How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

This month Paula at Book Jotter is hosting Dewithon, a readathon celebrating literature by and about writers from Wales. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to read How Green Was My Valley, a book from my Classics Club list, so I was surprised and disappointed to find that there is some controversy over whether or not Richard Llewellyn can be considered a Welsh author (although his parents were Welsh, he was apparently actually born in England, despite claiming to be born in Wales). I decided to read it anyway and am glad I did because I loved it and it seemed to me that Llewellyn must have identified strongly with Wales and its people, even though he didn’t grow up there.

The book was published in 1939 but is set several decades earlier, towards the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, which is something else I hadn’t realised at first. Exact dates are not given, but there are a few clues and references to historical events that provide some indication of the time period. The story is narrated by Huw Morgan, whose family live in a coal mining community in the valleys of South Wales. Huw is only a child at the beginning of the novel, watching his older brothers go off to work in the mine with their father; he expects that one day he will follow in their footsteps, but his academic ability opens up at least the possibility of doing something else. Huw’s school days are not easy – despite his success in the classroom, he is bullied both by the other boys and by his teacher – but at home he receives plenty of guidance and advice, of various sorts, from his family and friends.

Huw’s recollections of his childhood are full of nostalgia and affection, but there is always a sense that danger and tragedy could be just around the corner and we know that Huw’s valley was perhaps not as ‘green and bright’ as he remembers it. This is symbolised by the descriptions of the slag heap which is growing larger by the year as more and more of the earth is mined, casting a shadow over the valley as it spreads and threatening to engulf the houses below (it was hard not to think here of the Aberfan disaster of 1966). Mining is an integral part of the lives of the Morgan family and the rest of the community, so while it is a constant source of conflict throughout the novel – Huw’s father and brothers become involved in strikes, the formation of unions and protests against the sliding scale of pay – it is also an important source of employment and income.

Everything that happens in the book feels realistic and Llewellyn adds to the authenticity by trying to capture the patterns and cadences of Welsh speech both in the dialogue and in Huw’s narration (though maybe someone from Wales who has read the book can tell me whether it’s as accurate as it sounded to me). The story itself seems very autobiographical and I could have easily believed that Huw’s experiences were drawn from the author’s own life. I was surprised, then, to find that not only was Llewellyn not born in St Davids as he claimed, he also didn’t come from a mining background and was more likely to have carried out his research for the book by talking to miners rather than by going down the mines himself.

Anyway, this is a beautifully written novel with characters I came to love and care about, particularly Huw himself, his beloved sister-in-law Bronwen, who is such a big influence on him from early childhood onwards, and his sister Angharad, faced with choosing between two different men and two different ways of life. At first I thought it was going to be a long, slow read, but as I gradually became more and more engrossed in Huw’s story the pages started to fly by much more quickly than I’d expected. I’m not sure if I’ll look for any of the sequels, which don’t seem to be as highly regarded, but I’m so glad I read this one and got to know Huw and the Morgan family.

Historical Musings #48: The Welsh Edition

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

This month Paula of The Book Jotter is hosting her first ever Wales Readathon* (also known as Dewithon 19). I have started to read How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn but I’m not sure if I’ll have time to finish it and write a review before the end of March so, as I do still want to participate in some way, I thought it would be interesting to devote this month’s Historical Musings post to Welsh historical fiction.

I’m listing below some of the historical novels set in Wales that I’ve already read and written about on my blog (some are by Welsh authors and some are not), but I’d love to hear your recommendations too.

Starting with the book set in the earliest time period, Daughter of the Last King by Tracey Warr takes us back to 11th century Wales and introduces us to Nest ferch Rhys, daughter of the last king of Deheubarth. I have the sequel, The Drowned Court, on my shelf to read soon.

Then there’s Sharon Penman’s Welsh Princes Trilogy, which begins with Here Be Dragons, the story of Llewelyn ab Iorweth (known as Llewelyn the Great) and his wife Joanna, an illegitimate daughter of England’s King John. The second book in the trilogy, Falls the Shadow, is set several years later and tells the parallel stories of Simon de Montfort’s rebellion against Henry III and, in Wales, the rivalries between Llewelyn’s sons and grandsons. I still need to read the final book, The Reckoning.

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters, the first in her Cadfael mystery series, involves a journey to a Welsh village to bring back a saint’s relics to Shrewsbury Abbey.

Sleeper’s Castle by Barbara Erskine is a time slip novel set in Hay-on-Wye, close to the border between England and Wales. The historical thread of the story involves a young woman who becomes caught up in Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion against the rule of Henry IV of England.

In First of the Tudors, Joanna Hickson looks at the Welsh origins of the Tudor dynasty, with a focus on Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, uncle of the future Henry VII.

The Child From the Sea by Elizabeth Goudge is a beautifully written novel about Lucy Walter, a mistress of King Charles II and the mother of his eldest son, the Duke of Monmouth. Lucy grows up at Roch Castle, on the Pembrokeshire coast, and her Welsh childhood is described in vivid detail.

My Beautiful Imperial by Rhiannon Lewis begins in 19th century Wales with a young boy dreaming of a life at sea before developing into a fascinating novel about the Chilean civil war.

Moving forward into the 20th century, I remember enjoying Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers by Mari Strachan (renamed simply Dead Man’s Embers since I read it a few years ago). The book is set in the 1920s and follows the story of a woman whose husband returns home to Wales after the First World War suffering from shell shock.

I found all of the books mentioned above interesting in different ways and would recommend any of them. But now it’s your turn…

Have you read any of these books? Can you think of any other good historical fiction novels set in Wales?

* It’s also Reading Ireland Month – you can see my earlier post on Irish historical fiction here.

The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

I haven’t read as many of the British Library Crime Classics as a lot of the other bloggers I follow, but of the few that I have read this one is the best so far. It’s not really a whodunnit so there’s no puzzle to solve or clues to decipher, but that doesn’t matter at all – the fun is in wondering whether the crime described in the novel will succeed and, if so, whether the culprit will be caught.

Our narrator, Edward Powell, is a self-obsessed, miserable and bitter young man who lives with his Aunt Mildred in a small Welsh village with a name (Llwll) he finds impossible to pronounce. With his little Pekingese dog and love of French novels, Edward feels out of place in Llwll and longs to move to somewhere more lively and fashionable. Unfortunately, being financially dependent on his aunt, it seems that he will have to stay where he is for now…unless he can think of another solution.

Given the title of the book, I’m sure you will have guessed what Edward’s solution is! Now, under normal circumstances I would be horrified at the thought of somebody plotting to murder his aunt, but I did have some sympathy for Edward as Aunt Mildred is portrayed as such a thoroughly unpleasant woman. She constantly criticises him, complains about everything he says or does, and goes to great lengths to make him look stupid in front of the entire village. Had Edward been a nicer person I could almost have given him my support, but he is no more likeable than she is – he’s lazy, selfish, and believes he is much cleverer than he actually is. Needless to say, the murder of his aunt proves to be more difficult than he expected!

Will Edward’s plans succeed? Obviously, I’m not going to tell you and will leave you to enjoy the story for yourself, but what I will say is that things don’t go smoothly and there are plenty of twists and turns before we reach the end. But the plot is only part of what makes this book so enjoyable; Edward’s narrative voice is wonderful too and transforms what could have been a very dark novel into a very funny one. From the beginning, when he spends the whole of the first page trying to explain how to pronounce Llwll, there is a strong thread of humour running throughout the entire story which is why, despite Edward and his aunt being such unlikeable people, their battle of wits is so entertaining to read.

As well as being funny, there’s also a sense that Edward’s narration could be unreliable. Is he correctly interpreting people and situations? Is Aunt Mildred really as horrible as he thinks she is or is his own negative view of the world distorting the way he sees her? Although this isn’t a mystery in the conventional sense, there’s still plenty of suspense as we wonder whether our questions will be answered, and when – and how – the murder of Edward’s aunt will take place.

The Murder of My Aunt was Richard Hull’s first novel, published in 1934. Having enjoyed it so much, I am looking forward to reading more of his books. Excellent Intentions is also a British Library Crime Classic, while a few others have been reissued by Agora Books. Have you read any of them?

My Beautiful Imperial by Rhiannon Lewis

When the Walter Scott Prize Academy published their list of twenty recommended historical fiction novels earlier this year, My Beautiful Imperial was one of the titles that sounded particularly appealing to me, so I was delighted to be offered a copy for review. I love books set in times and places I know nothing about and which are educational as well as entertaining – and this is one of those books.

It begins in 19th century Wales, where young Davy Davies is dreaming of following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a sailor. Beginning navigation classes with the remarkable Sarah Jane Rees brings him closer to achieving his ambition, but it is not until tragedy strikes the Davies family that Davy must leave his home in Cardigan behind and embark on his career at sea. The years go by and Davy eventually becomes captain of the Imperial – and as luck would have it he is sailing up and down the coast of South America just as civil war breaks out in Chile.

President Balmaceda retains control of the Chilean Army but his Navy rebel and side against him and Davy finds that the Imperial is commandeered by the President’s forces, who are desperate for ships. Davy agrees to continue in his role as captain, but soon instead of carrying passengers, cargo and mail, the Imperial is transporting troops, supplies and ammunition. These are dangerous times, but Davy is sustained by his love for Estella, whom he meets while the ship is in harbour in Valparaiso. The only problem is, Estella is already married…

I really enjoyed reading My Beautiful Imperial. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in Chile before and I certainly knew nothing about the Chilean Civil War of 1891. Although the main focus of the novel is on Davy’s own involvement in the war, there are also scenes written from the perspectives of several other characters, ranging from President Balmaceda himself to a reporter sent to Chile to cover the story for his newspaper, and in this way we are able to learn about the political situation in Chile, the causes of the conflict and some of the key events that take place before, during and after the war.

I sometimes struggle with books in which large sections of the story are set at sea, but that was not a problem here. The nautical terminology is kept to a level that I could understand and the descriptions of sea chases and manoeuvres are easy enough to follow. There are plenty of land-based sections too, giving us some glimpses of life in Valparaiso and other parts of Chile, as well as the opening chapters depicting Davy’s childhood in Wales. Davy’s path crosses with Estella’s several times throughout the novel, but their romance is only one small element of the story and I thought it was all the more moving because their meetings were few and far between.

I was interested to learn that Rhiannon Lewis had based this novel on the life of her great-great-uncle – he really was a Welsh sailor who became caught up in the Chilean Civil War. You can find pictures and more information on the author’s website. With such a strong personal connection, it must have been a fascinating book to research. It is certainly a fascinating one to read!

Thanks to the author for providing a copy of My Beautiful Imperial for review.

This is book 6/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

A Morbid Taste For Bones by Ellis Peters #1977club

This week, Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book are hosting another of their clubs where bloggers read and write about books published in one particular year. The chosen year this time is 1977 and although at first I thought I might have problems finding anything I wanted to read from that year, it turned out I had two suitable books already. One of them was A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first book in Ellis Peters’ Cadfael mystery series. I’ve been meaning to read this series for years, so 1977 Club seemed like the perfect opportunity to begin!

A Morbid Taste for Bones is set in the spring of 1137 and we first meet Brother Cadfael in the gardens of Shrewsbury Abbey tending the herbs with the assistance of two younger monks, John and Columbanus. John is a down-to-earth, practical young man, although Cadfael doubts whether he has a true vocation for the religious life, while Columbanus is starting to make a name for himself with his visions and dramatic ‘falling fits’. Returning from a trip to St Winifred’s Well in Gwytherin, North Wales, Columbanus claims that the saint has appeared to him, saying that her bones are being neglected by the people of Gwytherin and that she would like to be moved to Shrewsbury Abbey where more pilgrims will be able to visit her. Cadfael can’t help thinking that this seems very convenient, as Prior Robert has been considering ways to attract pilgrims to the Abbey and obtaining the bones of a saint would be the perfect solution!

As a Welshman, Cadfael is chosen as one of a small party of monks to travel into Wales and bring the saint’s relics back to Shrewsbury. However, when they reach Gwytherin they are met with resistance from the local people who don’t want to lose Winifred, especially not to England. Tensions rise and when a murder takes place in the woods, Cadfael works with the victim’s daughter to try to find the killer before an innocent man is accused.

I enjoyed my first Cadfael novel and part of the reason for that was because I really liked the character of Cadfael himself, with his mixture of warmth and intelligence, tolerance and imagination. Having entered the monastery later in life, he has a sort of worldliness that helps him to understand the feelings and motivations of people in the ‘outside world’. This allows him to have some sympathy for Brother John, who is struggling to reconcile his faith with other temptations, and also for Sioned, the young woman from Gwytherin whose father’s murder forms the mystery aspect of the novel.

I loved the way Peters portrays life in a small Welsh community: the village hierarchy, the farming of the land, what people did for entertainment, and most of all, how they felt about monks from England coming to take away the remains of a Welsh saint against their will. I was interested to learn, after finishing the book, that this was based on historical fact and Winifred’s relics really were taken from Wales to Shrewsbury Abbey where they remained until the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a heavy or dry historical novel, though, because it isn’t – I found it entertaining and very readable. I already knew I liked Ellis Peters’ writing because I read one of her Cadfael short stories in a Christmas anthology last year, but I think her style is better suited to a full-length novel than it is to the shorter form and I enjoyed this much more. It’s also a good example of how to write a murder mystery without including an excessive amount of violence or unnecessarily graphic descriptions. A good choice for 1977 Club and a promising start to a new series for me!

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I should have another 1977 book to tell you about later in the week, but for now here are a few older reviews I have posted of books published in that year:

The Brethren by Robert Merle
The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian
Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons by Gerald Durrell
Gildenford by Valerie Anand

Conquest: Daughter of the Last King by Tracey Warr

One of the things I love about historical fiction is having the opportunity to read about historical figures I previously knew nothing at all about. Nest ferch Rhys, daughter of the last king of Deheubarth in Wales, certainly falls into that category, so when I was offered review copies of the first two books in Tracey Warr’s Conquest trilogy, of course I said yes!

Daughter of the Last King opens in 1093. The twelve-year-old Nest is playing on the beach with her brother when she is captured by Norman invaders who inform her that her father has been killed in battle at Aberhonddu. Taken by her captors to Cardiff Castle, Nest is placed in the household of Sybil de Montgommery, a member of a powerful Norman family who have been granted lands and titles in Wales. Although Nest has every reason to despise the Montgommery family and all they stand for, she quickly finds herself warming towards Sybil, who has been given the job of overseeing her education and training. The plan is that Nest will one day marry Sybil’s brother, Arnulf de Montgommery – but what about her existing betrothal to the Welsh prince, Owain?

Nest’s story takes place during a troubled and eventful time in the histories of England, Wales and Normandy. William the Conqueror has died and his lands have been divided, with his eldest son, Robert Curthose, inheriting Normandy and the throne of England going to a younger son, William Rufus. The two are rivals and the nobility, particularly those with land in both England and Normandy, are forced to choose between them. Sybil’s husband and her Montgommery brothers have each decided where their loyalties lie, but will they have made the right choice?

Although I have read quite a few novels set just before and during the Norman Conquest of 1066, I have read very little about the period following this – the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. Tracey Warr goes into a lot of detail regarding the politics of the period, the rebellions, the shifting loyalties and betrayals, so that by the time I finished the book I felt that I had learned a lot. There is some overlap with the knowledge I gained from another recent read, Alison Weir’s Queens of the Conquest, but otherwise most of this was new to me. In particular, I found the focus on Welsh history interesting, especially the contrast between the Normans’ relatively quick and successful conquest of England and their attempts to conquer Wales.

Due to my unfamiliarity with so much of the history covered in this novel, I was relieved to see that the author had included some very useful material at the front of the book: genealogies for the Welsh royal families, Anglo-Norman royal family and Montgommerys; maps of eleventh century Wales, England and Normandy; and a plan of Cardiff Castle. I resisted the temptation to look anything up online because, with my complete lack of knowledge of Nest ferch Rhys and her story, I didn’t want to find out too much in advance. There was some suspense involved in waiting to see who – and whether – she would eventually marry, and I didn’t want to spoil the surprise for myself.

The one aspect of the book I’m not sure I liked was the inclusion of journal entries and letters written by a fictitious nun, Sister Benedicta, and her brother, a knight called Haith. These characters do serve a purpose in the novel, providing us with information on events which are unknown to Nest, but personally I found them a bit distracting and would have preferred to focus solely on Nest. She is such an interesting character and, although Tracey Warr points out in her author’s note that there is a limit to how much we know for certain about the real Nest, I did enjoy getting to know her. I’m looking forward to finding out how the story continues in the second part of the trilogy, The Drowned Court.

Thanks to Impress Books for providing a copy of this novel for review.

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I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a Merry Christmas! I’ll be back soon with my books of the year, my December Commonplace Book and maybe another review or two before New Year.

First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson

first-of-the-tudors Yes, I’ve been reading yet another Wars of the Roses novel! One of the things I’m enjoying about reading so many books set in the same time period is seeing the variety of ways in which different authors choose to approach the same subject as they search for a new angle and some fresh insights. In First of the Tudors, Joanna Hickson takes us right back to the early days of the conflict and the beginnings, more or less, of the Tudor dynasty to tell the story of Jasper Tudor, uncle of the future Henry VII.

As the sons of Welshman Owen Tudor and Henry V’s widow, Catherine of Valois, Jasper and Edmund Tudor are half-brothers to Henry VI, who is King of England as the novel opens in 1451.  Being closely related to royalty but with no real claim to the throne for themselves, Edmund and Jasper are welcomed to court by Henry who rewards them with lands and titles, making Edmund Earl of Richmond and Jasper Earl of Pembroke. Edmund also wins the hand in marriage of Margaret Beaufort, which is seen as a great accomplishment as Margaret, despite being little more than a child, has royal blood and is one of England’s richest heiresses.

When Edmund dies at Carmarthen Castle in 1456, possibly of bubonic plague, he leaves Margaret pregnant with his child. The baby, when it is born, is named Henry and is taken into Jasper’s care (before later being placed in the custody of the Yorkist William Herbert). As the years go by and Henry grows into a man, Jasper is occupied with looking after his estates, trying to keep the peace in Wales and supporting his brother the king as unrest grows and the country heads towards civil war. Based closely on historical fact, we see all of this through Jasper’s eyes, as he narrates his own story in his own words.

But there’s also a fictional story, built around the idea that Jasper had a cousin, Sian (or Jane) Hywel, who became his mistress. There is no historical basis for this, but it is known that Jasper did have illegitimate children, so I have no problem with Joanna Hickson inventing the character of Jane, especially as she makes clear in her author’s note which parts of the novel were factual and which weren’t. However, I felt that too much time was devoted to Jane – she narrates around half of the book – and I would have preferred to concentrate more on Jasper and the other historical figures. This is just my personal opinion, though, and I’m sure other readers will like the domestic scenes and the love story more than I did.

I’ve always found Jasper Tudor intriguing, maybe partly because he tends to be overshadowed in historical fiction by other, more well-known characters. I had been looking forward to seeing him take centre stage for once, but I didn’t really find his portrayal in this novel entirely convincing. I can’t quite explain why, other than to say that his narrative voice was almost identical to Jane’s and that I could never fully believe in him as a 15th century man. I did like the portrayal of Margaret Beaufort, however, which made her seem slightly more endearing than in other fictional portrayals I’ve read! I also enjoyed the focus on Wales, the descriptions of the Welsh castles and the Welsh people who played a part in this fascinating period of history – one secondary character whom I found particularly interesting was the poet Lewys Glyn Cothi.

First of the Tudors ends abruptly, leaving the feeling that there is much more of this story still to come, and the author’s note confirmed what I had already expected: there will be a sequel and Henry Tudor will take more of a central role in that one. If you’ve never read Joanna Hickson before you may also be interested in The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride, which tell the story of Catherine of Valois, or Red Rose, White Rose, the Wars of the Roses from Cicely Neville’s perspective.

Thanks to the publisher HarperCollins for providing a review copy via NetGalley.