achieved and is underlined through the repetition of the word ‘unity’:

. . . [it] gave the whole thing that strange and curious unity . . . (589, my emphasis)
. . . the scenes in the pageant followed each other in such quick succession and in such close proximity that they produced, or almost produced, a pictorial unity. (594, my emphasis)
Her sublime suffering gave a strange unity to all the minor groups and personages, their businesses, their occupations, their pastime. (599, my emphasis)

  • 11 ‘[. . .] c’est la communauté en tant que formée par une articulation de “particularités”, et non en (...)
  • 12 Here Esty is referring to E. M. Forster’s pageant-plays.

23This ‘strange unity’ based on the interaction of the actors is also brought about by the many choral songs and the amount of things going on at the same time. It has not been imposed from above with authoritarian control; it does not pre-exist the performance but seems to emerge spontaneously at the same time as the pageant unfolds.11 As for the audience, it is a motley crew (‘that many coloured coat’ [573]): the use of inner focalisation and the many comments on the part of its members convey the impression that their individuality is never forgotten (591, 597). They are singular individuals and yet during this ritual they do form a community since at the very end of the performance we are told ‘everyone seemed to become a separate individual again’ (605). The pageant may be based on a national tradition (medieval romances on the one hand, Christianity on the other and Cymric rituals), it is not rank with exclusion thanks to its popular ethic of ‘spontaneous and communal performance’ (Esty 80)12 and to the sense of community which unites the performers and the audience. Now the sense of community is contrasted favourably with the idea of the mob which also appears in the chapter when some angry people (some Non-conformist elements, some revolutionaries and the most destitute people in the town) threaten to sweep through the pageant. This ‘surging mass of people’ (569) is a grouping whose individuals seem to have relinquished their particularities and to have been absorbed within the mob. Such is never the case of the audience or the performers, probably because what the narrator calls ‘the creative faith of the individual’ (921) has been preserved: they have been allowed to participate in their own idiosyncratic way in a communal ritual which nevertheless temporarily transcends their individuality while never subsuming it since it is neither monolithic, nor consistent nor whole (the pageant is interrupted after its second part). The participatory ethics is at the core of the pageant and makes the experience of a communal ritual possible and fruitful. Commonality has been recovered for a short while without singularity being sacrificed.

  • 13 Jean-Luc Nancy’s theories have extended ‘[the] range of community far beyond the consensual / publi (...)

24It could be argued that this communal ritual is only vaguely related to the political public sphere; I suggest however that the performance as it is narrated can be considered a political gesture.13 In other words community is performed in its narratives: the pageant for the characters in the novel and the modernist fictional narrative of A Glastonbury Romance for its readers (the pageant being in a way a mirror image of the narrative in which it is included). This, however, does not last once the pageant is over—with the exception of the municipal factory. The equilibrium between individuals and community is only temporary and remains politically inconclusive.

25It remains to be added that however present politics may be in A Glastonbury Romance compared to Powys’s other works and however detailed the political dealings are (even though they remain highly unrealistic), this aspect of life is all the while undermined by some characters who belittle ‘these man-made institutions’ (523, 530, 809, 999) although they never lambaste the pageant. In their opinion these historical matters pale in comparison with what could be referred to as the collective unconscious and with what all the people have had in common since the beginning of time—what they have in common being what makes them equal, what connects them and what sweeps them away at the end.

Haut de page


Beer, Gillian, The Romance, London: Methuen, 1970.

Berman, Jessica, Modernist Fiction, Cosmopolitanism, and the Politics of Community, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.

Campana, Joseph, The Pain of Reformation, New-York: Fordham UP, 2012.

Dolven, Jeff, ‘Inescapable Romance,’ Spenser Review 44.1.4 (Spring-Summer 2014), last accessed at on January 10th 2019.

Dolzani, Michael, ed., Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance, Toronto: Toronto UP, 2004.

Esty, Jed, A Shrinking Island. Modernism and National Culture in England, Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004.

Frye, Northrop, The Secular Scripture. A Study of the Structure of Romance, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1976.

Goodway, David, Powys and Emma Goldman. The Letters of John Cowper Powys and Emma Goldman, London: Cecil Woolf, 2008.

Goodway, David, Anarchists Seeds beneath the Snow, Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2006.

Gustafson, Sandra, ‘Equality as Singularity: Rethinking Literature and Democracy’, New Literary History, 45.4 (2014): 595–614.

Lefort, Claude, L’Invention démocratique. Les limites de la domination totalitaire, Paris: Fayard, 1981.

Legras, Horacio, ‘José Maria Arguedas and Ricardo Piglia: Two Radical Views on Political Subjection in Latin America’, Novel. A Forum on Fiction. 47.1 (Spring 2014): 132–148.

Lock, Charles, ‘Polyphonic Powys: Dostoevsky, Bakhtin, and A Glastonbury Romance’, University of Toronto Quarterly, 55.3 (Spring 1986): 261–281.

Lock, Charles, ‘“Multiverse” … language which makes language impossible’, The Powys Review, 5 (1979): 63–74.

Letissier, Georges, ‘“circling and circling and circling...whirligogs”. A Knotty Novel for a Tangled Object Trauma in Will Self’s Umbrella’, Contemporary Trauma Narratives. Liminality and the Ethics of Form, eds. Onega Susana and J.-M. Ganteau, New York: Routledge, 2014, 137–155.

Nancy, Jean-Luc, La Communauté désœuvrée, Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1986.

Parker, Patricia, Inescapable Romance. Studies in the Poetic of a Mode, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979.

Potter, Rachel, Modernism and Democracy. Literary Culture. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006.

Powys, John Cowper, A Glastonbury Romance (1932), New York: The Overlook Press, 1996.

Rosanvallon, Pierre, Le Parlement des invisibles, Paris: Le Seuil, 2014.

Ruttenberg, Nancy, ‘Introduction: Is the Novel Democratic?’ Novel. A Forum on Fiction. 47.1 (Spring 2014): 1–10.

Sullivan, Garrett A., Sleep, Romance and Human Embodiment. Vitality from Spenser to Milton, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012.

Wolf, David, Epic and Empire. Politics and Generic Form from Virgil to Milton, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.

Wolf, Nelly, Le Roman de la démocratie, Saint-Denis: PU Vincennes, 2003.

Haut de page


1 It may be surprising to see all this taking place in a village but one can recall that the Fabians first developed principles of small-scale cooperation before thinking of a national federation.

2 Lefort’s three images: 1) the empty space at the heart of power as a result of the eviction of the monarch (‘le lieu vide du pouvoir’: ‘quand tombe la tête du corps politique, du même coup, la corporéité du social se dissout’ [Lefort 172]). 2) the separation between the state and civil society (‘la désintrication qui s’opère entre l’instance du pouvoir, l’instance de la loi, l’instance du savoir’ [Lefort 172]), a separation which is not necessarily negative and can be seen as potentially emancipatory as the gap urges the constant self-definition of democratic society. 3) the ‘dissolution of the ultimate markers of certainty’ (quoted in Ruttenberg 7; ‘la dissolution des repères de la certitude’ [Lefort 179]).

3 ‘“Don’t you see my good child,” [Philip] said quite gently, “that it’s always been by the brains and the energy of exceptional individuals, fighting for their own hands, that the world has moved on?”’ (61)

4 The adjective used by Powys may not seem appropriate since some of these characters may appear of no importance but it is revealing of his idea that each of them should be heard.

5 ‘La langue de tous n’est plus la langue commune de tous mais la communauté de tous les partages de la langue’ (Wolf 168).

6 This aspect has been analysed in detail by Charles Lock (Lock 1979, 1986), who refers to Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of polyphony: ‘For Bakhtin the text of a polyphonic novel is not and is not meant to be a piece of beautiful prose, harmoniously arranged, consistently textured, but a network of border tensions. The novelist’s words should have no more authority than any other words in the text of the novel, and all the words are competing for attention, and responsive to each other’ (Lock 1986, 266–267).

7 ‘the romance tends to become an endless poem, going on from one story to another until the author runs out of stories to tell’ (Frye quoted in Dolzani, xxv).

8 On the contrary, when Philip Crow, the capitalist, imagines the future of Glastonbury he launches himself into what can be considered as an epic narrative (51, 550, 745).

9 Emma Goldman (1856–1940), also known as ‘Red Emma’, was an anarchist political activist and writer. She was born in Russia but settled in the U.S with her family. After two years in jail due to her activism, she was sent back to Russia in 1919 but she left the USSR in 1923 being very disappointed with the aftermath of the revolution there. Powys’s correspondence with her started in 1936 and lasted till her death four years later. See David Goodway, Powys and Emma Goldman. The Letters of John Cowper Powys and Emma Goldman, Cecil Woolf, 2008.

10 Here I am referring to Rancière’s paradoxical statement when he asserts that ‘democratic government is threatened by nothing more than democratic life’ (Rancière quoted in Legras 134).

11 ‘[. . .] c’est la communauté en tant que formée par une articulation de “particularités”, et non en tant que fondée dans une essence autonome qui subsisterait par elle-même et qui résorberait ou assumerait en elle les êtres singuliers’ (Nancy 186).

12 Here Esty is referring to E. M. Forster’s pageant-plays.

13 Jean-Luc Nancy’s theories have extended ‘[the] range of community far beyond the consensual / public sphere. Political community thus becomes open to the varieties of “being-in-common” [. . .] Political community may thus also be seen to apply to narrative performances of community that never seek to enter mainstream political life’ (Berman 15). In the last pages of La Communauté désœuvrée, Jean-Luc Nancy speaks of literature.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Florence Marie, « A Glastonbury Romance (1932) by John Cowper Powys as an egalitarian narrative? »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 57 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2019, consulté le 21 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Florence Marie

Florence Marie is Senior lecturer in English Studies at the University of Pau et les Pays de l’Adour. She is a member of ALTER. She defended her thesis on J.C. Powys in 2003 and since then she has published articles on his novels and essays and on other modernist writers (with special interest in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage). She has edited, with Fabienne Gaspari and Michael Parsons, a volume of Rives entitled Premières rencontres avec l’autre (L’Harmattan, 2010), and edited another one entitled Le fou—cet autre, mon frère (L’Harmattan, 2012). She has co-edited Le genre, effet de mode ou concept pertinent? (Peter Lang, 2016) and participated in the writing of Féminisme et prostitution dans l’Angleterre du xixe siècle: la croisade de Josephine Butler (ed. by Frédéric Regard, ENS Éditions, 2014).

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search