Reviewed by Paul Kane
Mr. Weston’s Good Wine
by T. F. Powys
Vintage Classics, December 2006, ISBN/EAN: 9780099503743 (0099503743), 240 pages, RRP £7.99
Mr. Weston’s Good Wine is a curious novel that is probably best described as an idiosyncratic Christian allegory. It has something of the flavour of films like It’s a Wonderful Life and A Matter of Life and Death (both released in 1946, strangely enough) in that it tells a story in which Christian entities (an angel, perhaps God Himself) intervene in human life. T. F. Powys’ novel has, though, darker and more pagan strains too. And in its stark depiction of village cruelty and casual violence towards women it has a very definite feminist subtext.
The story concerns Mr. Weston, a wine merchant who, along with his employee Michael, goes to the village of Folly Down, apparently in search of customers. Whilst the religious allusions are deftly done (e.g. we are told that Mr. Weston “had risen, as so many important people do, from nothing”, a sly reference to the Resurrection), it is difficult to know what to make of the novel at first. The writing seems whimsical, twee and perhaps even a bit leaden; the story meandering and inconsequential. But when once the novel dwells on the fate of Ada Kiddle, a young woman who had killed herself after being raped, a certain sinister element enters the fray. A sense of crisis is injected into the story, and it stays.
The novel is surprisingly explicit about sex considering its initial date of publication (it was first published in 1927) and the character of Mrs. Vosper, a woman who feeds off evil, who procures and corrupts young women and watches as they are raped, is an extraordinarily chilling creation. There is sensuality and lyricism to much of the writing too, as in the following passage where the clergyman and widower Nicholas Grobe remembers his beloved dead wife:
She hardly ever appeared as the same person before him. There was always some girlish fancy that he had not seen in her that she could use to beguile him. She was able – a wayward beauty often is – to gather ripe strawberries from under the forest snow. Her smile or the look of her bare arm could do that.
Another romance, one of several (and the novel is as much about the relations between the sexes as anything else), brings together the righteous Luke Bird and the maidservant Jenny Bunce. Here is the occasion when Luke first encounters the young woman he will go on to marry:
He held Jenny very close to himself, and some moments went by before he could release her from the bough. She never spoke one word, and so he knew what she was – a creature who wished to be saved.
Salvation is one theme, but of course a novel that treats Christianity as myth is not a Christian novel. One should emphasize also that, despite the novel’s fantastic or religious elements, it is firmly rooted in Dorset village life of the 1920s. And Powys ably captures his characters’ Dorset idiom and diction. Consider the most powerful scene in the book, when Ada’s grave is dug up and Mr. Grunter addresses her corpse:
“Ada,” he said, stepping to the coffin again, “’tain’t I that have moulded ‘ee, ‘tain’t I that have rotted thee’s merry ways wi’ wormy clay. I bain’t to be talked of no more.”
One could almost believe from this speech that it is God Himself who should stand in the dock.
Mr. Weston’s Good Wine is a wayward work. It is religious, carnal, heretical, humorous and engaging, digressive and ultimately involving. It has a complex, personal symbolism that is not reducible to any simple message. T. F. Powys’ work as a whole seems to represent one of the most rewarding byways in English literature. Unclay (1931) is supposedly his most complex novel and has long been out of print. Although he never completed anything on the same scale as the majestic A Glastonbury Romance,
written by his brother John Cowper Powys, he was certainly (on the evidence of the novel under review) as substantial and original a writer. Anyway, reading Mr. Weston’s Good Wine is an unsettling experience; another world, a strange England, is shown to you.
About the reviewer:Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org