(c) National Library of Wales

ESSAY Huw Lawrence

NWR Issue 109

Fury Never Leaves Us

We are one hundred years on from the publication of Caradoc Evans’ short story collection, My People, a book carrying the status of being the opening chapter in the tradition now known as Welsh Writing in English. It is time to look again, to reassess the controversy the book kindled in Wales, a controversy never resolved. Was it a good book, or an unforgiveable insult to the Welsh people? It definitively represents what subsequent contributors to the tradition saw themselves getting away from.

When I was asked to discuss Caradoc Evans on a radio programme, broadcast on 7 January 2015, I reread this author and tried to view him anew. I had prejudice to overcome. While I hate to think of the past as baggage, I had to try and ignore certain memories.

My maternal grandmother, just four years younger than Caradoc Evans, felt scandalised by him, and I have happy childhood memories of my quiet mamgu and Aunty Mary her sister, of holidays in Bow Street in a cottage hardly big enough to accommodate visitors. This was a Cardiganshire community very like the one Caradoc Evans wrote about. In one household I saw poverty not encountered in our home town of Llanelli but my relatives’ home was a friendly part of a warm community in a place that seemed to change little. This was the end of the forties. My mother, who’d been taught by the Welsh nationalist Ambrose Bebb at Bangor Normal College, hated Caradoc Evans with a vengeance. My father, whose roots were in industrial Llanelli, did not react as strongly but regarded the author with contempt.

Flicking through John Harris’ introduction to the 1987 Seren edition of My People, I read, ‘The question of the veracity of My People, of the lit- eral truth of key incidents, is a minefield.’ Harris suggests that there were models for some of the characters; for instance some farmer really had locked a mad wife away in an upper room. Harris writes that Caradoc Evans ‘insisted on the truth of his writing, both its deeper assumptions and most of its surface detail’ (my italics). Presumably this is why the Globe magazine saw the collection as having ‘no small ethnological value’. When its author later wrote that so far as he knew none of the incidents he’d related had ever happened, he still meant they easily could have. He saw himself as a kind of social realist and never shifted from maintaining that the people in the book were the people of Cardiganshire. On its first appearance the book’s front cover made this declaration in bold print: ‘The justification for the author’s realistic pictures of peasant life, as he knows it, is the obvious sincerity of his aim, which is to portray that he may make ashamed.’ No wonder my mamgu felt scandalised.

However, I resolved that I would now try to reread the book from something more like the social and historical remove of John Harris, remembering too what literary critics term 'the intentional fallacy': the mistake of judging a work of art by the assumed intentions of its author’.

In Caradoc Evans’ bizarre, insulting but powerful language I read about a wife replaced by another woman, labelled mad and locked in a loft, exercised in the fields once a week wearing a halter. In the course of his work, a father several times passes by his daughter, drowned in a ditch, before throwing her in his cart and driving home singing a hymn about death. A drunk is sent home by revellers in the skin of a newly flayed horse, at the sight of which his daughter, whom he has raped, is frightened into madness. So he drives her before him at the end of a rope, walking her twenty-three miles to Carmarthen asylum (about the right distance from the author’s home village of Rhydlewis). In the book’s most famous story, an exploited, poverty-stricken old woman is reduced to eating roasted rats. In another, a minister’s family deliberately scares a young woman into a miscarriage in the dark of night to avoid scandal. A young man drives a pocketknife through a theological student’s skull. All this and more in one small parish, perpetrated by characters making constant references to the Bible under the rule of a merciless chapel.

The publisher marketed the book a second time along with its successor, Capel Sion, as if together they made a complete sociological study of the Welsh peasantry. Caradoc Evans’ horror-comic world opened up an enormous gulf of contradiction between the rural Cardiganshire of his remembered childhood and mine. What I knew about my mamgu’s quite happy early life did not concur at all with the religious terrorism under which Caradoc Evans’ characters made each other suffer.

When preparing for the radio programme, I found that the article that came closest to addressing the book’s portrayal of religion was ‘ My People and the Revenge of the Novel’, by M Wynn Thomas ( New Welsh Review 1, 1988). He is a native Welsh speaker of roughly my age brought up within a few miles of me in the industrial south and subject to similar cultural influences. His article presents My People as Caradoc Evans’ revenge for the humiliations to which the author’s family were subjected by the local community. Then he compares the book with the idyllic, autobiographical novel, Hen Dŷ Ffarm, by DJ Williams. Interestingly, he does not see the two accounts as in dispute but as a matching pair, looking at the same thing but reflecting back two opposites, one a utopia, the other a dystopia. Both authors left rural Wales to work in the south and returned, one with a new hate and the other with a new love. In other words, both saw what was there. If Thomas was right then Caradoc Evans was more than a disturbed and talented liar.

Before considering what M Wynn Thomas says on the question of religion, there's a psychological article worth looking at which scrutinises those humiliations he refers to. In ‘The Fury Never Left Him’, Barbara Prys Williams offers a Freudian analysis of the ‘quite extraordinary charge of anger and contempt that pervades this sequence of deeply felt narratives of victimisation’ ( New Welsh Review 31, 1995–96).

We read how Caradoc Evans’ father, William, an auctioneer, undertook the sale of a farm whose tenant had been evicted for not voting according to the wishes of his Tory landlord. An article by WJ Rees records that seventeen tenants were evicted for voting Liberal in 1868 and many more had their rents raised for not turning out ('Inequalities: Caradoc Evans and DJ Williams', Planet 81, 1990). Both the local community where they lived near Llandysul and his mother’s family reacted against William Evans’ action. His mother was cut out of her wealthy father’s will. When, later widowed, she returned to her native village of Rhydlewis, she had to scrape a living out of ten acres of hillside called Lanlas (like Caradoc Evans’ protagonist in ‘The Woman Who Sowed Iniquity’). William Evans was also, for some later social or domestic transgression, forced to ride y ceffyl pren, a frightening and embarrassing mode of village discipline in which the offender was carried tied to a wooden frame to be laughed at and abused along the way. Barbara Prys Williams suggests that a child of less than three witnessing this, at his ‘Oedipal stage’, could easily become the repressed adult who wrote cathartically about public anger and dangerous males, and who courted vilification throughout his life.

M Wynn Thomas’ article focusses on the period’s Nonconformity. I myself remember the sense of being in the hold of an outside power, and I came in at the tail end of the chapel’s control. But my own mild and not entirely negative recollections certainly enable me to understand Caradoc Evans’ attack. It is interesting that in a story called ‘The Word’, in his second book, Capel Sion, Dafydd Lanlas (as Caradoc Evans was known in Rhydlewis) is held up by name for censure from the pulpit for jeering at Sion. Caradoc Evans felt that an evil spell maintained by the preachers and politicians of liberal Nonconformity controlled what he portrayed as an ignorant and superstitious peasantry (one which had impoverished and punished his family). M Wynn Thomas points out that what the author felt so personally was substantiated by others, that Nonconformist theology in relation to Welsh society was in fact much debated in Welsh periodicals of the period. Had My People been written in Welsh, his satire would have been recognised and would have met with nothing like the same opprobrium. Had it found a publisher it would have been a positive contribution.

But he wrote not in Welsh but in a mocking version of English, and that’s why I can’t help coming back to what Professor Wynn Thomas scarcely touches upon: the author’s unceasing insistence that he was writing truthfully about people like my relatives. He told one reporter that he hadn’t the imagination to invent what he’d written. ‘They’re my relatives,’ he told Arthur Machen in the Evening News. He presents them as scarcely human. Could there be something that made south Cardiganshire that different?

Like M Wynn Thomas, WJ Rees (in the article previously mentioned) makes the comparison with Hen Dŷ Ffarm. DJ Williams describes a scattered but neighbourly Welsh community located in Rhydcymerau, just some twenty-five miles from Rhydlewis. WJ Rees uses official figures to show how the agricultural depression of the period afflicted south Cardiganshire much more than north Carmarthenshire. However, while it is true that deprivation has an adverse effect on human relationships and behaviour, this hardly explains the difference between a warm community and Caradoc Evans’ creatures of Gothic horror. Rees concedes that many have concluded the author’s motives were personal.

He notes that one of the biggest differences between the two books is that women were equals in DJ Williams’ account but are virtually slaves in Caradoc Evans’. Sex being sinful, an exploited servant girl is a temptress and her unwanted pregnancy her own fault. A woman who stands up for herself, as in ‘The Woman Who Sowed Iniquity’, is despised and punished, even though she is a victim who does nothing wrong beyond refusing to be pushed around by her brother. (There are parallels with events in the author’s family in this story.) In Caradoc Evans’ fiction, a future wife bargained (dishonestly) into marriage on market day is of secondary significance to the acquisition of a ‘heifer without a blemish’. In DJ Williams’ account, marriage is a union bringing delicate new relationships between two families. All relationships are calculating and hypocritical in Caradoc Evans.

Harris reveals that Caradoc Evans’ glorified spleen, seeing it as a creative force. ‘Fury never leaves us,’ he writes. ‘Love falls at the first stumbling block.’ He found love ‘as insipid as milk and less interesting than a billiard ball.’ Milk means nourishment for most people, as does love, but this extraordinary remark was not made facetiously. It is borne out by ten books and a vitriolic play called Taffy – an entire oeuvre fuelled by fury against his own people. D Tecwyn Lloyd quotes a play performed in 1647, which uses a linguistic mockery not dissimilar to that of Caradoc Evans’. He makes it plain how the author contributed to a long English tradition of mocking the Welsh in that particular way.

More than anything else, it is this language that wounds. It’s a derisive parody of Welsh syntax and word order united with biblical phraseology, an argot that retains the Bible’s authoritative tone despite its mocking mistranslations of William Morgan’s Bible. ‘White robes’ is rendered as ‘white shirts’, and ‘Almighty’ becomes ‘Big Man’ or ‘Great Male’. ‘Blessed Jesus’ becomes ‘little white Jesus’, and so on. ‘Dear, dear, has not the little Big Man said, “Ye are of more value than many sparrows.”’ It may seem like mockery at its most puerile, but the truth is that these stories are gripping. They are powerful on a scale not encountered elsewhere. Whatever Caradoc Evans’ intentions, the characters act as universal archetypes in dark moral parables, and this complicates and cloaks the question of ‘truth’, shifting the fictive territory towards allegorical fantasy.

According to his own account, Caradoc Evans picked up his Welsh Bible one day – the very copy given him as a boy by his chapel when he left Rhydlewis to work for a Carmarthen draper – and he read Genesis Chapter 18 seven times. On putting down the Book he vowed to write My People. What he’d read was the chapter in which Abraham pleads with God to show mercy to any good people there may be found in Sodom. As I remember, the only good person God found there was a man called Lot. That was one more than Caradoc Evans had Saint David find in all Cardiganshire and all the Welsh of London, in ‘Saint David and the Prophets’, found in his third collection, My Neighbours.

My People was followed by the almost as powerful Capel Sion (1916) and then the weaker My Neighbours (1920). The last mentioned was an attack on the London Welsh as led by a preacher-politician who seems almost definitely to be Lloyd George, the prime minister of the day. Lloyd George called Caradoc Evans a ‘renegade’. Weaker again was the novel, Nothing to Pay (1930), a further attack on the London Welsh. After the first two books, Caradoc Evans was capable only of weaker versions of the same thing. His method of travesty was unsuited to any other theme and too self-enclosed to develop into anything different.

I understand his attack on Nonconformity and I understand too that Nonconformity fostered a pastoral myth about the purity of rural Wales vis-à-vis the developed, industrial south. I know that this myth has been part of my own thinking and remembering. Caradoc Evans satirised this myth in tales that make the hairs on your arms stand up, such is the intensity of his concentrated, claustrophobic vision of evil. You gape at characters locked into themselves with all good expelled: the inhabitants of a hell made to sound like Wales. Such evil expressed with such strong biblical overtones makes these tales more disturbing than those of Edgar Allan Poe, which have no moral context. I have to concede to John Harris’ view that ‘Anglo-Welsh literature could not have wished for a more impressive beginning.’

If the works referred only to the unreal hell Caradoc Evans calls Sion, then Frank Kermode would be right and the author’s intentions would count for nothing, the work for everything. But how can I forget that ‘Sion’ is Hawen Independent Chapel in Rhydlewis, still conducting services, attended by people not that far removed from his slandered originals? This makes for an altogether more complicated and confused response. In Art and Illusion, the art historian Ernst Gombrich presents an irresolvable drawing. You look at it one way and it’s a duck, another way and it’s a rabbit, but you cannot see it as both at once. To me, My People and Capel Sion are outstandingly powerful works, but they are also a venomous, hardly justified revenge on his own people by one who was a renegade, who did lie about it being true and was a suitable case for treatment. The dilemma is that the aesthetic response and the social response not only don’t merge but are incompatible. As a reader of Welsh, I see the linguistic distortion designed to insult and misrepresent. As a reader trained in Eng Lit I see an immensely powerful Gothic fantasy with a moral dimension.

There is no resolution to the dilemma. It is a matter of which response is stronger in you personally when all is considered. To me, the collection is about people who are still here, though they are sparse now in the distressingly anglicised villages of Ceredigion. While I was engaged with rereading Caradoc Evans, my wife and I drove out to the Miners Arms in Pontrhydygroes for Sunday lunch. We ate with the gladdening sound of local Welsh in our ears. Can I take pleasure in such company and at the same time in he who ridicules these people?

Even though we are well into a new century and I understand Caradoc Evans better than before, I still will not forgive him. In his own country (the only place he is remembered) he will for as long as Welsh is spoken be viewed with an old Welsh proverb in mind: Cas gŵr na charo’r wlad a’i maco (hateful the man who does not love the land that bred him).

Yet he chose to live and end his days here, and it was with mixed feelings that I chose to visit his grave in the small Cardiganshire village of New Cross.

Huw Lawrence’s short story collection, Always the Love of Someone (Alcemi), was shortlisted for the Roland Mathias Prize, 2011.

       


previous essay: One Hundred Percent a Welsh Nationalist
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