Rating 5 stars
Angharad Price’s novel The Life of Rebecca Jones is a fictionalised memoir born of family documents and photographs, some of which appear in the text. It’s a clever and affecting book that paints a picture of farming life in the Maesglasau valley in Merioneth across the 20th century. Written in Welsh, the original novel has the title O! Tyn y Gorchudd, which can be translated as O! Pull Aside the Veil. I read Lloyd Jones’s excellent translation into English.
I decided that I wanted to read The Life of Rebecca Jones after I read Chris’s review at the Calmgrove site. I decided to reserve it at the library when Frances from Volatile Rune referred to it as her favourite book on the planet in a comment on another book review. It arrived just in time for the last few days of this year’s Dewithon challenge, so I’ve added it to my Dewithon reading list.
The Welsh title is taken from a hymn by Hugh Jones, ‘O tyn y gorchudd yn y mynydd hyn’ (O! Pull aside the veil which masks the mountain). The novel is prefaced with a quote from Hugh Jones’s Cydymaith yr Hwsmon (The Companion to Husbandry), and many of the chapters also begin with or contain other quotes from this book, which compares the seasons of life with the seasons of the year. Price has Rebecca tell us a little about him towards the end of the book, but I wanted to know more about him. I like the line on that biography site that says, “He received a better education than was usual in his time.” This made me think about Mary Jones, the 16 year old girl who, in 1800, walked barefoot from Llanfihangel-y-Pennant to Bala, a distance of 26 miles across mountainous terrain, to buy a Bible in Welsh. My mum loved the story of Mary Jones, and while on holiday in the area we’d often visit the memorial to her on the site of the weaver’s cottage where she grew up.
All of which is to say that ordinary people sometimes live what are now viewed as extraordinary lives, something that Price’s fictionalised memoir of her great aunt demonstrates.
Price’s Rebecca is in her 90s as she tells us the story of her life. She is knowledgeable and eloquent, thanks to her family’s heirloom chest of books, her early education at Sunday school and village school, the conversations she has with her three university educated brothers, and the books she borrows from Dolgellau library.
In the novel, Rebecca’s father Evan is the unbookish one. As a child, Price has Rebecca tell us, she couldn’t remember him “ever lifting a book or a pen.” Her mother, also Rebecca, did the paperwork for the farm, her husband berating her for not using plain language. Rebecca’s father has a practical reason for having no time for books – his own father neglected the farm in favour of improving his knowledge, leaving his son determined to build it back up again through hard graft. Rebecca’s mother and brothers, though, enjoy reading.
Rebecca’s imagined reminiscences are a delight to read. She paints pictures of the farm, the valley, her childhood with her beautiful turns of phrase. She uses the metaphor of a stream babbling away and occasionally dammed to produce deeper pools of more detailed memory. Often, these deeper memories concern tragic or difficult events, such as the births of two of her younger brothers, born blind. A sister, Olwen, died in a matter of days, and another brother, Ieuan, succumbed to diphtheria at the age of five. These brief lives are described so beautifully that tears pricked my eyes.
The two blind brothers, Gruffydd and William, are sent away to a school for blind children and do well educationally, Gruffydd becoming a vicar and William working for the RNIB. Lewis, a late baby, the last child born to Rebecca’s parents as they approached 50, also loses his sight. He, too, is sent away to school and takes work as a computer programmer at the University of Nottingham, but becomes a celebrated painter in later life. In another nod to the Welsh title of the novel, Rebecca tells us about the short film made about the brothers in 1964, also called O! Tyn y Gorchudd.
Their education cut short by the expense of sending their brothers away to school, Robert, known as Bob, and Rebecca stay in the valley with their parents. Bob learns to run the farm alongside his father, Rebecca becomes a seamstress. Bob, the author’s grandfather, is not a content farmer; he wanted to be a doctor and eventually finds mental stimulation in local politics, becoming a Labour councillor.
I enjoyed the descriptions of farming life, especially the care involved in rearing sheep. It reminded me of the times my mum and I would walk from Llwyngwril to Llynnau Cregennan and down to Arthog, past farmers taking sheep through narrow corridors formed by metal barriers and into a trough of dip. Reading this book, I understood that better as part of the process of keeping the sheep healthy. Rebecca also makes clear the importance of the women’s work in supporting the male farmers and farmhands.
She reflects, too, on what she calls, “This detestable tradition of woman as maidservant!” She talks about it in relation to her father’s necessary remoteness from family as a man who works the land and has little time at the end of each day to indulge in knowing his family differently. I’m rewatching the 1970s tv production of All Creatures Great and Small, and what Rebecca says put me in mind of the Alderson family, and the relationship between Helen and her gruff, taciturn father.
And she also talks of the way things stay the same because change is so gradual that we barely notice it. Her nephew and his son still farm the land, but differently.
Today’s mountain farmer works at a loss. Diversification is mandatory. The tradition of a thousand years risks becoming a theme park, a way of life becoming a matter of presentation. Tradition a souvenir. The home, a guest house. The family, managers. Custom, a sentimental story. Lives repackaged as history.
Price has Rebecca consider the loss of Welsh culture to come, as the next generation leaves to find work and the previous generations die. The buying up of Welsh property by the English as holiday and retirement homes has been happening for decades, thinning the Welsh communities and placing the Welsh language under a different threat to the one the English first imposed under Henry VIII. Price, through Rebecca, paints a bleak picture.
The numbered chapters that carry the memoir of life in the valley are interspersed with Rebecca’s reflections on her life as it draws to a close. These pieces are more meditative, dealing with subjects such as the pursuit of tranquillity, the meaning of life, the force of nature.
The end of the novel is poignant, casting a different light over everything that has gone before. Price has written something remarkable. The ending made me go back and read again, seeing things differently, understanding differently what Price’s novel is about. It’s a hymn to family, to the overlooked, and to a way of life that has disappeared.