REVIEW by Ed Garland

NWR Issue r36

The Nightingale Silenced and Other Late Unpublished Writings

by Margiad Evans, Jim Pratt (ed & intro)

During a long stay in hospital in 1954, Margiad Evans began to write a sequel to A Ray of Darkness, the memoir of epilepsy she’d published to great acclaim two years earlier. The resulting manuscript, ‘The Nightingale Silenced’, did not find a publisher before Evans’ death, in 1958, of the brain tumour that caused her epilepsy. Her nephew, Jim Pratt, is the editor of this new collection of Evans’ late writing, which gathers The Nightingale Silenced together with a journal of a holiday to Ireland, selected poems and drawings, and a sequence of letters to her benefactor, Bryher. The collection forms an absorbing and intimate end-of-life story.

After Pratt’s fascinating biographical introduction, we begin with Evans’ journal, which recorded the first proper break she’d had in nine years. Then come the letters, written at long intervals that extend into the time when she knows exactly how and roughly when she will die. After these letters comes ‘The Nightingale Silenced’ itself, now thoroughly contextualised as both a feat of creative self-observation and a report from the unsettling parallel universe of a 1950s’ neurological institute. Observing her fellow patients from her bed, Evans sees ‘glittering nightmares’ in the eyes of a man who shares her ward, and argues that this strange sight arises from the contrast between the hospital’s abundance of orderly routines and ‘the chaos from where [the man] has just emerged’. Evans emerges from her own cognitive chaos with astonishing insights, and contrast is one thing that makes her writing – and this publication as a whole – so effective. There is an acute contrast between the general enthusiasm of the journal in Ireland and the recognition of approaching death in the subsequent letters, in which she calmly admits that she is ‘being slowly and remorselessly knocked to pieces’ by her illness. There are contrasts between scenery and feelings, between hopes and realities, and between the qualities of objects and the things they represent: ‘What bright sounds these dark old books enbound,’ she writes, ‘what rivers of music and meaning were gathered there.’

Fans of Evans’ fiction will recognise her real-life scenery. She looks out from an upstairs window at the surrounding town, and notes that ‘the broken slates look black and blue … I see broken roofs – they are to be pulled down – slates hooked over laths, black holes and smokeless chimneys.’ After arriving in a hotel in Ireland, she writes that the bedroom ‘gives me a chill every time I open the door, so dank, so dark, so sour with its back window looking down a mouldy stone shaft as cold smelling as the Bishop’s cellars.’ Such fertile gloom sticks to what she calls her ‘adhesive mind’, with which she also turns subtle states of awareness into adhesive phrases. In a theatre lobby full of pictures, she ‘looked – no, watched the portraits’. On board a boat after a few drinks, she writes, ‘Lord how [the boat] leapt and sank & how I saddened the gin in me.’ She considers how images from the tourist industry can affect your vision: ‘you see [things] like a GWR poster, simplified into solidity.’ Her journal registers her love of reality’s fine details.

The letters to Bryher, who provided Evans with the holiday in Ireland through a bursary from the Society of Authors, begin in 1949 and end in 1958. Once Evans learned, after her holiday, the identity of her benefactor, she never stopped thanking Bryher for her kindness. The expressions of gratitude become ever more poignant as Evans’ illness intensifies. These moving letters also provide an important creative context for the manuscript of ‘The Nightingale Silenced’ – it was one of the last works Evans drafted before she lost her ability to write extensive prose. In another introduction, Peter Wolf, an epileptologist, argues that Evans’ use of the oxymoron – in phrases like ‘swift slowness’ or ‘black sunlight’ – is where her illness is most evident in her writing. There are no oxymora in the journal, written when she was virtually symptom-free. ‘The Nightingale Silenced’ certainly has an uncanny textual atmosphere, and Evans herself describes her condition as ‘a prose illness, though many would expect its explosiveness to uncover poetry’. The title comes from an incident described in a later version of the manuscript, not published in this edition but included in Pratt’s introduction. Evans was living in Cheltenham in 1951, and a woman employed to help with the housework took some laundry outside to dry. Evans stood at the kitchen window, washing up and listening to a nightingale sing in the garden. As the woman with the laundry approached a tree, the nightingale’s ‘divine voice’ ceased, and the bird flew away. This incident was a catastrophe from which Evans never fully recovered: ‘the memory of that sudden silencing of the bird has haunted me ever since,’ she writes. It is an apt metaphor both for the cutting-short of Evans’ artistic potential as her condition worsened, and the cutting-short of her life itself. This superb publication extends and enriches Evans’ literary legacy. She wrote the subjective truth of her experience with an extraordinary creative vision.

Ed Garland is the author of Earwitness: A Search for Sonic Understanding in Stories, published by our book imprint, New Welsh Rarebyte. He is researching experiences of sound in contemporary fiction for a PhD at Aberystwyth University.

'A Nightingale Silenced’ was first published, as a global exclusive, in New Welsh Review 99, spring 2013.

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