Dorothy Edwards is the first full-length critical literary study of Dorothy Edwards, the enigmatic author born in the small mining valley of Ogmore Vale in 1903. Combining close textual analysis with comprehensive biography, and drawing from newly available diaries and correspondence, Claire Flay considers Edwards’s work in the light of her views and experiences. Flay demonstrates how Edwards’s upbringing deeply influenced her perception of gender, class, and nationality, themes Edwards explores with great care in her novel, Winter Sonata, and short story collection, Rhapsody.
|Publisher:||University of Wales Press|
|Series:||University of Wales Press - Writers of Wales Series|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Claire Flay holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Glamorgan.
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By Claire Flay, Meic Stephens, Jane Aaron, M. Wynn Thomas
University of Wales PressCopyright © 2011 Claire Flay
All rights reserved.
From Brynteg to Pen-y-dre: Dorothy Edwards in Ogmore Vale and Rhiwbina
In a 1925 essay which she contributed to the then University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire's (now Cardiff University) magazine Cap and Gown, Dorothy Edwards described the difficulties she experienced as a budding author:
Now I thought of a wonderful story the day before yesterday, which would have made this Magazine sell like hot bricks, but unluckily, it was very important that my hero should cash a cheque. Now, up to this point in my career, it has never been necessary for me to cash a cheque, and half-way through the story, I found to my horror that I did not know what happened ... so I had to abandon it.
Her problem, she explained, stemmed from her inability to follow the standard line of advice to would-be authors, to 'write about what you know': her own lack of life experience making it difficult to do so. 'You must be a realist or you must invent a personal isolated odd universe composed exclusively of your own experience', Edwards wrote in a letter to her close friend S. Beryl Jones. Edwards chose the latter. The world in which she locates her fiction could not be more different from the south Wales coal-mining community in which she was born and raised, or the respectable but impoverished life that she later led in the Cardiff suburb of Rhiwbina. Her stories are usually narrated from a male perspective and are set in large country houses or holiday retreats where her middle- and upper-class characters spend idle lives or long summer vacations. They do not worry about everyday needs and are generally financially independent, unlike the characters of her Welsh contemporaries, as author Glyn Jones has pointed out: '[u]sually in Anglo-Welsh writing the only people who do not work are the ones on the dole'. Given the setting and tone of Edwards's fiction, her readers could be forgiven for initially believing hers to be the work of a middleclass male author.
What Edwards created in her fiction was a world at once removed from and yet permeated with her experiences, her passions, her politics and her outlook on life. Music, her greatest love, infiltrates all its aspects, from the titles of her two publications, to her characters' abilities; references to various composers, songs, operas and technical terms abound in her 1927 short story collection Rhapsody, and the structure of her 1928 novel Winter Sonata is based, as the title suggests, on the sonata form. Likewise, myth and legend, particularly that of Greek origin, underpin the plots of her stories and her novel. While she avoided describing the minutiae of everyday life, the sparse and pared down tone of her writing is influenced by the Russian and European literature that she so greatly admired (Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Knut Hamsun received particular praise in her letters). A sense of exclusion, of isolation, of loneliness dominates. Several of Edwards's stories feature young women, just out of school, trying to find their place in the world. The motherless Primrose in 'Mutiny', for example, spends four years in boarding school, the effect of which seems only to have sharpened her sense of the attractions of upper-class culture and leads her from the custody of one man to another. Edwards's female characters are forced into teaching, marriage or an idle drawing-room life. Bonds between women are largely absent. Parental responsibility is lacking: children are usually missing one or both parents, and there are few mothers in her stories. All of these features can be related to her own experiences. Most of all, Edwards's fiction is permeated with an awareness of power structures which, as a young Welsh woman, dominated her life.
Edwards has in the past been more generally known for the tragic circumstances surrounding her suicide in 1934 at the age of thirty-one, than for the literary value of her work and its relevance to Wales, largely as a result of her unusual choice of subject matter. Arguments concerning the validity of representations of Wales have been inherently gender-based, underpinned by the suggestion that writing by Welsh men is somehow truer of the Welsh experience than writing by Welsh women. In her extensive and groundbreaking research on Welsh women's history, Deirdre Beddoe suggests that the very specific formations of Welsh society have rendered 'Welsh women ... culturally invisible'. Historically, there has been little room to negotiate a place for women in Welsh cultural consciousness. As Beddoe points out, the dominant stereotypical signifiers of Welsh popular culture during the last 150 or so years have been overtly masculine. The dominance of heavy industry in Wales and the significance that this industry has come to have in Welsh cultural consciousness means that much writing from Wales has been centred upon issues relating to the coalfield and its workers in terms of both content and style. Economics, labour politics and employment are all key features of work by the likes of Merthyr Tydfil author Jack Jones and Rhondda-based writers Lewis Jones and Gwyn Thomas. Anglo-Welsh writing, for much of the twentieth century at least, became synonymous with male industrial fiction of the south Wales valleys. The gritty, realist narrative that characterizes the work of the male valleys writers could not be further removed from the middleclass country houses and tense, claustrophobic relationships that form the focus of Dorothy Edwards's fiction. As a result, Glyn Jones felt that Edwards was 'too remote – not a Welsh writer in English' and so did not 'take much interest in her'. Edwards 'comes nearest to those writers who deal with artistic people at their week-ends in the country' he commented in The Dragon Has Two Tongues. Twentieth-century Welsh writing in English is dominated by its engagement with industry, labour and class conflict, and the way in which these created and contributed to a specifically Welsh national identity; by failing to set her work in Wales, Edwards, it seems, was not considered quite Welsh enough.
On the whole, the fiction privileged as truly representative of Wales did not begin to emerge until after Edwards's death in 1934: prior to the 1930s, the industrial landscape was yet to be interpreted in any significant detail in English-language Welsh prose. As Katie Gramich points out in her comparative essay on Edwards and Kate Roberts,
Mil naw tri saith oedd y trobwynt, mae'n debyg, gyda sefydlu'r cylchgrawn Wales, a alluogoedd awduron di-Gymraeg Cymru i anelu eu gwaith yn uniongyrchol at ddarllenwyr Cymreig.
(The year 1937 was the turning point, it seems, with the establishment of the magazine Wales, enabling non-Welsh-speaking Welsh authors to aim their work directly at the Welsh reader.)
The only Welsh writer making a successful attempt at industrial-based fiction before 1930 was Rhys Davies: writing in London in the 1920s, Davies set his fiction in the Rhondda of his upbringing and focused on the lives of those connected with the coalfield. His first novel, The Withered Root (1927), appeared in the same year as Rhapsody. But, as Tony Brown has pointed out, Davies was a full-time writer living in London by the time he began publishing his work, and wrote about Wales from the point of view of an exile. Furthermore, Davies's living arrangements left him free to pursue his writing in a manner that Edwards could not. Although he often found himself living in near poverty while in London, Davies experienced a degree of freedom and independence that, as a writer, Edwards was never able to enjoy. By and large, Edwards was writing and publishing her work in an atmosphere in which Welsh writing was still mostly required to be romantic, or at best parochial, in order to be considered commercially viable. The success of Welsh writer Allen Raine proves a case in point: while Raine was highly aware of the social and economic factors affecting her Welsh communities, and portrays these with accuracy and skill, her novels are at times melodramatic, involving several central characters intertwined in intricate and often unrealistic plots. Raine published her first novel, A Welsh Singer, in 1897; by 1911, her novels, two of which were made into silent films, had sold over two million copies. Her books were read in America, the British colonies and Australia (the above sales figures exclude the American market); at various times during the eighty years following her death they were translated into Irish, French and Welsh. This led John Harris, in his 1993 article on Raine, to claim that '[w]hatever the judgement of literary historians, for the book trade Anglo-Welsh literature unquestionably began in 1897 with the publication of A Welsh Singer'. Edwards's work, stripped of any explicit reference to Wales and devoid even of a Welsh setting, came to be read for all intents and purposes as 'English'. A close study of Edwards's fiction, however, reveals that she in fact developed a mode of writing that explored in a very specific way the power dynamics of her society as she saw it.
Dorothy Edwards was born on 18 August 1903 to Edward and Vida Edwards, of Brynteg, Glyn Street, in the small mining community of Ogmore Vale, south Wales. The family lived in a large, semidetached, white-painted house, on which 'the coal dust from the colliery near[by] descended without cease'. Both Vida and Edward had come to the Ogmore valley, separately, to teach. They met in 1896 when Vida was appointed to the position of headmistress of the infants' section of the English-medium Tynewydd Infants and Juniors Mixed School in Ogmore Vale, where Edward Edwards had acted as headmaster since 1894. They married in 1899, when both were in their late thirties, and Dorothy was their first and only child. In her 1933 diary, now held in the Dorothy Edwards Archives at the University of Reading, Edwards describes a photograph of her parents taken around the time of her birth:
They are seated in a garden with an old oak tree as a background. My mother is doing a piece of embroidery and has on a blouse with a paisley pattern, of which long afterwards I made dresses for my dolls. My father has his legs crossed and a pair of resplendent golf stockings with ornament tops adorn them [sic]. He has his head a little to one side as he looks straight at the camera with a contented and profoundly happy smile. My mother's head with its dark curly hair is bent over a piece of embroidery as though she does not really know that she is being taken. They are both so good looking, and so much in love, and the scene with its old tree and the garden benches & the wall behind is so charming that I am distressed to find at the side of the picture spoiling its symmetry and grace a baby in a silk dress and a little bonnet with a most discontented & perplexed expression on its face, who must be myself.
Edwards paints an attractive picture of her parents: they are confident, happy, relaxed. But she sees herself as a blot on the scene, at once a part of her parents and cut off from them. Rather than being an indication of her parents' feelings towards her, this passage reflects the personal sense of separation and isolation that is embodied in her writing.
By the time of Dorothy's birth in 1903, Edward Edwards had been a headmaster in the valley for thirteen years. He is remembered as an eccentric figure in the community: a vegetarian, a Sunday golfer, an ardent socialist and Independent Labour Party leader, his political views influenced his actions both personally and professionally. In all likelihood it was his influence with the highly successful Co-operative movement of the valley (he kept the books) that inspired the local branch in January 1904 to send 320 oranges to the school for distribution among the pupils. At the height of the 1911 miners' strike, a canteen committee was formed in the school to feed 'the children of strikers and other children in need'; superintended by Edward Edwards, the scheme provided meals for 130 children a day, and was continued in the Easter holiday when the meals were paid for by voluntary funds. In 1975, a former secretary of Tynewydd School recalled: 'Mr Edwards is remembered even today as being quite a character. He was reputed to be a nudist and he used to camp out on the mountainside near an old well.'
In her 1933 diary, Edwards later recorded that a free communion with nature was not her father's aim here; his 'nudism' was merely a part of his method of testing his socialist beliefs. She wrote:
Now since the socialist text books of those days were much given to describing utopias, & my father had a practical mind he decided to test in his own life what minimum of luxury and sophistication was necessary to a man of the industrial age, one summer he divested himself of everything but his clothes and went to live in a cave on the mountain top in a beautiful little ravine. And when he got there, he took off his clothes too, so that my mother taking her friends on occasion to picnic in his company [deleted – would as she approached have to call loudly and urgently to announce their arrival, so] would have to announce their approach by calling loudly and urgently to him [deleted – in a voice] to indicate that he must put on at least a towel to receive them. Very soon he discovered that he needed a hatchet and a frying pan and as Autumn approached he built a fine fire place & acquired a tent, so that the Socialist street corner orators who stayed so often in our house were able to observe primitive man to whom they loved to refer in their speeches, in the various stages of his evolution.
In his mountain-top camp Edward Edwards proceeded to hold meetings with his socialist friends, many of whom were major political figures in the area at the time, to which young Dorothy was privy. '[B]eside our camp fire we proudly entertained Keir Hardie, Bruce Glasier, Stitt Wilson, [Robert] Smillie & [George] Lansbury,' she later recalled. Greatly influenced by her father's progressive and unconventional practices and beliefs, Dorothy too proclaimed herself to be a socialist and became a lifelong member of the Independent Labour Party at a very young age. According to David Garnett, in later life one of Edwards's fondest childhood recollections was that of welcoming Hardie on to the stage in Tonypandy during the 1912 miners' strike when she was nine years old, dressed from head to toe in red. Despite Edward Edwards's position as a white-collar worker, he was evidently concerned with the well-being of his mining neighbours. Edwards recalls one occasion when his concerns caused her mother some public embarrassment:
[O]nce when, having been long disturbed by the thought of the number of his miner friends who worked with their feet in water, he saw advertised a pair of steel-soled boots of no very elegant cut, and they arrived just as he was taking her to the cinema, she had to support the embarrassment of emerging from the front door and walking along the crowded street with him plodding delightedly behind her and of hearing him thunder upon the iron edged steps of the Workmen's hall as he followed her up the stairs to the best seats. And he wore these terrible boots every day to school until they were thoroughly advertised & the address of the maker passed round.
The beliefs held by her father had a huge impact on Edwards's life and her perception of society. In one of the most self-reflective passages of her 1933 diary, which is dedicated to the Canadian socialist and contemporary of Edward Edwards, J. Stitt Wilson, she wrote:
I have been much luckier than most people ... I benefited by my father's progressive ideas on education. Over and above this I learnt to ask for what I had a right to; from the great Socialists whom I knew when I was little, you among them. All this was a sheer gift that life made to me and to how few others! ... How about the young artists, thinkers, great souls, who are not armed against the world beforehand by knowing Keir Hardie or you?
Dorothy Edwards's mother, Vida, has previously had little or no mention in the few biographical accounts of Edwards, obscured as she was by her husband's eccentricities as much as the social conventions of her time. Until her marriage in 1899, Vida had a successful career as headteacher of the infants' section of Tynewydd School. Despite resigning from her post on her marriage (her career, like that of so many women, was a victim of the legislation barring married women from working as teachers), she often took charge of the school in her husband's absence long after she had resigned from any official capacity, and there is no suggestion that any of the other teachers, or indeed parents, felt that this was inappropriate. Vida was also apparently active in the socialist community: records of the Women's Labour League suggest that she was involved in the pithead baths campaign, of which Edward Edwards certainly would have approved.
Excerpted from Dorothy Edwards by Claire Flay, Meic Stephens, Jane Aaron, M. Wynn Thomas. Copyright © 2011 Claire Flay. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents
List of illustrations xi
1 From Brynteg to Pen-y-dre: Dorothy Edwards in Ogmore Vale and Rhiwbina 1
2 Narrating males/muted females: silence and song in Rhapsody 22
3 Season of discontent: class barriers and their consequences in Winter Sonata 47
4 A Welsh Cinderella in Bloomsbury: power dynamics and cultural colonialism 74