August 3, 2020   5 mins

A secluded Dorset village might seem an improbable gathering point for avant-garde writers and artists, Bloomsbury grandees, sections of the London smart set and an unusual Cambridge philosopher. But that is what the parish of Chaldon Herring (otherwise known as East Chaldon) became in the 1920s and 1930s, after the writer Theodore Powys settled there some twenty years earlier. One of his brothers, Llewelyn, moved there in the mid-twenties; the other, John Cowper Powys, arrived periodically from his lucrative American lecture tours dispensing gifts. Between them, the three Powys brothers attracted many who were distinguished cultural figures in their own right.

The musicologist, poet and novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner — author of that tale of modern witchcraft and female rebellion, Lolly Willowes (1926) — met her lifetime companion, the poet Valentine Ackland, in Theodore’s home. They are buried together in the graveyard of the village church, St Nicholas. The writer and publisher David Garnett, author of the Kafka-like novella Lady into Fox (1922), which tells of a newly married young woman transformed suddenly into a fox, was a frequent visitor to the village. The society hostess and patron of the arts Lady Ottoline Morrell, who helped arrange financial support for Theodore when he faced poverty, swept in from time to time.

Around eight miles from Dorchester and not on any beaten path, the village was a strangely numinous place when I used to visit it some years ago. Alone in the church, I found a single page torn from Theodore’s short story collection Fables (1929) lying on the ground, which I picked up and left on a battered wooden table at the entrance. On another visit I noticed an old-fashioned telephone box that seemed misted up. On opening the door I discovered the interior was completely festooned with cobwebs. I’d have liked to have known if the phone was still working, but that would have meant stretching out my hand and possibly damaging the spiders’ work. So I closed the door and left the webs intact.

Later, struggling up a precipitous path leading to the sea, I located a memorial stone dedicated to Llewelyn hidden in long grass not far from the cliffs. This was after several failed attempts to find it on earlier visits. Along the way I would pass Chydyok, the brick and flint cottage where he lived with his wife, the American suffragist and writer Alyse Gregory. In order to be with Llewelyn in this remote place, she had given up the editorship of The Dial, a magazine based in New York. She had written on Katherine Mansfield, Marcel Proust and Paul Valéry, among other contemporary authors, and commissioned many notable reviews, including one by T. S. Eliot of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Living there was not easy for her. For some years Llewelyn carried on an affair with the poet Gamel Woolsey, who lived in the nearby seaside village of Ringstead with her partner Gerald Brenan, who became author of The Spanish Labyrinth (1943), a study of the events leading up to the country’s civil war. Like Llewelyn, Gamel suffered from tuberculosis.

The memorial stone to Llewelyn Powys. Credit: YouTube

When I was slowly picking my way up the steep path, I often recalled a story told me by the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, of how he visited Llewelyn when he was living in a shelter set up for him in the garden. Lying on a bed, Llewelyn pushed a book toward him and whispered, “Read to me about the Kingdom of the Fairies”. The book was Leviathan, in which Hobbes attacks the Catholic Church as “a kingdom of darkness” and compares it with the fictional realm of the fairies. Oakeshott, who records the episode in his Notebooks 1922-1986 (2014), read to the seemingly dying man “until the sun went down”.

Llewelyn returned from the brink of death at many points in his adult years; he eventually died in Switzerland in 1939, aged 55. His life-long closeness to death was one of the chief inspirations of his personal philosophy: an impassioned, life-exalting atheism. The other was his devotion to sexual pleasure, for which he repeatedly risked reinfection in erotic encounters, in the sanatoria where he recuperated whenever his illness worsened. Despite having contemplated joining the priesthood in his youth and remaining respectful of religion throughout his life, the Cambridge philosopher seems to have had an instinctive sympathy with the frail libertine unbeliever.

Llewelyn Powys in 1922. Credit: Jessie Tarbox Beals/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images

Oakeshott’s interest in the Powys family extended to John Cowper, whose book The Meaning of Culture (1929) he reviewed, and Theodore, whom he remembered consuming vast quantities of gin in the local pub, The Sailor’s Return. Oakeshott shared John Cowper’s view that “the essence of culture is the conscious awareness of existence”, and for both of them that included a full consciousness of human mortality. Interestingly, the book of Theodore Powys’s that Oakeshott mentioned to me most often was the novel Unclay (1931), in which Mr. John Death comes to the village of Dodder to “unclay” two of its inhabitants, loses the parchment on which their names are inscribed and falls in love with one of them.

The meeting place of three brothers, Chaldon Herring was home to three philosophies. Each of them took as a given the passing of Christianity. But whereas Llewelyn welcomed the decline of religion, Theodore — even though he had no trace of belief in him — thought it the only subject that mattered. His best known novel, Mr Weston’s Good Wine (1927), tells of an old man in an overcoat and brown felt hat who arrives in the village of Folly Down in a mud-spattered van to sell two wines — the light white wine of love and the dark wine of death. Time stops, and the old man disburses his wares throughout the village. At the end of his visit he instructs his assistant Michael drive him to the top of Folly Down Hill, and drop a burning match in the tank of the van. The two of them — God and his angel — then vanish in the smoke.

A later novella, The Only Penitent (1931), has a country vicar forgiving a mad old man called Tinker Jar — another avatar of God — for creating the world, and granting him the supreme gift of everlasting nonbeing. Far more subversive of established pieties than anything in the canon of conventional atheism, Theodore’s tales of a Deity yearning for its own annihilation are among the most beautiful allegories in English literature.

The third of the brothers was the most elusive. In his Autobiography (1934), he describes himself as a follower of Pyrrho of Elis, the ancient Greek philosopher reputed to have founded scepticism. John Cowper Powys cherished religion as an aesthetic phenomenon, not a system of belief. He kept open the possibility that something of him might survive death, only to renounce any such hope when he heard that his beloved Llewelyn had died. In later years (born in 1872, he lived until 1963) he wrote that he was happy death would be the final end for him. His greatest novel, Wolf Solent (1929) shows the central protagonist struggling to live as Powys himself tried to do: enjoying the fleeting sensations of life while enduring the sorrows it also brings.

Chaldon Herring in the interwar years was not only an unlikely gathering place for some of the brightest cultural figures of the time. Even more improbably, it was the scene of one of the most interesting twentieth century attempts to fashion a philosophy for people who no longer imagine any transcendental order. The avant-garde that flocked to the village may not have grasped this fact, and yet it may have been what drew them there. It remains extraordinary that some of the most radical experiments in post-theistic thinking should have been explored not in an ultra-modern metropolis or provincial city, but a village folded in a valley in deepest Dorset.

John Gray is a political philosopher and author. His books include Seven Types of Atheism, False Dawn: the Delusions of Global Capitalism, and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and The Death of Utopia.