Monday, 21 November 2011

Slate and alabaster, inside out

On Thursday, Alan Llwyd’s biography, Kate: Cofiant Kate Roberts 1891-1985, was published, and its claim that our respectable grande dame of Welsh fiction was bisexual, aired last night in an S4C documentary Kate, Y Cofiant. In both book and documentary, Alan Llwyd presents correspondence between Roberts and her husband Morris T Williams before and after their marriage to back up his assertion. One letter in particular, describing an encounter with ‘the butcher’s wife’ (and her ‘alabaster skin’), Llwyd cites as evidence that Roberts was sexually attracted to women. He interprets this letter as a coded message to Williams signalling that she knew of his homosexuality and that their future partnership might work to both their advantages, not only as a decoy in a prejudiced age but also by creating a sphere of mutual tolerance and understanding based on compromise.

The notion that Morris T Williams (with whom Roberts ran the press Gwasg Gee) was most likely gay and in a relationship with Kate and Williams’ mutual friend, the poet E Prosser Rhys (published by Gee) is already in the public sphere. But, apart from his sensational interpretation of Kate’s sexuality, what is most refreshing here is Llwyd’s unfailing ability to inhabit her corner of this love triangle. So he views a letter from Williams to Prosser Rhys, embargoed until after his death as indicating a much stronger attachment on Williams’ part to his male friend than to his wife. He ran much greater risks than her in his behaviour, and yet she needed him more than he did her. Tragic stuff!

No more sensationalist revelations, I fear, in the winter issue of New Welsh Review. But Kate Roberts’ concerns of ‘enduring virtue… moral realism… [and] her centrality accorded to women characters’ as well as her fictional settings ‘among the agricultural/industrial interface along the northern and western margins of Eryri: sheep country, slate country’ are what unite the books reviewed by Jim Perrin in his essay ‘Slate Country Fictions’.

These novels from the past sixty years are by authors based outside Wales: Patrick O’Brian’s Testimonies (1952) and John Wain’s A Winter in the Hills of 1970 (‘differently powerful and distinguished’), as well as 2007’s Booker-longlisted, Richard & Judy Bookclub-boosted The Welsh Girl. This novel by Peter Ho Davies, who is of Welsh-Chinese parentage, topped a Bookseller pick of ten this autumn with reported sales of 152,117, beating Carrie’s War, Aberystwyth Mon Amour and A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Perrin’s judges The Welsh Girl to contain ‘ignorance, presumption and falsity’; my recollection is that its geography is confused, reflecting a sense of location either lapsed or never properly grasped. In contrast, Perrin praises Testimonies as a ‘fascinating and accomplished novel’ and attributes its author’s ‘sense of a particular small corner of rural, Calvinist Wales [to] his four-year, post-war sojourn in Cwm Croesor [Llanfrothen].’ As to A Winter in the Hills, ‘for an explanation of the benign, wide-ranging and perceptive vision of Wales afforded… I suspect the answer is… hearth-talk and pillow-talk in Wain’s long, happy and successful second marriage to Eirian James.’

While Perrin’s essay is subtitled ‘Outside Views of Wales’, its author would value, as a travel writer, the alternative perspective offered by authors from elsewhere on Welsh subject and setting, just as no one would seek to restrict the horizon of Wales’ authors to slate rooftops. Such ‘outside’ views, however, at least in naturalistic fiction, should at least aim for an accurate basis in history, politics, geography and language.

In Jay Griffiths’ Wild, An Elemental Journal, white ‘outsiders’ see only desert where Australia’s aborigines see depth, meaning, songlines (no clichéd comparison of Oz and Welsh citizens intended). And yet ‘outsiders’ may be privileged by their own authentic viewpoint, even while it sets them at odds with others, as Charles Russell shows in his survey of untrained and mentally ill artists, Groundwaters, A Century of Art by Self-taught and Outsider Artists. So, three Insider recommendations on ‘outside’ views. ‘Upside down… inside out’: make Diana Ross proud of your Christmas reading list.

This is a version of Gwen Davies’ Western Mail Insider column published on Saturday 19 November 2011, but contains additional material on Kate Roberts’ life as portrayed in Alan Llwyd’s new biography. Katie Gramich also highlighted the strength of Kate Roberts’ feelings for and interest in women in two news stories in Golwg, autumn 2011, where she confirmed that the author must have known that her husband, Morris T Williams was gay.

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Next blog: guest piece by Barrie Llewelyn on how as a memoirist she found herself recreating her grandmother as a Chicago prostitute

Next interviews coming soon: Christien Gholson, Matthew Francis

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