Eiluned Lewis

Picture of Eiluned Lewis

 By Glyn Roberts – 05. 02.1935

When “The Innocent Voyage” was published in America in 1929 its author, Richard Hughes, was hailed as a man with a rare understanding of the psychology and the interests of children. A few months later the book published as “A High Wind in Jamaica,” repeated its success here, and started the reputation of a very brilliant Welsh writer.

To this day Richard Hughes is fascinated by childhood, prefers the company of children of that of adults, and feels more at ease in their company.

It is a remarkable thing that when another young Welsh writer, Miss Eiluned Lewis, published her first book last year it too, was a book obviously largely autobiographical, about childhood. And rarely has a first book been praised more highly. “Dew on the Grass,” agreed most of the critics in lavishing superlatives upon it, is certain to take its place among the classics of the English language. A short book, almost devoid of conventional “action,” discursive and very quiet, yet it showed unmistakeable evidence of the arrival of a brilliant newcomer of the group of young Welsh writers who, though their work could never have been produced by an Anglo-Saxon, yet are content to use English as their medium.

It is simply the story of lives of four children of a well-to-do family, in a country house in a Welsh border county – their games, their secret language, their hopes and fears, their Sundays, their lessons; how the world looked to them. The author is able to make anyone with the slightest imagination or even memory re-live the agonies and the odd pleasures of his own childhood.

Apt Choice of Words

Anyone who remembers the queer hush which seemed to fall upon a drawing-room as he, as a child walked in, terrified, to say “How-do-you-do,” how all the faces in the room stared blankly at him; anyone who remembers the awful loss the death of a pet rabbit seemed; anyone who ever wrote a poignant play about a gallant knight, a dragon and a fairy princess; anyone whose childhood was not utterly barren will find himself, or herself, murmuring over and over again, as he reads “Dew on the Grass” – “Yes, that’s exactly what it was like.” Or laughing delightedly, as it author’s uncannily apt choice of words.

It seems an impertinence and absurdly superfluous to say at this late day that “Dew on the Grass” is not a children’s book, but a book about childhood, obviously a very different thing. Children can enjoy, and have enjoyed it immensely; but so have thousands of adults, most of whom put the book down knowing that they have gone through a very rare experience, and experience such as literature provides very infrequently; they have seen the world for a moment with the wide-opened, unprejudiced and properly balanced gaze of a child.

It was inevitable that comparisons should be made a great compliment in itself – with Kenneth Grahame, that strange Anglo-Scot, who spent the day an efficient City man, as secretary of the Bank of England, and the evenings and weekends seeing a life as a child and smiling at the “Olympians” among whom he spent his days. “The Golden Age” and “The Wind in the Willows” are immortal so, perhaps, is “Dew on the Grass.” At all events, and to slide from the sublime to the very sordid, it is worth noticing that booksellers are hoarding first editions of it.

A Rare Company

Eiluned Lewis comes from Montgomeryshire, and although she speaks no Welsh and speaks English in such a way would never guess she was Welsh, she is keenly conscious of her race of the heritage it has handed down to her. She is tall, slim, with the complexion of a child, blue eyes, and a mass of light auburn hair of which she is rightly proud. I was reminded of Clayton Hamilton’s description of Kenneth Grahame in his retirement……………“he had the clear and roseate complexion of a healthy child………..One could see at a glance that he was one of the rare people in the world who looks like themselves.” It occurs to me that this other writer of childhood is another of that rare company.

Like, Grahame, too, she lives a life of glaring contrasts – and likes it. From Wednesday morning until late on Saturday night she is an efficient journalist, “holding a responsible position on the staff of the “Sunday Times,” where she is assistant to the editor. For most of four days she is intensely busy, correcting proofs, writing her own reviews, and a hundred other things. She occupies a large panelled room high up in the noblest building in London’s oldest street, Fleet Street.

Then on Sunday, she rushes down to the country and revels in it until Tuesday evening. Usually it is Surrey or Sussex, but when she can she gets to Wales.

“I like this life exactly as it is,” she told me. “I am completely happy doing what I do; the contrast appeals to me. I love the country and I have to spend part of my time there, but I’ve always wanted to do book reviewing and journalism too.”

She told me something of her family, her education, and her career until the publication of her book made her name famous. Her family is well known in Montgomeryshire, and her mother’s cousin was Principal E.H. Griffiths of the University College, Cardiff. She herself was educated at an English boarding school (where she was, she says, aggressively “Welsh” and determinedly “different”) and at London University, (Her earlier years are described, one can be sure, in “Dew in the Grass”). She has done book reviewing on several London papers and is now as reputable critic as she is a creative writer. She does occasional dramatic criticism and delights in it, but told me she feels no urge to write a play.

Gold Medal Award

A second book is in the process of being written – on Mondays and Tuesdays only, like “Dew on the Grass” – but its theme is a secret. I understand by the way, that “Dew on the Grass,” which, as the time of publication, was the choice of the Book Guild for the month and a recommendation of the Book Society, has now been awarded the Book Guild gold medal for the finest work of fiction published during 1934.

As a Welsh writer who has achieved distinction through the medium of a “foreign” tongue, Miss Lewis will be a topic of interest to those Nationalists in Wales who believe and say that a Welshman who does not use Welsh is no Welshman. She is not smug about not speaking Welsh, but regrets it; nevertheless, she is one of those Welsh exiles who believe, who know, in fact, from their own experience, that being Welsh is a thing of tougher fibre than that; that Welsh writers who use English, as scores of fine Irish writers have used it, do not instantly become tepid imitation Saxons on the instant. Welsh writers have something to contribute which no-one else has given yet. This passage is from her article in the Welsh number of the “Bookman,” which Huw Menai discussed in the “Western Mail,” an article which contained more good notions about Wales and Welsh affairs than any I have read for years;

“As a race we have many gifts, but chiefly, it seems to me, we have the wisdom and subtlety of an old civilisation. Our minds are ancient and complicated, and there is always one more door in them waiting to be unlocked. Our refinement, like our democracy, is not assumed; it is in our fibre. Some of us may like money (there are worldly as well as unworldly Welshmen), but it does not alter our sense of values; we think no more of a man because he is rich. More than most people, we care for the life of the intellect; in music and poetry we find the necessary solace for the nostalgia which haunts us, as it haunts all those who desire spiritual things. And we have towards one another a tenderness which has been strangely distorted into savagery by some of our writers.”

“When the Welshman listens to his own wise heart and forgetting himself and his race, sets down what he finds there, we shall have the true literature of Wales, whether written in Welsh or English.”

We salute a Welsh Lady of Literature
Historian, Novelist, and Poet 1949

True, she does not live in the Principality now. The county of Surrey claims her as a resident of that delightful shire, but her name, and above all, her personality as revealed in her charming books, proclaim her a lady of Wales.

Historian, novelist, poet – those are her three literary distinctions, although, perhaps here in Wales, we should reverse the order of her achievements.

Her name? Try to think – she was born among the Severn Meadows but her mother was of Pembrokeshire stock. She wrote history in collaboration with her brother Peter, a novel which has become almost a best seller, and two volumes of poems. She was at one time on the staff on the “Sunday Times,” and is now a welcome contributor to “Country Life.” If you still fail to recognise her by her literary triumphs then we will introduce you to Eiluned Lewis (that is not her married name) author of “Dew on the Grass” which is now available in a cheap bookstall edition.

“Dew on the Grass” won a gold medal from the Book Guild in 1934 as the best novel of the year. But it is more than a novel. Shall we say it is a delightful evocation of youth in that Severn-side borderland where cider-apples grow and wild duck cry?

Being Welsh, Eiluned had to write verse, “December Apples,” (1935), won much praise, and was a sure pointer to other volumes to follow, perhaps even sweeter than the apples remaining in the twelfth month.

Then came that masterpiece of history, travel, and description – “The Land of Wales,” (1937), which should secure our lady a permanent place, not only on library shelves and family bookcases, but in the hearts of all true lovers of Welsh life, tradition, and customs throughout the centuries.

Here is no more travel-book or overseas visitors’ summary. As you read, you are on the Welsh hearth, by the crystal streams, on the green hill-sides, down in the deep moist dales; you are initiated into the secrets of castle, manor-house, and farm.

Yes, the reader is in the land of Wales, not looking on or journeying through it. British Railways or coach companies can never introduce you to the Welsh character Eiluned has the essence of the country and her race, yet never descends to sympathetic sentimentality or the Caradoc Evans’ brand of caustic criticism (Of course, we have already stated this book was jointly produced by Eiluned and Peter).

Having dealt with Severn-side in her first book, Eiluned turned to Pembrokeshire, her mother’s county for “The Captain’s Wife,” (1943). The background is that of this sea-going farming people her mother’s kin folk, over a century ago.

On the occasion of our first visit 30 years, to Aberystwyth, Aberayron, Cardigan coast and Pembrokeshire, we were continually being introduced to “Captain” Evans, “Captain” Jones and “Captain” Griffiths! We became accustomed to the notion that every other resident was a ship’s officer. The explanation, of course, was that half-amphibious, half-agricultural life which Eiluned Lewis deals with in her second successful novel. The vessels are mainly small coasters.

In 1944 Macmillan’s published our lady’s second book of poems, “Morning Songs.” If you love poetry then you must read it: if you are not yet a lover, then here is the volume to convert you. Early motherhood, and, even the prenatal days with their fancies and premonitions are the subjects of the first pieces.

We have refrained from quotations hitherto but now we must indicate the delicacy of the Eiluned touch:

(Imagine a mother-to be-talking to her unborn child)

Dear Guest, since thou hast come to share
This home of flesh with me
And must my fears and fancies bear
As I must bear with thee,
Let us before these nine moons end
Conclude a pact, ’twixt friend and friend

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