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National Library of Wales
Powys, John Cowper, manuscripts and papers

Reference code(s): GB0210 JOCOWPOW

Held at: National Library of Wales

Title: John Cowper Powys Manuscripts and Papers

Short Title: Powys, John Cowper, manuscripts and papers

Creation date(s): [?1778]-[2006]

Level of description: Fonds

Extent: 4 large boxes; 58 small boxes; 139 volumes.

Name of creator(s): John Cowper Powys


Administrative/Biographical history: 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.


Scope and content/abstract: Papers of and relating to the novelist John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) and other members of his family, including his correspondence with family, friends and associates, as well as published and unpublished literary works, diaries, lectures, essays, and material relating to his estate and literary executorship. Also included are correspondence and literary and personal papers of Powys's companion Phyllis Playter (1893-1982), as well as personal and estate papers of members of the Powys family including his father, Charles Francis Powys, his paternal grandfather, Littleton Charles Powys, his uncle, Littleton Alfred Powys, his aunts, the Johnson sisters, and his nephew, Francis Llewellyn Powys.


Language/scripts of material: English, Latin, Greek, French, Welsh, some Italian, Portuguese and Aramaic.

System of arrangement: Arranged into two groups: 1968-1997 Purchases and Donations; and 2006 Purchase and Donation. The initial acquisitions (1968-1997) were treated as individual manuscripts in the NLW MSS series, but the later acquisitions (2006) were catalogued as an archive because of their size. These two groups have been brought together in this catalogue, and details of the arrangement of each are given at the appropriate level of description.

Conditions governing access: Readers consulting modern papers in the National Library of Wales are required to abide by the conditions noted on the 'Modern papers - data protection' form issued with their readers' tickets.

Conditions governing reproduction: Usual copyright laws apply.

Finding aids:


Accruals: Accruals are possible.

Archival history: The papers in the archive were divided into at least eleven groups before being acquired by NLW. Many of them remained in the possession of various family members and friends of John Cowper Powys, while others were acquired by academics and collectors. Details are given at the appropriate levels of description.

Immediate source of acquisition: Acquired in eight purchases and three donations between 1968 and 2006. Details are given at the appropriate level of description.


Existence and location of copies: Electronic resource (NLW MS 22215B): Typescript transcripts of John Cowper Powys's diaries, 1930-1932, 1934, acquired with NLW MSS 23193-23197, are NLW ex 1549-1553.

Related material: For other papers relating to John Cowper Powys and Phyllis Playter see also NLW MSS 15576-7C, 21683-4C, 21994C, 22501C, 22853C, 23088D, 23089-90E, 23862E, 23913D, 23926E, 23927C, 23948E, 24004D, NLW, Frederick Davies (John Cowper Powys) manuscripts (NLW MSS 23193-23197), NLW, Dinah White (Powys family) manuscripts (NLW MSS 24060-3), NLW, Papurau Iorwerth C. Peate A1/12 and NLW, Evan Roberts, Llandderfel, Papers 246. Miscellaneous printed material, acquired with NLW MSS 23193-23197, are NLW ex 1549-1553.


Note: Title based on contents.

Archivist's note: Description compiled by Geraint Phillips and Bethan Ifan, and revised by Rhys Jones and David Moore. The following sources were used in the compilation of this description: Handlist of Manuscripts in the National Library of Wales, Volume VIII (Aberystwyth, 1999); Handlist of Manuscripts in the National Library of Wales, Volume IX (Aberystwyth, 2003); Cydymaith i Lenyddiaeth Cymru (Llandysul, 1986).

Rules or conventions: This description follows ANW guidelines based on ISAD(G) second edition, AACR2, and LCSH.

Date(s) of descriptions: December 2005 - July 2016

Powys, John Cowper, | 1872-1963 | Archives

Personal names
Playter , Phyllis
Powys , John Cowper , 1872-1963

Corporate names


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