New Welsh Review

A Ray of Darkness

Margiad Evans (author), JE Pratt (Introduction)

Pippa Marland finds in this classic female autobiography, endorsed by current international epilepsy neurologists, an unrelenting commitment to honesty

PUBLISHED ON: 02/08/22

CATEGORY: Reviews

TAGS: Welsh borders, canon of Welsh Writing in English, epilepsy, female, historical, illness, maternity, medicine, memoir, nature writing, neurodivererse, neurology, perception

PUBLISHER: Honno (Welsh Women's Classics)

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It is unusual to find a literary work beginning with an impassioned endorsement from a scientist, but Margiad Evans’ A Ray of Darkness, first published in 1952 and now reissued as part of the Honno Welsh Women’s Classics series, has a Foreword by the American neurologist Dr Julie Thompson-Dobkin.

The book is an attempt on Evans’ part to give as full an account as possible of her experience of living with epilepsy, after suffering her first fit at the age of forty-one. For Thompson-Dobkin, A Ray of Darkness dispelled her conviction that ‘it is not possible to express the reality of these lived experiences through a written narrative’ and in her view, the book remains highly relevant today. Evans herself asserts in her later volume, The Nightingale Silenced (her further exploration of her own acute epilepsy, written in 1954 but not published until 2020), that ‘not one modern account [of epilepsy] exists except my own Ray of Darkness.’ In the same work, she writes of the sufferers of epilepsy as both human beings and as ‘texts’, the latter term implying a more dispassionate, analytical approach. Throughout A Ray of Darkness, Evans describes the impacts of the disorder upon her – physically, spiritually and intellectually – while also regarding herself as a kind of text, retrospectively drawing together passages from her diaries and poetry, and carrying out her own forms of meta-textual analysis.

The result is a brave and generous narrative that is at times rather fragmented. In this, it mirrors both Evans’ encroaching sense of ‘losing’ herself and her increasing struggle to write as her concentration ‘begins to slip’. What strikes one most powerfully, however, is her unrelenting commitment to honesty. At the outset, she declares: ‘It is the truth, most of it exactly as it was written down at the time.’ In pursuit of this truth, she meticulously searches for a language that offers the greatest exactitude, and when that cannot be found, acknowledges her difficulties. She is even able to regard the onset of epilepsy as an opportunity for learning: the commencement of what she calls ‘an adventure of body and mind’. At the same time, she warns her readers that ‘there is no teaching, no philosophy and no comfort intended in it.’

There are a number of ways in which that lack of comfort renders A Ray of Darkness emotionally challenging for the reader. Thanks to the informative introduction written by Evans’ nephew Jim Pratt, and from the back cover, we know that Evans’ epilepsy was caused by an incurable brain tumour from which she died in 1958, two years after its formal diagnosis. The fact of her early death adds a sense of tragic irony to Evans’ attempts to fathom how the mind and the body interact in the context of her illness. For example, she struggles to shake off the idea that she has brought the condition upon herself, by neglecting ‘the muse’ and failing to pursue her art as single-mindedly as she could have done, or by being unable to remedy an unconscious spiritual lack.

Similarly, she searches for a meaning and a purpose to the illness – ‘Why this ray of darkness on me while it is day? To teach me death? Compassion?’ – though she confesses: ‘I see now that the questions in my mind will never be answered, for my silent disease has no reply for me.’ Ultimately, she concludes: ‘I am not telling but asking a story.’ In addition to these teleological and existential questions, there are anguished practical considerations. Not long after her first epileptic fit, Evans discovers she is pregnant and she traces her debate with herself and with her medical advisers about whether she can continue with the pregnancy. In a confession that will strike a chord with anyone who has experienced serious illness, she exclaims: ‘It is dreadful to be homesick for health.’ Nevertheless, Evans’ narrative suggests that her condition may carry with it altered states of mind that amount to the visionary, breaking down the boundaries of normative perception.

One of her literary touchstones is the Victorian writer Richard Jefferies, who was suffering from tuberculosis when he wrote the incandescent paean to nature, The Story of My Heart (1883), and her work, like his, is coloured by a growing mysticism rooted in her passionate love of nature. Evans is perhaps best known for her four novels, but Pratt identifies her as a nature writer, suggesting that A Ray of Darkness can be regarded as the second of a trilogy of non-fictional nature-themed writings that began with Autobiography (1943) and was completed by The Nightingale Silenced. Honno’s laudable recuperation of Evans’ work continues later this year with a new edition of Autobiography, when readers will have the pleasure of encountering the hope and vivacity of Evans’ time living on the Welsh borders. In the two later works, Evans’ early focus on fields and stars and trees is replaced by a concern with the human body and by a greater human-heartedness to her love of the natural world. Evans herself identifies this development in A Ray of Darkness, writing that being one with nature is like being married to an ‘immortal spirit partner’ who ‘as one ages, cannot feel pity for pain and decline and finally death’. She finally understands that ‘it is the happiest and saddest of lives’. Her experience of epilepsy emerges, like this relationship, as a form of darkness with its own rays of light.

 

Dr Pippa Marland returned to academia in 2011 after a career in music. She completed a funded PhD in ecocriticism at the University of Worcester, looking at the concept of ‘islandness’ in literary nonfiction. The result, Ecocriticism and the Island: Readings from the British–Irish Archipelago, will be published by Rowman and Littlefield later this year. She has also co-edited a collection for Routledge entitled Walking, Landscape and Environment and is the co-author of Modern British Nature Writing, 1789–2020Land Lines (CUP, March 2022). As a creative writer, she is the co-editor of, and a contributor to, Gifts of Gravity and Light: A Nature Almanac for the Twenty-first Century (Hodder and Stoughton, 2021)Pippa is currently a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of English at Bristol University, exploring the representation of farming in British nature writing.