My final read for the #1929Club is a bit of a chunkster, and much longer than I would probably normally read for one of our Clubs. However, I was reading the other books I chose ahead of the club, and they turned out to be quite slim on the whole; so I had the time to take on a bigger book, and the fact that I had a couple of days off work poorly, when I did manage to read a bit, probably helped. The book is “Wolf Solent” by John Cowper Powys and it’s a fascinating, absorbing and complex work!

Powys has appeared on the Ramblings before, as Mike Walmer has reissued a fascinating pair of his shorter works (see here and here for my thoughts on them). However, I’ve had Powys’s books on my shelves since my teens, when I picked up a copy of his “A Glastonbury Romance” in a Cheltenham book shop. It languished for decades, and possibly even got donated and then a fresh copy repurchased – with the number of books which have gone in and out of the Ramblings over the years, it’s often hard to be sure. Anyway, at some point I gathered copies of the four books which are known as his ‘Wessex novels’ – this one, plus “Glastonbury”, “Weymouth Sands” and “Maiden Castle”. Yes, as you will see from the image above, I have two copies of “Wolf…”; the first is the original smaller Penguin Modern Classic I first picked up, and the one I actually read on the left, which is physically bigger and a bit more easy to read and handle. Frankly, it needs to be, because “Wolf Solent” is 634 pages long…

As the book opens, Wolf Solent, a 35 year-old man, is travelling to his home town of Ramsgard, Dorset; the book is firmly set in the West Country, with Ramsgard based on Sherborne; Blacksod, a place which will feature in the book, is modelled on Yeovil, with Dorchester and Weymouth both making appearances. Wolf had been living in London with his mother, working as a history teacher in London, the pair having split from his late father many years ago. Solent junior had lost his job after a wild outburst in his class; and he’s been offered a job as a kind of literary assistant to the local squire of King’s Barton, who’s preparing a somewhat scurrilous book on lurid local legends and history. There is also the hint that he wishes to be away from London, with its squalor, its modern civiisation – and, in fact, away from his mother…

…it seemed to Solent as though all the religions in the world were nothing but so many creaking and splashing barges, whereon the souls of men ferried themselves over those lakes of primal silence, disturbing the swaying water-plants that grew there and driving away the shy water-fowl!

So Wolf arrives in Ramsgard and immediately falls in with some interesting locals. There is the Otter family, with whom he is initially staying: brothers Darnley and Jason will occupy much of the narrative. Then he meets Selena Gault, an astonishingly ugly woman who was the last lover of his profligate father; T.E. Valley, the local clergyman, known as Tilly-Valley to all, and something of a bag of nerves; the Smith family, including Mattie, who will turn out to have a strong connection to Wolf, plus Olwen, her young charge; Malakite, the bookseller and his daughter Christie; and the Torp family, with beautiful daughter Gerda slaying Wolf’s emotions from the minute he sees her.

Those are the main characters, but of course the book is rich with them, from Roger Monk, the squire’s strange manservant to Bob Weevil, Wolf’s rival for Gerda’s affection. And then there is James Redfern, a character in absentia who somehow hovers over the narrative all the way through; because before Wolf took on the post of assisting the squire, Redfern held that position, and he appears to have died in mysterious circumstances. There are whispers and sidelong glances, glimpses of hidden secrets, and Wolf himself wonders constantly about Redfern. Nevertheless, he settles in to his work, marries Gerda, and copes with the fact that his mother has decided to return to Ramsgard to join him. This is complication enough in what is a difficult situation; because whilst adoring Gerda, Wolf is also in love with Christie; and Christie’s home life is difficult enough because of the incest which took place between her father and her now absent older sister. Add in a half sister of Wolf’s, a constant lack of money and Wolf’s emotional state, and you end up with a highly charged book!

I have to say, though, that that fairly simplistic outline of some of the plot elements of “Wolf Solent” simply doesn’t do it justice; this is a complex and involved novel which explores much more than the shenanigans of a west country town. There is, of course, a reason why the book is named after the main character, because we do see things entirely from his viewpoint. Solent is an extremely troubled, complex man, locked inside his head and in effect fighting with two different sides of his nature. He finds it hard to cope with reality and when the world is too much, slips off inside his head to what he calls his ‘mythology’; though whether that will be strong enough to help him survive Dorset is another matter. Cleverly, Powys creates occasions when his protagonist picks up that things are not as he perceives them, and that other people see him very differently from how he sees himself. This dualism in his nature is a battle between his physical side, which loves the sensuality of his relationship with Gerda, and his intellectual side which adores Christie and the cerebral love they have. I suppose the solution would have been for him to find a lover with beauty *and* brains, but perhaps that would be too much for him to expect!

His mind withdrew into itself with a jerk at this point, trying to push away a certain image of things that rose discomfortably upon him – the image of a countryside covered from sea to sea by illuminated stations for airships, overspread from sea to sea by thousands of humming aeroplanes! What would ever become of Tilly-Valley’s religion in that world, with head-lights flashing along cemented highways, and all existence dominated by electricity? What would become of old women reading by candlelight? What would become of his own life-illusion, his secret ‘mythology’, in such a world?

Again, that’s perhaps too simple a reading of this book, because in places the narrative is deeply philosophical. Wolf has a strong connection with the natural world, which is reiterated over and over in the book; and his battle between what he believes are good and evil, both within himself and in the world, are often calmed by his contact with nature. A character comments on how much he walks, and indeed he seems to be constantly out in the country, as if the physical act of movement helps both his body and his mind. Powys himself had issues with the trappings of progress and modernity, which are reflected in Wolf’s attitudes, particularly towards the end of the book; and there is the inevitable risk of conflating character and author, which isn’t lessened by the coincidences between Powy’s life and that of Wolf Solent!

The duality of Wolf, however, is what the book pivots on, and he does spend much of his time torn between loyalty to his (living) mother and (dead) father; in fact, he often has conversations in his head with the latter. He’s strongly influenced by both, yet constantly vacillates, chastising himself for not behaving like one or the other. Certainly both appear dominant characters, and there are times when you want him to strike out on his own and break away from both parents!

That’s what you do, Wolf. You look the other way! You do that when your feet take you to the Malakite shop. You’re doing that now, when you carry this naughty book back to that old rogue. Why do you always try and make out that your motives are good, Wolf? They’re often abominable! Just as mine are. There’s only one thing required of us in this world, and that’s not to be a burden … not to hang round people’s necks!

It has to be said that Powys does write beautifully (even if his narrative is a little prolix at times…); and he can conjure up atmosphere, setting, emotion and tension quite wonderfully. His prose evokes the English countryside, particularly a part of world with which I’m familiar, and although the modern world was encroaching on everywhere by 1929, Ramsgard and its environs are still holding on to old traditions, despite the presence of planes and trains. Interesting, I started to read “Wolf Solent” some years back, and never got very far; and I suspect that I had no idea of the kind of book to expect. However, having read the two short works Mike Walmer issued, I feel I had much more of a handle on how Powys’s writing would be, as he touches on issues of modernity, dualism and, frankly, the whole point of living in these books. I sensed similar themes bubbling under the surface of all three works, and they were all recognisably by the same man with the same beliefs.

I think I’ll draw this post to a close here, as it’s impossible to explore all of the themes and meanings of this deeply interesting book in one short(ish) blog post. However, I will say that I found my reading of “Wolf Solent” a fascinating, thought-provoking and very stimulating one; I was able to read the book over a period of about ten days, living alongside Wolf and his fellow characters, and I was totally engrossed. I did wonder if I was biting off more than I could chew taking on a book this long for the #1929Club, but was pleased to prove to myself that I still have the reading stamina to absorb a chunkster. So my final read for our club was a real winner – hurrah!


As an aside, I looked up the book after I’d finished drafting this post, and found from the Wikipedia entry that in fact it was initially even longer (!) and that six chapters running to 318 pages had to be removed/condensed prior to the book’s initial publication. This is extremely intriguing, and references to the content of the missing sections even more so. Apparently there has been no attempt to combine these back into the published text as there are plot variations in the sections removed which would make for inconsistencies – I guess it would take Powys coming back to life to sort them out and that’s not going to happen! Luckily, though, if you have a JStor account, you can read the missing sections online as the Powys Society has published them in their journal – so I may have to do a little investigating… 😉