September Book Group Meeting – The Trials of Enoc Huws by Daniel Owen

Book group member Rob Mimpriss has written a summary of our September book group discussion about ‘The Trials of Enoc Huws’

The Reading Wales book group discussed Profedigaethau Enoc Huws by Daniel Owen. This was a new kind of selection for the group, a Welsh-language classic first published in 1891, perennially popular in Welsh and twice adapted for television. A translation by Claud Vivian, published in 1892, was recently revised by Les Barker and republished as The Trials of Enoc Huws (Mold: Brown Cow, 2010). Initially our discussion concentrated on the quality of this translation, and we were impressed by the clarity of the English and its faithfulness to the spirit of Daniel Owen’s Welsh. The book is interspersed with Welsh colloquialisms, translated and explained in footnotes, and we rather enjoyed their wry descriptions of Welsh language and culture.

The novel is set in a town on the Welsh border, and describes the relationship between an orphan and workhouse boy, now a successful grocer, Enoc Huws, and Susi, the proud and intelligent daughter of the local mine manager, Captain Trefor. Captain Trefor keeps his investors in constant hope of imminent profit, but in fact his lead mine contains no lead, and he is aware that he can survive only by persuading Enoc to invest in a new mine, equally doomed. This interplay of financial and romantic concerns reminded us of Alan Bennett’s novel, Anna of the Five Towns (1902), and of its principled but put-open heroine who develops feelings for one of her father’s debtors, but acknowledges them only after marrying a more successful businessman. Daniel Owen’s ending is somewhat less subtle, as an American emigrant unexpectedly returns to Wales to announce that Captain Trefor is Enoc’s father and Susi is his sister, and to expose Captain Trefor as a thief and a fraud. Forgotten kinsmen and unexpected wealth are more common turns of events in the novels of Charles Dickens, and we felt that they would most likely be used only in soap operas today. A second strand of the plot follows disagreements at the Methodist chapel over whether music should be emphasised in chapel services and whether chapels should employ full-time ministers. A number of us had skipped these sections without damaging our enjoyment of the book, and we felt these sections reflected its nature as a novel first published in serial form and written by a Methodist preacher.

We concluded that the strength of the novel lay in its comic, sympathetic treatment of its setting and characters. The shrewd, kind narrator addresses us as readers very directly, warning us humorously of their faults and venalities of local eccentrics before we have to deal with them by person. By the end of the novel almost all the characters have gained some insight into their faults, and have found domestic happiness and financial security. The book was an easy read and a page-turner; it was a book to read at Christmas; and it sent us back to read or re-read other work by Daniel Owen, especially in Welsh. All four of his books are currently in print, and a translation of his Fireside Tales by Adam Pearce was published by Brown Cow and Y Lolfa in 2011.