Library of Wales: Country Dance by Margiad Evans


The eponymous dance in Margiad Evans’s terse and unsettling novella is expectedly a pretty joyless affair, for the world she depicts is one of ultra hard work and precious little enjoyment.  In fact oodles of suffering are seemingly good for the souls of those who attend both chapel and church, the Welsh and the English in this border-straddling book.

It’s the story of one life, Ann Goodman’s, and it’s told in diary form, telling how she comes down from the mountains, and her cousin’s farm at Twelve Poplars to the fertile red loam soils around the Wye.  Ann is subject to the attentions of two men, one the English shepherd Gabriel, who is no angel and the Welsh speaking “master” Evan ap Evans, who can be the devil himself.  Rejecting both, she kick starts the engine of a starkly tragic plot.  Passion and murder are the only happy bedfellows in its pages.  The English and the Welsh are always at each others’ throats, divided by language and common, though profound misunderstanding.

For a novel set in an entirely agricultural community Country Dance is surprisingly sparse when it comes to descriptions of nature: surprising, that is until one realizes what really matters to such folk –the beneficence of weather, a win at the sheepdog trials, getting the harvest in, eking out a living.  So, unlike Raymond Williams’ Border Country, say, there’s little evocation of the landscape.  Rather, trees are markers and rivers places of danger and drowning.

Country Dance by Margiad Evans Parthian
Country Dance
by Margiad Evans

The language of this slim novel is pretty spare, making it almost graphic in its quality.  Even the darkest incidents are dealt with in a dispassionate, matter-of-fact way, be it the premature death of a child because of her father’s lack of heed of the symptoms of illness, to savage attacks by one rival man on another.  It can be pretty disarming for the reader, such as the doctor’s prognosis of the cause of Ann’s mother’s death’ after quizzing her about the woman’s last hours:

‘Has she been crossed or thwarted today, or has she done anything different from her habit that might have upset her?’

‘No, she has been in bed, knitting, like she always does.’

‘Have you left her alone at all?’

‘I was ten minutes gone to the field with my father’s tea.  She was well and smiling when I looked back at the window, waving her hand to me.’

He says the waving killed her.

Margiad Evans, the nom de plume of Englishwoman Peggy Whistler, gives us a woman with the struggle for supremacy in her mixed blood.’  While national and international events mean little in a community where lambing season is headline news, the tousle of the English and the Welsh, dancing cheek by jowl in their country dance accounts for many of Ann’s inner conflicts.  When her body is found at the end of the book, head gashed wide open, suspicions point to both her violent Welsh master, who finally leaves for Canada and her former lover Gabriel, who isn’t seen anywhere, flown away on the wings of guilt.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis