Wednesday 28 August 2013

Penguin no. 73: Mr Weston's Good Wine
by T.F. Powys

     Mr. Weston, for a common tradesman - and the most princely of merchants is only that - possessed a fine and creative imagination. And, although entirely self-taught - for he had risen, as so many important people do, from nothing - he had read much, and had written too. He possessed in a very large degree a poet's fancy, that will at any moment create out of the imagination a new world.
     Mr. Weston had once written a prose poem that he had divided into many books, and was naturally surprised when he discovered that the very persons and places that he had but seen in fancy had a real existence in fact. The power of art is magnificent. It can change the dullest sense into the most glorious; it can people a new world in a moment of time; it can cause a sparkling fountain to flow in the driest desert to solace a thirsty traveller.

Mr Weston is a genial old man, with a head of hair as white as wool concealed beneath his brown felt hat. He was once a writer, the composer of a prose poem, but these days it is difficult for him to find anyone interested in his literary work. He is travelling through a small part of Dorset in an old Ford van which bears his name on its side, intent on supplying his good wine to any inhabitants willing to drink or receive some, and he is accompanied on this journey by a companion named Michael who has an unusually detailed understanding of the interests, thoughts and hopes of the locals, and who can describe at length all recent events in the area.

The pair enter Folly Down late in the afternoon, and by means of some mechanical contraption they illuminate the sky as evening falls, advertising themselves and their wares; a little later they head to the local inn in search of custom. But something strange happens when Mr. Weston enters Angel Inn: the clocks throughout the village cease recording the passage of time at exactly 7pm, and steadfastly hold to that time as long as Mr. Weston remains in the village. There is some conjecture in the inn that time has come to an end, and that the world has moved into eternity, and it is entirely accepted by the villagers that things should continue as always, and that time and eternity should be indistinguishable, apart from the ticking of the clocks. With time stopped, Mr. Weston is able to achieve all that he has planned in a single evening.

Mr Weston's Good Wine is both an allegorical tale and a comedy at the expense of rural villagers. There are both good and bad people living in Folly Down, but they are almost all portrayed as simple and naive, with a very circumscribed set of interests. The young seem concerned principally with sex, either hoping and longing for the day they will find love and be able to indulge in its physical expression, or else indulging freely anyway, usually in the moss that grows beneath the last remaining oak tree. The old seem intent on the consumption of alcohol, getting the better of their neighbours, and adding to their wealth, and they have little empathy for others. Mr Pring is an example: he works by the roadside breaking rocks and longs to witness a fatal accident so that he can help himself to the purse of the victim. He regularly sabotages the road near the turn-off to Folly Down in the hope of inducing just such an accident.

The inattention of the parents to the concerns of the children combined with the obsession with sex has led to some out-of-wedlock pregnancies in the village, and to one young woman drowning herself in the lake because of the shame. Their undoing has been at the hands of the sons of Mr Mumby, and at the instigation of Jane Vosper, who is jealous of the charms of the young girls, and so has encouraged and schemed for their fall. But these are such simple people that everyone in the town prefers to believe that it is old Grunter who seduces the maidens, and he is content to take the blame because it gives him a little prestige in the village. Until the arrival of Mr Weston, no one takes any action to bring this local shame to an end.

It soon becomes clear, at least to the reader, that Mr Weston is God come into the world to visit his creation, his companion Michael is an angel, and their good wine comprises the things God dispenses: love and death. Mr Weston also carries with him the devil in the form of a lion, and with these three commodities he sets out to solve all the problems besetting the inhabitants of Folly Down.

Mr Weston's Good Wine is an unusual book written in an unusual prose, and with a title which references Jane Austen's Emma. It is fairly pessimistic in tone, suggesting that love is a source of pain and sorrow, and death, which Mr Weston supplies to those he loves most dearly, is its solution; death being the good wine which brings relief from the burdens of life. I would have liked some kind of companion text to assist in decoding the message that T.F. Powys was attempting to convey, as some of his allusions are simple to identify, but there are many others that I suspect I missed.


  1. What a strange-sounding little book! I've seen it around a lot and considered picking it up - but I'm not so sure now.....

    1. It is a story you won't forget if you choose to read it, and it is challenging in the sense that its meaning is not at all obvious.

  2. I found the book rather baffling, but certainly enjoyable. Curiously, it is one of very few novels that QD Leavis selects as being good in Fiction and the Reading Public, but it is oddly out of kilter with anything else she mentions.

    1. I agree that until you work out who Mr Weston is, the story is completely baffling, and even then it is not quite clear why he would choose to visit this particular corner of Dorset as a wine merchant, except that it allows the use of the line from Emma as the title. Does QD Leavis explain her selection? The story seemed completely original - a product entirely of T.F. Powys' imagination and experiences, and uninfluenced by contemporary fashions or ideas.



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