REVIEW by Jane Bowden

NWR Issue r4

Crumbling Pageant

by Elisabeth Inglis-Jones

Much early twentieth-century Welsh Anglophone women’s writing has been lost over time and forgotten. Thankfully, one publisher, Honno, is steadily correcting this by uncovering, republishing and celebrating the lost talent of Welsh women writers. The latest publication in its Welsh Women’s Classics series, Crumbling Pageant, written by Elisabeth Inglis-Jones and first published in 1932, is one such novel being brought to a new audience.

Set in 1846 Ceredigion, and with an enjoyable and informative introduction by Sally Roberts-Jones, this is an historical novel that portrays the story of Dr John Jones and his wife, Alice Lake, described as a former ‘twittery little English governess’. The pair marry swiftly and have a child, whom they name Catherine. This mixed marriage is full of conflict: Alice believes she has married below her station and transfers her fierce social ambition to her growing daughter, while John tries his utmost to ensure Catherine embraces the Welsh culture and religion of her father. The novel charts Catherine’s life from childhood, through an adolescence in which she struggles with her identity and her ambition, and ultimately to her unfortunate marriage to the permanently sopped Erasmus Morys: a union undertaken purely to obtain the Morys mansion of Morfa.

Gender issues are explored in the children of the marriage, Louise and Lucien, who become the victims of their mother’s lifelong obsession with ensuring the family take their place within the county gentry. Inglis-Jones, herself a daughter of the Anglo-Welsh squirearchy, had recently moved from Derry Ormond, the family home in Ceredigion, to London in the wake of a particularly scathing review of her debut novel, Starved Fields (published in 1929) in the Western Mail. She had been accused of creating hideously distorted Welsh characters for her English friends to ridicule and laugh at. The setting of Crumbling Pageant, mid nineteenth-century Wales, reflected the end of the Welsh squirearchy’s heyday.

Inglis-Jones drew on her knowledge of the history surrounding great houses in Ceredigion for the substance of this novel, as well as her childhood memories of Wales. As a woman of the squirearchy, with three male siblings, and having experienced the challenges of the institution first hand it can surely be no coincidence that her portrayal of the difficulties of gender expectation, of marriage and inheritance are at the heart of this, her second novel. Yet still her fondness for the country is unmistakeable. Indeed, the Wales of Crumbling Pageant is one of:

Deep sparkling colours and aquamarine air, such as sometimes happens suddenly after a spell of rain. Down in the valley the fields were golden seas of buttercups, and the hedgerows were painted with flaming dog-roses, cascades of creamy, coral-fingered honeysuckles, and great purple foxgloves; but in the mountains the grass grew sallow and undecorated, save by lichenous boulders and here and there a wind-crippled thorn or hazel.

Here, though the foregrounded landscape is one to admire, we are not to forget that the surrounding mountains are dark, somewhat sinister in comparison – the Gothic is never far away. Inglis-Jones’ Gothic Welsh landscapes are dramatic places that have the power to entrap or entrance, and the children of mixed Anglo-Welsh marriages are very far from being of the ‘best mongrels in the world’ as Eiluned Lewis once described them. Indeed, their crises of identity cause much internal unrest and the character of Catherine in this novel is no different.

Crumbling Pageant sees the return of the house as absolutely vital to Inglis-Jones’ female characters, as it was in her first novel, Starved Fields. Catherine, obsessing over Morfa, must possess it and will do anything to obtain it. The crumbling house, a Gothic shadow of its former self, represents her future and she remains determined to obtain it by any means possible. Morfa also represents a class that Catherine desperately wants to join, one that her late mother never forgot she had forfeited by accepting the only marriage proposal available to her – a choice between marriage and the madness she perceived in endless spinsterhood.

Geographical distance from Wales often creates hiraeth in Welsh writers. Inglis-Jones, frequently writing from England, found ways of bringing her English characters to Wales. The complex postcolonial question of Anglo-Welsh relations is apparent in Crumbling Pageant, and here colonialism is intertwined with lineage and inheritance, with a combination of unstoppable greed and fierce social ambition.

Honno’s gift is introducing new readers to an age of lost Welsh women’s writing. Inglis-Jones wrote six novels, several pamphlets and five biographies, one of which, Peacocks in Paradise (1950) is probably her most well known. In republishing Crumbling Pageant, with Inglis-Jones’ undeniable talent for storytelling, characterisation and lifelong passion for Wales, the publisher is reviving her reputation as a great Welsh woman writer worthy of further appreciation.

Jayne Bowden, a graduate of Glamorgan and Swansea Universities’ Creative Writing BA and MA degree programmes respectively, is a PhD student at University of South Wales, where she is researching the life and work of Elisabeth Inglis-Jones.

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