NLW MS 23926E
John Cowper Powys and Phyllis Playter letters to Dorothy Meech
- 1944-1962 (Creation)
Level of description
Extent and medium
78 ff. (some folios originally folded as two leaves)
Placed in melinex sleeves within ringed box at NLW.
Name of creator
John Cowper Powys (1872-1963), was a prolific novelist, poet, and literary critic. He wrote one of the most remarkable autobiographies in the English language; he was the author of several works of popular philosophy; and throughout his long life he was an obsessive letter writer and diarist. Although never fully accepted as part of the ‘canon’ of English novelists, he is widely regarded as one of the great novelists of the 20th century, and his admirers include many eminent writers and critics. He was born in Shirley, Derbyshire, on 8 October 1872. In 1879 the family moved to Dorchester, Dorset, eventually settling, in 1885, in Montacute, Somerset. Powys therefore spent most of his childhood within the borders of the ancient kingdom of ‘Wessex’. Its landscape – which was also the setting for Thomas Hardy’s novels – came to dominate his imagination. He was the eldest of eleven children in a family notable for its strong-willed and individualistic characters. Two of his brothers, Theodore Francis Powys (1875-1953) and Llewelyn Powys (1884-1939), also became distinguished writers, while his sister Marian Powys (1882-1972) settled in New York, becoming a leading lace designer and a world authority on the history of lace making. Their father Charles Francis Powys (1843-1923) was a clergyman who took great pride in his Welsh ancestry, while their mother Mary Cowper Powys (1849-1914) was descended from the English poets John Donne and William Cowper. John Cowper was educated at Westbury House preparatory school, Sherborne, and Sherborne School (1883–1891), and subsequently at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. In 1896 he published his first volume of verse, Odes and Other Poems, and in the same year he married Margaret Alice Lyon (1874-1947). They had one son, Littleton Alfred Powys (1902-1954), but the marriage was a failure and Powys and his wife eventually separated. After leaving Cambridge Powys had found work as a teacher at various girls' schools before becoming an extension lecturer affiliated to Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Between 1909 and 1930, he earned his living as an itinerant lecturer in the USA, where he won fame as an inspired and charismatic orator. His first novel, Wood and Stone, was published in New York in 1915, and his first full length work of of popular philosophy, The Complex Vision, appeared in 1920. During a visit to Missouri, in 1921, he met Phyllis Playter (1894-1982) who became his life companion, his muse, and a powerful influence upon his literary career. While in the USA Powys also made the acquaintance of several eminent American literary figures, including the poet, Edgar Lee Masters, and the writers, Theodore Dreiser and Henry Miller. He reached his maturity as a novelist with the publication, in 1929, of his fifth novel, Wolf Solent. Its success led him give up lecturing and devote his life to writing. In 1930 he and Playter went to live in Phudd Bottom, upper New York state. There followed two other novels of immense scope and psychological subtlety: A Glastonbury Romance (1932), and Weymouth Sands (1934). In the same year he published his very frank and revealing Autobiography. Although written in America, these books are full of sensuous descriptions of the ‘Wessex’ landscapes of his youth. Like Powys himself, many of the protagonists of his novels are introspective characters who develop a personal ‘mythology’ as a means of coming to terms with the world. In 1935, while in his sixties, Powys fulfilled a long cherished ideal by moving to live in Wales. For twenty years, he and Phyllis Playter made their home in Corwen, Meirionnydd, where Powys immersed himself in the language, history and mythology of the country. He also made the acquaintance of several eminent Welsh academics and writers, including Iorwerth Peate, the founder of the Welsh Folk Museum, and Gwyn Jones, Viking scholar and translator of the Mabiniogion. Powys's two late masterpieces, Owen Glendower (1940) and Porius (1951), belong to this period. In 1955 he and Playter moved to a quarryman’s cottage at Blaenau Ffestiniog. John Cowper Powys died at the Memorial Hospital, Blaenau Ffestiniog, on 17 June 1963.
Name of creator
Phyllis Playter was born in 1894 in Kansas City, Missouri, to Canadian-American parents. She first met John Cowper Powys in March 1921 during a lecture tour of the United States and subsequently became Powys's long-term companion from 1923 until his death forty years later. Herself a gifted writer and poet, Playter's own career was largely subsumed in that of Powys's, upon whose work she nevertheless exerted significant influence. In his letters and diaries Powys commonly refers to Playter as 'the T.T.' (the 'Tiny Thin' or 'The Tao'). Following Powys's death in 1963, Playter continued to live in their last home at 1 Waterloo, Blaenau Ffestiniog, until her own death in 1982.
Name of creator
Immediate source of acquisition or transfer
Bloomsbury Book Auctions; London; Purchased at auction; 18 March 2004 (lot 624); 0200406377.
Content and structure area
Scope and content
Sixty autograph letters, 1944-1945, 1953-1962, from John Cowper Powys to his typist Mrs Dorothy May Meech, Dorchester (ff. 1-24, 34-37, 40, 43-68, 71-72, 74-77), together with ten letters, 1955-1956, 1960-1961, from Powys's partner Phyllis Playter to Meech (ff. 25-33, 38-39, 41-42, 69-70, 73). The letters mainly concern Powys's works in progress, manuscripts sent to Meech for typing, Mrs Meech's health and that of Powys's relatives, as well as childhood recollections of Weymouth and references to house-hunting in Blaenau Ffestiniog prior to Powys and Playter's move there from Corwen in 1955. Playter's letters are evidently written at times when Powys was too ill or tired to correspond himself. A self-caricature in ink by Powys is on f. 53 verso. Also included is a photograph of John Cowper Powys inscribed to Mrs Meech and dated 20 December 1950 (f. 7).
Appraisal, destruction and scheduling
System of arrangement
Arranged chronologically at NLW.
Conditions of access and use area
Conditions governing access
Readers consulting modern papers in the National Library of Wales are required to abide by the conditions set out in information provided when applying for their Readers' Tickets, whereby the reader shall become responsible for compliance with the Data Protection Act 1998 in relation to any processing by them of personal data obtained from modern records held at the Library.
Conditions governing reproduction
Usual copyright laws apply. Information regarding the ownership of John Cowper Powys and Phyllis Playter copyright can be found at http://tyler.hrc.utexas.edu/ (viewed February 2016).
Language of material
Script of material
Language and script notes
Physical characteristics and technical requirements
Some folios show signs of foxing; inner edge of f. 6 torn.
Allied materials area
Existence and location of originals
Existence and location of copies
Related units of description
Title based on contents.
Preferred citation: NLW MS 23926E.
Virtua system control number
GEAC system control number
Subject access points
Place access points
Name access points
- Powys, John Cowper, 1872-1963 (Creator)
- Playter, Phyllis (Creator)
- Meech, Dorothy May (Creator)
- Meech, Dorothy May -- Health (Subject)
- Meech, Dorothy May -- Correspondence (Subject)
- Powys, John Cowper, 1872-1963 -- Photographs (Subject)
- Powys, John Cowper, 1872-1963 -- Correspondence (Subject)
- Playter, Phyllis -- Correspondence (Subject)
Genre access points
Description control area
Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru = The National Library of Wales
Rules and/or conventions used
Description follows NLW guidelines based on ISAD(G) 2nd ed.; AACR2; and LCSH
Level of detail
Dates of creation revision deletion
Description compiled by Geraint Phillips and Bethan Ifan; and revised by Rhys M. Jones.