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#AmReading: Post-Devolution Welsh Gothic (1997-2013)

Introduction

Dr Emma Schofield’s doctoral thesis (2014) Independent Wales?: The Impact of Devolution on Welsh Fiction in English is worth a look, covering English-language fiction from 1979 and the first failed Devolution vote, to 1997. The final section and conclusion look beyond the Yes vote, but it is a good companion to the chapter and epilogue Aaron devotes to this time period in Welsh Gothic.

Here, I’ll look at the texts Aaron covers in her Epilogue, then move on next week to posting about the supernatural elements that make their way into Welsh Gothic, following roughly Aaron’s Part II: Things That Go Bump In The Celtic Twilight.


Post-devolution Gothic

Although the Yes vote passed with the narrowest of margins, Welsh Devolution provided Wales with an independent civic identity which differed from England. The measure of autonomy it granted, allowing the Welsh Assembly Government control of both the education system and the health service in Wales, insulating it to some extent from the vagaries of Westminster, and impose the Welsh Language Policy that promotes the use and learning of the Welsh Language across Wales.

There are many criticisms of policies, parties and politics, of course, but post-1997 Welsh authors have been far less concerned with the themes that haunted the Gothic fictions before. Contemporary Welsh Gothic plays with Gothic elements instead, now more able to find the humour in the dark and dangerous, and Welsh-born authors whose work features Gothic elements and settings do not necessarily write about Wales.

There are other things to write about within explorations of identity, like constructions and expressions of sexuality and gender, both key themes of Pembrokeshire-born novelist Sarah Waters.

I am also interested in these constructions within the Gothic, and I’ve got another book in the UWP’s Gothic Literary Studies series, The Queer Uncanny, by Paulina Palmer. This one looks at lesbian, gay and transgender identities in British, American and Caribbean fiction from 1980-2007. I may blog about this too, but we’ll see!

Aaron mentions the Welsh and English language Gothic novels of Dyfed Edwards, but does not go into detail except to highlight his vampire book, Dant at Waed (A Taste [ literally, A Tooth] for Blood, 1996).

[CW// some contemporary fiction discussed below contains sexual abuse and infant death]

Other texts covered in these last pages of her work include:

Aberystwyth Mon Amour (2001) and its sequels, by Malcolm Pryce, a cult detective noir series set in an alternative Aberystwyth, parodying Raymond Chandler’s style and playing with Gothic conventions and the Noir genre in comedic ways.

Darkhenge (2005), a YA novel by Catherine Fisher, of Newport, Gwent, that plays with the Gothic and Welsh mythology.

The Meat Tree (2010), by Gwyneth Lewis, a futuristic Gothic Science Fiction novel engaging with the fourth branch of the Mabinogi and exploring how the corrosive effects of self-obsession can be healed by insights drawn from myth.

Alan Garner had already engaged with these kinds of issues in his own retelling of this particular Welsh myth, The Owl Service (1967). Aaron doesn’t discuss Garner’s classic, a children’s low fantasy novel featuring the English children Alison and her brother Roger, and the Welsh boy Gwyn, son of the local caretaker, and set in Wales, but it also has a lot of Gothic influences. Dimitra Fimi of the University of Glasgow has discussed this book in more detail for The Times Literary Supplement. However, The Owl Service fits into the narratives of Gothicising of Wales, of Welsh myth and history coming to life to take over the living, and the impotence of the Welsh themselves.

Sing Sorrow, Sorrow (2010), a collection of short Welsh Gothic fiction by a selection of authors, edited by Gwen Davies, also includes macabre mock-Gothic styles and elements.

The Gothic is also part of gritty contemporary stories that take hard, uncompromising looks at their communities, and the broken lives of those left behind after the collapse of things that formed and shaped them.

In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl (2000) by Rachel Trezise, looks at the protagonist’s brutal childhood in the Rhondda in the late 1980s; sexually abused by her stepfather, an unemployed collier sinking into alcoholism, and living in the drug- and crime-capital of the Valleys, she is trapped both in the council estate where she lives, and within herself, unable to express herself or tell her own story. Controversial and compelling, it is considered a modern classic and was reviewed by Emma Schofield in 2016 for The Wales Arts Review.

Martha, Jac a Sianco (2004) by Caryl Lewis, winner of Welsh Book of the Year 2015, offers a similarly dark take on rural life, in which the elderly female protagonist envisions herself as entombed alive on the farm where she and her brothers were raised. Her still-born baby, the result of an unreported rape, is buried on its land, and so although the farm is failing, she cannot bear to leave it. She remains despite the omens of doom, and the murder/euthanasia-suicide of her elderly brothers, a ‘ghost of light in the darkness’ of her home [‘fel ysbryd gole yn y tywyllwch’] (p. 190).

Like the post-industrial Welsh valleys, for whom life post-devolution is still marked by unemployment and deprivation in the villages and council estates alike, Welsh farming in the Welsh-language heartlands is also struggling. Aaron discusses a number of novels and short stories that deal with this rural decline, in both Welsh and English.

Aaron notes that Border-crossing novels have remained consistent in their themes, while other novels still look at elements from mythology, the dark waters of the drowned past, and other persistent tropes. She goes through a number of these, too, but I won’t list all of them here.

Overall, Aaron concludes, there are still narratives in which Wales is an underworld, ‘othered’ and exoticised. Wales’s Gothic history, for Aaron, emerged from the trauma of colonisation which found expression in aggressive colonizing acts of its own. Today, the underworld motif may still persist but has lost its virulence. Paradoxically, the genre itself helped to familiarise a wide readership with Wales and the Welsh, creating a sense of familiarity that dispelled the Gothic darkness of the actual place. This is an ongoing process, and one which Aaron hopes her own work – Welsh Gothic – has helped to further.

 


Postscript

It is nearly the end of 2019 and I am sitting in a coffee shop in side Cardiff University’s Student Union building, killing time. On the next table across from me, three nineteen-year-olds are discussing their (English-medium) coursework in fluent Welsh. They break the flow sometimes to read the English questions, seamlessly switching back and fore between the two languages, but Welsh is the language of their conversation, the primary medium of their social interactions and banter as much as it is the language they problem-solve in. This is not the dead language of their forefathers, a weight around their necks. This is the language of their present, evolving, changing, adapting as all living languages do, as they invent slang and abbreviate in written/typed messages, and it has been this way for them at least since they started school, since they embraced it as a natural inheritance and made it their own.

This is normal here, but today, because I’ve been reading Jane Aaron’s Chapter 4 (I am writing this out of sequence) I feel a strange, overwhelming need to cry. True, I am stressed and in the middle of marking, and it’s probably time-of-the-month hormones and house stuff and worries about friends a thousand small things, and I tell myself it’s nothing, but perhaps it isn’t nothing. Perhaps it is the unexpected sense of a surge of life, the reminder of the world that is possible and could be possible for these young people and for all of us.

They leave, chatting, and join the babble of other students in the corridors and the mix of languages, avoiding the actors and small film crew aiming a camera at a small set in the middle of the ground floor thoroughfare with a Welsh language sign in the background. I drink my coffee as Dido’s White Flag plays unhelpfully through the speakers, and get on with my life.

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