Welsh Novelist’s Success 1928
Little has been heard during the past few months of Mr. Rhys Davies, the Rhondda Valley novelist, who towards the end of last year created such an impression with his first full-length book “The Withered Root in 1927.” I gather that Mr. Davies is now beginning to gather in the fruits of the remarkable reception which his novel was accorded. It has been sold for publication in America, and within a fortnight went into a second edition. Within the past few days too, the rights to publish the first German edition have been sold for a substantial sum, and the sales in this country are mounting steadily.
Mr. Davies tells me that he is at work on two other novels, the first of which he temporarily shelved in favour of the second, which will be a psychological study of a woman. The success of “Withered Root,” enables Mr. Davies to take a long holiday from the common ground, which he will begin shortly, and which will give him an opportunity, he hopes, of making progress with his further literary work.
He is a son of Mr. T. R. Davies, a well-known businessman at Blaenclydach, where he was born in 1901. He was educated at Porth County School, and lived in the Rhondda until he was eighteen. Now, at 27, he resides in Essex, and is a familiar figure in London literary circles.
“My Wales” 1937
Rhys Davies, the young Welsh novelist and dramatist, has left London for the South of France for a fairly long holiday.
Before leaving Victoria Station for Nice, where he will spend a few days, he said; “my initial venture into the London commercial theatre with “The Ripening Wheat,” based on the story the “Maid of Cefn Ydfa,” was a shattering failure, and I don’t intend to make a second effort in that direction just yet, although my friends are quite comforting, and think a modern play might retrieve my reputation.”
“But that has not been my only new line recently, for at Cardiff not long ago I broadcast for the first time.”
Personal Book on Wales
“I have just completed the manuscript of a long personal book about Wales, to be called ‘My Wales,’ and to be published quite shortly in a series to which Lord Dunsany and Mr. A. G. MacDonell, are contributing books on Ireland and Scotland, on the same lines. It was a surprising exciting job.”
“As to novels, I’ve now had two of three parts of my trilogy dealing with the industrialisation of South Wales published, and am not quite sure when I shall finish the third.”
(Drawing by William Roberts)
Rhys Davies 1903-1978
His Last Book is His best (1949)
(By Prof. Gwyn Jones, M.A.)
Rhys Davies is assuredly a portent among Anglo-Welsh (I had almost said Welsh) authors. He may be an augury. For in a land of amateurs he is a professional.
If you ask 99 out of 100 of our literary men what they do for a living they will answer, “Behold! a teacher, a preacher, a civil servant, a postman, a journalist, or even a professor.” One wonders whether one heard aright when the reply is, “Behold! a writer.”
It is as though we are married to our Bread-and-Butter and court our Muse on the sly. As if we were saying to Calliope, with the poet of old:
“Use thee as a woman ought to be:
Consecrate my idle hours thee;”
It is a situation in which the lady has been known to grow sulky and take a ticket for elsewhere.
Gain and Loss
As with all mortal affairs, the case offers gain and loss. The gain is a diffusion of the second-rate, and a hankering after the first-rate, throughout divers strata of our Welsh society. The loss may be inferred from the same words.
Among a complex of causes two are to be under-estimated: the poverty of our country, which has made professional authorship as risky as polar exploration, and an attitude of mind which has never recognised the propulsion of pen over paper as an employment at once money-making, moral, and manly.
25 Years’ Authorship
Rhys Davies was born at Blaenclydach, Porth in 1903, and was launched into life through the gates of the Rhondda.
Twenty years later he thought the best prospect in Wales the high road into England, and sought a variety of odd jobs in London. But for some 25 years he has devoted himself to authorship. I count on my shelves nine novels, five volumes of short stories, and two topographical and descriptive books about Wales, and my collection is far from complete.
I have written elsewhere about the queer misconception that it is easier to make a reputation by writing in English than in Welsh. It is of course, incomparably harder. Rhys Davies is a case in point. In Welsh he would have been accorded an international, or, at least, a European reputation on the strength of his first couple of novels; in English he is now slowly but assuredly reaping a harvest of esteem after a quarter of a century’s hard work.
This is right and proper, for he seems now to be approaching the plenitude of his powers. His work in the ‘forties’ is demonstrably richer and mature than that of the preceding decade. He is that happy author whose last book is his best.
Writing Come of Age
This particular last is “The dark Daughters,” a novel whose abundant and controlled merit invites a comparison with the novels of the masters. One wonders what Dostoevsky would have made of the revenge theme, and though one concludes that he would have made more of it the comparison is more of a compliment than 50 fine adjectives would be. For this is a book to which criticism can be profitably directed. It is writing come of age.
On the whole, however, he has been more acclaimed for his short stories. If we set aside “The Dark Daughters” there are indications even in the novels that is the shorter length in which he is more at home. Thus one sustained theme was spread over the trilogy of “Honey and Bread.” “A Time to Dance,” and “Jubilee Blues”; and “The Black Venus” was curiously episodic. Almost every novel contains chapters which are stories in their own right.
Like every professional writer of substantial output, he is not invariably at his best. The “magazine story” can be safely despised only by those authors with a second income; and authors are no more to be blamed than motor-cars because they are not always running in top gear. But Rhys Davies’s best is indeed to be envied.
A Poet’s Prose
His stories are extraordinarily alive. They have a leaping quality. He has a sharp eye for the broad trend and the minute particular, his dialogue is trenchant and exact, his sentences are juiced and shapely as summer fruit. His prose is a poet’s, his vision, sensual but humorous, amoral but compassionate. His best work is deeply-felt but unsentimental.
One doubts whether he can ever become a really popular author. So far he remains a prophet less honoured than he should be in his own country. This is not so much, I imagine, because of the marked eroticism and pagan exhilaration of much of his work, or even his flaunted disrespect for time-worn prejudices. But he never gives his reader that warm stupid, amorphous, “nice” feeling which is the equivalent in literature of the effects of the cinema organ’s “vox humana.”
At the age of 46 he must be the oldest of the “young” Welsh writers. He has written in his time of the “Maid of Cefn Ydfa” and the “Ripening Wheat.” I borrow a phrase from my friend and near-namesake Glyn Jones, and commend my fellow countrymen to watch, and cherish, and buy the Ripening Davies.
A universally human writer 1961
(by Alma Jones)
The most recent example of the service to Welsh culture being render American Universities is the acquisition by the University of Texas of the entire manuscripts, notes and literary miscellanea of Rhys Davies, including several letters from D. H. Lawrence and his wife, a transaction of the same order as was arranged some time ago between C. Day Lewis and the University of Havard.
It is good to know that through the foresight and practical concern of the Director of the Humanities Research Centre students now and always will the advantage of being able to consult and study the manuscripts of our foremost writer and that the manuscripts themselves have come to a safe and permanent home.
We are used to extending special honour and memorial to the Welsh pioneers who crossed the Atlantic to lay the foundation of a new civilisation, carrying with them a sturdy faith in the Welsh was of life.
The archives which today are being built up of Welsh writers whose works have awakened the interest and inspired the respect of American universities merit in no lesser degree our honour and memorial, despite the fact that now the initiative lies on the other side of the Atlantic.
When the idea of sending the Rhys Davies material over to Texas was in its earliest stages, I met him for the first time. My husband Richard Jones, had already been instrumental in sending there a quantity of D. H. Lawrence material, hitherto unpublished and then in the possession of a friend of ours who knew the Lawrence’s from their Zennor day’s right up to the death of D. H. Lawrence.
Already I knew him through his books: the virility of “The Withered Root,” “The Red Hills,” ”Jubilee Blues”: the rare humour of the short stories and “The Black Venus”: and the delicate “hiraeth” of “Honey and Bread” and the acute feminine psychology of “Rings on her Fingers!”
In person, I met a man of quiet cordiality, with an out-looking attitude, as if seeking some kind of reassurance from the warmth of human contact.
Only during the course of the evening did an occasional gimlet glance cause me to remember that here was a man of almost terrifying perception, whose penetration into the minds and motives of my sex, like that of the finest French and Russian writers, was something to be regarded as shocking, if not actually impermissible.
Rhys Davies is called sometimes an “Anglo-Welsh writer,” and sometimes a “Regional” writer, which I feel is a pity because both terms impose a limitation on the work of a writer who, manifestly, is universally human.
He may take a regional situation as he does in “A Bed of Feathers,” but he projects it on to a screen of universality. This triangle of greed, puritanism and lust could occur anywhere.
With Rhys Davies the description “Anglo-Welsh” is a contradiction in terms. He may write in English, but that is less than the half of it. His whole approach, treatment and penetrative insight are essentially Welsh. His turn of thought is Welsh, often engendering, especially in his earlier books, the Welsh turn of phrase.
Notwithstanding his early departure from his native country, his youthful, impressionable years with their closely compressed observations and experiences lived during a time of economic decay, strife, cheap labour and the whole sordid upheaval brought by industrialisation to the once lovely valleys of the Rhondda and channelled perforce into the narrow confines of the world which flowed through and around his father’s shop, left an indelible mark on the sensitive mind of the future writer, forming the rich compost which has nourished his finest work.
“The best writing of our contemporaries is not an act of creation but an act of evocation, peculiarly saturated with reminiscences.” Thomas Mann, when he wrote that, might have been referring to Rhys Davies.
He left home in Clydach Vale, Rhondda, before he was 20, intent on cutting the umbilical cord which tied him to his motherland, to see fresh woods, even to get the parish pump into perspective.
Fifteen years later, de distilled into the closing chapter of “Honey and Bread” a nostalgia more powerful and lasting than any which could be evoked by a whole book of lush romanticising.
Tudor Llewellyn, having assisted at the ceremony of cutting the first sod where the pit was to be sunk on the estate he had sold to coal prospectors, gathers into a small rush bag some earth from the land which he knows only too well is henceforward to be changed beyond recall.
“When the carriage, swept round a corner, he flung a last blinded look up at a slope from which the house could be seen. In his hand, under his cape, he still clutched the little bag containing the earth.”
Davies lived in London and on the Continent, never again in Wales, although it would be wrong to imagine that his interest in his native country, its culture and especially its writers, decreased in proportion as his own intellectual horizons widened.
If you were to walk into his home today and browse through his bookshelves, the number of novels and stories by Anglo-Welsh writers would surprise you. He is a constant reader of Anglo-Welsh writing and admires a good deal of it.
Rhys Davies’s travels favoured France, his reading, French writers: Zola, de Maupassant and especially Flaubert, whose influence is discernible in the skilful omissions and incisive writing which make him a master of the short story.
Another great writer of short stories, Somerset Maugham, has also cited Flaubert as an influence; but over Maugham the situation creates the characters, in Davies the characters create the situation.
The so-called “regional” qualities in Davies’s work go far deeper than a superficial accuracy of local description and am interlarding of dialect. His capture of essential “Geist” of the Welsh way of life can only be compared to the atmosphere created by Mary Webb in “Precious Bane” and today pf the smell of decay in the Deep South of America which permeates the belatedly recognised works of William Faulkner.
“Regional” books, motivated by economic depression, as are many of Rhys Davies’s early works, are not much more than pamphletoons unless they be informed with a feeling for wider humanity.
We are moving now towards a world brotherhood, and in proportion, as our problems become international, so does the universally human viewpoint absorb our finest writers.
Davies has anticipated this pre-occupation with the universal; it is the reflection of the universal in the regional which gives his work far higher status and wider appeal than that of the narrowly “regional” writer.
Through the universal humanity of the characters he has created, and the universal nature of the dilemmas in which they find themselves, he has accomplished for his native country a service unparalleled by other writers.
He has awakened an interest in Welsh life and character, and thrown a disturbing light on her sociological problems. Notwithstanding, the human interest comes first, inevitably.
This quality of realism in his writing has long since awakened interest in his work in Russia and on the continent. Even before the last war, “The Withered Root” had already been translated into Russian and many of his short stories are currently broadcast in Danish and Danish radio.
For years he has had a “first reading” agreement for his short stories with the “New Yorker” and most of his books have been published in America, where “The Black Venus” was liked especially.
It was while living in France that Rhys Davies and D. H. Lawrence came together. Davies had recently published is first novel “The Withered Root” and Lawrence, impressed by its quality had invited him to visit Bandol, where he was staying with his wife.
Lawrence confessed to Davies that he knew very little about Wales but he told him that the Welsh had a “moon-magic” in them and that he should try and keep this in his writing. I believe Davies could as easily discard his innate tolerant humour as this Celtic quality of moon-magic.
He says that on another occasion Lawrence told him: “When you have come to a decision, whatever your mental calculations tell you, go by what you feel here.” With his quick, intent gesture, he placed his hands over and around his belly. “Go by that, what you feel deep in you, not by what your head tells you.”
“The Withered Root” was written while the writer was living in London suburb and working in a London shop. It is an emotion-charged story of a Welsh revivalist preacher. Davies had followed the advice he was later to give a young compatriot: “Stop thinking of yourself as a Welsh writer. Consort as much as possible with people who dislike Wales or, better still, are completely indifferent to her. One avoids complacency that way.”
In his own process of development the first thing he had to do was to rid himself of the turgid blood confusion of the chapel, which obscured its rock moral force beneath. Like the anchorite who goes into the desert to fast and draw the blood away from the head, Davies went into his own kind of desert.
That step needed a peculiar kind of courage, a virtue which our modern young writers may be grateful is not demanded of them today. When Rhys Davies was beginning to write there were no beneficent institutions in whose lap a budding writer could lie, suckling in the milk of a lightly- onerous job to nourish the energies given to composition.
In Davies’ young days it was still demanded of an artist that he follow his inmost faith in himself and face what sometimes amounted to near-destitution in order to be able to devote himself to his art, independent of and untrammelled by other demands.
There are still some artists who follow this stony path, and their work is all the better for it.
Nearly all Rhys Davies’s books deal with, which woman is the stronger protagonist. Here he is conditioned by what he observed in his youth and what an impartial observer of Welsh life cannot help noticing as well. I mean the thrusting, dominating personality of the Welsh female of the species.
The Celtic moon quality rests in the men rather than in the women of Wales, giving a deadly magic to their fighting qualities in broad issues. On the domestic front they appear not to bother about asserting domination until, as I some of Davies’s books, it is too late.
Not so, the women of Wales. In times past they have been fearless horsewomen, intrepid warriors. In their modern counterparts there crouches a Boadicea-like quality, a smouldering impatience to mount a chariot with curved knives on the axles of its wheels, riding forth to do battle. “Her smile was like the gleam of a thin blade and cold as crystal.”
Time and again in the novels and stories of Rhys Davies this dominating woman – personality rackets through the pages, leaving emotional havoc in her wake; Edith in “Rings on her Fingers,” Ceinwen in “The Red Hills,” Cassie in “Jubilee Blues,” Daisy in “A Time to Laugh,” and Rachel Lloyd in “Under the Rose.”
In Rhys Davies one cannot separate the writer from his work. There are few biographical details with which to titillate the interest although various studies and articles on this Welsh writer have been published on the Continent.