Wednesday, 13 March 2019

How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

I decided to read How Green Was My Valley for this year's #Dewithon for several reasons. The first, and most obvious reason, is the Welsh setting of the book. Secondly, the book was actually on my TBR pile. Thirdly, the author's surname is the same as my Nan's maiden name - it's weird how a shared name can make one feel a sense of kinship to a complete stranger.

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Huw and his large family. It's hard not to love the Morgan's. They're big-hearted, community-minded, salt-of-the-earth folk. But it quickly became apparent to me that there were a number of issues surrounding this work and the author.

My first alert was when Karen @Booker Talk mentioned (in a comment/post that I cannot now find) that Llewellyn was not a Welsh author after all. I googled.

Wikipedia discretely told me that Llewellyn was born in 1906 to Welsh parents. "Only after his death was it discovered that his claim that he was born in St Davids, West Wales, was false."
But Britannica.com still publishes his birth place as being St David's, Wales, not Hendon, London, where he was actually born.

The next controversy surrounds Llewellyn's claims about how he attained his knowledge to write this book. He claimed to have spent some time down the mines in Gilfach Goch, whilst visiting his grandfather, but there is no record of him ever having done so. It is now believed, that at best, he had conversations with miners from Gilfach Goch, but every bio site I checked had conflicting information around this.

It's quite possible for authors to research their topic and write a fabulous story, without actually experiencing it themselves. Authors do it all the time. The problem lies when you claim to have had that actual experience that you're writing about, that somehow there is an element of memoir in your story. The trust between writer and reader becomes diminished by the deception.

The other confusion, for a number of the websites I looked into, was around dates. Llewellyn wrote HGWMV in the late 1930's before publishing in 1939. A number of sites also claimed that the book was set during this period of time. However, the book was set much earlier, during the reign of Queen Victoria, which means the majority of the book was set during the 1890's. Given that several of Huw's older brothers were also instrumental in establishing a miner's union in their area, the time frame could be even a decade earlier as most of the South Wales unions were first established during the 1880's. I'm also sure I remember one of the characters referring to the Queen's Jubilee early on which would probably be her Golden Jubilee in 1887 rather than her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. In 1895 one of Huw's older brothers went to Windsor with the Welsh choir to sing before the Queen and one of the big moments towards the end of the story, centred around the disastrous miners strike of 1898. There were several passages describing the effects of the sliding scale on the community as well as the impact that the six month long strike had on the miners and their families.

My initial love for the story was tempered by these confusions and misconceptions. It was a case of google getting in the way of an entertaining, heart-warming tale.

Despite these reservations, I learnt a lot about the mining industry of southern Wales. The slag heap issues were particularly alarming, as the piles slowly, gradually, inevitably crept down the hills eating farms, rivers and homes, until entire villages were drowned in slag. I also loved Llewellyn's use of the local Welsh dialect throughout the book.

A sense of nostalgia oozed through the story from the kind-hearted, socially-conscious, politically aware Morgan family, to the scenery of the Welsh hills. Most of the time I happily went along for the sentimental journey, but every now and again it was so saccharine sweet, that I had to put the book down for a while!


Favourite character: Bronwen (of course)! She not only had a great name, but her sense of loyalty, generosity and courage were admirable qualities that never wavered.

Favourite passage
All along the river, banks were showing scum from the colliery sump, and the buildings, all black and flat, were ugly to make a hurt in your chest. The two lines of cottages creeping up the mountainside like a couple of mournful stone snakes looked as though they might rise up and spit rocks grey as themselves. You would never think that warm fires and good food would come from them, so dead and unhappy they were looking.
Our valley was going black, and the slag heap had grown so much it was half-way along to our house. Young I was and small I was, but young or small I knew it was wrong, and I said so to my father.
"Yes, Huw," he said, and stopped to look. "I told them years ago to start underground, but nobody would listen. Now, there are more important things to think about. That is something that will have to be done when you are grown up. there will be plenty for you to do, indeed."  

Environmental damage through human activity has been a known problem for over a century, and still we say, let's leave it to the next generation to do something. Wales is attempting to regenerate the old mining areas into tourist destinations, although, sadly, it looks like the South Wales Mining Trail, mentioned in the link, has yet to come into being.

Favourite or forget?

Normally this is a very easy decision for me. Due to the overwhelming amount of books in my house, I only keep the extra-special ones. The special editions, the much-loved favourites that have been read and reread or those books that I loved so much, that I just know I will reread them one day. The rest get passed onto family and friends or get book-crossed. How Green Was My Valley is one of the few that has me unsure about this process. And while I feel undecided, it will, therefore, stay on my shelves, for now. I might reread this one day; it's also hard to let go of one of the few books with my name in it!

Penguin Modern Classics 2001
First published 1939
448 pgs

15 comments:

  1. What a fascinating post, Brona. Many thanks indeed for your fair and considered review. 😊

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    1. I am very curious to know how the Welsh think about Llewellyn now and whether or not they like How Green Was My Valley. What is your feeling Paula?

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  2. What an interesting dilemma. Like you, I had no idea of the allegation of false claims. OOH, I can see where the detail of having been born elsewhere, if one's heart belonged to another place, might pale in significance. OTOH, if he deliberately concealed it, one can't help but wonder why? And I don't suppose it's any simpler to look at how others of his time, and of the community he claimed to have been born in, felt about him and his work, because there are always some who praise and some who condemn. I'd considered reading this one as well, and even leafed through it again on my last library visit, still tempted, but I had already borrowed the W.H. Davies and am trying to focus on my own shelves (so, I'm reading Dorothy Edwards' short stories).
    PS I agree, there should be a special shelf for namesakes in books!

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    1. It's definitely worth a read - I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the book and the Morgan family. But I did find it curious when I googled the author just how few 'hits' there were for him. It's rare these days that someone famous has so few online mentions.

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  3. I wonder why they were in London when he was born. My dad, a Glasgow man all his life and born of two Glaswegian parents, happened to be born in the Highlands because he came early while his mum was on a short, supposedly pre-birth, holiday up there. But I bet if a stranger had asked him where he was born, he'd have said Glasgow because that's where he felt as if he came from...

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    1. I wondered that too, so I've been continuing to trawl the internet the past few days trying to find more - it's incredibly hard to find a definitive answer, but I finally found one of the newspaper articles that featured the discovery of Llewellyn's 'fraud'. The Guardian, How Phony Was My Welsh Valley, 5 Dec 1999 explained that Llewlleyn was born in London, because his parents were now living there, running a pub. He obviously felt strongly about his Welsh heritage (like I do) but I'm not sure I understand why he needed to lie about it. I haven't been able to find any articles or bio (yet) that reveals anything about Llewlleyn's character, temperament, psychology etc. I'm now very curious and will keep you posted :-)

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    2. Ooops just noticed i got my 'e's in the wrong spot in Llewellyn - typing in a hurry over breakfast before work!!

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  4. Nice research. I enjoyed knowing all of that as much as I did your response to the story itself!

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    1. I'm very curious to know more about Llewellyn now - will keep searching for a more indepth bio....

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  5. I'm nearly halfway through this book at the moment and enjoying it so far. I had also already decided to read it for Dewithon before discovering that Llewellyn might not have been Welsh after all. It's on my Classics Club list, though, so I would have read it eventually anyway!

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    1. He obviously had Welsh sensibilities, and the book is set in Wales, so I think it's still a fine fit for #Dewithon :-)

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  6. [ Because I have a number of email accounts I note that my "comment as" changes from time to time on your site. Blogger should give you a medal for persevering!]
    My favourite books as a kid were the William books by Richmal Crompton. I wonder why! Can't think of any heroines named Bronwyn or Bronwen, sorry.
    Loved your sentence, "The trust between writer and reader becomes diminished by the deception." Books are meant to stand alone, but of course they never do, think of the famous Demidenko affair.
    Finally, I vaguely remember the TV version of HGWMV, wasn't the main character a school teacher?

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    1. I"m sorry about the blogger stuff. I've noticed that with recent phone updates that blogger is no longer compatible on my phone. If I could find an easy way to transfer all my stuff to wordpress esp ALL the hyperlinks, then I would do it in a flash, but I tried it with one of my other blogs and all the hyperlinks stay with the old blog.

      I rarely blog on my phone, as I find both platforms painful on the small screen and small keyboard, but I know lots of others do, so I do apologise. It might depend which browser you open up blogs in - chrome or firefox are probably better than safari.

      I was happily reading unaware of any deception for quite a while, but about halfway through, the sentimentality began to seem OTT, which is when I googled into Llewellyn's back story further.

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  7. Now I'm Unknown 15/3/19. I'm really wad - Bill - Holloway

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  8. Nice post. I really enjoy reading it. Very instructive, keep on writing.Thanks for sharing.

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