Emyr Humphreys

Emyr Humphreys

by M. Wynn Thomas


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Published to mark the centennial of his birth, this is the first comprehensive and authoritative study of the life and work of Welsh writer Emyr Humphreys. With a remarkable career spanning over seventy years as a writer, Humphreys has published more than two dozen novels, as well as several collections of short stories. In addition to offering a critical and interpretative survey of his remarkable body of work, this book also sets Humphreys’s output in the context of the dramatic and transformative decades in recent Welsh history during which it was produced. The essays are supplemented by informative interviews between Humphreys and M. Wynn Thomas.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786832962
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 11/15/2018
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

M. Wynn Thomas is professor of English and Emyr Humphreys Professor of English at Swansea University. He is a fellow of the British Academy and the author of twenty books on the two literatures of Wales and on American poetry.

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Born in 1919, Emyr Humphreys may be usefully regarded as the last great survivor of the heroic age of twentieth-century Welsh culture. Extending roughly from the First World War to the 1970s, the period was heroic in the sense that it could boast a cohort of writers who dedicated their conspicuous talents to infusing political, as well as cultural, energy into Welsh life sufficient to arouse their country out of the long torpor of its meekly subservient position within a profoundly anglocentric 'British' polity. Humphreys shared with those earlier writers – several of whom he came to know – the view that the Welsh were as a people 'lacking that inner conviction that a free nation has of existing for its own sake'. (CR, 147) Exploring this psycho-cultural condition became his great undertaking as a creative writer. And his fiction may be also regarded as an attempt to ensure the self-perpetuation of a nation whose future has, virtually since its beginnings in the early post-Roman period, been continuously uncertain. But then, 'all art,' in Humphreys's view, 'is about survival.' (CR, 119) The heroic age could further be broadly subdivided into two.

The heroic aspects of the interwar period were largely confined to the transformative achievements of a generation of Welsh-language writer-activists of a quality unparalleled since the golden age of late medieval times. And among the culturally 'committed' of this remarkable constellation of talents one could number T. Gwynn Jones, Saunders Lewis, Kate Roberts, Ambrose Bebb, E. Tegla Davies, R. Williams Parry, W. J. Gruffydd, Gwenallt and others. While there were, by the late 1930s, some stirrings of like political energy among some of the young anglophone writers of the Dylan Thomas generation centred on the maverick periodical Wales and its editor, the wayward and wilful ringmaster of talent, Keidrych Rhys, it was not until the 1960s that a grouping of English-language writers emerged steadily animated by a liberationist political passion.

As for the heroic politico-cultural commitments of the transitional period between the Second World War and the 1960s, they were almost exclusively the preserve of two giant talents: R. S. Thomas and his friend and companion-in-arms Emyr Humphreys. Anglophone writers both, they nevertheless deliberately identified themselves with the important Welsh-language figures of the previous generation, and took as mentor and guru the greatest of these, Saunders Lewis, remarkable for his creative talents, his controversial ideological genius, his charismatic personality and his fearless political activism. Of all the 'heroic' writers considered above it could be said, in Lewis's words, that

What these writers and poets have in common is an awareness that the Welsh nation may be dying of indifference and sloth and that a literature of a thousand years may end with a whimper. In that they have, as it were, an epitome of what now overhangs all Europe, of what threatens humanity, a destruction of civilization through apathy.

Thomas and Humphreys alike could be not inappropriately styled 'the sons of Saunders'. Not that Humphreys's views could be comfortably conflated with those of Lewis. He has always been a much more staunch and ardent advocate of Wales's Nonconformist heritage than Lewis, the Catholic convert who (despite, or because of, being the son of a prominent Welsh Calvinistic minister) was ever tart of tongue on the subject. And while both were ardent Europhiles, it is to Germany and Italy that Humphreys looks for examples of European culture at its richest, while Lewis was besotted with the imperious culture of France, like his own hero, the nineteenth-century controversialist and visionary cultural nationalist Emrys ap Iwan.

But while Humphreys has always emphasised the social role of the Welsh writer, he has not been unaware of the perils and tensions associated with a writer's attempt to serve her or his community by active and practical cultural interventions. It was Saunders Lewis, after all, who – with more than half an eye to his own case – warned the young R. S. Thomas to take seriously Yeats's admonition to young writers to aim either at 'perfection of the life', or at 'perfection of the art': to attempt both was likely to lead only to creative suicide. And Humphreys himself is on record as stating that so many of the great figures of the remarkable generation of talent that inexplicably appeared in Wales during the first half of the twentieth century had, in the end, for all their brilliance, somewhat underachieved as writers because too much of their creative energies had been self-sacrificingly deflected into cultural and political activities of vital importance to the survival of their people. 'How was poor old Kate Roberts going to find time to write lengthy novels,' he poignantly enquires, naming one of the most distinguished short story writers not only of Wales but of Europe, 'while she was killing herself keeping Y Faner [Wales's leading Welsh-language weekly] going?' (DPR, 120)

He has continued to believe that twentieth-century Welsh-language writing, at its best, can provide anglophone writers of Wales, such as himself, with both inspiration and resource, and 'protect them from the dangers of self-conscious provincialism'. Accordingly, he has urged any English-language author to

immerse him- or herself in the intellectual vision of Saunders Lewis, the zeal and eloquence of Ambrose Bebb, the analytical honesty of Kate Roberts, the idiomatic strength of W. J. Gruffydd, the urbane sophisticated narrative of R. T. Jenkins, the moral integrity of Lewis Valentine. (CR, 222)

Like that of such writers as these, most of Emyr Humphreys's own work is intensely concerned to address the 'condition of Wales', although always within a pan-European perspective: but 'to be more European', he has prophetically observed, 'we need first to be more Welsh.' (CR, 149) The discussion that follows will therefore necessarily concentrate on those aspects of his writing that relate to this central preoccupation, and will primarily confine itself to the fiction. There will be no discussion of his work for television, both in Welsh and English. And the text will begin with a preliminary mapping of the mental world of an author who has, in some respects, accomplished for twentieth-century Wales what William Faulkner accomplished for his South by devising Yoknapatawpha County: created a whole, compelling 'parallel reality', an imaginary country, abiding reference to which as a kind of 'control', I would venture to suggest, is likely to prove of substantial benefit both to Welsh readers and to others interested in Wales even today. It makes him a 'necessary figure', to employ the phrase he himself used to describe Saunders Lewis.

* * * 'Where were you when you were fifteen?'

The question puzzled me. Why should he ask and damn it why should he ask ...

'In a school', I said, 'In North-East Wales.'

Lars laughed, but I didn't mean it as a joke.

'That's funny the way you divide up Wales. Does anybody else do it but you?' (G, 19)

Wales is such a tiny country, to outsiders it often seems a single, monocellular entity. But Emyr Humphreys has always known otherwise. He has accordingly devoted much of his fiction to mapping the inner cultural and historical complexity of this small peninsula to the far west of England whose people have so stubbornly persisted, against considerable odds, in accounting themselves a nation. And in the process he has repeatedly drawn attention to the frequently neglected border region where he was himself born and raised.

'I was brought up', says Michael in the opening sentence of A Toy Epic (1958), 'in a broad valley in one of the four corners of Wales.' (TE, 17) And so was Humphreys. His father was headmaster of the Church School in Trelawnyd (then Newmarket), Flintshire, a stone's throw from the English border and inland from the popular, populous, increasingly anglicised coastal resort of Rhyl. Indeed, the 'peculiar' circumstances of his early environment were to strike Humphreys in later life as invaluable from the perspective of a creative writer. It was more socially diverse than might be supposed, with the miners from the 'Parlwr Du' ('Point of Ayr') colliery rubbing shoulders with the farming community to which his mother's extensive family belonged – Humphreys has accordingly taken an interest in farming life throughout his life. And the coastal settlements of Rhyl and Prestatyn were already burgeoning into the anglicised fairgrounds and pleasure gardens of the Lancashire working class.

As for his immediate family, before training to be a teacher his father had grown up in Ffestiniog, son of a worker in the great slate quarries of that district. Yet although his had been a thoroughly Welsh-speaking background he had opted to anglicise himself pretty thoroughly, his conversion from Nonconformity to Anglicanism being part of his preparation to become a devoted servant of the British Empire in the alien distant outpost of Trelawnyd. The proud possessor during the 1930s of the only wireless in the village, he was wont to post BBC news bulletins on a noticeboard for the edification of the natives. By nature quiet and mild, he had been rendered permanently irritable by the chronic after-effects of gassing during the First World War, in which he had volunteered for service despite being otherwise exempt as a schoolmaster. Humphreys's mother was of a contrary nature, mercurial and rebellious whereas her husband was cautiously conformist and conservative. She would sneak out, without her husband's knowledge, for a quiet smoke and would take off periodically on jaunts to enjoy the exciting jollities of the seaside towns. Humphreys has repeatedly modelled his spirited and independent-minded female characters on that of his mother, most notably perhaps that of Lydia in Outside the House of Baal (1965).

While Emyr was their only son, he was not the first child to share their hearth. When Mrs Humphreys's twin sister died in childbirth the pair adopted the tiny baby, several years before Emyr's arrival. And John Elwyn grew up to become every bit as stoutly Tory and piously Anglican as his adoptive father had been. Ordained as priest in the Church in Wales following training at Llandaff, he ended his days as an Anglican canon ministering to the spiritual needs of ex-pat Brits sunning themselves in the Algarve and nearby Escoril. Despite the radical difference in their careers, Emyr Humphreys and his brother remained close friends right up to the latter's death. And of course, while John Elwyn faithfully emulated his father, Emyr could be said to have rebelled against him in every important particular. Although passingly attracted to High Anglicanism in his youth, and even briefly contemplating taking holy orders in the Church in Wales, he eventually chose to throw in his spiritual lot with the Annibynwyr (roughly the 'Welsh Independents', or 'Congregationalists'), the denomination to which his wife belonged, and from which his father had converted to Anglicanism, having been disillusioned with Nonconformist chaplains in the Army during the Great War. It was also the denomination in which his gentle and godly father-in-law (who lived with them for sixteen years after their marriage) had served as minister throughout his life. The Annibynwyr were a denomination peculiarly suited to Humphreys's principled and highly individualistic nature since they placed such a high premium on individual conscience and personal liberty.

His attachment to the Annibynwyr was undoubtedly reinforced by his important friendship with R. Tudur Jones. They had been contemporaries at Rhyl County School, but became close friends only years later, by which time Jones was not only a highly respected minister with the Annibynwyr but a distinguished Professor of Church History, a combative conservative (Calvinist) theologian, the definitive historian of Wales's Nonconformist culture, and a trenchant advocate, through his newspaper columns, of Welsh nationhood and of the importance of the Welsh language. Already a towering figure on the Welsh Nonconformist stage, he went on to enjoy a global reputation as worldwide President of the Confederation of Congregational Churches – a denomination particularly strong in the US ever since the time of the founding fathers. Jones's influence on Humphreys's thinking remains to be carefully considered by future scholars.

There were also unusual features to Humphreys's natal landscape. He and his brother, for example, spent considerable time in the company of the local Rector, a native of Cardiganshire turned 'Oxford' man, his pride in such being both ridiculous and endearing. His unmarried sister likewise had acquired considerable social pretensions. As for Humphreys's playground as a child, it was Clip y Gop, the prehistoric man-made hill that rose behind Trelawnyd. From the top of Y Gop, the great city of Liverpool beckoned invitingly to the east, while Snowdonia loomed in majestic profile to the west: Dixie Dean (his parents were passionate Everton supporters) or Llywelyn Fawr, which was it to be? As a borderer, the young Humphreys soon became aware of a choice between orientating himself in the one direction or the other.

For him, the decisive turn came when attending the sixth form at Rhyl County School. From one of his teachers, Moses Jones, he learned of the recent protest-burning by a small group of Welsh Nationalists led by Saunders Lewis of the training school for bombers the Westminster government had insisted, in the teeth of Wales-wide protests, on building at what had been the site of Penyberth, a historic old farmhouse on the Llyn peninsula. The fire lit there in 1936, and the imprisonments that followed, kindled his imagination. Its light showed him Wales to be a colonised nation and the whole of his long writing career has primarily involved a creative exploration of the implications of that subordinated and subservient condition. Likewise, his principled attempts to instigate a process of decolonisation began when in his youth he became involved in a campaign to have the name of his natal village changed back from Newmarket to Trelawnyd. And since the most damaged victim of colonisation had, he discovered, been the Welsh language and its culture, he began to learn Welsh as a late teenager, eventually adopting it as his first language. Penyberth was his first introduction to the thinking of Saunders Lewis – also a borderer, born in Wallasey on the Wirral – on whose view of Wales and its place in the wider world Humphreys was to model his own throughout his career. While he had been introduced to Lewis's work by Moses Jones, he was not to meet Saunders Lewis until 1938, when their paths crossed at a Plaid Cymru meeting.

Despite his deep commitment to the Welsh language and its culture – which he regards as the irreplaceable core of a continuing Welsh identity – Humphreys has (like his close friend R. S. Thomas) never felt sufficiently inward with it to feel comfortable producing creative work in Welsh. And, again like Thomas, he has written feelingfully about his dilemma:

If you object to globalisation you must flourish in the local root; and the local root is the language that belongs to the landscape; and the language that belongs to the landscape here in Wales is Welsh. That is the theorem on which I base my work, and it enables me to understand the agony of a Jewish poet like Paul Celan, who was writing in German. It is, for the artist, a suicidal situation, a situation which in Celan's case resulted in actual physical suicide. One of the escape routes is fiction, because story is a language of its own, a music of its own, a supranational language which is detached from the cultural problem. And that may be one reason why, culturally situated as I am, I find fiction such a very attractive form. (CR, 131)

Elsewhere, he has further noted 'that the ace that the bilingual novelist has in hand is his ancestral language ... Two languages should make a writer more aware of the complexities of a multilingual world.' (CR, 221)

Even though he has long been completely and impressively fluent in Welsh and has chosen to live most of his life entirely through that second language, English has always been Emyr Humphreys's preferred medium for writing poems and novels. Plays, however, have been a different matter, as many of them were commissioned for televising by S4C, following its establishment on 1 November 1982 as a separate, Welsh-only, channel. They were therefore inevitably written entirely in Welsh. Otherwise, his Welsh-language output has been confined to the early novella Y Tri Llais (1958) (the product of special circumstances during his time at the BBC, as we shall see, and enabled by the fact that at that time his father-in-law, a reliable Welsh scholar, was living in the Humphreys family home at Penarth) and some poems written in his old age.


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Table of Contents

Prefatory Note vii

Key to Abbreviations ix

1 The Life 1

2 Preoccupations 22

3 Protestant novelist 39

4 Fiction: first phase 63

5 Poems, essays, cultural history 103

6 Fiction: last phase 125

7 Conclusion 157

Notes 164

Select Bibliography 173

Index 177

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