All entries for Wednesday 08 November 2006

November 08, 2006

One Hundred Years of Fiction by Stephen Knight: The Industrial Settlement

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The Industrial Settlement

Knight considers the history of the mining of natural substances in Wales:
• the Romans’ mining of gold, silver and lead in Mid-Wales;
• 17th century metallurgy along the Swansea coast;
• coal and ironstone mining from the 18th century on in South Wales;
• and slate deposits in North Wales.

Knight thinks that such developments were just a development of what had been happening in Wales since the time of the Vikings. The society that emerged ‘was not substantially different from that of a busy Cymraeg market town’ (50).

However this changed in South Wales when coal became the fuel of empire: ‘This whole peaceful, rural area was to undergo a literal upheaval under the forces of colonial capitalism, just as gold and then oil would devastate the natural world of California’ (52). Mining was initially dependent on labour and this brought a tide of immigration to the South Wales Valleys, so that by 1890, Cardiff was ‘the busiest port in the world’ (52). The changes brought:
• ‘a transport labyrinth of roads and, more importantly, first canals and then railways’ (52);
• ‘a heavily urbanized region, dependent to a risky extent on a very limited range of industrial activity, containing two-thirds of the population of Wales’ (52);
• ‘new types of housing, work and entertainment’ (52);
• and ‘the language of the region became English’ (52).

It was not inevitable though for the English language to prevail. In Merthyr Tydfil, the workers remained Welsh-speaking. However by 1841, 40% of miners were English. The numbers of workers in mining continued to rise, from 69,000 in 1880 to 150,000 in 1901 to 201,000 in 1908 and at its height, 271,516 in 1921. Ultimately from 1881 to 1901, 130,000 people came to work in Wales, mainly from England with a large amount from Ireland and more from Spain and Italy.

Capitalism had a profound effect on the values and ideas of many people in Wales, but Knight also comments on the rise of communism.

the men who would shape the South Wales miners into a force which Lenin regarded as ‘the advance guard of the British revolution’ also drew on international ideas which were transmitted in English and through English cities – where both Marx and Engels worked and wrote. Just as capitalism is dialectic and generated both the massified labour that could create major profits and at the same time the masses who could resist capitalist practices, so colonialism brought to Wales both the worst and most dangerous forms of exploitation and also the resistant ideas and practices that would oppose them in some of the most bitter encounters created by imperial capitalism. (54)

While in the north-western slate fields capitalism was ‘wrenching profit from a land through native labour’, South Wales had ‘become what post-colonial analysts call “a settler society” ’ (55). Knight compares the situation of South Wales to communities in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In these different contexts, Knight sees literature of ‘wit, radicalism and hostility to authority, and with a greater range of responses from the semi-romantic to stridently political, to create a rich, potent, memorable and culturally dominating account of the new world in which they had settled’ (57). Like Canada and Australia, Wales was also ‘an environment full of harshness’ (57). In 1880-19000, of 2328 miners killed in Britain, 48% of the deaths happened in Wales. There were also many pit disasters. In response, strikes occurred:
• 1871 in Cynon and Rhondda;
• 1873 in Merthyr;
• 1893 was the haulers’ lockout;
• in 1898 was the six-month lock-out;
• and when new coal began to appear from America and Europe, it caused the Cambrian Combine strike of 1910.

Unions developed often with values of y werin . Younger miners adopted the radical new Labour Party. There were 10 Welsh Labour MPs of 58 in total in 1918.Other forces were the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party. These parties emerged from anarcho-syndicalism, a movement that wanted workers to control their workplaces. On the one hand, anarcho-syndicalism adopted Marxists premises (workers controlling the surplus value produced), yet they also believed that a rigid or hierarchical system was unfree. Knight believes that Welsh workers adapted communist ideas here which conformed to the principle of y werin .

Of course, eventually the coal industry slumped.

In one of the most striking international examples of boom and slump, one of the largest long waves of capitalism had dumped on the shore of south Wales a large, densely packed, English-speaking community, a settlement which no-longer had any reason to be settled there but which, unlike gold-miners or whalers, lacked the family-free mobility to move on. Not without stark parallels elsewhere in Britain, the south Wales industrial settlement had undergone one of the most extreme most strife-ridden and also, through its writers, most closely described sequences of events in the history of imperialist exploitation. (61)

One Hundred Years of Fiction by Stephen Knight: First Contact and Romance

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First Contact and Romance

The low white farmhouse and the distant bleating of sheep; the dark pit-head wheel and a hooter screaming of disaster; families and communities interlinked in painful, colourful activity. These are the focal images of Welsh writing in English. Yet there is much more than those central but often sentimentalized moments; over more than a hundred years, in novels and short stories, writers identifying with Wales have explored, criticized, celebrated and sometimes exploited the society and the culture that have been constructed in Wales by and for those who do not use the native language of the country. (1)

Knight begins to construct an argument about the purpose of fiction: how it can help one to understand a past society, but how it also can make their own society through fiction. Knight is adamant that this is particularly the case when a place becomes a colony of another nation.

Knight turns to the example of Wales: ‘a grouping of tribes […] home to the Cymraeg speaking Celtic people, closely related to the Cornish, the Bretons and the Gauls’ (2). These Celtic tribes were initially pressed into Cornwall, Wales and other places by invading Anglo-Saxons, but it was the Tudor dynasty that colonised Wales proper: ‘Welsh soldiers, timber, livestock and some small-scale industry, mostly in metals, fed into the English economic system, and the Welsh gentry were encouraged to educate their sons in English’ (2-3).

Knight notes that a result of colonialism in a colony’s literature is a genre of ‘armchair travel’ that ‘stresses the mysterious, magical, even sinister elements of the colony and its people: they operate as a form of armchair travel but also validate the process of colonization through the courage of observers and the intriguing wealth, both material and experiential to be derived in this second-hand way’ (3). First contact texts can be sympathetic but often use crude stereotypes. Sometimes the English observer settle in Wales and Knight describes a kind of sub-genre of the armchair travel that ‘gives the visitor some encounter with an exotic native culture but finally enables the intrepid traveller, sensitivities heightened by romantic adventures, either to marry into an appropriately Anglicized context or, enriched with both the moral and often the financial profits of the visit, lead a life fuller than the demeaning mercantile and urban activities that English Romanticism was already inherently criticizing’ (3). For Knight, this kind of story is ‘using Wales as a context for English self-development’ (3).

The imperialist treatment of Wales in inherent in the use of the term Welsh, meaning foreigners. Knight compares it to ‘the inappropriate “Red Indian”, the belittling “niggers”, the patronizingly Latin “aborigine” ’ (4).

Knight now gives some background at the period in which his study begins: at the breaking of the power of Welsh landowners, at the defeat of the Conservatives by the Liberals in 1899 and at the rise of Nonconformism. Nonconformism was, of course, an English phenomenon that swept Wales creating ‘an imposingly intricate web of popular devotion and institutional surveillance’ (5). It was also a time in which the values of y werin (the people or the folk) were important. Y werin rejected class difference as ‘the minister and eth wealthy farmer spoke the same language, sang the same hymns, acknowledged the same values as the poor labourer or craftsman’ (5).

In conflict with the democratization in Liberal Nonconformism was the rise of industry in:
• the slate mines of Gwynedd;
• copper in Swansea;
• iron foundries in the heads of the South Wales valleys;
• foundries in Merthyr Tydfil etc.

There were also violent reactions to such exploitation:
• in 1831, Merthyr Tydfil was seized by workers for five days, before they were dispersed by soldiers;
• in 1839, workers marched on Newport;
• and in rural areas, the “Rebecca Riots”: went on from 1839 to 1843.

In response, English authorities extended their hold over Wales particularly regarding the Welsh language. The 1847 ‘Blue Books’ report ‘addressed itself […] to the morals and education of the natives – or more exactly their reeducation to be good colonial citizens’ (7). The 1870 Education Act dictated that children of Wales were educated in English and it is no coincidence that the ‘first-contact’ literature emerged for the most part from 1880 onwards.

One Hundred Years of Fiction by Stephen Knight: Introduction

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In 1900, Welsh fiction in English was basically a way for English readers to tour Wales without leaving the armchair. There were collections of stories about travel, topography and the quaint, even mysterious habits of the natives; there were novels where visiting characters and readers alike could be excited by the beauty and strangeness, but never surrender their English values; there were historical novels to laud, in a safe past, the military spirit of this country which was now subservient to England; there was even the beginning of a fiction of industry, though nothing yet like the radical challenge to appear thirty years ahead. Most of this fiction produced in London, often in handsome formats, partly by Welsh writers, in some way validated the colonial presence of the English and their language in Wales by shaping the views given of Wales and the Welsh people in terms of their English attitudes and varying forms of condescending curiosity. (xi)

The aim of Stephen Knight’s study is to consider the development of Welsh writing in English from 1900 to 2000, a year which, ‘saw a rich number of novels by Welsh authors writing in English, and even more important than their number and their success was the fact that most were published in Wales’ (xi). Knight views this new generation as emerging out of a series of phases:
1. the first-contact romance;
2. internally focused self-description;
3. and responses to the Second World War.
Knight calls his approach ‘post-colonial literary criticism with a social emphasis’ (xiii). Knight notices that like other post-colonial groups, Welsh writers must work within the language of a coloniser and they often deploy elements of nativism. Knight notices that the parallel between colonialism and the subjugation of women in the home is present in Welsh literature too.

Knight is aware that some writers resist thinking or writing of Wales in terms of postcolonialism, yet he suggests that experiences communicated in Welsh writing are often those of colonisation. Knight will not deal with non-English texts, but he does refer to them. His choice of terminology is interesting:

I have not been able to bring myself to call this language Welsh , as the use of this term (a Germanic adjective meaning ‘foreigner’) seems to me a damaging mockery of the status of the native language, which I will call Cymraeg , the native language’s name for itself, as seems appropriate in a country that is officially bilingual. (xv)


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