Happy St George's Day, Happy Shakespeare's Birthday and Happy World Book Night, little of which may be relevant to today's post given I am writing about a Welsh book, but all worth a little jig in celebration. To be honest, after last week, I barely know which day it is anyway. I am safely home after five nights away and five different train journeys in a week, I have had an inspiring bookish foray out of the Shire with much to share in the coming weeks. But I am now very pleased to be home, back to the day job today and that's quite enough wandering around the country for now, time to get back to books.
'It was a gusty afternoon in late autumn in the year 1792. In those days the west coast of Wales was even wilder that it is today, and the mountains more rugged and uncultivated. Clouds swept about the craggy summit of Cader Idris, while the wind rushed down towards the sea.
A little girl, bare-footed, but with a shawl wrapped about her shoulders, ran out of a small cottage and crossed the plot of garden to the henhouse....'
Not an extract from The Life of Rebecca Jones but the opening lines of a book that for some reason captured my imagination as a child and which I know I may have mentioned here before...Mary Jones and Her Bible. I still have the floppy little paperback edition published in 1960 which my brother had been given, quickly decided was definitely not his sort of thing and had passed onto a seven-year old me. Looking back I am trying to work out why the book made such an impact on me that I read it over and over again. I don't think it was necessarily the Biblical content, more the idea of this young girl who was desperate to learn to read, saving money in a money-box, which was something I did diligently, but perhaps also the thought that whilst I was roller-skating three miles to the joke shop at Amen Corner, here was a girl walking twenty-five miles barefoot to buy a book.
Someone had bought me a pencil with the great long place name on it too. With sharpening the Llanfairpwll gwyngyll gogery chwyrndrobwll llantysiliogogogoch was slowly reducing to Llanfairpwll gwyngyllgogery chwyrndrobw until eventually all I probably had to show for it was Llanf. But I had inherited my mum's childhood postcard collection too, my grandfather was a Liverpool-based Griffiths and some of my most prized pictures were these.
As far as I was concerned, if ever I went to Wales everyone would be dressed like this, so there was plenty of Welsh-ness settling in my mind along the way.
All ably assisted by this really evocative cover, The Convalescent by Gwen John. Apart from the fact it is a beautiful, impressionist portrait, this cover took on a much deeper significance for me once I had turned the final page. It then becomes a masterly choice by MacLehose, who publish this book
As I opened the first pages of Angharad Price's novel The Life of Rebecca Jones I suspect that little vein of childhood Welshness all joined up with books I have read since (more of those in a minute) as I started to read...
'I see my mother beside her husband in the cart, a handsome couple on their way to their new home at Tynybraich. They have just left the chapel at Dinas Mawddwy, a small village in Merioneth which lies between two mountain passes...'
This is Mary Jones and Her Bible territory, and slowly Rebecca's life in Cwm Maesglasau, a place her family have farmed since 1012 comes to life. The names recorded for posterity in the family bible... Gethin, Gruffydd, Llywelyn, Evan. Rebecca, the eldest child in the family followed by five brothers three of whom are born or become blind and two more siblings who die young. Interestingly it is the blind brothers, Gruffyd, William and Lewis who leave the valley and travel the furthest in order to be educated, whilst Rebecca and her brother Bob stifle any ambitions they may have held in order to keep the family farm and the tradition alive.
When lived within the confines of a vast but relatively small geographical area Rebecca's powers of observation become acute and perfectly in tune with her surroundings...even I am finding that, though on a much smaller scale, living here in this quiet little corner of the Tamar Valley. I walk the footpaths out and around each day and have grown to really appreciate the simplicity of those same walks, and the way they make me look at everything so much more closely.
As Rebecca's life spanning the century unfolds, this little book unfolded with it in my mind, becoming many things, and any confusion and questioning that I may have had was answered on the final page, making this one of those books that had me sitting and staring into space as I read Angharad Price's final words.
Is it fiction??
Is it autobiography??
My need for certainty and clarity confounded but eventually assuaged as I realised it can be all these things, as well as a beautifully poetic elegy for a fast-disappearing way of life.
The Life of Rebecca Jones was initially published in Welsh as O! Tyn y Gorchudd (O! Pull Aside the Veil) and there was much consternation that it would never work in translation, and Jane Aaron, in her introduction to this translation by Lloyd Jones, makes some very interesting points about the significance of twentieth century Welsh rural culture, both precious and vulnerable and with it the deeper significance of the blindness of Rebecca's brothers. My only quibble would be that the introduction would have worked so much better as an afterword. I am never sure how these things are decided, though I feel sure it involves a raft of meetings and minutes and emails etc, but nor can I stop myself reading an introduction if it is there, and on the assumption that the publishers will have taken my personal reading experience into consideration. In fact it just left me completely confused, wrong-footed and slightly uneasy all the way through and I wish I hadn't then had to read this book with those qualms in my mind.
I'm being cagey because I don't want to give anything away, nor can I unread the order that I have read and imagine how it might work differently, but my suggestion would be that if you decide to read The Life of Rebecca Jones, perhaps consider immersing yourself in its exquisite and beautiful prose and story first, and then read the introduction before you read the book for a second time...because you will want to read it again.
And as for the other books that came to mind as I read... plenty tapping into that seam of Welsh reading and enough to make me realise I now need a Welsh shelf in my bookroom and a Welsh tag for posts on here. It has all left me wondering why I haven't created one sooner...
The Triple Echo by H.E.Bates (this might not be set in Wales, I can't remember... but if not it could be)
Any more suggestions??