VINTAGE GEMS M Wynn Thomas

NWR Issue 1

My People and the Revenge of the Novel

When he delivered the Neil Gunn lecture in Edinburgh last year, Mario Vargas Llosa spoke of the origins of the Latin American novel [note:1]. He recalled how for centuries the Inquisition had banned the novel from the Spanish colonies, with the unforeseen result that the Inquisitors produced 'a world without novels, yes, but a world into which fiction had spread, contaminating practically everything: history, religion, poetry, science, art, speeches, journalism and people's daily habits.' This, he said, was 'the revenge of the novel'. And, according to his colourful theory, the modern Latin-American novel is itself a by-product of this revenge, since outstanding works like Llosa's own The War of the End of the World and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch are the rich product of a culture which has long found it difficult to disentangle fact from fiction.

'The revenge of the novel': what better phrase could be found to describe Caradoc Evans's work? - even though it was, of course, at the short story form that he was chiefly to excel. In nineteenth-century Wales, Nonconformity's longstanding mistrust of the novel led paradoxically to the fictionalisation of religion, the spread into spiritual life of those superstitions and self-deceptions which Caradoc eventually capitalised upon in his ferocious fictions. Not that the Nonconformist spirit was thereafter to be easily subdued: it retaliated in kind, seeking its subtle revenge on the novel in Wales by making fiction mistrust its own fictionality and by inducing writers to suppose they could only render reality justice by being realistic. Caradoc's style of writing, though, was cunningly intermediate and therefore indeterminate in character, again rather like some of the recent work of the great South American writers. His enemies proclaimed it to be impure fantasy and claimed the author had adulterated the truth as unscrupulously as other Londonised Cardis had watered their milk. His supporters, on the other hand, treated his work as sober, and sobering, fact: Welsh peasants, they condescendingly explained, really were like that.

Of course, they weren't, and neither come to that was Welsh Nonconformity. In fact by now it seems high time for the admirable, even occasionally heroic, aspects of that tediously maligned tradition, to receive attention from writers. But revenge is usually a way of dispensing pretty rough justice, and as John Harris makes clear in his invaluable introduction to his new edition of My People,[note:2] rancour was the very taproot of Caradoc's genius. 'The revenge of the novel' was also the revenge of the novelist upon the hypocritical, chapel-dominated society which, he devoutly believed, had humiliated his family. Whether there were indeed sound objective grounds for such prodigious resentment is a question which, as John Harris honestly admits, it may now be almost impossible for us to answer. The harder one looks at the facts, the more, it seems, one is liable to suffer from double vision. For instance the Reverend David Adams, minister with the Independents at Hawen, Rhydlewis, was Evans's bête noir and the symbol, to him, of Nonconformist repression. Yet the recent Oxford Companion to Welsh Literature celebrates Adams as the soul of enlightened thinking, and tartly notes that 'he incurred the hatred of the young Caradoc Evans who, as conservative in religion as in other matters, was bitterly opposed to the political Liberalism and theological Modernism for which Adams strove.' By what seems now to be a positively provocative historical coincidence, Adams's work, Yr Eglwys a Gwareiddiad Diweddar (The Church and Recent Civilization) was published the very year before My People appeared in 1915. It would be interesting to compare the two as rival testaments to the state of Welsh Nonconformity at the time of the outbreak of the First World War.[note:3]

Closer examination of Adams's theological, as well as his social, position may even enrich our understanding of Caradoc's stories. For instance, Adams's 'theological Modernism' involved a Hegelian belief in the progressive spiritual refinement of mankind over past and future centuries. This adds savage point to Caradoc's satiric portrait of the minister in "Be This Her Memorial". Poor Nanni, dazzled by the Respected Josiah Bryn-Bevan's eminently exalted virtues, reduces herself to the level of the beasts in order to be able to present him with a Bible when he leaves for higher realms in Aberystwyth. Indeed her downward progress is by the same subtle degrees that Adams believed man was ascending to new levels of spiritual perfection.' "Old Nanni", folk remarked while discussing her over their dinner-tables, "is getting as dirty as an old sow." ' And of course she reaches her acme of degradation when, in a vile parody of the Christian love-feast, she eats and is finally eaten by rats.

John Harris usefully documents the early reaction to My People. Some of the sense of outrage then expressed may appear simply outrageous to us, but Evans's work can still arouse understandably strong feelings. In his recent fascinating and combative studies of the way Welsh Wales has over the centuries been depicted in English-language writing, D. Tecwyn Lloyd has argued that Caradoc contributed shamefully to a long-established literature parodying the Welsh and their way of life. [note:4] This can be traced back, he suggests, to the period after the sixteenth-century Act of Union, when Welsh infiltration of English government was bitterly resented. But as a prime example of racist mockery designed to make the colonial Welsh seem sub-human, he quotes an extract from Jenkin of Wales. His Love-Course and Perambulation, an anonymous 'early Droll Performed in the Red Bull Theatre', London, 1647:

Jenkin: 'Look you Pages where our Sweet heart and pigsmire be: Sentlewoman if her know not her name, was Jenkin born in Wales, come of Pighouse, and pritish ploods was to have creat Hils and Mountains, awle her own, when was get 'um again, any was her Confins, and her Country was never conquer'd but alwayes have the victories pravely, have her armes and scushrins, to know that say you, was give in her crests creat teal of monsters and Dragons, kill 'um with their hooks very valiantly, as any Sentleman in the whole Urid.'[note:5]


Here already, he claims, can be found all the cheap English verbal tricks used centuries later by Caradoc and his renegade crew of Anglo-Welsh imitators, to caricature Welsh modes of speaking. His conclusion is short and acid: 'Once you've read John Torbuck at the beginning of the eighteenth century you have read Caradoc Evans in the twentieth century.'

Although he does not squarely confront this kind of challengingly dismissive argument, John Harris does implicitly meet it by outlining the alternative terms in which he himself finds it most useful to consider Evans's work. He sees My People as part of a Welsh kulturkampf. In his view, Caradoc was a writer who was involved in a civil war - that is, in a war between different factions within Welsh (and even Welsh-speaking) society, rather than in a struggle between the culture of the coloniser and the culture of the colonised. In particular he explores what Fredric James would call the 'political unconscious' of the stories, and shows how they are informed by Caradoc Evans's hatred of the unholy alliance by the end of the nineteenth-century between Nonconformity and Liberalism.[note:6] In My People he constructed a fantastic fiction that was designed to unmask the spirit of realpolitik which in his fierce opinion really governed life at every level in Nonconformist Wales.

John Harris's carefully contextualised reading of Evans has recently been endorsed by the most trenchant of present-day commentators on the nineteenth-century cultural situation in Wales. Reviewing this new edition of My People on the Radio Cymru arts programme Ffresgo, Hywel Teifi Edwards explained how Liberal-Nonconformist Wales saw the treachery of this book, on its first publication, as a repeat of the Treachery committed by the Blue Books in 1847, when the ignorant English Commissioners depicted the Welsh as a licentious and retarded people, brutalised by the primitive language they inexplicably persisted in speaking. By 1915 the Welsh had been striving obsessively for seventy years to rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of the English world. The moderate, respectable,establishment politics of the Liberal party had been one of the most important means by which they had gradually gained respect and self-respect as members of the bourgeois British state and as diligent servants of its Empire. 1914 saw an obscene orgy of recruitment in Wales as sternly ecstatic preachers sent young men to the front to do their duty by the Empire in the hour of its greatest need. 1915 saw the high point to that date of Welsh Liberal power when Lloyd George was appointed Minister of Munitions: it was also the year in which My People appeared.

By 1915, Brad y Llyfrau Gleision had been setting the secret agenda for a whole culture for more than half a century. The half-truths of the Commissioners' reports were vigorously countered during that period by other half-truths that rapidly assumed the form of a complete, regnant myth. The heart of Wales was said to be y werin, the volk, who had evolved a cultured, egalitarian, highly moral and profoundly spiritual way of life. The heartland of Wales was supposed to be the rural regions, whose moral and cultural purity was contrasted with the dissolute, dissident and altogether debased character of the industrial districts of the South East. As John Harris has shown, Caradoc Evans, animated in good part by the socialist sympathies he had acquired from his own brief acquaintance, via Cardiff, with the Rhondda, exactly reversed the picture, depicting the rural West as backward while regarding the South East as socially and politically progressive. In the process he turned the clock back almost exactly seventy years, or so powerful public opinion within Wales naturally believed.

In his stories, therefore, Caradoc Evans used harsh fiction in order to combat and oust a myth. My People was a satire on 'the people' ('y werin'), but 'the people' had been conditioned by that myth to regard all criticism as slander. As Hywel Teifi Edwards has strikingly pointed out, when the National Eisteddfod was held in London in 1887 not a single one of the several entries in the dychangerdd (satire) competition was judged worthy of a prize. The ineffably self-congratulatory comments of the adjudicator, the Reverend J. Cynddylan Jones D.D., a pillar of Welsh Nonconformity at that time, are however worthy of note and would have been deserving of Caradoc Evans's closest attention. 'Very wretched compositions,' he approvingly remarked: 'Not one worthy of a prize. A good sign that the civilization of the country is progressing; that the talent for dychangerddi (satires) is dying out.' The perfect state of Welsh society had, it seems, rendered satire redundant. No wonder satire duly sought its revenge on a presumptuous people in the form of My People.

One clear advantage accrues from combining Hywel Teifi Edwards's comments with those of John Harris. Together they allow us to study Caradoc Evans's work in the fullest social context. Many disadvantages can now be seen to have flowed from the lazy habit of simply labelling Caradoc Evans 'the father of Anglo-Welsh Literature'. One of them has been the practice of removing him from the company of the Welsh-language writers who were his contemporaries, many of whom came from a background very similar to his, and some of whom shared his quarrel with Nonconformity. We have thus willfully prevented ourselves from perceiving how they are all, Evans emphatically included, part of a single, indivisible socio-cultural continuum. It is, for instance, quite astonishing how regularly D. J. Williams's work is ignored when Evans's writing is discussed. Future generations of critics are bound to find, in the tunnel-vision from which we at present suffer whenever we insist on looking separately at Welsh and 'Anglo-Welsh' writers, a fascinating example of our current pathetic state of alienation from the fullness of our own recent history as a people.

Bobi Jones's elegant essay on D. J. Williams provides the non-Welsh-speaker with useful material for the kind of comparative work I would propose.[note:7] He shows how D.J. used stories and autobiographies as a way of 'idealising a district, and without doubt over-idealising (or distancing it), by drawing attention to the values objectified or reified in word, deed, and appearance by a variety of individuals who together built up the character of a seemingly scattered but actually closely-knit traditional rural community'. In the brilliant lecture on D. J. Williams he delivered in the Fishguard eisteddfod, Hywel Teifi Edwards showed how the basic materials of D.J.'s rural idyll were those assembled a century earlier and fused by the white-hot anger of a humiliated people into the myth of 'y werin'. It is useful to think of My People therefore as being like one of a pair of those china-dogs that need to grace so many Welsh mantelpieces. The companion piece, its artistic equal and opposite, without which the set and the Welsh cultural scene, would not be complete, is D. J. Williams's Storiau'r Tir (Stories of the Land). The latter, as Bobi Jones points out, belong to the mawl (praise) tradition: the former belongs to the satiric tradition which is bound to shadow praise wherever it goes. Mawl pictures its world as Utopia: satire, equally uncompromising, pictures its world as dystopia. Dystopia, like Utopia, deals only in perfection, except that the perfection it sees is the nightmare perfection of evil, of ugliness, of immorality. That is why the best stories in My People are so perfectly formed and so perfectly self-consistent.

There are other interesting points of contact between D. J. Williams and Caradoc Evans. Both, for instance, could have subtitled their work 'The Return of the Native'. D. J. and Caradoc both went to the industrial South and were educated there to view their native district with new eyes-except that in the case of the one it was the eyes of a newly discovered love, and in the case of the other it was, of course, the eyes of a newly understood hate.[note:8] Both were also enabled by their industrial experience to 'place' their backgrounds in relation to the course of history. Caradoc could see his Rhydlewis
belonged to the past, and this inspired his creation of a neanderthal society. D. J. Williams could see his beloved Rhydcymerau was doomed, and this inspired him to an elegiac celebration of its qualities as a community. 'We are conscious', as Bobi Jones eloquently put it, 'of a profound agony sobbing out of the thinning soil.'

As well as providing excellent contextual information in his Introduction, John Harris also includes in it some fine textual analysis. This was only perhaps to be expected from one who is the co-author, along with John Davies, of an outstandingly good short study of Evans's peculiar stylistics.[note:9] As the success of that study only goes to prove, there is much more valuable work to be done on this subject, and this Anniversary year is surely the very year in which to do it. Although Bishop William Morgan would certainly turn in his grave to hear it said, My People affords the most striking, even bizarre, example of the influence his Bible has had on Welsh writing. The English Bible and Marie Lloyd were other influences mentioned by the author himself: Caradoc loved to scandalize in his pronouncements as well as in his fiction, and he knew how aghast Nonconformist readers would be at seeing The Word of God placed on a level with the words of a music-hall artiste.

I myself see no particular reason to deny Tecwyn Lloyd's claim that the ridiculous language of the stage-Welshman also lies behind the written and spoken English of My People. Evans may well have benefited from this feeble convention that could provide him with a crudely stylised pattern of speech which the English had long been accustomed to regard as 'Welsh'. What surely matters, though, is what he was quite uniquely and audaciously able to make of this altogether unpromising convention. And what he made out of it was a collection of stories which can now perhaps best be seen as the first modernist work to have been produced by a Welshman. Just as Gerard Manley Hopkins, that honorary Welshman and honorary modernist, devised an elaborately artificial language to capture the inscape, the indwelling beauty of spiritual form of creatures and of people, so Caradoc Evans developed a corresponding baroque language to convey the inscape, the indwelling ugliness of perverted spiritual shape, of his people.

At its best this mannered writing produces a Freudian language. Instead of making their appearance only through the occasional Freudian slip, violent desires inform the syntax, idiom and vocabulary - the whole language, in short, of Caradoc's people. This can even be seen from small details. A question, for instance, comes out in the form of an ominously threatening statement: 'William Shenkins, where he is.' A loathsome self-love dares repeatedly to speak its name: 'dear little me'. The desire to deceive is nakedly apparent. The iron fist can be seen grasping the velvet glove when the schoolmaster softly cross-examines Eben, the boy who has said he intends to leave school: 'Dear me, dear me, now indeed you are not coming for why?' The insinuation of power in the sinuous form of the question contrasts wonderfully with the brutally direct exercise of that power in a neighbouring sentence: 'Mishtir Lloyd picked up his round ebony ruler and drew a straight line over Eben's name in the register.'

The will to power is ingrained in the twisted souls of Evans's characters, and their power-maddened relationship to each other is faithfully reflected in, and endorsed by, their relationship to their god. He is their 'powerful Big Man Bach' - a form of address that is at once grotesquely intimate and ingratiatingly placatory. The assumed presence of this brooding Old Testament deity provides the stories with a savage atmosphere that reminds me, at least, of nothing quite so much as those parts of Blake's prophetic books which deal with Old Nobodaddy, the cruel god Urizen. The inhabitants of Evans's world are indeed 'animals in the image of the Big Man', but of course their god was in the first instance created in the perfect image of the human greed for power, just as Urizen is both producer and product of a chronically depraved state of the human mind.

This rough parallel with Blake also allows us to notice another significant dimension of Evans's stories, namely their terrible sublimity. 'He created a mean world with particular clarity', says the blurb on the cover of this edition of My People. One can certainly see what is meant, while protesting that this offers only an impoverished, diminished sense of Evans's achievement. It would be nearer the mark, perhaps, to apply to this collection an appropriately modified form of the richly ambiguous phrase recently used to describe Gabriel Garcia Marquez's writing: 'a horrifying and horrified manificat to harsh Latin American reality'. Satire not infrequently shades, however darkly, into its opposite, praise. If Dylan Thomas could claim, in 'After the Funeral', that his account of Ann Jones was 'a monstrous image, blindly magnified out of praise', then Caradoc Evans could be said to have produced in My People a monstrous image, blindly magnified out of loathing.

Like Blake, Evans was ultimately interested not in replicating the surface life of a society, but in reproducing its ideology, and he convinces us that the grotesque language of his stories is an authentic communal product - that it is the shared common language of a whole society and bespeaks that society's values. If I am honest then I have to admit that my deepest impression on first reading Evans's stories was how very difficult they were to read and understand. In other words although I later came to appreciate that here was a 'Freudian' language, I originally felt that here was a foreign language. And that is surely how it should be. Just as Faulkner, for example, makes it impossible for us to read his greatest novels without the shock of encountering the strange language that registers the foreign mentality of the American South, so Evans makes us feel the otherness of the world we are entering and the alien togetherness of the people who are its inhabitants. That they perfectly understand each other is a point reinforced by the initial difficulty we have in understanding them. In that way Caradoc brings home to us the closed character of an ideologically sustained community - the shared assumptions that produce a shared reality.

This again is a point adumbrated by John Harris in his outstanding introductory essay. And as one re-reads My People with the benefit of his succinctly written introduction, the massive power as well as the historical significance of Caradoc's collection is made newly apparent. This must, I submit, give rise to an altogether fundamental question: why on earth have we, the Welsh, had to wait so long to see an edition like this? To think, moreover, that My People has actually been out of print for so many years. Originally it was declared to be unreadable: latterly it has simply been unavailable. Perhaps that is what its critics meant when they said it was full of unprintable filth? It does indeed make you think, and brings at least to my mind a telling remark made long ago by Walter Benjamin: 'As in all previous history, whoever emerges as victor still participates in that triumph in which today's rulers still march over the prostrate bodies of their victims. As is customary, the spoils are borne aloft in that triumphal parade. These are generally called the cultural heritage.' To jaundiced eyes, the teaching of English Literature in Welsh schools and colleges can sometimes look surprisingly like that triumphal parade. It is, of course, generally called the display of 'our' cultural heritage. But conspicuously excluded from attention are works like My People which are, after all, or so I increasingly feel, works specifically intended for and deserving of the attention of my people. Dai Smith has described the 1915 edition of My People as an attack on the 'cultural overlordship' of the Liberal-Nonconformist alliance. Perhaps this 1987 edition of the work will herald an attack on the 'cultural overlordship' of the present, anglicised, educational establishment in Wales. Who knows?

The good news, for certain, is that John Harris's edition is only the first in a series of reprints, each of which will, like his, include a substantial historical and critical introduction intended alike for teachers, pupils, students and the general reader. Work is already well in hand on several of these editions, and the authors featured will include Glyn Jones, Dannie Abse, Idris Davies, Gwyn Thomas, Emyr Humphreys - and Caradoc Evans again, whose novel Nothing To Pay is also being edited by John Harris. Belinda Humfrey and James A. Davies are jointly editing the series on behalf of the University of Wales Association for the Study of Welsh Writing in English, a group of academics attached to the various colleges of the University.

NOTES

1 The lecture was printed under the title 'Latin American fiction and reality', The Times Literary Supplement, 30 January 1987, pp. 110-111.

2 Caradoc Evans, My People, ed. John Harris (Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press, 1987 (153 pp., £3.95)).

3 For Adams's theological beliefs see W. Eifion Powell's article in Y Traethodydd (July, 1979), pp. 162-172.

4 See 'Parodi ar Gymru' in D. Tecwyn Lloyd, Llên Cyni a Rhyfel (Gwasg Gomer, 1987), pp. 191-216. Also Drych o Genedl, by the same author (Ty John Penry, 1987).

5 Llên Cyni a Rhyfel, pp. 195-196.

6 Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Methuen, 1981).

7 'Stories of the Land', Planet 67, pp. 73-74. The same number contains a D. J. Williams story, 'Clouter Jones Joins the Army', tr. Katie Jones, pp. 85-94.

8 John Harris has discussed the influence of industrial South Wales on Caradoc Evans in Llais Llyfrau/Book News from Wales (Spring, 1985), pp. 3-4.

9 'Caradoc Evans and the Forcers of Conscience', The Anglo-Welsh Review 81, (1985), pp. 78-88. See also Mary Jones, 'A Changing Myth: the Projection of the Welsh in the Short Stories of Caradoc Evans' in the same number (pp. 90-96). A useful reading of "Be This Her Memorial" can be found in Short Story Study, ed. A. J. Smith and W. H. Mason (Edward Arnold, 1961), pp. 62-64.

10 See 'A Novel History', Wales: the Imagined Nation, ed. Tony Curtis (Poetry Wales Press, 1986), pp. 129-158.The phrase occurs on p. 132.


       


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