Feet in Chains by Kate Roberts

The book of our August meeting was a Welsh classic – Feet in Chains by Kate Roberts. The novel was originally published in Welsh under the title Traed Mewn Cyffion, but we read it in English translation. The book group agreed that although the musicality of the Welsh language isn’t carried over, the newest translation of the novel by Katie Gramich is the best one so far.

The book is set in North Wales and spans the period of about forty years from 1880 into the First World War and because it covers such a long period of time, it gives an excellent portrayal of life in Caernarfonshire at the turn of the twentieth century. The theme of the novel is the hardship of the slate mining community, but unlike other industrial novels from this period, such as Cwmardy or Black Parade, Roberts’ book focuses more on the impact of the terrible economic working conditions on an individual family rather than the whole village. Moreover, because the novel spans such a long period of time, we’re not only shown the harsh realities of life at the time, but we are also constantly reminded of what things could or used to be like.

There is no single most important event in the book around which the narrative revolves; you might think a particular even will be important as you’re reading, but you’re always proven wrong. In my opinion, what makes the novel particularly bleak isn’t the hard life in the quarries and the widespread poverty, but the conflicts and back-biting within one’s own family; unlike other novels written during this period, the domestic sphere in this book doesn’t provide the safety that is traditionally associated with it.

The book group also agreed that the excellent portrayal of the relationships within the Gruffudd family had to do with Kate Roberts’ being a short story writer. The individual chapters of the novel are often little vignettes and stories in themselves. Roberts is particularly good at choosing touching stories which drive a point across. An example of this is a scene in which little Owen wins money in his Sunday school competition and as he’s coming home he’s expecting his mother to be proud of him and be happy that he wants to buy book for his money rather than sweets. However, when he gets home, his mother takes his money away from him because the family needs it and even delivers a clip round the ear when he starts sulking. When his older sister Elin hears him crying, she comes to comfort him, but it is that night that Owen becomes aware of the poverty his family is living in. By giving an example of a concrete impact on an individual, Roberts is able to show the effects of poverty in a way that is more palpable than showing a large-scale impact on the whole community.

Jill by Amy Dillwyn

Amy Dillwyn was arguably one of the most remarkable women of her age. She came from an accomplished family, being the daughter of Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn, an industrialist and MP for Swansea, the niece of John Dillwyn-Llewelyn, a pioneer photographer, the granddaughter of Sir Henry Thomas de la Beche, a geologist and the great-great-granddaughter of William Dillwyn, an abolitionist. You can read more about the Dillwyn family on the Dillwyn project website run by the CREW centre at Swansea University.

However, Amy Dillwyn wasn’t only an author, but also a well-known public figure, one of the first female industrialists and one of the first women to stand for election to a borough council. After the death of her brother and father she took over her father’s spelter works which were on the brink of bankrupcy, gave up the family home to run the family business and eventually managed to save over 300 jobs. The book group agreed that given her accomplishments, Amy Dillwyn’s work is not as well-known as it should be and the discussion revolved around the novel as well as more generally the fact that women are often airbrushed from history.

Jill is Amy Dillwyn’s fourth novel and was published in 1884. It is a bildungsroman as well as a feminist manifesto. Here’s a video of Kirsti Bohata from Swansea University, the editor of the book, talking about Jill.

The main character is a feisty young woman coming from a well-to-do family, who after her father’s remarriage runs away from home and finds work as a maid in London. In one of her positions she meets Kitty Mervyn with whom she falls in love, but her love must stay unrequited both because of their gender and lower social class which Jill takes on. Later on in the story she is injured and ends up in hospital where she befriends the head sister of who she also becomes very fond of. Shortly after being discharged from the hospital she learns about the death of her father and the fact that she had inherited the family home. She returns home, settles down and takes on the role of a lady squire.

Jill as a character however is not a straightforward heroine. Dillwyn has managed to create a three-dimensional character that is both believable and has a very strong presence. She is tomboyish, strong-minded, extremely manipulative and willing to do almost anything to achieve what she wants. Despite the fact that Jill’s life after running away from home is very eventful, at times her personality is so strong that it overshadows the narrative.

Amy Dillwyn wrote that she ‘abhorred domestic novels’ and books with ‘too much love in them’. There are no strong male characters in Jill, while there are three very strong independent women.The novel reminded me of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in that the main protagonist also struggles to get along with her relatives and after coming of age decide to leave home (or, in case of Jane Eyre, a boarding school) and look for employment. Jill may well have been a rewriting of Bronte’s novel and reaction to and a critique of traditional plots and gender relations of 19th century novels.

Next month we will be reading Feet in Chains by Kate Roberts. Those of you that have read it, please let us know down in the comments what you thought of it. One of our readers found it rather bleak. Would you agree with that? What do you think of the new translation by Katie Gramich? In what ways does the original Welsh version differ from the translation?

Honno Press – A View Across the Valley

A View Across the Valley: Short Stories by Women from Wales c. 1850-1950

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Edited by Jane Aaron, this anthology of Welsh short stories is a great way to access Welsh Writing in English. Honno are a press located in Aberystwyth who specialize in publishing women’s literature and this anthology has been a vital part of recovering little-known or forgotten Welsh women writers and their work.

You only have to scan the author biographies at the back of the book to understand how Welsh women writers have been neglected over the past 200 years. In many cases there has been no republication of the authors work for decades. For example, the short story ‘Mad Moll’s Story’ by Anne Beale has not been published since its original publication in 1849! Bangor University Library actually holds a copy of this publication, battered and falling apart, it is the sad reality and reminder of the legacy of some Welsh writers which needs to be rejuvenated. If it wasn’t for Jane Aaron’s edited collection I would probably never have come across these unique short stories.

In terms of content, you will find themes that are common in the short story genre in general. A form favoured by the outsider and those on the edge of society, the short stories depict women who feel peripheral in their Welsh lives. As the title suggests the women often look across the valley (able to connect with the Welsh landscape) rather than connecting with the people who live in the valleys below. For this reason the stories offer a great insight into the lives of Welsh women from pre- to post-industrial Wales.

If you enjoy this collection I would definitely recommend Honno’s Welsh Women’s Poetry edited by Katie Gramich and Catherine Brennan. This is a ground-breaking bilingual anthology that includes women’s poetry from 1460 to 2001. Both books are vital to the recovery of Welsh writing and a great way to access Welsh Writing in English.