Thursday 23 January 2020

History Through Fiction

How Useful are the Realist Novels of T. Rowland Hughes as a historical Source?
James Churchill
PhD History
Little known of today outside Welsh language literary circles, Thomas Rowland Hughes was one of the shortest lived but most fascinating British writers of the 1940s. Writing in Welsh, his works were translated into English by Colonel Richard Ruck in the years following his death, however, in both languages his works are now difficult to trace except in certain specialist libraries. Rowland Hughes was far from prolific, producing a limited amount of poetry and only five novels before his death from Multiple Sclerosis at the age of forty six.[1] Although, it should be noted his present obscurity cannot merely be pinned down to a limited output, as this has not been a problem for other un-prolific writers, for example Jane Austen.

Even academically, Rowland Hughes is little spoken of. As John Rowlands points out, “we have an excellent biography of T. Rowland Hughes, but no full length study of his novels.”[2] Though Rowlands was writing in 1975, little has changed in the intervening period, with Edward Rees’s 1968 T. Rowland Hughes: Cofiant,[3] still being the most comprehensive study of the writer’s life. For many scholars, however, this study is of limited value due to it only being available through the medium of Welsh.
Another study, by W. Gwyn Lewis, is similarly limited and considerably less comprehensive, and likewise untranslated from the Welsh, though it does contain some useful primary source material.[4] Given a lack of scholarship and scarcity of print, therefore, it should come as no surprise that the name of Rowland Hughes barely appears as a footnote in Welsh, let alone British literature.
In his critique of Rowland Hughes’ work, Rowlands points towards the novelist’s tendency towards realism and observation, remarking that “Rowland Hughes will have no truck with any Freudian nonsense. The novel, for him, should never be contrived. Life is simply there to be observed and described, not delved into with rough excavators.”[5] We can see this by examining the overarching themes of Rowland Hughes’s novels, which almost always centre around the struggles of working-class communities, working-class individuals, and then recent Welsh historical events such as The Penrhyn Quarry Strike of 1903.[6] With the exception of Yr Ogof, a biblical tale focusing on Joseph of Arimathea, all of Rowland Hughes’s novels present a documentarian portrayal of Wales and Welsh life in the early years of the twentieth century. As Rees opined, Rowland Hughes “described life as he saw it, the life of ordinary people at their work and in their homes.”[7] These novels have the ability to act, therefore, as an important staging post for demonstrating the way in which the Welsh saw themselves, and the way in which they wanted to be seen, during this period. Their documentary nature, to a certain extent, makes them an important resource for helping us to understand working class Welsh communities in the twentieth century.
It should not be considered strange that Rowland Hughes adopted the realist, documentarian approach, considering that this was one of the overarching literary trends of the times. We see the same approach in the much more studied English writers such as George Orwell, as well as others like Christopher Isherwood, whose line of “I am a camera with its shutter open,”[8] at the opening of Goodbye To Berlin perfectly capturing the periodical idea of the novel as documentary. In this period, writers were using observations of the real world in their fictional works, reflecting reality through a fictional lens. It may be, in terms of historical study, a distorted lens, but it is a lens nonetheless. In using the documentarian style, Rowland Hughes was moving with the same tide as his contemporaries. That he was one of the few writers who was doing so for Wales and in Welsh makes him doubly important.
Whilst there were numerous writers documenting England during of the period, it is much less the same for Wales and so, if we are to use the documentary, realist novel as a historical resource, and this in itself does not come without significant issues, we must make use of what little we have available. It barely matters that, as Rowlands puts it, “English versions of Rowland Hughes’s novels diminish their stature.” The same could be said of any translated literature. In terms of a historical resource, it is the realism that matters, and Rowland Hughes, diminished or no, provides a pre-eminent example of the style for Welsh literature.[9]
Taking a single example of Rowland Hughes’s work, William Jones (1944), we can see this realism in action. As one of its major themes, the novel tackles the socio-cultural differences between North and South Wales, with the titular William Jones fleeing to the south after a disagreement with his wife.[10] In the novel, Rowland Hughes demonstrates differences in opinion concerning the two regions, with the character of Tom Evans, in the north, saying that “a very strange place it is down South, a wild place, awful rough they tell me. There are thousands out of work there.”[11] Whilst the former statement, that south Wales is a wild place. is a fanciful opinion on the part of Evans, even going so far as to have Jones point out that it is “stupid nonsense,” Rowland Hughes later provides a reflection of this when Jones reaches the south. At first, Jones does indeed find it strange due to the socio-cultural differences. As Jones’s brother-in-law, Crad, remarks to him, “very different place from Llan-y-graig, William.”[12] There is less antipathy to the north on the part of the southerners whom we meet in the course of the novel, but there is bafflement over certain things, such as Jones’s lack of knowledge concerning pit closures: “Had the man been living under a tub? If he had come from Africa or America one could have understood the thing, but this man hailed from Caernarvonshire and yet didn’t know that Small Pit was shut down!”[13]
With the latter part of Tom Evans above statement, Rowland Hughes refers to how the economic depression of the interwar years had a greater effect on southern Wales than it did in the north and he takes pains to show it almost immediately the moment William Jones enters the south, with a collier exclaiming “Ellfire!” when Jones announces he plans to work in the pits. It is further reinforced by that which is shown above, concerning Jones’s lack of knowledge about pit closures.
The feeling of the miners regarding these closures is brought home to us when the collier, Jenk, points to the closed Aber Pit from a train window. “There were five ‘undred workin’ in the Aber. But now…’ Jenk spat again… ‘What right as ‘e got to close the pit and go off to the Riviera? And ‘undreds of ‘is workmen on the dole. Uh?”[14] These feelings, depicted by Rowland Hughes, are supported by oral testimonies and histories, such as by B.L Coombes, who detailed his own experiences as a miner in the South Wales valleys during the period which Rowland Hughes was writing about.[15] Combined, these sources provide us with evidence of how the Welsh thought and felt regarding the depression.
Wider Welsh culture is reflected in the relations and activities of the characters in the book. William Jones’ disgust at his wife regularly spending evenings at the cinema, for example, is an arguably gendered and class-based reflection of how things were on the domestic front at the time, with the working classes divided between those who enjoyed cinema-going and those who did not. Peter Miskell says that “according to the Wartime Social Survey it was the lower social groups, whether identified by income or education, that contained the highest proportion of both regular cinema-goers and of those who never went.”[16]
The wider divide is crystallised in the differences between Jones and his wife Liza, with Jones being visibly disgusted by his wife’s frequent cinema visits. That it is Jones who is opposed to the cinema is again reflective of the period, with the Wartime Social Survey revealing that “more women than men went to the cinema once or twice a week.”[17] In the novel, the differences in opinion are shown through Liza’s regular cinema visits and Jones’s opposition to the idea, with her regular cinema going – along with an earlier report of another local going to the south[18] - being one of the main instigators for Jones departure from Llan-Y-Graig.
Across the whole of the novel, therefore, we are presented a view of Wales, both North and South, as Rowland Hughes saw it, in the mid 1930s. We must be careful, however, not to ascribe these views as historical fact. Though documentarian in style, Rowland Hughes’ novels are still predominantly fiction. They cannot be presented as historical fact. Yet, when combined within a wider historical context, such as amongst studies of depression-era Wales, as from historians such Stephanie Ward,[19] and with the above mentioned primary sources, the events of William Jones begin to act as a mirror to the historical reality. Through these events, and using the historical context as a guide we can begin to see how the Welsh of the nineteen thirties thought, felt, and acted. We are provided with an important, albeit almost certainly skewed, perspective on Wales in this period.
It is not only with the wider historical context that we can learn from the novels of Rowland Hughes. With knowledge of Rowland Hughes’s life, we begin see a strong autobiographical thread running through the narratives of his work. Though older than Rowland Hughes, like the author, William Jones leaves a quarry town in the north and goes to reside in the south, eventually becoming involved with the BBC Welsh Drama department, in the same manner as Rowland Hughes had done.[20] Later on, in a reflection of Rowland Hughes’ own situation with MS, the character of Crad develops scoliosis and becomes bedridden.
It is not difficult to imagine, from the description Rowland Hughes gives of Crad’s scoliosis, how he might have been considering his own situation whilst writing this portion of the novel, talking of how the mind of an invalid favourably compares to that of an elderly person- “A greybeard will be all at sea when he tries to recall whether the doctor prescribed a teaspoonful or a tablespoonful yesterday, but let him tell you about his first morning in the quarry and you will be given a graphic account that will include even the contents of every man’s food-tin in the mess hut.”[21] Rowland Hughes goes on to talk about how Crad’s illness changes the family dynamic, saying that “family life was now centred on the bedroom and not, as before, on the kitchen; and it was here, in the company of Crad and his visitors, that William Jones spent almost all of his evenings.”[22] In both these cases, Rowland Hughes’s personal experiences come through in the text. In them we can see, though what is written may be fictional, a strong element of reality. Due to the autobiographical nature of the novel, the work demonstrates how everyday people in Wales, going through similar situations, such as Rowland Hughes himself, felt and thought. It is by no means a reliable historical testimony, but it remains a crucial source for helping to understand aspects of Welsh society at the time in which the book was written.
Yet, with Rowland Hughes we can ascertain that his reflection is an accurate depiction of the thoughts and feelings of the time. The autobiographical nature of his work is something which is pointed out by Rowlands, who looked at how the novel From Hand To Hand (O Law, I Law) contained elements of Rowland Hughes’ childhood. Rowlands remarks that “the circumstances in which he wrote meant that he was drawn back to his childhood days and it is not surprising to find that much of his material for his first novel was autobiographical.”[23] The autobiographical nature of the work was not merely confined to Rowland Hughes himself, however. In the original foreword to Ruck’s translation Emlyn Williams stated that “when I read the Welsh original, the people and their surroundings brought back my own childhood so vividly that several times I had to put down the book to watch my own awakened memories crowd up before my eyes.”[24] That Rowland Hughes’s realist approach brought back childhood memories for Williams demonstrates that, whilst fiction, there must still be at least some historical value within the novel. Overall, what both Williams and Rowlands suggest, is that it is not only a single novel which can teach us about the life of Rowland Hughes, as well as the wider historical context, but a majority of his canon. With the novels of Rowland Hughes, therefore, we are given a fictionalised perspective of Wales and its people in the twentieth century.
How useful are these novels as a historical resource, therefore? Certainly, we cannot use them to present historical fact: it is only when placed within the wider historical context and with other evidence, such as the Wartime Social Survey and Coombes’ memoir, that they can begin to teach us anything at all. However, thanks to the realist approach of their author they can, when placed in this historical context, become a valuable research tool for understanding a number of aspects surrounding Wales and Welsh life in the twentieth century. We have seen, for example, how William Jones can show us the differing impacts of the depression between the North and South, and how the Welsh people perceived issues surrounding depression, illness and the cinema. Rowland Hughes was not a writer in the same class as Orwell or Isherwood, that much is fair to say, though as far as the realist novel and Wales is concerned, we have few better sources for understanding the way in which the country was perceived and viewed during the early to mid- twentieth century.


Coombes, Bert Lewis, These Poor Hands: The Autobiography Of A Miner Working In South Wales (Cardiff, 2002)
Gwyn Lewis, William, Bro A Bywyd: T. Rowland Hughes (Aberystwyth, 1990)
Isherwood, Christopher, Goodbye To Berlin (London, 1969)
Miskell, Peter, A Social History Of The Cinema In Wales 1918-1951: Pulpits, Coal Pits And Fleapits, (Cardiff, 2006)
Rees, Edward, T. Rowland Hughes: Cofiant (Llandysul, 1968)
Rowland Hughes, Thomas, Chwalfa (Aberystwyth, 1946)
Rowland Hughes, Thomas. Ruck, Richard (translator), William Jones (Aberystwyth, 1953)
Rowlands, John, ‘Hughes, Thomas Rowland, 1903-1949’, Oxford Dictionary Of National Biography, online edn. 001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-61276?rskey=3uM3HX&result=1.
Rowlands, John, T. Rowland Hughes (Aberystwyth, 1975)
Ward, Stepanie, Unemployment And The State In Britain: The Means Test And Protest in 1930s South Wales And North- East England (Manchester, 2013)
Williams, Emlyn ‘Foreword To From Hand To Hand’, reprinted in Gwyn Lewis, William, Bro A Bywyd: T. Rowland Hughes (Aberystwyth, 1990)

[1] J. Rowlands, ‘Hughes, Thomas Rowland, 1903-1949’, Oxford Dictionary Of National Biography, online edn. 0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-61276?rskey=3uM3HX&result=1 (Accessed: 26/11/2019)
[2] J. Rowlands, T. Rowland Hughes (Aberystwyth, 1975), p.4.
[3] E. Rees, T. Rowland Hughes: Cofiant (Llandysul, 1968).
[4] W. Gwyn Lewis, Bro A Bywyd: T. Rowland Hughes (Aberystwyth, 1990).
[5] Rowlands, T. Rowland Hughes (1975), p.17.
[6] T. Rowland Hughes, Chwalfa (Aberystwyth, 1946).
[7] E. Rees, quoted in J. Rowlands T. Rowland Hughes (1975), p.22.
[8] C. Isherwood, Goodbye To Berlin (London, 1969), p.13.
[9] Rowlands, T. Rowland Hughes (1975), p.19..
[10] T. Rowland Hughes, R. Ruck (trans), William Jones (Aberystwyth, 1953), p.62.
[11] Rowland Hughes, ibid, p.62.
[12] Rowland Hughes, ibid, p.86.
[13] Rowland Hughes, ibid, p. 81.
[14] Rowland Hughes, ibid, p.82.
[15] B.L Coombes, These Poor Hands: The Autobiography Of A Miner Working In South Wales (Cardiff, 2002).
[16] P. Miskell, A Social History Of The Cinema In Wales 1918-1951: Pulpits, Coal Pits And Fleapits, (Cardiff, 2006), p.85.
[17] P. Miskell, ibid, p.87.
[18] Rowland Hughes, William Jones (1953), p.17.
[19] S. Ward, Unemployment And The State In Britain: The Means Test And Protest in 1930s South Wales And North-East England (Manchester, 2013).
[20] Rowland Hughes, William Jones (1953), p.183.
[21] Rowland Hughes, William Jones (1953), p. 256.
[22] Rowland Hughes, ibid, p. 283.
[23] Rowlands, T. Rowland Hughes (1975), pp.18-19
[24] E. Williams, ‘Foreword To From Hand To Hand’ reprinted in W. Gwyn Lewis, Bro A Bywyd: T. Rowland Hughes (Aberystwyth, 1990), p.83.

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