The Life of Rebecca Jones

Angharad Price

 

Photo credit: Angharad Elen

Translated from the Welsh by Lloyd Jones

Published 26 April 2012 by Maclehose Press

176pp, hardback, 12.99 

Reviewed by Sian Miles

This generous, subtle and sophisticated work – Angharad Price’s second novel, winner of several prizes and now available in English – is a celebration of the author’s family’s thousand-year-old unbroken link to Maesglasau, a small sheep-farming valley in the Dyfi hills. Not often is such durée experienced, nor the concomitantly deep sense of place, referred to as ‘continuance’, described in this fictionalized autobiography of Price’s great-aunt. The opening chapter, a reflection on the meaning and source of tranquillity, sets the valley in epic context by introducing the contradictions between the peaceful landscape and its geological birth: ‘Who could imagine that this place was formed by volcanic fire? And that the bare slopes, the sheer cliffs and uneven pasturelands were worn to the bone by the gouging and scraping of ice?’

The eponymous narrator’s story follows in the tradition of Kate Roberts, R.S. Thomas, Caradog Prichard, Clare and Wordsworth, all celebrants of the universal local.  Born in 1905, Rebecca Jones was one of seven children, two of whom are recorded as dying young and three afflicted with blindness.  The cost of schooling two such disabled sons precluded secular education beyond primary school for their sighted brother and the family’s only girl, who became a seamstress. Her tone is nevertheless remarkably erudite as well as lyrical since, to her lasting delight and comfort, her forbears had collected and passed on an astonishingly rich and rare library.

A voracious yet discriminating reader with an unusually wide working vocabulary, Rebecca describes as ‘macaronic’ her grandfather’s command: ‘Go ffordd acw! Away!’when chasing off hapless visiting English children.  Like Virginia Woolf, at Oxford, herself visiting one of her brothers, she is disappointed and frustrated by her exclusion from his college and a fortiori its all-male dinner. No admiration or ‘amazement’ is present in the original Welsh as she refers to a black swarm (pla du) of students; similarly, the English translation omits her term brygawthan for the jabbering gibberish of the lecturers.

These tiny but telling alterations detract little from the overall effect of a brilliant translation by Lloyd Jones in which striking felicities abound:  the narrator’s newly-wed parents, riding homeward in a cart from their wedding, enter a ‘crimson tunnel of foxgloves and a sparkling dome of elderflower, the same intricate design, Evan notices, as the lace on his wife’s bodice.  Sunshine streaming through the canopy spangles her hair with stars.’ At every bend they are met with ‘a panic of rabbits’Later, ‘the lark’s harpistry’ is heard. Fruitfully retained from the Welsh is the female personification of the river in her various moods as she flows through the valley: serene, expansive and benign most of the year, but in the dead of winter, her immense cataract having turned into one of the most renowned ice-climbs in the country, she is likened, even more economically than in the original, to a murderess cackling over the body of an intruder.

Much of her autobiography traces the lives of others as Rebecca remains in Maesglasau, making frequent, lengthy, and fabulous armchair journeys by book throughout Europe. She falls briefly and rapturously in love with an Italian prisoner-of-war billeted on the farm and after his departure slips into a slough of despond. Never marrying, as the brothers’ families increase, she dutifully chronicles their various achievements and activities but the tone here contrasts starkly with her earlier, vivid and powerfully evocative descriptions of the seasons’ natural punctuations for haymaking, corn-harvesting, bracken-gathering, peat-cutting, dipping, and shearing.  None of the relentless, back-breaking work is romanticized but the same willing obedience to necessity in human terms is portrayed as having a grace and pastoral beauty of its own. ‘The days of harvest were days of gold, rich and opulent. The green gold of hay in swathes. The gold of haycock, rick and stack. The gold of hayloft and barn. The gold of stubble. This was Rumpelstiltskin’s gift of spinning straw into gold. But it was no fairy tale...’

Finally, after the ‘commotion of creation’, Rebecca’s own voice is heard again as she moves into welcome solitude and, in a seamstress’ metaphor, describes her writing as a patchwork quilt missing only a lining to conceal the seams, thread and stitches which make up her story. This skillfully-wrought amalgam of glorious invention and keen observation concludes with the brief and startling revelation of its central conceit and a return to the decreating self at the heart of its making: ‘I too have lived in this valley’s quietness all my life...Cwm Maesglasau is my world. Its boundaries are my boundaries. To leave it will be unbearably painful. But this I know: when I move on and when my remains are scattered on the land of Maesglasau, I will have given my life to the fulfillment of this valley’s tranquillity. My obliteration will be its completion.’

 

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