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Twentieth-Century Autobiography.

Twentieth-Century Autobiography. By BARBARA PRYS-WILLIAMS. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. 2004. xii+188 pp. 14.99 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 0-7083-1891-6.

In this volume in the Writing Wales in English series, Barbara Prys-Williams assesses the literary self-representations of seven twentieth-century writers: Rhys Davies, Margiad Evans, B. L. Coombes, Ron Berry, Gwyn Thomas, R. S. Thomas, and Lorna Sage. Informed as it is by psychoanalytical theory, the discussion is consistently lucid and probing and often insightful; the section on Ron Berry, in particular, is moving in its detailed analysis of the manner in which Berry fused the derelict history of twentieth-century Rhondda life with his own in his History is What You Live (Llandysul: Gomer, 1998), and the chapter on R. S. Thomas finely conveys the colour and tone of the poet's self-explorations.

Unexpectedly, perhaps, this chapter does not deal with R. S. Thomas's two Welsh-language autobiographical texts Neb (1985) and Blwyddyn yn Llyn (1990), or with the English-language translations of them which have since appeared (see Autobiographies, ed. by Jason Walford Davies (London: Dent, 1997)), but with his autobiographical poetry and prose-poem compilation The Echoes Return Slow (1988). Nor is it the only incidence in this book of material being chosen for analysis which does not belong straightforwardly to the autobiographical genre. The chapter on Margiad Evans is primarily concerned not with Autobiography (1943) or A Ray of Darkness (1952), two overtly autobiographical books by Evans, but with The Wooden Doctor (1933), ostensibly a fiction to whose heroine, Arabella Warden, Evans gave some experiences which were manifestly her own, such as the composition of her first novel Country Dance, and an emotional history which Evans's biographers have since identified as hers. To my mind, Prys-Williams's unexpected choices have enriched her study, but it might have been interesting to hear more about the rationale behind such decisions, particularly given that she spends some time discussing the consequences for readers of her discovery that B. L. Coombes's ostensibly autobiographical These Poor Hands (1939) was initially conceived of as a novel and still retained fictional episodes and characters when it was eventually published as autobiography.

At times Prys-Williams can seem a little judgemental in her indictment of some of her subjects; placed on the psychoanalytical couch they are grilled for the veracity of their self-representations and often found wanting, particularly if they have been so unwise as to leave behind them more than one draft of their autobiographical writings, the changes in which serve to illustrate the extent of their disguises. Not only is truth-telling presented here as an ambivalent business in B. L. Coombes's autobiography, but Rhys Davies is diagnosed as a narcissist addicted to painting self-gratifying pictures of his life in Print of a Hare's Foot (1969), at the expense of strict honesty. Psychoanalytic theories on loss are also brought heavily to bear upon A Few Selected Exits (1968), Gwyn Thomas's representation of a life darkened by the death of his mother when he was six years old: Prys-Williams interprets both Thomas's humour and his attachment to his Rhondda home negatively under the guidance of such psychologists as John Bowlby, but it is possible to see both traits more positively, as indicators of his resilience and loyalty rather than his fear of seriousness and of the unknown.

Courage and honesty in the face of adverse circumstances appear to be the authorial qualities most admired in this text, courage such as that shown by Lorna Sage, both as a teenager in the face of the oppressive gender system of 1950s Welsh border communities and as an adult recounting with honesty her early struggles. Interestingly, though, Prys-Williams does not comment on the curious ambivalence in Bad Blood on the question of the subject's ethnicity: Twentieth-Century Autobiography unproblematically presents Sage as Welsh, as indeed she must have been, on her father's side as well as that of her South Walian mother, but few readers of her autobiography are likely to have a clear sense of that fact, for the location of Hanmer, the rural Flintshire village in which Sage was born and reared, and of which her father was native, is referred to ambiguously in Bad Blood. When Sage and her Hanmer schoolfellows first cross the border to attend a grammar school in Whitchurch on the English side, for example, we are told that their difference from the locals is apparent: 'None of us spoke Welsh, but we had broader Shropshire accents than Whitchurch people, marking us out'. As the children have not previously left Wales, their accents cannot be 'Shropshire': Barbara Prys-Williams quotes Sage's comment (p. 151), but does not remark on her interesting error, and so loses an opportunity to discuss the intricacies of border identity. Nevertheless, this book's patient and detailed investigations of its seven subjects offer a wealth of insight to readers interested in autobiography as a genre as well as in Welsh writing in English.


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