Monday, 6 February 2012

Dorothy Edwards, aesthete or ‘socialist Welsh spy’? Plus nude camping

One of the many juggling acts this job involves is to balance the conflicting expectations of readers and writers: creative versus academic; general reviewer v trained critic, living legend versus author long ago quick-limed in the canon.

Human debris litters the waters of literary mags: a headline-seeking minister kicks against the current, muttering ‘subsidy per page!’; a rock-marooned scholar taps out ‘postcolonial’ in morse-code; funding mandarins tread water, chanting: Cuts! Kindles! Committee places! KPIs!

We Welsh love to bicker, especially if public funding is involved. But, to focus on that most unequal pairing listed above, the quick and the dead, surely there’s room for both? Put simply, past writers inhabit our hinterland.

Our spring issue offers contrasting views of interwar author Dorothy Edwards. Her biographer and editor Claire Flay, like Edwards an Ogmore Vale girl, explores. This politically engaged author was brought up to expect imminent revolution by a mother who was a pit-head baths campaigner and a father who camped nude ‘in order to establish the degree of materialism necessary for human survival.’ Edwards was a socialist and yet the world of her fiction, Rhapsody (Library of Wales) and Winter Sonata (Honno) is the rarefied one of country houses and idle elites. Claire offers a solution to this apparent paradox that has troubled readers and critics since the books’ publication in the 1920s: her conviction and evidence, presented in her biography, Dorothy Edwards, published in the UWP Writers of Wales series, that ‘rather than aspiring to a middle-class English voice in her fiction, she was undermining that world in order to attack it.’

Both biography and Winter Sonata are reviewed in the same issue by Steven Lovatt, a man who dares to question the postcolonial cause: ‘For good or ill, some recent treatments of Edwards’ books have created the impression that their status within Wales rides in part upon whether they exhibit a “postcolonial consciousness”.’ While exempting Claire from this camp, he is convinced by her theory of ‘embedded [class] critique’ within the fiction but not by her conclusion that both Edwards’ books are ‘“permeated… most of all”’ with the author’s ‘“awareness of power structures”’. He certainly takes issue with Claire’s image of Edwards as ‘“a sort of socialist Welsh spy, gathering crucial material with which to attack the ruling classes in her writing”… she was also, in ways both peculiar to herself and characteristic of her times, an aesthete and egoist [with a] sometimes crippling inner feeling of estrangement.’

Since Dorothy Edwards threw herself under a train near Caerffili at the age of 31, we can agree, at least, that she was crippled by emotional turmoil, though we may forever guess whether the cause was political or personal.

This is a version of Gwen Davies' Western Mail Insider column published on Saturday 4 February 2012.

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