Ken Smith on ‘Women, Criticism and the Anglo–Welsh’
Ken Smith begins his essay with some prescient remarks on ‘Anglo Welsh’ writing:
If the Anglo-Welsh literary community expects to obtain respectability in literary studies it must move beyond the myopic limitations inherent in provincialism and develop a critical theory which tries to cope with all the facets of literature from aesthetics to linguistics. Often the complaint against Anglo-Welsh critics is their inability to deal with questions of literature which go beyond the predicament of English speakers in Wales. In the extreme this leads to a limited definition of Anglo-Welsh as writings about Wales. In Welsh Literature, where language defines the literature, there is the freedom to write about the many complexes of the human condition; drafted in the traditional praise poem or in existentialist drama there is no question of it being categorized as Welsh. Anglo-Welsh literary theory though well-developed in describing dominant themes and influences in poetry, especially through the work of Ryamond Garlick and Roland Mathias, has as yet proved unable to personify itself in varied genres and thus constantly faces questions of identity. What is needed is a flowering of thought which fearlessly grapples with all literary theory from a Welsh perspective, whether formalist, Marxist, feminist, or other. Only then can Anglo-Welsh writers be assured of a satisfactory dialogue in the literary community of Wales. (60).
Some work is certainly being done in this vein by academics in Wales including Prof. Stephen Knight, Kirsti Bohata and Katie Gramich among others, but Smith’s comments are still relevant.
It is also interesting that Smith identifies feminist literary criticism as very relevant to Welsh writing in English and he suggests that feminist theory has been sidelined in Wales, ‘because Anglo-Welsh critics have been reluctant to break new ground or deal with problems which are universal rather than regional’ (60). Smith suggests that feminist critical theory divides into three areas: ‘images of women in literature, criticism by women writers; and the prescribing of what is “good” literature from a feminist perspective’ (60). Smith suggests that by studying images of women in Wales, a critic might be able ‘to understand the characteristics, real or projected, of women in Wales’ and ‘to understand the role of women in Welsh society’ (61). He also suggests that this might promote ‘a clearer knowledge of Welshness’ (61). (I am unsure about this suggestion. Can we generalise so easily?) Smith suggests that images of strong women in novels by Raymond Williams and Iris Davies could be studied. He also considers the possibility of comparing male and female interpretations of women in order to ascertain whether men present any ‘sexist stereotyping’ (61). For example, Smith considers the representation of the mythical woman, Blodeuwedd, in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, in Saunders Lewis’ play and Brenda Chamberlain’s poem, ‘Blodeuwedd’. He asks the following questions:
‘1. How do these images portray women in Welsh society?
2. Are women crystallised into the dualities of evil aggressive Eve and virginal passive Mary as is common in English literature?
3. Or does the image allow a more diverse, complex, whole view of women which is more consistent with the ancient matriarchs?
4. Is there a difference between the images of Mr. Lewis and Ms. Chamberlain?
5. Does this difference reflect sexist stereotypes?
6. Does it reflect a less realistic view of women?’ (62)
Leaving it to the reader to investigate, Smith considers the ‘development of women’s scholarship and criticism’ (62). He notes that Sally Roberts Jones is compiling a database of Welsh women writers from the seventeenth century to the present day. Smith also directs us to Markale’s Women of the Celts and some other essays in Poetry Wales by F.Heck and B. Hardy. Smith wonders whether the bias against women’s criticism is linked to the promotion of masculine-centred concepts like ‘the tragic hero’. Smith is also concerned about ‘prescriptive criticism’:
To say that the Anglo-Welsh should be prescriptive rather than descriptive is to sentence the writing to provincialism and deny it the fullness and diversity of the living community. Anglo-Welsh writers must be free to roam where their imaginations lead without having to defend their Welshness at every new endeavour. (64)
Smith adds: ‘The question in Gillian Clarke’s or Ruth Bidgood’s writings is not whether they are Welsh or English literature but how Welshness is reflected in them through syntax, rhythm, mood, etc.’ (64). Just as feminists are criticised for not falling in line with radical criticism, so in Wales there is ‘the problem […] of people’s Welshness being judged by their Welsh tongue, an extreme position which holds that one isn’t Welsh unless one speaks Welsh’ (64). The only antidote to these problems according to Smith is made ‘by Anglo-Welsh and feminist critics working toward a definition of what are “good” images of women’ (65).