A story of the valleys

Wales

The narrator Huw Morgan in the 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley (Penguin, 2001) by Richard Llewellyn gives a rather charming account of his idyllic childhood in a secluded valley in South Wales, full of genial country life perceptions – the homely smell of chickens in the coop, how to tickle fish to catch them, and so on – and appreciation for the simple things: food (his brandy broth description even features in some Welsh food guides), laughter, love, and music. The postmodern cynic in me was taken aback by the seemingly naïve descriptions of Welsh society, adoring recounts of family life and reverend depiction of village people, from preacher to tailor – “my little one“ being the amiable pet name for each and every relation, friend and acquaintance.

„Happy we were then, for we had a good house, and good food, and good work“. (145)

Llewellyn writes a story so full of goodness and love that I cannot imagine being told today without the least bit of irony and, perhaps sadly, the conclusion that happiness of this magnitude is downright illusory, fantastic fiction. Just look at Huw’s fascination with choir music:

From top of the Hill down to bottom men and women hummed softly to have the proper key […] and the sound they all made was a lifetime of loveliness, so solid, so warm, so deep, and yet so delicate. […] But even heaven could not be so beautiful, or we would all be drunk with beauty day and night, and no work done anywhere, and nobody to blame. (300)

Admittedly, the concept of a cross-valley choir with members so numerous that their song travels through the neighbouring villages had me quietly sighing with awe. But what works in one passage can easily pall throughout a whole novel, and indeed the recurrent praise for the values and resources of the valley saturated me quickly. The ingenuous mood of How Green Was My Valley seems vaguely reminiscent of the Little House (on the Prarie) books (the same village gossip and small social hick-ups, too).

Part of me found it enjoyable, the other grew suspicious of it – can there really be such glorious harmony? Yet Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly? asked Shakespeare in Sonnet VIII because unison, of tone and mankind alike, is after all a fundamental part of life. In Huw’s case, the love of collective singing is merely an expression of the importance of community in the valleys.

Notwithstanding my incredulity for this benevolence, this novel works exactly because the innocence of the main character Huw is real. Dostoevsky said that his principal idea in The Idiot was to create a „positively flawless person“ who is only truly flawless because he is ridiculous, like Cervantes did with Alonso Quijano; Huw’s idealistic and sometimes superficial notions about the simple life in the valleys (as a teenager, when asked what he knew about new babies, he says „we have had new babies at our house and Bron’s, but I thought Dr. Richards brought them in his bag“ (129)) are decent approximations to Don Quixote’s delusions about his knighthood and quest to save chivalry. Dostoevsky writes that there is „evocation of compassion in the reader for the mocked, and for self-less goodness. The mystery of humour lies in [this]“ (PSSP Pis’ma, Vol 2, 71).

We can indeed chuckle about Huw’s innocence (his remorseful escape from his upstairs bedroom to sneak off to a secret Union meeting had me bubbling with laughter) rather than sniff at his romantic narration; on the other hand every realistic notion he does generate signifies maturation and advances his character development in the style of the Bildungsroman.

Some of Huw’s thoughts become outright Waldenesque in their economic awareness, and Llewellyn’s writing makes clear that he is not oblivious to the dangers of the coal mining industry, either. Thus Huw speaks insightfully of the worsened living conditions of mine workers, the numerous famine deaths during the Welsh coal strikes of 1898 and the formation of the Miners’ Unions, as well as the devastating effects on the landscape. The river “was drying up, so sick it was of the struggle to keep clean“ (158), and the slag has been dropped onto the green pastures to bury the trees: „A big beech, that I had climbed not long before, now reached out of a smoking heap like the hand of a spirit entombed“ (377). The theme of responsible treatment of natural resources grows strong within the novel, reminiscent of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales and other frontier novels.

We have to read beyond the nostalgic images of How Green Was My Valley to understand the deep worry for the Welsh land and people portrayed in this book, but first one must accept the idyllic community not as hyperbole but as the emotional premise for a Welsh story of the valleys.

Photograph by Stuart, via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

Agatha Frischmuth

Agatha Frischmuth is Chief Editor of The Re|view.

You must be logged in to post a comment