The ‘Classics’ and Anglophone Welsh Identity

The ‘Classics’ and Anglophone Welsh Identity

This is the fifth in a new series by different authors, The Gregynog Papers, which began life at ‘In/Dependent Wales’, the recent conference of the Association for Welsh Writing in English at Gregynog Hall in Powys. 

The idea of so called ‘great’ or ‘Classic’ literature has been a common debate in the twentieth century and one which shows little sign of abating in the twenty-first. Some of the most famous proponents of the idea of enduringly ‘great’ literature, such as Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis, argued that certain works of literature had the cachet of being great through something internal in the texts which would spiritually and morally elevate those who read them.[i] Such literary consecration received a check in the second half of the twentieth century as various critical schools argued that such choices demonstrated an elitist and established thinking that was most concerned with ensuring the sanctity of certain texts. Today, two theorists who, perhaps, best represent the polarised debate are Harold Bloom and Terry Eagleton. In the Western Canon (1995), Bloom makes the case for the eternal and uplifting qualities of a number of writers who he feels deserve the tag of being great (though most of these are white and male). Eagleton, however, in Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) argues that it is academic and social convention that determines certain writers’ or texts’ heritage and not something inviolate in the works. This essay will discuss the role of so-called ‘Classics’ collections, or more particularly Anglophone Welsh ‘Classic’ collections, and their part, and the part of the publishers of such works, in creating or recreating a cultural and national identity in Wales.

Before starting my PhD I had become interested in collections labelled as ‘Classic’ and whether the included texts really deserved such an illustrious status or whether it was more simply a marketing gimmick, designed to encourage me to buy more books. Ultimately, I came to realise that regardless of the relative worth of the texts chosen as ‘Classic’, such a label seemed to suggest these works elevated status in modern society, as individuals often drew cultural meaning and historic understanding from ‘Classic’ works. For instance, it is difficult not to think of Charles Dickens’ descriptions of Victorian England as a short hand for that era in London. The accuracy of such portrayals are open to debate and investigation, but it is his descriptions that often define this place and time in our minds.

My interest and nationality has led me to investigate the rise of the ‘Classics’ series that I had recently noticed appearing in the bookshops averring that these texts were formative examples of Welsh writing in English. I started to realise that ‘Classic’ texts from a particular nation were a subtle and often effective tool for promoting national identity and the idea that a nation had a well-developed and independent cultural history and identity. Currently, in Wales, there are only about three ‘Classics’ publishers, Seren (though they have not issued a new ‘Classic’ in their catalogue for about ten years), Honno (whose Welsh Women’s Classics reissue female-authored ‘Classics’) and the Library of Wales (a late bloomer, but one which, helped by central funding, has become the largest single publisher of, according to its Mission Statement, the ‘unavailable, out-of-print or merely forgotten’ ‘rich and extensive literature of Wales that has been written in English’). It should be noted that the Library of Wales does not actually use the label ‘Classic’ for its volumes or to describe the series as a whole. However, due to some of the similarities between their and other ‘Classics’ series’ stated ends, including Honno’s Welsh Women’s Classics (albeit without the mandate to publish female authors), this paper assumes that the Library of Wales is implicated in the same kind of cultural consecrating as an avowed ‘Classics’ series. To acknowledge this fact, in this essay it is referred to and considered as a ‘Classics’ series. These respective publishing initiatives have, to varying ends, helped to fashion the thinking on Wales’ past cultural identity and, consequently, affected how modern Wales understands the evolution and formulation of its current national and cultural identity.

By analysing the various Welsh writing in English ‘Classics’ series we can see that such understanding is steered by the publishing decisions regarding which texts deserve ‘Classics’ inclusion.The language from these publishers promotes the idea of Wales as a nation that has long been denied easy access to its literary English-language history, and that this literature has something important to say about who we were and who we are now. For example, in the Library of Wales Mission Statement there is the assertion that: ‘Through these texts, until now unavailable or out-of-print or merely forgotten, the Library of Wales will bring back into play the voices and actions that has made us, in all our complexity, a Welsh people’ (‘Library of Wales: About Us’). Honno, meanwhile, note in the blurb on the back of each Welsh Women’s Classic that their imprint ‘brings out-of-print books in English by women writers from Wales to a new generation of readers’ (‘Honno Classics’). While Seren do not have a Mission Statement, they have commented on the importance of their series as ‘key works need to be maintained … It was with this in mind that we established the successful Seren Classics series … to make such important titles, both old and new, available in a recognisable form … the series is vital to maintain the profile of ‘serious’ writing in Wales’ (Seren Response). These series provide a pool of works which are argued to be significant moments in Wales’ English-language literature. However, the fact that the texts are being selected retrospectively suggests that the literary decision makers in Wales are implicated in a manoeuvre to support or steer Wales’ cultural momentum.


An issue that arises when investigating ‘Classics’ is the different expectations we naturally place upon these texts as compared to non-‘Classic’ works. I would argue that with ‘Classics’ we are encouraged to think of the texts as somehow better, more important and of a better marque than other texts. The selectors have chosen them above possible others, because, we assume, they have a certain knowledge and competence that makes their opinion more valid and insightful. If we extend this thinking to series that concentrate on a nation’s literary offerings, then these texts are also suggested to be either an important artefact in our heritage, or, if not of that nationality, a significant article in their heritage. National ‘Classics’ series signal to the native reader that they have a cultural and national competence to understand the included works on a separate level from the non-indigenous reader. The indigenous readers will be able to get something extra and more personal from the text: it is an example of writing from our people with our voice about our experience.

In his discussion of the importance of certain cultural artefacts for certain communities, Pierre Bourdieu argues that there is a code to these artefacts which separates these people from ‘the ‘naïve’ spectator [who] cannot attain a specific grasp of works of art which only have meaning – or value – in relation to the specific history of an artistic tradition’ (4). The difference that Bourdieu notes means that for the native a national ‘Classics’ series is a multiplicity of works that commemorates our cultural heritage. For the outsider, meanwhile, they are simply examples of writing from a different culture. The members of the included community can understand such works in ways unavailable to those not part of this community. The result of this is that national ‘Classics’ series affirm to the indigenous reader that there is a national artistic tradition of which they are included as audience members. Such readers should associate with this tradition rather than another because it is written for them, and they can reach a level of understanding unavailable to others. A level of understanding that, perhaps, helps to explain an individual’s existence in his or her community and the social mores and culture they witness every day. The cultural artefacts chronicle the background against which this identity forged itself and established its independence and voice. Each ‘Classics’ series’ affirmation and interrogation of national association or identity embroiders these ties, resulting in nuanced versions of Wales, that are nevertheless sheltered by the word ‘Wales’ or ‘Welsh’.

The modern reinterpretation of the past through cultural artefacts has become an important part of contextualising contemporary Wales’ understanding of its national identity. The importance of Devolution to this understanding is debatable, but it has been seen by some as a chance to reconfigure the parameters of a Welsh identity. According to the dramatist Ed Thomas (in a 1997 interview for The Observer), for example, ‘Old Wales is dead. The Wales of stereotype … So where does it leave us? Free to make-up, re-invent, redefine our own versions of Wales … So old Wales is dead, and new Wales is already a possibility’ (qtd. in Postcolonial Wales 177). However, the problem with Thomas’ idea is that it is not possible to ‘make-up, re-invent, [or] define’ Wales without reference to the past structures. There is a continuum between the past and the present that means that any attempts to achieve Thomas’ goals are dependent on reconfiguring the old, and as such only semantically creating the new. A ‘new’ Wales can be disinterred from a reading of ‘old’ Wales, but not created, and activities such as ‘Classics’ series ensures that ‘old’ Wales is forever ‘restructured’, or at least a guise of it is used to provide a rational, or at least understandable, national and cultural identity.

The way in which ‘Classics’ interplay with national identity suggests their part in a wider cultural scheme. They have a role which allows them to evince a cultural and national heritage for the Anglophone Welsh. The production, or re-production, of ‘Classics’ confirms and supports Wales’ cultural agenda and how we as individuals are being asked to understand our past literature, the history it invokes and culture. As such, they are representative and reflective of the Welsh zeitgeist where the daily affirming of the nation has its course changed to reflect a differing conceiving of national identity. The result of this is that rather than ‘Old Wales’ being dead, it never really existed as we contemporaneously imagine it, as it is always being interpolated and configured, or re-configured, within the present.

As a collection, ‘Classic’ texts can help to confirm and sustain an individual’s understanding of the nation. The various ‘Classic’ narrations record how the English-language Welsh communities adapted to their changing circumstances and developed a unique identity against a specific history. Together, they can be considered to be a multi-authored biography of Wales that outlines and narrates across various times and places the growth of a specifically Welsh attitude, identity and culture amongst its English-language communities.

It can be argued that the role of national Classics series is to provide the individual with a more comprehensive base for their national identity, and in the words of Craig Calhoun, such a base gives a ‘temporal depth – a notion of the nation as such existing through time, including past and future generations, and having a history’ (qtd in Postcolonial Wales 41). Notions of national identity are positively integrated with and affirmed by the history incorporated in a ‘Classics’ series to create a narrative from past to present. An issue with this is that such a history is complicated, as it is composed of multiple subjective accounts and subtly different perspectives. However, ‘Classics’ series suggest that the selections streamline important facets of culture or history by culturally important writers.

Benedict Anderson’s comments, in his thinking on nations, nationalism and what he calls ‘nation-ness’, that to ‘understand [nations] properly we need to consider carefully how they have come into historical being, in what ways their meanings have changed over time, and why, today, they command such profound emotional legitimacy’ (4). ‘Classics’ provide a potential source of answers for these questions. They portray the forming, development and evolution of different cultural attitudes, and when reading across the different works we can begin to conceptualise how these meanings have been affected by history to evoke an emotional legitimacy. However, it is at this point that fiction demonstrate its tenuous ability to accurately record or chronicle a nation, as it is always conditioned by subjective elements, be it the original author’s perspective of history or culture, or, in the case of ‘Classics’, the editor’s choice of one text over another. For Anderson, the rise of a national consciousness and the construction of a national identity was catalysed by the rise of print culture. Once the nation could be imagined and tentatively defined, the search was on, so to speak, for a new way of linking fraternity, power and time meaningfully together. Nothing perhaps more precipitated this search, nor made it more fruitful, than print-capitalism, which made it possible for rapidly growing numbers of people to think about themselves, and to relate themselves to others, in profoundly new ways. (36)

The importance of the printed word was the access it granted an individual to their particular heritage, and the key to this relationship was a text’s highlighting of communal and national association with similarly situated individuals and communities.

If we update Anderson’s analysis to consider the role of the printed word in modern nations and how they continue to evoke national spirit there is still a recurrent requirement to link ‘fraternity, power, and time’ (36). Although a nation is often thought of as a static element, consideration of it as such is motivated by a nation’s continuous affirmation of internal similarity and external difference. The ‘Classics’ are not comprised of modern imaginings of the nation, but they do justify the idea that an Anglophone Welsh national identity should be considered as historic and enduring. In fact, the connecting of ‘fraternity, power, and time’ is arguably further advanced in ‘Classics’ than more contemporary novels, as their elevated status (as ‘Classics’) and the fact that they are deemed to speak from the past to the present gives an authoritative account of an integrated and communal culture.

The embedding of this culture through a ‘Classics’ series, provides, to borrow Prasenjit Duara’s term, a ‘master narrative of descent’, or, perhaps in the case of Honno, a mistress ‘narrative of descent’. In Duara’s reasoning such narratives define and mobilize a nation as a community that gives preferential treatment to certain symbols and highlights the community’s self-consciousness of their position within certain boundaries (168-9). As such, we can consider each ‘Classic’ to be a cultural artefact that collectively form an index of national cultural identity. The narratives mobilize the cultural symbols that highlight the community’s self-consciousness by conferring on them a depth and integrity. The revivifying activities of the publishers of Anglophone Welsh ‘Classics’ allows them to construct this index and suggest how members of the nation can read, contextualise and understand a past Wales within their modern experience and link the past national identity with their ideas on the current. The editorial choices and decisions on which books are deserving of being included in their ‘Classics’ series steer this ‘narrative of descent’ and subtly inflect or reflect our understanding of Anglophone Welsh history and culture. They have an important role to play in the defining of an individual’s understanding of the nation’s culture and fashion, colour or limit the imaginings of the country’s past and important history.


The fact that ‘Classics’ series retrospectively re-present literary material is significant as it indicates that the publishers are selectively re-issuing texts that they consider culturally important artefacts. As a consequence, the publishers are implicated in the construction of a perspective of the past which affirms their vision of the present. This national or cultural element is an integral part of the number of reissued Welsh writing in English texts appearing in the last fifteen years or so. In this context, the publishers’ decisions to launch ‘Classics’ series can be understood in a variety of ways. They could be seen as a declaration of literary or cultural maturity, an assertion of the publishers’ confidence to define Welsh writing in English as a unique category that has moments and movements which highlight the separation and talent that has emerged from the country. It could be seen as a post-devolution attempt to assert Wales’ independence, a confirmation that, amongst some of its biggest publishers, Wales is pushing a programme that seeks to sever its ties to Britain or England in favour of fomenting a separate nationalist spirit. Finally, it could be more simply seen as an attempt to redress the marginalisation of the ‘great’ works of this school through their lack of popular availability; their promotion through a ‘Classics’ initiative ensuring their continued survival.

Regardless of the reason, or reasons, for their appearance, the ‘Classics’ offer a model through which individuals are invited to think of themselves as being part of a national narrative that conditions their understanding of their nationalism and national association. Stuart Hall has written that ‘If we feel we have a unified identity … it is only because we construct a comforting story or “narrative of the self” about ourselves … The fully unified, completed, secure and coherent identity is a fantasy’ (qtd. in Postcolonial Wales 15). The ‘constructing’ of the nation is deemed an individual choice where one imagines themselves as part of a collective national narrative. However, the ‘fantasy’ occurs because an individual feels they are able to assess independently their part in this narrative. In fact, they are presented with a pre-selected choice of cultural artefacts, which are chosen because of the message they present.

As claims for Welsh independence, or at least, greater political power, have increased so the ‘Classics’ can be cited as artistic and quasi-historical evidence to support such a message. As the number of ‘Classics’ increase, this message is reinforced and the idea of English-language Wales as a separate and culturally diverse and different nation becomes compounded. Although this movement is still at a relatively early stage, when you now walk into a book shop in Wales there is generally a Welsh interest section which will have a fair number of reissues from Seren, Honno or the Library of Wales. The increasing public consciousness of Welsh writing in English is slowly proliferating, possibly ‘only slowly’ due to the historic dominance of external literatures, but as the Welsh cultural momentum gathers pace, the ‘Classics’ are there as a ready and prepared source of cultural and national identification. Overall, these series suggest their part in a national cultural movement which is reconceiving and embedding cultural identity according and in response to the current political and cultural needs of Anglophone Wales.

Works Cited

Aaron, Jane, and Chris Williams, eds. Postcolonial Wales. Cardiff: University of

Wales Press, 2005.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of

Nationalism. Revised ed. London: Verso, 1991.

Arnold, Matthew. ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time’. The

Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds. Vincent B. Leitch, William E. Cain, Laurie Finke, Barbara Johnson, John McGowan, Jeffrey J. Williams. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. 806-825.

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. London:

Papermac, 1995.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans.

Richard Nice. London: Routledge, 1986.

Duara, Prasenjit. ‘Historicising National Identity, or Who Imagines What

and When’. Web. 8 Jan. 2014.

Eagleton, Terry. The English Novel: An Introduction. Oxford, Blackwell, 2005.

—. Literary Theory: An Introduction. 2nd Ed. London: Blackwell, 1996.

Eliot, T.S. ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. The Norton Anthology of

Theory and Criticism. Eds. Vincent B. Leitch, William E. Cain, Laurie Finke, Barbara Johnson, John McGowan, Jeffrey J. Williams. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. 1093-1098.

‘Honno Classics’. Web. 6 Jan. 2014.

Leavis, F.R. The Great Tradition. 1948. New Ed. 1960. London: Chatto and

Windus, 1979.

‘Library of Wales: About Us’. The Library of Web. 6 Jan. 2014.

‘Seren Response to the Culture, Welsh Language and Sport Committee

Policy Review – English Medium Writing in Wales’. Web. 6 Jan. 2014.

[i] For these critics’ arguments regarding ‘great’ literature, see, for example, Matthew Arnold’s ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time’ (1864), T.S. Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919), and F.R. Leavis The Great Tradition (1948).

Illustration by Dean Lewis