Book Review, Gothic Fiction

#AmReading: Welsh Gothic Fiction (1830s-1900s) I: The Doomed and the Damned in Context


Chapter 2 of Jane Aaron’s Welsh Gothic (UWP, 2013) is titled ‘An Underworld of One’s Own’, and focuses on the Gothic fiction of the 1830s-1900s. The chapter looks at mid-nineteenth-century Welsh Gothic within the framework of postcolonial literary theory.

This post (Part One of Two) will focus on social unrest in Wales in the 1830s-40s to set these texts in their historical context. This is only briefly mentioned by Aaron, who gives a paragraph of brief explanation but assumes some background knowledge (or enough to get to grips with the texts). Here, I’ll cover three key events/movements: The Merthyr Rising of 1831, the Chartist Movement, and the Rebecca Riots.

I: Historical Context of the Doomed Cymry

The ‘Imperial Gothic’, as categorised by Patrick Brantlinger, was a way of justifying the subordination of other peoples, by Othering and alienating them in fiction. This was a means of perpetuating entrenched racism and popularising racist stereotypes to propagate a lack of sympathy with the colonial subjects and justify the ‘moral dimension’ of Imperialism, pushing the ‘civilising mission’ narrative.

‘Postcolonial Gothic’ fought back, with texts that re-positioned the colonisers as the Gothicised monsters and horrors, bringing the atrocities of colonials into the spotlight.

In terms of ‘first contact’ Gothic fiction written by the English about Wales, the English tourist … ‘participates in a process designed to encourage the Celt to shed his ‘sinister’ darkness and accept the blessings of the anglicized light’. (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p. 51)

Governing Wales had become increasingly difficult. As Aaron points out, it is one thing to be Gothicised in fiction, but quite another to be Gothicised in an official government report, which is what happened when the Blue Books of 1847 were published with the report on the state of education in Wales. The result was a long-lasting national trauma, and the slow death of the Welsh language as families became convinced the way for their children to better themselves was through Anglicization. The ‘primitive’ language of the people was blamed for the lawlessness, laziness, debauchery and various other sins the Anglican inspectors laid at the feet of the Welsh, going above and beyond the scope of their inspection of the schools to damn Welsh society more generally than just the state of their education system. The Welsh language, the inspectors claimed, kept the Welshman in an underworld of his own making, as the march of Progress went over his head.

While in the 1840s about 70% of the total population of Wales were Welsh-speakers, this figure plummeted to 49.9% of the total population by 1901 as a result of the policies put in place after the damning reports in the 1847 Blue Books. (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p. 53).

The decline continued into the 20th century until the figure was below 20%, with 80% of the Welsh population effectively disinherited from their own language. Today, the Welsh Government’s Welsh Language Strategy is aimed at reversing this decline, with mixed results: by this year (2019), just under 30% of the population are Welsh-speaking (and of these, even fewer are fluent, with some only having basic conversational Welsh). This, however, is a big improvement on 18.7% in 1991.

The Blue Books of 1847 came out of a period of social unrest that English officials blamed on the lack of [what they deemed ‘proper’] education of the Welsh people.

The Merthyr Rising of 1831 is not mentioned in Aaron’s chapter but nevertheless had a great impact on the way the Welsh working class were demonised in English thought. Coal miners in Merthyr Tydfil and the surrounding area had long warned and protested about conditions, but in 1831, after the defeat of the Parliamentary Reform Act in the House of Lords, they took to the streets of Merthyr, protesting against lowered wages and increased unemployment. By the end of May the whole area was in full rebellion, sacking the debtors courts and destroying account books. In June they marched to the local mines and persuaded the workers to join the protest.

Y Faner Goch – the Red Flag flown in 2012 in commemoration of the Merthyr Rising of 1831 By Diobaithyn at Welsh Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0,

Among the cries of the protesters was the treasonous ‘Lawr i Brenin!’ [Down with the King], and they flew the red flag, then a symbol of universal workers’ suffering associated with the French Revolution (1789-1794), which were essentially banners soaked in cow blood.

Troops were dispatched to Merthyr and regained control of the town by 7 June 1831. One of the martyrs of the Rising, a miner called Richard Lewis but more commonly known as Dic Penderyn (Dick of Penderyn), was executed on trumped-up charges, after allegedly stabbing a soldier called Donald Black in the leg. Black was not killed, but Dic Penderyn was arrested. There was no evidence to suggest he had been involved in the stabbing of Black, and it’s unclear why he was singled out.

Black did not identify either Dic Penderyn or his cousin, Lewis Lewis, who was arrested with him. It became apparent during the trial that Dic had been there more as an observer than a participant and, it was claimed, had in fact saved the life of a Special Constable by shielding him from the rioters. A petition of 11,000 signatures was presented to Lord Melbourne, the Home Secretary, calling for a reprieve, but despite the complete lack of evidence against him, Dic Penderyn was sentenced to death and hanged as an example – the clear message being, the (English) law and political powers could do as they pleased with their (Welsh) subjects. Recent calls for his posthumous pardon have been made in Westminster, but so far the conviction has not been overturned nor a pardon granted, and some believe Dic Penderyn was guilty after all.

dic penderyn
Dic Penderyn’s gravestone in Aberavon

Dic Penderyn’s fate has also been the subject of contemporary folk songs; for example, The Ballad of Richard Lewis by Welsh singer-songwriter Martyn Joseph is available on YouTube and Spotify: the lyrics can be found here.

The Chartist Movement was a popular social uprising in support of democratic rights including votes for all men over 21 (some – but certainly not all – also supported votes for women, but this was dropped from the Six Points of the Charter as tactically unwise), secret ballots to ensure people could not be pressured into voting a certain way [votes were public at this time and records printed recording how people voted], and annual elections to keep politicians accountable.

By – Public Domain,

The Chartist Movement began in London in 1838 and was taken up enthusiastically by the disenfranchised Welsh working class, mainly in South and Mid-Wales. Newspapers, including The London Dispatch and People’s Political and Social Reformerreported on meetings taking place across Wales. The middle classes and aristocracy, who already had the vote, feared that wider political rights would threaten their own rights and property. The Newport Rising, 1839, was the most serious mass protest in the history of the movement, with the Chartists armed and ready for confrontation, and ended in a bloody skirmish with the British army at the Westgate Hotel. The leaders were arrested and sentenced to death, but their sentences were commuted to transportation (to Australia).

Portrait of John Frost (1784-1877), Welsh tailor and Chartist leader, commemorated in Newport in John Frost Square. Portrait by Unknown Artist – This image is available from the National Library of Wales – Public Domain,

Meanwhile, the economic conditions of rural Wales were resulting in a series of subversive protests known as the Rebecca Riots, which took place between 1839 and 1843.

The population had nearly doubled in these areas despite migration to industrialized towns and emigration to America, and it was increasingly hard to earn a living. If one could not support oneself or family, then the threat of the new workhouses loomed, where conditions were said to be worse for the unemployed labourers than they were for the worst-paid labourer outside them.

rebecca riots

Farmers still had to pay tithes to the local church (Anglican/CofE) to support the local vicar, but the majority were nonconformist and attended chapels instead. With money tight, and the roads bad, toll gates were erected to help pay for the upkeep of the highways, but at huge expense to small farmers. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back – riots began to break out targeting these gates, but the protests were against conditions more generally. The men disguised themselves as women and called themselves “Daughters of Rebecca“, a reference to Genesis 24:60 where Rebecca [wife of Isaac], is blessed by her brothers: ‘let thy seed possess the gates of those who hate them’.

In the face of these dramatic disturbances, the threat to landed interests and the subversive Otherness of the rioters, who used the language barrier effectively to put off those seeking to infiltrate meetings or discover what the conspirators were up to, not to mention the differences in religious culture and the demand for greater political rights, it is unsurprising that the Welsh were Gothicized in both factual report and fictional tales for popular English-speaking consumption.

In return, the Welsh Gothicized the English, but also the Welsh gentry themselves who were increasingly Anglicized and cut off from their cultural heritage. Welsh Gothic fiction featured rapacious colonials, Byronic (English) antiheroes who destroyed the lives of all they came into contact with, but also doomed Welsh gentry, isolated cursed failures who were too out of touch with their own heritage and could not be saved.


II: ‘An Underworld of One’s Own’

Part Two will look at the Gothic fiction of this period covered by Aaron with a focus on the doomed families and slow death of the Welsh language, and will be posted on Thursday this week!

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