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A Hundred Years of Fiction.

A Hundred Years of Fiction. By STEPHEN KNIGHT. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. 2004. xviii+217 pp. 30 [pounds sterling] (pbk [pounds sterling] 15.99). ISBN 0-7083-1847-9 (pbk 0-7083-1846-0).

Stephen Knight's book has succeeded in launching with a bang the new critical series 'Writing Wales in English': the systematic thoroughness of its adoption of postcolonial theoretical perspectives in analysing Welsh material has provoked an outcry. Welsh Labour historian Dai Smith, reviewing the book in the New Welsh Review, 66 (Winter 2004), pp. 22-29, damns it as a 'farrago' of 'nonsense'; though he admits its author to be a 'gifted critic', this book, he claims, is 'not intellectually tenable'. But of course what is in dispute here is a matter of contemporary politics as much as of literature or history: categorizing devolved Wales as postcolonial is likely to lead to seeing it as needing greater independent powers, an issue on which the Welsh Labour Party is currently divided.

At least such a response indicates that this book has already fulfilled its first stated aim of provoking debate about writers hitherto neglected in their own country as well as elsewhere. Stephen Knight presents the anglophone fiction of Wales as having passed through three stages during the twentieth century. Up till the late 1920s, he suggests, it was still dominated by the type of romance which had come into vogue during the second half of the nineteenth century, which introduced the Welsh to an English audience, sometimes with sympathy and sometimes with derision but always as strange, as 'other'. By contrast, in the 1930s and 1940s the bulk of English-language fiction from Wales focused in realist mode on the struggles of the coal-mining communities during the years of economic depression and labour resistance; largely authored by members of those communities, it sought to understand Welsh industrial experience from the workers' perspective. Though still published in England, by such presses as Gollancz and Laurence and Wishart, its intended audience was the international left-wing sympathizer, including by now a majority English-speaking Welsh populace, the numbers of Welsh speakers having dropped dramatically during the first decades of the century. 'Integration and independence' are the keynotes of the third, most recent and still ongoing phase, according to Knight's analysis--that is, the forging within English-language fiction of a sense of Welsh identity in touch with traditional Welsh-speaking culture, and a concomitant sense of cultural independence freed from the shades of a colonized mentality. The growth of grant-assisted Welsh presses has also meant that since the 1960s it has been possible to publish much of this new material in Wales.

Adopting a terminology familiar to postcolonial analysis, Knight labels the first type of writing 'first-contact' romance and the second the writing of the 'industrial settlement'. These labels are admittedly somewhat problematic: they are more obviously suited to the type of settler colony in which it is the settlers rather than the native inhabitants who produce the literature. Virtually all the writers whose work Knight analyses were ethnically Welsh; writers of the first phase, such as Allen Raine or Caradoc Evans, for all that they aimed to introduce Wales to readers unfamiliar with it, were not themselves recent incomers but natives of the country. And though Wales was second, by rate, only to the USA as a world centre of immigration during the first decade of the twentieth century, the ancestors of those novelists who contributed to Knight's second phase, such as Rhys Davies or Gwyn Thomas, had for the most part moved to settle in industrial Wales from rural Welsh areas, rather than from England or elsewhere. The time-scale of Welsh colonization is unusually protracted: conquered and settled in the thirteenth century, not until the nineteenth does the indigenous culture of the mass of the population really suffer serious erosion, a factor which complicates the application of postcolonial theory to the resultant twentieth-century English-language literature of Wales. But it by no means negates the insights that such an approach offers into the struggle of creating a literature of one's own in a language which was initially the invaders'. On the contrary, the highly innovative theoretical framework provided here convincingly succeeds, to my mind at any rate, in illuminating both the work of the individual authors it deals with and the nature of the hybrid cultures from which they emerged.


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Author:Aaron, Jane
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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