Born in South America, Lynette Roberts travelled widely before settling in the rural Carmarthenshire village of Llanybri at the start of the Second World War. Married to the Welsh writer Keidrych Rhys, she was well known in literary circles of the time – Dylan Thomas was best man at her wedding!
Lynette Roberts, Collected Poems, Carcanet Press
The collection of her poetry edited by Patrick McGuinness in 2005, shows how Roberts harnesses and articulates the complex situation of war and consequent arrival of modernity in rural West Wales. Through the subversion of wartime propaganda, Roberts’s poetry displays women who emerged empowered despite their world being turned upside down by modern warfare. Most importantly her poetry showed urban modernists of the forties that a Welsh modernism existed.
From accusations of spy craft in ‘Raw Salt on Eye’ to a poignant account of miscarriage in ‘Lamentation’, Roberts’s poetry is a first hand account of life in wartime rural Wales. Roberts’s prose poem ‘Swansea Raid’ is one of the finest accounts of war disrupting a domestic space: ‘I, that is Xebo7011, pass out into the chill-blue air and join Xebn559162, her sack apron greening by the light of the moon.’ Roberts identifies herself with her war time identity number. A ‘collyrium’ sky is ‘chemically washed’ and a searchlight is described as ‘a glade of magnesium’ as nature is contaminated by warfare. Her poetry describes war in rural Wales from a unique, female perspective.
Tony Conran admitted that the neglect of Roberts’s poetry is ‘the greatest failure of the Anglo-Welsh tradition to date.’ Lynette wrote on the edge of a literary period and her great epic poem about the Second World War ‘Gods With Stainless Ears wasn’t published until the fifties by which time literary circles had made way for a group of Angry Young Men.
As well as her poetry, a collection titled ‘Diaries Letters and Recollections’ also edited by Patrick McGuinness is a great account of life in rural Wales during the forties. You get a real sense of her eccentric personality as well as a glimpse of women’s war time troubles. Her account of meeting T.S. Eliot at the Faber offices in London (with her two young tantrum-throwing children in tow!) is, in itself, a reason to look up this brilliant Welsh author.
It wasn’t until the influence of heavy industry in the South Wales Valleys that English language fiction really developed into what we consider Welsh Writing in English today. A variety of factors including the development of English language education, immigration and the effects of industrialisation led to an upsurge in English language writing.
Many writers who form the basic canon of WWiE came from this first wave of writers in the 1930s. Although writers like Dylan Thomas and Gwyn Thomas spoke Welsh at home, it was English that was taught in school and the language in which they choose to express their experiences of Wales.
As the Welsh valleys experienced sudden anglicanisation, a variety of writers emerged telling stories of life in the mining communities of South Wales. Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley (1939) became the ‘exportable’ version of Wales sold all over the world – seen in the success of the book’s 1941 film adaptation. These visions of Wales defined early perceptions of Welsh Writing in English – Llewellyn’s depiction of Gilfach Goch was for many non-Welsh readers the only English-speaking Wales they had encountered in text or on-screen.
These images of Anglophone Wales are important to understanding the country’s industrial history, yet through my blog posts I aim to write about lesser-known authors of WWiE – those who have been marginalised, particularity women writers who have been neglected but whose work has much to say about Welsh experience.
Bleak yet bursting with wit, this trilogy of novellas explores the dark underbelly of a Welsh mining community but don’t let the dark subject matter deter you! These three stories are fine examples of the dark humour that Gwyn Thomas weaves through the lives of his characters.
The Dark Philosophers, Gwyn Thomas, Parthian.
Bordering on Magic Realism, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Just as Carter explores the sinister side to well-known fairy-tales, Thomas depicts a mining community tarnished and exploited by the industry that has overwhelmed the less-than-green valleys. In the first novella the eponymous ‘Oscar’ takes on an allegorical role, an exploitative ‘hog’ who owns a mountain with a colliery tip. Thomas describes him as having a voice that has a ‘slow greasy feel’ and a ‘mind like another man’s rear’. The stories consider violence, death and revenge in an austere landscape, yet the characterisation of the inhabitants of these villages provides the humour.
As Elaine Morgan notes in her introduction to the Library of Wales edition of the book it is surprising that Gwyn Thomas ‘found anything to laugh about’ at all. He was born the last of twelve children in 1913 in the Rhondda Valley and lost his mother at a young age. Yet emerging from a childhood plagued by illness his work is brilliant at defining the absurdity felt by those living in a vibrant community disturbed by industrialisation. In his autobiography Thomas describes the Rhondda where ‘streets shoot upwards at angles that suggest a neurotic impulse to be getting away from something.’ Despite the cramped conditions the community was full of song, laughter and gossip – drama that the community thrived on.
As a local Gwyn Thomas shows the world the paradoxical experience of living in the twisted, neurotic and absurd environment that was the valleys in the 1940s. Thomas’ love affair with his stomping ground continued throughout his life – only happy when he was back in the Welsh valleys. The Dark Philosophers demonstrates the prowess of a true wordsmith. Verbal wit abounds in these richly idiomatic and colourful short stories.
Check out YouTube to witness first hand a witty writer who has quite a way with words.
Defining the texts that could be considered ‘Welsh Writing in English’ can be difficult and some texts are easier to define than others. Dylan Thomas and R.S. Thomas are perhaps some of the most well known authors in this tradition, however, there are many other writers to uncover.
Let’s take Lynette Roberts for example – born in South America, educated in Bournemouth, yet her most important modernist poetry was written whilst she lived in rural Carmarthenshire during the Second World War and the influence of Wales in her work is undeniable.
In one sense, Welsh Writing in English texts are those written in the English language by Welsh authors. However, the tradition branches out further – to include authors with Welsh parentage, connections to Wales or those who currently live in Wales. The authors’ backgrounds are diverse yet they all have one thing in common – a passion to creatively express what it means to be Welsh.
The first post of a brand new blog! The aim of this blog is to get people interested in and talking about Welsh Writing in English.
Over the next few months I will be blogging about various WWiE authors and texts and uploading details about the Reading Wales book group. I’ll also be using Twitter and Facebook to get the conversation flowing – what Anglophone Welsh literature should we be reading and why?