Book Review by Sylvia D. Gwyn Thomas (1913-1981)is one of Wales’s great literary figures. He was born in the Rhondda and won a scholarship to read Spanish at Oxford where, Chris tells me, he was very unhappy because he felt totally out of place. In 1933 he was awarded a miner’s scholarship which allowed him to study for six months at the University of Madrid. He then taught for the WEA in South Wales and as a schoolteacher in Barry. In 1962 he decided to become a full-time writer and broadcaster. He was a prolific novelist and short story writer and in later life concentrated on writing plays and musicals. His autobiography, published in 1968, is called A Few Selected Exits.
In his introduction to my 1986 edition of All Things Betray Thee, the eminent Welsh Marxist academic and critic, Raymond Williams, argues that this book is ‘a remarkable experiment, which needs to be set not only within Gwyn Thomas’s development as a writer but within the broader course of Welsh writing from the 1930s.’ It is certainly an important work in the Welsh canon and one that I found interesting and that held my attention.
Alan Hugh Leigh, an itinerant harpist, is coming in the 1830s from the north in search of his friend, a singer called John Simon Adam. On his journey his harp is smashed to pieces by a drunken drover which is symbolic of what Leigh sees as he travels: field enclosures by landowners, farmworkers being thrown off the land; destitute people forced to seek work in the growing towns like Moonlea (Merthyr Tydfil) where the Penbury family have established their ironworks. There is a trade recession and the ironmasters are putting up rents, trying to reduce wages and even close down their furnaces to beat the workers into submission.
Leigh finds that two years in Moonlea have changed John Adam who has become a serious and thoughtful man, in love with Katherine, a married local girl, and the popular leader of the aggrieved workers who have grown to understand that they can better fight for their beliefs by standing and working together,
‘Here in Moonlea and places like it the people for the first time are not quite helpless. They are close together and in great numbers. Their collective hand is big enough to point at what is black and damnable in the present, at what is to be wished in the future. Back there in the fields they were in a solitude.’
John Adam naively believes that if the working men show enough strength and do not carry any arms, they will be listened to. Although the harpist believes he himself should remain uncommitted and free to come and go as he wants, he is inexorably drawn into what becomes a bloody conflict.
The powers that be are well-prepared and ruthless and when the men who have been joined by others from surrounding towns march to confront Mr Penbury, they are instead met by Lord Plimmon, the local aristocratic landowner and others, all mounted, and in their uniforms and with their swords, who read them the Riot Act and then when Adam insists they still want to talk to Mr Penbury, the men are mown down by the riders and by musket fire from soldiers firing from the windows of the houses in the main street.
Leigh and Adam manage to escape but are betrayed, seized and imprisoned in the castle of the nearby town of Tutbury. They are tried and condemned to be hanged.
Mr Penbury though is not your usual hard ironmaster. Before he inherited the family business he had spent some time in Paris where he had been a painter and wrote poetry. He dislikes the violence and is distraught at the thought of men being hanged. His daughter, Helen, too, although destined to marry Lord Plimmon to please her father, has some sympathy for the men and has indulged in a gentle dalliance with the harpist who played for her father at night when he couldn’t sleep. Together father and daughter manage to persuade those in charge to pardon Leigh on the grounds that he had only accidentally become involved with the marchers. Leigh determines to get out of the area but finds he cannot desert his friend and the other workers, so he returns to Moonlea and a group of them hatch a plot to attack the castle and rescue Adam. The plot works but they are too late and find Adam has already been hanged. In the ensuing fighting, only the harpist manages to get away. As the novel ends Adam is leaving Moonlea to return to the north.
Although there is never any actual mention of Wales or Welsh names in the narrative, this story is obviously based on the 1831 Merthyr Tydfil rising when iron workers went on strike against redundancies, rising prices and the arrival of bailiffs which resulted in several thousand workers taking part in riots that in turn led to bloody suppression by troops and mass arrests. The reader has to recognise, though, what Williams identifies in his Introduction,
‘- the events, though vividly described, are in effect themes for what is the real movement of the novel: a pattern, a composition, of voices, in which what is being said is both of and beyond its time.
Indeed, the writing seems not of the 1940s when the novel was published, but of the early nineteenth century and, for me, has resonances with Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.
Thomas draws a fine distinction between the opposing forces. On one side are the forces of law and order – the landowners, the church and church-goers, the lawyers and those who have been bribed into supporting them or are too timid or bound by religious teachings to oppose them. These are those who
‘have walked into what you call traps because they find a lot more shelter and a bit more food in the trap than elsewhere, even though they might finish up in the trap with no room or chance to do anything but wait patiently to be pecked to hell.’
On the other side are those who are prepared to think for themselves and take action but they are
‘not much more than leaves in the wind, bits of painful feeling that gripe the guts of the masses. From the cottages, the hovels, the drink shops and sweat mills, anger rises and we are moved.’
Thus, some of the writing is rather allegorical and the harpist himself sometimes seems to speak in riddles.
The women are interesting. So often, women can do little except look after their families as best they can in dire circumstances and sit and wait and mourn the loss of their menfolk. As the harpist reveals to Helen Penbury during one of her secret meetings with him,
‘I’ve been in a thousand little poverty-bitten places on the bare slopes of unkind hills where men and women lead meagre bitter lives. But from what I’ve seen and felt, too, it’s mainly the women who suffer. It’s only their souls that have the quality of silk that allows them to be stuffed into the smallest and furthest folds of hell.’
Katherine, with whom Adam is in love, is a strong character who, although worrying about what might happen to him, is prepared to allow clandestine meetings in her cottage and, when a further riot takes places in Moonlea after Adam’s death, is in the thick of things. Adam is told that Katherine was ‘at the head of it all, everywhere, so bright and hot with hating she could not be missed. She screamed at the soldiers and dared them to kill her.’ When Adam asks if she is dead, he was told, ‘No. She walked slowly through them and no one lifted a finger. It was a queer sight.’
This book is full of despair, frustration and anger and as happened in the 1830s and has happened so many times and in so many places since, the men are defeated. One senses nevertheless a certain hope for the future. Leigh through whose eyes the reader has followed all the action looks down on the town as he leaves and says, ‘I turned, walking away from Moonlea, yet eternally towards Moonlea, full of a strong ripening unanswerable bitterness, feeling in my fingers the promise of a new enormous music.’
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