The Life of Rebecca Jones

In our January meeting Reading Wales book group discussed The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price. This book was originally published in Welsh under the title O! Tyn y Gorchudd (O! pull aside the veil) and has since become a classic. It won the National Eisteddfod Medal in 2002 and was named the Welsh Language Book of the Year at the Hay Festival in 2003.

The book is a semi-fictional story of Angharad Price’s family living in the Maesglasau valley. It captures the history of several generations of her ancestors and is told from the point of view of the author’s great aunt, Rebecca.

Because we discussed the English version of the book, we started our discussion with comparing the Welsh original to the English translation. Some of our book group members pointed out that they preferred the book in Welsh because it is written in a lyrical, classic Welsh literary style, echoing the style of Kate Roberts and T. Rowland Hughes, which is lost in translation. They found the English text a bit ‘clunky’ and the translation inaccurate at times. Nevertheless, as one reader pointed out, while something is lost in translation with regard to style, by publishing an English version, the book gained wider audience, including the non-Welsh-speaking members of the author’s family.

We thought that while the book can be seen as fictionalised oral history, it is also a portrait of a disappearing culture and way of life and some of the real events (Rebecca’s death and the blindness of her three brothers) can also be interpreted symbolically as the loss of the Welsh-language culture and the blindness of people towards its value. This is also seen in the tension between Rebecca, who prefers to stay behind in the old house and her brother Bob, who welcomes modernisation. Despite what the title of the book may suggest, Rebecca’s death is actually a central part of the story and it, without giving too much away, comes as a surprise and makes the reader rethink the whole book.

The main theme of the book as well as the goal which Rebecca hopes to achieve in writing the story of her family is continuance. It is both the continuance of the author’s family, who, as the book says, have been living in the valley for a thousand yearsand it is also continuance of the Welsh-language culture. The book is neither plot- nor character-driven, it is rather a semi-biographical account of the author’s great aunt as well as a book about a simple farming way of life and finding value in it. We liked the rich detail of the descriptions of day-to-day farming life in the Maesglasau valley, but we thought that the author was at times constrained by the material and the book worked better when she could escape the facts and her own voice came through.

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3 thoughts on “The Life of Rebecca Jones

  1. Can a book become a classic in 10 years? For me, even to trascend from being fiction to being literature, a text must survive and have validity and resonance for several generations. Another defintion of a classic might be that a text has relevance and recognition outside of its immediate cultural circle. As you mention, the translation is very recent and not quite bedded in. Cheese, wine or books – they all need time to mature.

    Mandi

    • I agree with you in that it takes more than 10 years for a book to become a classic. My point was simply that The Life of Rebecca Jones is considered a classic by several critics. It is up to each reader to decide whether they see it that way.

  2. Hello to everyone at the book group, hope you’re well. Just finished The Life of Rebecca Jones in one sitting this morning and was blown away by it! I can understand that the translation might not work entirely, particularly with all the references to Welsh poetry. However, surely it is a good thing that it has been translated and opened up to a wider audience. For me it was the theme of continuance coupled with the book’s ending that struck me and that would have been the case in either language. It also has a lot of similarities to Welsh Writing in English in the way it explores the effect of modernisation on Wales during the 20th century.

    A brilliant book and I expect the book group had a lot to say!

    Alex

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