Sunday, 11 January 2015

high winds, picked-clean look, email storm, the life of rebecca jones by angharad price, welsh side of my heritage

High winds on Friday night and Saturday morning (when the above photos were taken). No chance of cycling, so I walked into the valley. Everything has a picked-clean look - stripped bare before the start of the new growth.

The first week back at work was exciting but also demanding - lots of things kicking off and the first flurries of emails became a storm by the end of the week.

A highlight was the inaugural meeting of the library staff book group at Friday lunchtime, together with the reading for this. On Wednesday, I set Notes From an Exhibition aside (almost finished) and began reading The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price on Kindle on my way in on the bus.

This short novel, originally published in Welsh, had been chosen by our colleague who specialises in Celtic literature and culture. The book is a vivid evocation of the life of a farming family in mid-Wales during the twentieth century. It is the fictionalised account of the author's own family's experiences. A remarkable family, who have farmed the land in a remote valley since shortly after the Norman Conquest. A family that includes famous hymnists and poets in its lineage.

The family also had a strong tradition of learning and innovation and of contributing to life far beyond the valley, both in Wales and in England.

‎The novel is notable for its evocation of the valley and the set-pieces of the farming calendar, including scything hay and shearing sheep. Yet if the men of the household are busy with these activities, the narrator, Rebecca, makes it plain that the supporting roles of the women never stop. When the men come home to rest, the women continue to work, attending to their needs, even though they have already done a full day themselves. At one point Rebecca refers to 'This detestable tradition of woman as maidservant!'

Indeed, it is only after the death of her father when she is in early middle age that she feels freed to fulfil something of an independent life, moving up the valley from the main farmhouse to a primitive cottage with little furniture and no running water.

One of the strange aspects of the characterisation of Rebecca, however, is her relative invisibility until fairly late in the novel. Her personality doesn't really come across when she is describing the valley and family and farming life. When she decides she will move to her cottage she says '‎I, like the rest of the Tynybraich clan, was apt to be stubborn and obdurate, often moody or lost in thought.' I wished I'd seen these traits in her before this point. A criticism of the novel generally is that while it is beautifully constructed, in narrative terms, characters are mostly described rather than brought to full life before our eyes.

The novel is essentially a series of episodes - descriptions, set-pieces, theological speculations, occasional flashes of character in‎teractions. That these read like a seamless, lyrically-flowing narrative is down to the author's considerable skill at effecting the transitions between them.

I also liked the switches to the present tense at three key points. When Rebecca falls in love for the first and only time - with an Italian internee called Angelo‎, who comes to work on the farm. When a 1960s television documentary about the family is described as if it were playing in front of the reader's eyes. And during the final chapter, when the narrative reaches the 'present' and the reader follows the final days of Rebecca's life.

A poignant aspect of the novel is the blindness at birth of two of Rebecca's brothers, who are sent to a boarding school for the blind in England, one at the age of three. The family finds the money for this - the fees are presumably not cheap -‎ and the boys go on to further education, one studying theology at Oxford, to marry and to have successful careers.

Even more poignant is the death of siblings, including a little sister who dies within days of birth. Rebecca comments '‎Even the bluebells lasted longer.'

‎Although I thought there were some flaws in the book's approach to characterisation, it was a wonderfully rich experience to read the descriptions of rural life. These reminded me of countless trips to Wales over the years, including staying on Gwyn and Ethwyn P's farm in the hills above Brecon when I was a boy. There was no mains water, the water being piped to the house from a stream that flowed behind it.

My mum tried hard to put me in touch with the Welsh side of my heritage, something I've always valued.

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