Bethan Jenkins casts a critical eye over a new short story collection from Thomas Richards, Rob the Red-Hand. This book is available now from Celtic Studies Publications.
One might not expect some of the earlier works of Anglophone Welsh literature to derive from the other side of the world; yet here we have a collection of short (and not-so-short) stories set in Wales, but written in part from Tasmania. Thomas Richards was a medical practitioner originally from Dolgellau who emigrated with his family to the Australian island in 1832, where he took up work as a journalist, and continued to write the Welsh-set stories he had begun to publish – under various pseudonyms – in Britain.
Rita Singer’s heroic efforts in tracing the mazed path of all Richards’s pseudonyms – Edward Trevor Anwyl, Peregrine – and his many anonymous journalistic fragments mean that these stories are brought together under his name for the first time, and a bibliography of all of his identified writings is a very welcome contribution to the scholarship of Welsh writing in English. The stories collected here are all Welsh ones; most are set in Meirionnydd, the county of Richards’s youth, and clearly a place for which he has a particular hiraeth.
These stories are suffused with an almost unbearably aching melancholy; for a lost country, lost youth, and first love. His characters repeatedly leave the shores of their native land to return years later, and his narrators are drawn time and again to the theme of ‘first loves’; in the opening pages of the story ‘Alice Denby’ we find something akin to the author’s manifesto:
…it is some consolation to look back to those times when, uninfluenced by example and unshackled by custom, our youthful hearts beat only in unison with such feelings as arose from impulses purely unsophisticated. Who does not remember with delight the period when, emerging into manhood, the mind received its impressions from sources widely different from those which the suggestions of worldly prudence and calculating caution have since established? Then, if the heart fixed its affections upon an object worthy of its love, the propriety of revelling in the happiness of such an attachment would never present itself to mar the prospective bliss; it was quite sufficient that such an object existed, its worldly rank was a matter of no importance.
Where the story is not written in the first person, Richards’s narrators often discourse on their own similar experiences – here, the pain and pleasure of first love – and it is hard not to read these interjections as the author’s own voice ventriloquising his personal history. This is especially the case with the fragment ‘Timothy Templeton’, whose eponymous hero’s story (as far as it is told) seems to mirror Richards’s own, with father dying whilst the author was young, and he being sent from Wales to receive his education at Christ’s Hospital, the bluecoat school in London, as Richards himself did.
The stories in this collection are: Alice Denby, The Wanderer’s Return, The Youth of Edward Ellis (a novella), The Forayer of Flintshire, Timothy Templeton, and Rob the Red-Hand. The first three stories are delicately delineated romances set in late eighteenth-century Merionethshire, where first loves are sundered and then later made whole, often through somewhat improbable coincidences. ‘The Youth of Edward Ellis’, being longer, allows Richards to go into greater detail on local customs and folklore, using the story of Ellis’s young love and subsequent adventures to write of witches, smugglers, travelling peddlers, as well as minor gentry families and hypocritical methodist ministers. Wales becomes a site of the quasi-supernatural, whose gwerin have a particular connection with the land through their ‘clanish feeling’ and repetition of ancient customs – Richards also wrote antiquarian articles for various magazines and journals, and is often concerned in his writing to record these old folk ways. These customs are not always blameless, and towards the end of this novella those of the local peasantry who attack the Witch of Cae Coryn acting as they think under the scriptural commandment ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live;’ Richards has his protagonist effect the ejection of some of the perpetrators from their farm tenancies as punishment. ‘The Forayer of Flintshire’ takes the reader back to an imagined early fifteenth century, a setting which makes even more explicit both Richards’s debt to the work of Sir Walter Scott, and the concept of teulu (family) which informs his model of an idealised Wales where, as Rita Singer notes, ‘apart from a sophistication of law and manners, not many changes have taken place since the late middle ages.’ Although the Forayer’s castle is a den of debauchery and political insurgency, yet there is idealised love between the captive Lady Morvida and her lover, as well as the troubadourish, Dafydd-ap-Gwilym-esque courtly love of the young Bard for the Lady. These bonds inform the best parts of modern Wales for Richards, as he notes in ‘Alice Denby’, being ‘a bond of natural union which connects the peasant to the wealthy landholder by a reciprocity of clanish feeling, and which has its mutual relation with all the intermediate gradations.’
The most extraordinary story here is the one which gives the collection its title, ‘Rob the Red-Hand.’ Opening with the ‘proverbially ugly’ Robert Pen-mawr, illegitimate son of an ‘unhallowed union’ between a peasant girl and a gentry lord, inadvertently killing his beloved in a fit of jealousy, the narrative sets up this deformed manslaughtering outcast as an obvious villain. Yet this outcast shows more familial attachment than the seemingly-respectable Sir Robert Owen, Rob’s legitimate half-brother and inheritor of the family wealth; though always attended with an air of mystery and doomed menace at his appearances, Rob claims kinship with his estranged nephew Reginald, assisting in the rescue of Reginald’s kidnapped sweetheart Janet. Richards’s subversion of expected tropes in favour of a more nuanced exploration of Welsh ‘low-life’ does not end here. Janet’s kidnappers are ‘half-savage, ignorant and lawless individuals’, and the daughter of the clan, Annie, is blamed by them for the shame of falling pregnant by the silver-tongued son of her master; yet she displays morality and heroism in assisting in Janet’s rescue, defying, in Jane Aaron’s phrase, ‘the English definition of herself as the libidinous hoyden of primitive Wild Wales’ (Aaron, Nineteenth-century women’s writing in Wales). Writing in the decades immediately prior to Brad y Llyfrau Gleision, which dragged the reputation of Welsh women into the dirt, characterising them as slack-moralled, loose, ‘slovenly and improvinent’, Richards’s rejection of an uncomprehending Anglo-centric view of morality is strikingly bold.
Richards’s style is very much of its era; his archaic use of language and rambling, discursive style, full of footnotes and antiquarian asides, can seem awkward to modern eyes. Yet in spite of this, and of the often contrived happy endings in the stories, these stories have a magic all of their own. To be sure, Richards’s literary frames of reference are English and Scottish, particularly the Lake poets and Sir Walter Scott (all of whom he quotes often), his attempts to add a distinctively Welsh voice to four nations Romantic literature are successful in those terms, and these charming, melancholy stories, full of love and hiraeth, deserve rediscovery. Rita Singer’s comprehensive introduction gives the reader an excellent introduction to the themes and background of the works in the collection, so that even those with little knowledge of the period will find these accessible, highlighting too the subtle subversions of these sometimes apparently superficial romances. A Romantic wanderer, Thomas Richards’s Arcadian Wales, with its sweet simplicity based on the ties of amity, will hopefully find a new generation of readers in this edition.