Book Review, Gothic Fiction, Longread

#AmReading: Haunted Communities I: Gothic Dissent (1900s-1940s)


Chapter 3 of Jane Aaron’s Welsh Gothic, (UWP, 2013), focuses on the shift in themes that characterised Welsh Gothic Fiction in the first part of the twentieth century.

This post looks at the historical religious background in brief in the first section, and in the second part highlights some of the fiction that Aaron discusses. As I was reading through the chapter and writing up my thoughts for this post, it triggered some interesting personal reflections, so this time I’ve also framed the second part of this post with my own experiences. For this reason, this post is a bit longer than usual, but rather than drag it out over a few posts I thought I’d keep it in one.


The Religious Landscape of Wales

The religious census of 1851 recorded that nearly 80% of worshippers in Wales attended a Nonconformist chapel. The Temperance Movement came in large part out of a need to respond to and to deny the charges of drunkenness and moral laxity laid on the Welsh people by the Blue Books of 1847; but the chapels were also bastions of the Welsh language, and although many gradually turned from Welsh to English as more and more English-speaking migrants moved into the industrial areas, the chapels remained a strong social and cultural force in their communities.

The chapels were also democracies, and nonconformism was founded on democratic principles. Individual members got a vote and a say in the running of the chapel, unlike in the established church, and debate was part and parcel of chapel life. With the 1884 Reform Act, which gave most men the vote, Nonconformists – the majority of whom had been the largely disenfranchised working class – could now flex more political muscle, and the chapels, where meetings were held throughout the week, were the perfect place to debate the hot topics of the day.

Since Anglicans in Wales still enjoyed privileges over and above Nonconformists, which was considered grossly unfair, and tithes were still taken for the local parish churches despite their members being in the minority, violent social unrest broke out.

tithe war
The Royal Lancers camping at Llanfair Talhaearn during the Welsh Tithe War, c. 1886-90, Denbighshire Record Office

One of the most violent of these episodes ran from 1886-90 and was dubbed ‘The Tithe Wars‘ by the press, during which Denbighshire farm labourers had running battles with local police over the issue, and the Anti-Tithe League was set up. The disestablishment of the Church in Wales became a major issue, particularly as the Church itself was strongly opposed to its own disestablishment. Nevertheless, it was eventually disestablished in 1914, and became the Church in Wales.

The spiritual side of chapel culture was rich in revivals, and 1904 saw the ‘Great Revival’, something that the free churches of today still look back on with religious nostalgia. The English press dismissed it in some reports as Welsh emotionalism, the result of the typical “Celtic” ‘instability of character, a tendency to exaggeration, and a greater love for music and oratory than for veracity and purity’.

revival 1904
Detail from a photograph of a Revival Meeting, 1904, from the records of Moriah Presbyterian Chapel, Loughor

But chapel culture did not treat the outsider as well as they should have, and to be on the outside was to be cut adrift from social groups, as well as religious communities.

The conflicting perspectives and experiences found their expressions in Gothic fiction, and Aaron sets out some of the above context in brief (again, just enough for the reader to get the flavour of the period), as well as emphasising the agricultural depression of the 1870s and ’80s, before beginning to dissect the texts.

The second part of this post will look at the fiction Aaron uses in this section of her third chapter of Welsh Gothic, sub-headed ‘The Devil in Zion’, but this so resonated with some of my own ‘haunting’ experiences that I wanted to use this post to exorcise the spectre of own dealings with early twentieth-century Welsh chapel culture, resting in its unquiet grave. Feel free to skip to the next old photo I found if this doesn’t interest you!

‘The Devil in Zion’

I will forgive what you have done,” my great-grandmother (1908-2006) said to me when I was about eight years old, after I let go of her hand while crossing the road after she had told me not to. “But I will never forget it. I do not forget.” [Doom One…]

Nana had been gloomily anticipating her own death for decades, and repeatedly told me that, when she died, she would watch over me from heaven. “And if you ever are tempted to do something you shouldn’t ought to be doing, I will be the little voice that whispers to you, ‘No, love. Don’t do that.‘” This was apparently intended to be comforting. [Doom Two…]

Born and bred in the South Wales Valleys, chapel culture had provided Nana and her iron-fisted matriarchal rule with a kind of divine legitimacy; she was, after all, the Elect of God. Her devoted husband, a miner like her father, signed the Temperance pledge more or less as a condition of the marriage. My grandfather, the husband of her eldest daughter, also had to agree to a life of teetotalism as a result of his courtship of my grandmother. The power of words was held in high regard, both in terms of verbal promises but also regarding education and Doing As You Were Told.

Nana was well aware that words had power: she had always been able to literally turn words into gold. As a child with a precocious gift for oration, she had won whole guineas for her poetic recitations at the local Eisteddfod competitions. Typical of her generation in that part of South East Wales she knew no Welsh, but untypically she spoke with no trace of a local accent (and wouldn’t let me cultivate one either), and taught elocution lessons. Accent snobbery is nothing new.

The opening of Zoar Presbyterian Chapel, 1908, from the Risca Museum Photo Archive

In her heyday she had been an elder of her Presbyterian (Calvinistic Methodist) chapel, a lay preacher and the regional President of the Sisterhood (women-only religious meetings).

There were only two things she could not do, despite her lofty position: she could not legally conduct a marriage service (but she could conduct a funeral), and she could not serve Communion. [Doom Three…]

In 2018, some twelve years after her death, when I was in my early thirties, I was asked casually by the (new, young, English) associate pastor of my Baptist chapel to stand in as a Communion server, as in our tradition although I am not a deacon or an elder, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t pass a plate of symbolic bread around.

I said yes, of course, and thought nothing more of it until during the service a little voice in my head said: Nana wouldn’t like it. [THE DOOM HAS COME UPON ME cried the Lady of Shallot…]

And, even though she had been dead for over a decade, and I’m pretty sure I’d done a hell of a lot of things in that time that she would strongly disapprove of (I stopped being teetotal almost immediately after her death, for a start), I started to panic, as if she were sat behind me somewhere in the back row in full Silent Outrage Mode with her blue hat pinned to her head, watching me.

The service continued inexorably to the point where Communion was about to take place. The hymn was announced, and the servers invited up to the table. The Moment of Crisis had arrived. By this point, I was physically unable move or breathe properly. I was on the verge of a full panic attack.

I forced my legs to manoeuvre me into the aisle, at this point physically shaking, so that I could lean across to the nearest pew in the middle section and tap someone on the arm, let’s call her Mrs S-, an older member of the congregation whom I’ve known since I was a child, and ask her to go up and do it for me. Mrs S- is also not an elder or a deacon, and had just as much or as little right as me to go and serve. This wasn’t an intellectual or theological issue – it was purely emotional, and, in that sense, completely irrational. Mrs S- took one look at me and guessed what was wrong. During the prayer, she slipped out of her seat and took the (now conspicuously) empty place. The relief was instant, and I was back to normal in seconds.

I talked it through with people (and the pastors) at the end of the service, and we agreed that one day I would have another go. That’s one spectre that needs to be put to rest.

This probably explains quite a lot about how I think about and write family dynamics and culture, and my preoccupation with the Grande Dame trope in Gothic Fiction. This, then, is a part of my own “haunting” story of the Welsh past and the long shadow of an undead culture, and one of the reasons why I can deeply appreciate the Gothicization of these aspects of Wales in the twentieth-century fiction that Aaron discusses.

Sunday School Barge Outing, Llanwenarth Baptist Church, Govilon, 1910

As a woman with what is politely termed ‘a strong personality’, not to mention a great deal of religious and social influence over her family and community, Nana was far from atypical in twentieth-century South Wales.

Women of Nana’s type, aspiring to the [lower-] middle class despite being the wives and daughters of miners and steel workers, were the moral backbone of the home, the driving force of the family’s ambitions, firmly in charge of the money their husbands were sent out to make, and also largely in charge of the Sunday School, bringing up the next generations in the fear of God [and of them]. They organised mass Sunday School outings and holidays and other major community social events. Sunday Schools were originally attended by adults as well as children in some places.

The darker side of twentieth-century chapel culture still leaves scars on the psyche of communities and individuals today. Those who fell pregnant out of wedlock [“Put them to work, the wicked girls!!” screeched Nana in a moral fury] were ‘read out of membership’, and bore the weight of their sin through social ostracisation (even if they married the father). Pastors were elected by the members but treated as God by their congregations, the golden calf of their own choosing. Thunderous oratory was in vogue, and hellfire and damnation preached energetically from the pulpit in exuberant Calvinist style.

Calvinistic Methodism or Presbyterianism was a major denomination in Wales, and Methodism in particular was subject to frequent attacks in English- and Welsh-language literature, while anti-Dissent plays and stories appeared in English from the eighteenth century.

Aaron sets this in context and lists a number of examples of anti-chapel sentiment in Welsh Gothic fiction, including Mary Robinson’s Anna, or, Memoirs of a Welch Heiress (1785), and Walsingham, or, The Pupil of Nature (1797).

The Stranger by Robert Evans (1798) also features an avaricious Methodist.

Fitzmaurice (1800) by William Frederick Williams, features the evil Reverend Tone, who disinherits the titular protagonist, Edward Fitzmaurice, when Tone marries Edward’s rich aunt Deborah. Methodism drives Deborah to the brink of madness, and Rev. Tone locks her in a garret, using the Calvinist doctrine of the predestined elect to justify his behaviour. This theme was also taken up in Scotland and was well-established by the time James Hogg wrote The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justifed Sinner (1824).

After the [Nonconformist] revival of 1859, the Welsh-language periodical Yr Haul, an Anglican publication, serialised the mock memoir Wil Brydydd y Coed in their issues from 1863-6, satirising the Nonconformists, their preachers, and their deacons.

Revivals – of which there were about fifteen prior to 1904 – were said to stir up emotions and sexual licentiousness.

Queen of the Rushes (1906), by Allen Raine, picks up on this aspect of religious fervour, and how it can lead to mental instability and transgressive sex. It echoes the concerns of 1847 Blue Books report on night-time prayer meetings in the chapels ‘and the intercourse which ensues on returning home’, which, the school inspectors feared, could lead to ‘illicit sexual liaisons’. (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p. 91).

Following in this tradition of marring the reputation of Nonconformism, Caradoc Evans (1878-1945) Gothicized Welsh chapel culture in his series of linked short stories about the poor communities he’d been raised in. The first, My People: Stories of the Peasantry of West Wales (1915), ‘was greeted with horror in Wales, where an attempt was made to ban it’. (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p. 87). Its sequel, Capel Sion, was published in 1917.

Evans was called ‘the most hated man in Wales’ for the controversial volumes. My People painted rural Wales as a dystopian hell-on-earth, where the impoverished lower classes scraped a living in the dirt and were under the tyranny of hypocritical chapel ministers. He created an idiolect for his characters that was viewed as deeply insulting to the Welsh language, and worse, he published the stories in English and in London, ‘so that the English could laugh at the satire of the Welsh by one of their own’. (Prof. Katie Gramich, ‘My People‘: Controversial Text Turns 100‘, 2015).

'The Withered Root' by Rhys Davies 1927 by William Roberts 1895-1980
William Roberts’ cover artwork (1927) for The Withered Root by Rhys Davies

Despite the backlash and outrage, Welsh anti-chapel fictions continued into the 1920s and ’30s. Calvinism and the chapel creed is represented as a blight upon the lives of the protagonists and people, such as in The Withered Root (1927) by Rhys Davies and The Deacon (1934) by Alun Llywellyn. Suicide, inhumane treatment of others, tragic deaths and madness all await the characters as a result of their beliefs and doctrine, but also as they wrestle themselves free of an inhumane, exacting Calvinist God, as in The Creed (1936) by Peggy Whistler (1909-1958), published under the pseudonym Margiad Evans.

Throughout the early twentieth century, the chapels began to empty as increasing numbers of their congregations sought to free themselves from this stranglehold, like their fictional counterparts, in favour of Socialism and Trade Union meetings, but the secular world was also haunted by death and disease that was a daily part of industrial life.

Next Post: Haunted Communities II: Industrial Gothic (1900s-1940s)

The next post (Thursday!) will look at Industrial Gothic, and the influence of the mines on Welsh Gothic Fiction.

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