Every year on my module The Welsh Century 1847-1947 I encourage students to read fiction from the period. Here are the ones I suggest.
These novels have been selected because I like them rather than because of any particular literary merit they might have. However, all are vivid illustrations of life during this period, or at least how some people liked to imagine life. Some of the books were published later than the timeframe of the module but they draw on their authors’ own experiences of the period.
- Jeremy Brooks, Jampot Smith (1960).
A comic story of teenage English immigrants in Llandudno who are more concerned with girls than the ongoing Second World War. The English middle class may not be a fashionable topic in Welsh history but they are part of the nation’s story.
- Islwyn Ffowc Elis, Cysgod y Cryman (1953). Published in English as Shadow of the Sickle
You may want to throttle several of the sanctimonious characters but a great story nonetheless and an important depiction of the tensions within rural Wales just after the Second World War. The book was important in taking Welsh-language novels to a younger audience.
- Caradoc Evans, My People (1915)
A collection of short stories that give an unsympathetic view of the people of rural Wales and which made its author rather notorious. The characters are devious, hypocritical, lustful, greedy and not always very intelligent. It’s all a little over the top but great fun.
- Jack Jones, Rhondda Roundabout (1934)
A disjointed but vivid and entertaining picture of the vitality of life in mining communities. The perfect antidote to any idea of Welsh miners as downtrodden, bored, overly pious or sober.
- Lewis Jones, Cwmardy (1937)
Celebrated for its picture of politics and exploitation in the south Wales valleys but it’s ‘Big Jim’ and the other characters that make it such a great read and much more than the Communist propaganda that it was intended as.
- Stead Jones, Make Room for the Jester (1964)
Rather obscure and probably the least successful book on the list. But it is full of teenage angst, repressed sexuality and adult alcoholism in 1939 Pwllheli.
- Richard Llewellyn, How Green was my Valley (1939)
Often derided for its Welsh clichés (lots of singing and talking funny) and poor sense of history (the decline of the valleys is all the fault of the unions and immigrants apparently) but it doesn’t deserve to cast aside. A gripping story, appealing characters and lots of sentimentality made it hugely popular everywhere, including in the south Wales it misrepresents.
- Caradog Pritchard, Un Nos Ola Leuad (1961). Published in English as One Moonlit Night.
Sometimes regarded as the greatest Welsh-language novel ever. Set in a north Wales quarrying community, it’s more poverty and child abuse than hymns and eisteddfodau. It’s hard not to be touched by the tragic life of the young narrator. The book dispels the romantic pictures of early twentieth-century Welsh rural society that characterise some autobiographies of Welsh-speaking intellectuals. The book is spoiled only by some surreal passages of biblical visions.
- Kate Roberts, Traed Mewn Cyffion (1936). Published in English as Feet in Chains
Another rather bleak and depressing but vivid depiction of life in a slate quarrying community in early 20th-century Caernarfonshire. Will stop any doubt over which gender had the roughest deal.
- Dylan Thomas, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940).
A collection of short stories that show Wales’ most famous writer at his best. Very funny, slightly surreal and often irreverent. A rather different inter-war Wales to the one found in mining novels.