Book Review, Gothic Fiction

#AmReading: Welsh Gothic Fiction (1830s-1900s) II: An Underworld of One’s Own


This post is going to look at Jane Aaron’s example texts from her book Welsh Gothic (UWP, 2013), particularly those from Chapter 2, ‘An Underworld of One’s Own (1830s-1900s)’. 

Part 1 of this post looked at the social unrest and historical context of Wales in the 1830s-40s, which Aaron touches on in this chapter but doesn’t go into much detail with. If you missed it, check it out for some (brief) historical context!


II: The Doomed and the Damned

The Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people … [The Welshman’s] language keeps him under the hatches … he is left to live in an underworld of his own and the march of society goes completely over his head. – Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the State of Education in Wales … in Three Parts, (London, 1847), Part II: Brecknock, Cardigan, Radnor and Monmouth, p. 66, emphasis mine: also quoted by Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p. 52.

Accused of being in thrall to a dead language that refused to die, Welsh Gothic authors looked for support in the upper echelons of Welsh society, and saw instead a lack of leadership. The Anglicization of the Welsh gentry, who had distanced themselves from their culture and were not patrons of the literary arts nor encouraging the growth of or appreciation for Welsh literature, was well underway before 1847.

This perception influenced the shift in tone and theme in mid-nineteenth-century Gothic writing in Wales. Instead of focusing on the experiences of visitors to Wales or political narratives evoking and critiquing English/Welsh union, more authors turned their attention to ‘cursed Welsh families, doomed to obliteration by the sins or negligence of their forefathers, and on images of the Welsh as dragged back into the suffocating womb of their dark past’. (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p. 55).

Some of these dark tales included:

The Legend of Iolo ap Hugh‘, by ‘Beuno’, Cambrian Quarterly Magazine and Celtic Repertory, Vol. 1 No. 1 January (1829), 41-3. [This tale features a terrible cave associated with a dark pagan past, wherein Iolo ap Hugh is dragged by an unseen force one night while capering and playing his fiddle]

The Legend of Bala Lake‘, a traditional folktale, Cambrian Quarterly Magazine and Celtic Repertory, Vol. 1 No. 1 January (1829), 53-4. [A tragic folktale of a cruel Welsh prince who is told vengeance will fall on the third generation, this tells of an old harper who is at the castle to celebrate the birth of the prince’s grandson but is lured far away from it by a mysterious bird calling his name, and when he turns around to go back he sees that a flood has swallowed the castle and all that is left is his own harp, floating in the middle of the waters of the newly formed lake.]

The Mountain Decameron, 3 vols., Joseph Downes (1836). [This is set out in a framed narrative echoing Boccaccio’s work, set out in epistolary fashion. An English patient instructed to go to Wales for his health is so struck by the colourful stories he hears from his fellow travellers that he writes them all down for his physician.]

Most of the stories in The Mountain Decameron feature cursed families, but one, concerning an unhappy man named Marmaduke Paull, has a particularly Oldboy twist. Tricked into thinking his daughter Ruth isn’t his biological daughter (a lie that she is also led to believe), they meet again after many years of enforced estrangement only to find they are mutually attracted to each other. It turns out (obviously) that this isn’t as fine as they thought it was, and end up drowning together in a particularly classic Watery Grave trope.

The Doom of the Griffiths‘, by Elizabeth Gaskell (Yes, North and South Elizabeth Gaskell), first printed in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (1858). [In this tale, available via the Gutenberg Project (linked), the ill-fated Tremadoc family are plagued by a fifteenth-century curse after their ancestor, Rhys ap Gruffudd, plotted to betray the national hero Owain Glyndwr.]

The Doom of the Prynnes‘, in Twilight Hours: A Legacy of Verse (1868) by Sarah “Sadie” Williams, a London-Welsh poet, pp. 27-52. [In this verse tale, the Prynnes are cursed to be incestuous (i.e. inward-looking and inward-loving) and self-destructive, an analogy for the Welsh themselves].

A Prynne can only love a Prynne;

Doom One.

The Prynne who weds a Prynne weds Death;

Doom Two.

The Prynne who weds not Death goes mad, like me;

Doom Three.

This formula mirrors the form of the Welsh Triads, an additional connection to the Welsh heritage, in this case where the very ancestral form is used against them.

Reclaiming the ‘Underworld’

In the second part of the chapter, Aaron discusses the cultural backlash against the gradual eradication of the Welsh language, the key figures in this movement, and how these themes are expressed and interwoven in Gothic fiction by sympathetic authors.

These authors frequently had a special interest in the occult, and in the pre-Christian religion of the Druids.

Across the Hills, by Frances Mary Owen (1883) is one such novella, in which the unnamed narrator, a well-to-do and well-known ‘public man’, has a [positive] life-changing experience on a walk in Wales after a train breaks down. A re-imagined form of Druidism is merged with the Christianized present and rising interest in Spiritualism, playing with themes of resurrection, spirit guides, and other such transcendent, life-changing topics.

Allen Raine

Aaron considers several other authors, including Anne Adaliza Beynon Puddicombe, née Evans (1836-1908), who is better known as the author Allen Raine, and one of the pioneers of Weird Fiction, Arthur Machen (1863-1947).

A Welsh Witch (1902) is one of Allen Raine’s better-known works, but Aaron considers her 1909 novel Where Billows Roll: A Tale of the Welsh CoastThis novel features the otherworldly twins Iolo and Iola Lloyd, who try to help the Gothicized and scapegoated Welsh-speaking inhabitants of the nearby offshore island Ynysoer [Cold Island]. They battle the projected frustrations and anger of the townspeople who view the islanders as everything they want to distance themselves from, but become so intertwined with them that, when tragedy and injustice strikes, the twins are also doomed.

Where Arthur Machen is concerned, Aaron investigates his complex representation of Wales in his pre-1900 works.


Arthur Machen c.1905 – By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,

Recent critics of Machen include Kirsti Bohata in ‘Apes and Cannibals in Cambria: Images of the Racial and Gendered Other in Gothic Writing in Wales’, Welsh Writing in English: A Yearbook of Critical Essays 6 (2000), p. 126, and Darryl Jones in ‘Borderlands: spiritualism and the occult in fin de siècle and Edwardian Welsh and Irish horror’, Irish Studies Review, 17/1 (2009), p. 38.

Bohata and Jones see Machen in a less than pleasant light, as a Welsh writer who wants to be ‘”English” (the superior race) but fears he is contaminated by (undesireable) Welshness’ and as a traitor to his [Welsh] people who wrote ‘a unionist narrative of doomed native races’. (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p. 71)

Aaron considers a number of his works including The Novel of the Black Seal‘, one of the short stories included in The Three Imposters (1895); The Hill of Dreams, (written 1895–1897; published 1907) a story of spiralling madness that is considered to be Machen’s masterpiece; The Secret Glory, (written 1899–1908; published 1922); and Far Off Things (1922).

The tones of mystic transcendence permeate Machen’s later works, inspired by the Welsh landscape and the influences of the (re-imagined) Celtic Christian church. His London protagonists attempt to discover the dark secrets of hallowed Welsh ground, but immersion in the Welsh underworld paves the way to satisfaction despite contrasting views of the Welsh voiced by different characters.

Although by the 1930s the occult had become tainted with fascist associations, this didn’t limit Gothic fiction. In Wales, throughout the twentieth century, the destructive influences that leeched life and vitality from the protagonists and, by extension, from humanity, became representatives of capitalism, religious hierarchies (in this case of the chapel, rather than the church), and the hierarchies of the state.

Next Time: Haunted Communities – Gothic Fiction in Wales 1900s-1940s

Chapter 3 of Welsh Gothic looks at the early- to mid-twentieth century incarnations of the Gothic in Wales, and my first post of two on this chapter will be up on Monday! It looks at the Gothicization of Dissent and Welsh chapel culture.


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