To mark Honno’s reissue of Margiad Evans’s Creed, the book’s editor Sue Asbee looks at the lasting legacy of a singular voice.
I first came across Margiad Evans’s fiction 30 years ago when I was given a list of women novelists writing in the 1930’s and 40s to research. My task was to compile short entries for the Feminist Companion to Literature in English, the writers by definition less well-known if not forgotten ones. Among them were Richmal Crompton and Noel Streatfield familiar to me as children’s writers, I didn’t know that they had also written for adults. Margiad Evans’s name was quite new, but hers is the writing I’ve returned to over the years. The Wooden Doctor was the first of her novels that I read, and I found her voice fascinating, compelling and quite unlike the voices of the other women novelists of the time that I was reading. Her fictional characters were unconventional and uncompromising, they were far from the world of middle-class polite society; there was something raw and revealing about her prose.
Margiad Evans (1909-1958) was born Peggy Whistler in Uxbridge, but her sense of identity rested unequivocally on the Welsh Border country around Ross-on-Wye. In 1936, cleaning Lavender Cottage, the family home about to be let following her father’s death, she asserts in her journal that this is where she really began: ‘this place where I was born….yes though I came when I was twelve I was born here’. She says that the river Wye ‘seemed to flow between my breasts, from some deep central love that would make it blood to leave the lovely river. It’s mine. This country’s mine. This house is mine. The mute hills, the valleys, the clouds that wave….My very soul lives here’. Her sense of possession of, and her identification with the landscape in that journal entry is repeated in different ways over again and again. The way in which she mythologises and creates her own identity within the countryside she claims is also evident in her fictional creations. In her work, character grows from and is shaped by location.
Evans’s characters feel and act with the kind of high intensity one might associate with the passion and cruelty found in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. That may not be surprising: Evans was a great admirer of the Bronte sisters’ work, she and her own sister Nancy sometimes amused themselves (and disconcerted others) by adopting Charlotte and Emily personas. This kind of intensity is evident in her first novel, Country Dance (1932) where love eventually leads to murder, and it endures through the fictional autobiography The Wooden Doctor (1933). Turf or Stone (1934) has moments of quite shocking cruelty, while her last novel, the turbulent and extraordinary Creed (1936), begins with a sermon delivered by the Welsh parson Ifor Morris, who describes himself as ‘a sinner and a fool’. Morris tells his congregation of his belief in the fundamental holiness of each individual, no matter what their wickedness or sins. This has a profound and deeply unsettling effect on his shocked congregation. Francis Dollbright, is the man who most takes it to heart because of the threat it poses to his life-long beliefs, and it is Dollbright who ends the novel with a ranting speech defying God, denouncing religious orthodoxy and asserting his own rights to disbelieve. His experience of seeing and feeling the effects of illness, death and sex which form much of the substance of the novel ultimately set him free from what had been the cornerstone of his life, and which he comes to see as a lie.
Creed has not been republished since it first came out in 1936, and that is the most likely reason why it has received less critical attention than her other fiction or indeed Evans’s other publications, her life writing. Autobiography (1943), which reshapes ideas of conventional autobiographical writing, was republished at least three times. A Ray of Darkness (1952) is an account of the onset and treatment of the epileptic seizures brought on by the brain tumour from which she eventually died. Both are ground-breaking works, and each has something in common with her fiction writing: her acute descriptions and observations of nature are common to all her writing, including her short stories collected in The Young and the Old (1948).
Creed may present a bleak view of life in the wicked, dissolute Mill End part of the fictional town of Chepsford where the novel is set, but the wickedness is depicted with energy: ‘What a vital, wicked, boisterous town, which beneath its vigorous life, conceals a black current of despair and misery, and what people! Wild, vehement, laughing, whose two hands are generosity and vice, and whose eyes are weapons!’ Even when there is no action, as when Menna, daughter of the alcoholic Mrs Trouncer, observes her mother lying in the dark in a ‘ghastly stupor’ the description is inventive and alive: ‘Filled like a bloated sponge she was less asleep than steeped in in reeking fumes. The sparks of consciousness exploded, madly amazed, fiery atoms too feeble to bring reason to the dizzy senses. Tomorrow she would lie there, puffing out her lips and tugging at her ears, her yellow gaze fixed on her ultimate terror – death’.
Set slightly apart from Mill End, the beautiful Barbara Cater lives in sin with John Bridges. Their surroundings could not be more different from Mill End’s poverty: their walls are covered with Chinese silks, their long lace curtains patterned with roses and birds. When Barbara Cater, as unconventional as her author, lies down on the floor – for no particular discernible reason – she is ‘like an idol in her stiff dress with lacquered nails and pierced ears.’ She is so different from Mrs Trouncer that she could be a different species, nevertheless, her thoughts echo the alcoholic woman’s ‘Oh, beautiful limbs and vanquished breast, is there nothing more to come?’ On her arms are gold bracelets and in the pattern of the carpet ‘was a great green parakeet, flourishing its wings. The room was hot and full of crimson cyclamen’. In this environment, so dramatically different from the poverty of Mill End, Barbara reads critical theory and wrestles with abstract ideas of the particular and the universal in art, while Bridges struggles to write a history of his former employee, Francis Dollbright. This is one of several moments in the novel where Evans self-reflexively considers her own craft, the limitations of language in expressing her thoughts and ideas. Her journal writings show her frustration with the inadequacy of words to recreate a feeling or experience, just as Bridges is frustrated at his attempts to capture a life in a potted biography. The short cryptic Preface to Creed stands outside the novel, presenting another way in which Evans demonstrates her interest in the art and processes of writing and creativity.
Creed is available from Honno now.