A new selection of stories by Rhys Davies has been published in the 40th anniversary year of his death. Nigel Jarrett, a former winner of the Rhys Davies Prize, takes another look at the work of a writer who left the South Wales valleys to live exclusively by his pen in literary London.
Women of stiff resolve are central to the fiction of Rhys Davies, who died in 1978 when the modern phase of feminism was under way. Since then, it has evolved further past landmarks of narrow achievement in a trek from one set of core gender issues to another. It is primarily men who hold it back. The renaissance in the last twenty years of Davies’s work as a novelist and writer of short stories has again drawn attention to the fibrous distaff side he so assiduously portrayed in his stories of the industrial valleys of South Wales and, to a lesser extent, rural West Wales. The sideshoot of Clydach Vale where he was born and brought up in the Rhondda possessed an ugliness that overshadowed any loveliness he might have found there and which he chose to recall from his later vantage point as a closeted gay man in London’s Fitzrovia. (From the safety of distance and sexual orientation he could also with impunity deny being a ‘Welsh’ writer and profess an abhorrence of patriotic flag-waving; the Welsh, or those among them for whom such things matter, seem to have forgiven him.) Davies would surely have departed from the view of the Welsh matriarch as a stereotype, taking instead the view that the life choices denied to the woman who kept the home fire burning and the washing dried and ironed were no more accessible to the husband who hewed in dark and danger at the coal face and brought home wages. These issues are always complicated, despite attempts by the gender warriors to simplify them.
In his introduction to the latest selection of Davies stories, Tomos Owen concentrates less on this stoical materfamilias than on her propensity for gossip. That partly reflects new angles on Davies’s work set up since his autobiographical writings were proved by the academic Barbara Prys-Williams and others to be about as secure in the grip as a bar of wet soap. Owen also invokes Frank O’Connor’s view that the writer of short stories is essentially a disconnected loner; and there was clearly more to Davies’s view of the central place of women in his communities than is explained by sociology and cultural study. He was fascinated by formidable women in literature, such as Salome and Medea, and others ‘stretched on the rack of sexual frustration’, as his devoted brother, Lewis, once described it to me. Davies was at Sarah Bernhardt’s final London appearance and must have departed with his memories and obsessions fortified. Lewis also told me that another of these obsessions was Maria Callas, whose every appearance on the London stage Rhys would endeavour to witness. Rhys’s sexuality and his woman fixation, fully explored by writers on his work, cannot but remain a condition which today would have made him a different person and a different writer. Many of his liaisons, Lewis informed me, would have been platonic, yet another complexion on relationships that in at least one form were illegal and always fraught with danger. But he survived.
His first published novel, The Withered Root (1927), charts the decline of the evangelist Reuben Daniels, torn between religious faith and attraction for the hot-blooded Eirwen Vaughan. He rejects her, confirming the view of another character, Eirwen’s Lawrentian brother, Philip, that Welsh Non-Conformist towns are hopelessly stagnated. Eirwen resembles Olwen Powell in The Black Venus (1944), who supports the pagan custom of caru yn y gwely (courting in bed), and survives the complicated tussle between sacred and profane which that behaviour entails in a rural community.
Edith Stevens in Rings on Her Fingers (1930) is amused to see her paramour, Edgar, fail to jump a ditch. The omniscient Davies writes, ‘In everything, she thought beyond her laughter, in everything he was doomed to come short of expectation. And so he had leapt short’. Davies could be purplish in depicting this imbalance of stature between men and women but the cruelty is unashamed: few of his female characters leave the field vanquished and bowed.
The short stories, on which his reputation stands, are the novels honed and refined, culminating in The Chosen One, winner of the 1966 American Edgar Award for the best short fiction of the year. Audrey Vines torments young Rufus into murdering her, thereby meeting her fate, the lot of a woman so domineering that she destroys herself. By this time, Davies could flush meaningful local colour, or easy suggestions of it, from his work. Audrey’s russet mansion of Plas Idwal and Brychan Cottage, where Rufus seethes before her ruthless forays, are Welsh in name only. This is not Clydach Vale or rural Wales but a dark echo-chamber of the will. In one sense, Davies may always have been moving forwards as an artist, no minor achievement for a celebrity – he was awarded an OBE in 1968 – with some money in the bank.
The twelve tales in this latest crop will be familiar to Davies’s admirers. I Will Keep Her Company appeared in the New Yorker in 1964. (The Americans always paid him more than the bookmen Brits.) The others are from collections published in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. In Nightgown, the female protagonist doesn’t even have a name. ‘She’ is the ‘ooman’ ministering as wife and mother to her manly brood of colliers. The eponymous silk garment she had had ‘put buy’ at the draper’s is worn by her only at death, as a shroud covering an irreproachable body. Megan Pugh in The Last Struggle wants more from marriage than satisfies the ‘dumpey’ women of the valley; but she is precipitate and headstrong, refusing to mourn a husband who kept her short of money and whom, she believes, has died in an accident underground. She then has to maintain her resolve when he reappears after rescue while she’s been on a liberating holiday. Sam Pugh, like the husband and five boys in Nightgown, are troglodytes brutalised by both their occupation and their diminished sense of responsibility, a condition which, for Davies, rarely trumps the plight of the women who are his direct casualties. Men have walk-on parts in Resurrection, a comically macabre tale in which two women seek the kudos of a swank funeral even though their sister, who was never better than she ought to have been, pops up and down like a jill-in-the-box while waiting in her coffin for the lid to be screwed down. None of the women in this collation is as flamboyant as the fur-clad Mrs Mitchell on her promenades in The Fashion Plate, as the gossipers (not the ‘gossips’: that would be too pejorative a usage) take umbrage verbally but reap a mute vicarious pleasure from her triumphalism.
While Davies never fell foul of the calumny directed at his compatriot Caradoc Evans for depicting the Welsh in less than complimentary terms and in an ironically Biblical style – Davies’s sentence inversions are the nearest he comes to Evans’s dialogue – there is in Resurrection and other stories a feeling that the characters have been left to their own pathetic devices. The scenarios, in which they do their worst and best, are often shorn of detail, as though these have been jettisoned on the author’s journey east to recollect, not so much in tranquillity – Davies had his own metropolitan interests to pursue and difficulties to confront – but in a mood of psychological self-involvement, in which distance lent a certain amount of disenchantment. Well, that’s one interpretation; other commentators have pointed to the stories’ tart, crab-apple jelly flavour, and their crowded incident.
Like Evans and Arthur Machen, Davies was more Londoner than Welshman, but his recollections were of a real place, albeit bordering sometimes on quaintness. It is a parochial one in which the woman in theory holds the balance of power or occupies the moral plateau, a role which is arguably now more pronounced following the decline of the male tyranny associated with chapelgoing, and male tyrannies generally. Davies’s writing was therefore regional in the same way as Lawrence’s was and with the same use of locale as an arena for the battle of the sexes – not that Davies, a fastidious and civilised dandy with a penchant for flirting with Guardsmen as a prelude to congress, could have written anything as barmy as Fantasia of the Unconscious.
But there was no wild patriotism, only an uncompromising bluntness, such as his espousal in the brilliantly descriptive non-fiction of My Wales (1937), of writers who had helped bring the country ‘out of the limited parochialism of literature in Welsh’. Including himself, of course. That might still raise hackles among those who would not be appeased even by the proprietorial ‘my’ of the book’s title, vindicated by the sweet and accurate testimony that ‘the Welsh in extreme measure know how to be silent, talkative, sad, merry’. Davies understood how Wales had never been ambitious to conquer with arms, how a ‘Celtic simplicity’ blanketed all. He was a ‘writer’ rather than a ‘Welsh’ writer, a distinction also made with impunity by Dylan Thomas in a land that tolerated the declamation of verse in the accent of a pompous Buckinghamshire squire.
Davies’s last novel, published three years before his death in 1978, was Honeysuckle Girl, in which a woman artist triumphs over the empty calm of marriage through an addiction to heroin. It was the old Davies theme emerging from contemporary tribulation. He himself is often described as having ended his days in Bloomsbury, a fashionable part of London – which was true – but it was in an unfashionable bedsit at the honeycombed Russell Court with his possessions in battered suitcases, and when new and strident voices had long bent the ear of publishers, ironically from the provinces.
Whether or not the present enthusiasm for the short-story as a literary genre ‘for the times’ will last remains to be seen. Davies is not a new writer but one whom apologists for short fiction have highlighted as being typical and representative.
Writing in Gay Times, the novelist Francis King, a friend of Davies in his last, difficult years, described the Welshman as ‘a wizened, bright-eyed leprechaun’ who had become a recluse, venturing out only to visit the pub (especially The Wheatsheaf, Rathbone Place) or in search of ‘chance companions’. Perhaps what younger writers can deal with in short stories today are those subjects that in Davies’ time dare not speak their name.
In the mid-1990s, few if any of Davies’s books were in print. Neglect was remedied by the indefatigable Meic Stephens and the Rhys Davies Trust. Stephens edited the three volumes of the collected stories published by Gomer in 1996, and his trenchant biography, Rhys Davies, A Writer’s Life, appeared in 2013. (The biography is the work of a former journalist, and it shows in its cuts to the quick, its concise narrative, and its impatience with conjecture.) Seren, the Poetry of Wales Press imprint, has re-issued the autobiography, Print of a Hare’s Foot, with its coded reference to Davies’s homosexuality, and Parthian has continued the revival, not least with this additional ‘Selected’ to extend the Library of Wales’s list of contemporary fiction.
Print of A Hare’s Foot includes a description of Davies’s meeting with D. H. Lawrence, briefly his champion, on a crowded railway station in the South of France. He instantly recognises Lawrence, the ‘Bandol Phoenix’, but ‘the high voice, rippling and easy’ must have thrown him, shadowed as it was by the disease that was to end Lawrence’s life eighteen months later. (What wouldn’t we give for five minutes of the recorded voice of D.H Lawrence?) On a diversive Davies-Lawrence pilgrimage a few years ago, I was told that this meeting would have taken place on the town’s old station, ‘l’ancienne gard’. I found it. It was disused and deserted. Doors banged in the hot Provencal wind. That meeting was a long time ago. So are Davies’s Welsh scenes. That they still resonate, though seemingly with Davies’s internal voice more pronounced in them than might have been the case at the time of writing, is a mark of their enduring quality.
Nigel Jarrett is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Wales Arts Review. He is a poet, novelist, and story writer. His latest collection of stories, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, was published in 2016 and he won the inaugural Templar Shorts award in the same year. He also writes and reviews for, inter alia, Jazz Journal and Acumen poetry magazine. This year sees the publication of his short fiction pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy.