Sunday, 11 April 2010

Country Dance by Margiad Evans

This little book, discovered while poking about in the sub-genre of diary fiction, is quirky and rather fascinating.  First published in 1932, and available again now through the Library of Wales, the book comprises Ann Goodman's diaries with a preface and coda provided by the author.  Ann Goodman is a shepherd's daughter writing in 1850, her father English, her mother Welsh.  At the opening of the book, she is leaving her relative Mary's farm in Wales, where she has been living and working for some years; she has an English sweetheart there, Gabriel, and it is at his suggestion that she begins to keep a diary.  Ann must return to her parents' home in England and care for her ailing mother.  While there, she will catch the attention of the local (and Welsh) landowner Evan ap Evans, her father's employer.  Ann tells us not only of the struggle between her Welsh and English suitors but of the struggle within herself to reconcile her dual nationality in the border country; her body and character are part of the contested space, her struggle to express herself and choose the right lover a series of border skirmishes.  Gabriel's rage, and her father's rejection of Wales and the Welsh, drive Ann towards her own Welshness and the acceptance of Evan ap Evans's attention, in a context of commonplace anger, violence and rejection.

The preface and coda are a framing device that present Ann's diary as a historic document and Ann as a real person, and politicise Ann's story as "the entire history of the border".  The novel presents its characters often in terms of racial stereotypes, or behaviour is explained away as due to Welshness or Englishness.  One minor character, Gwen Powys, proposes a toast to "The Border", after others have toasted Wales and England, suggesting that the Border may be a separate space where the rules of nationality do not apply.  Ann's embrace of her Welsh identity is, to some extent, celebrated by the narrative, but this is undercut by its tragic consequences.  

There are some points where the writing subverts the diary form.  Ann records conversations in Welsh in English, noting where characters have spoken in Welsh, and the diary gradually evolves a way of transcribing Welsh into an archaic English ("What hast thou done today?") to indicate when Welsh is being spoken.  But Ann understands Welsh and English and would have no need to translate it in her own diary, except in the early stages where she is writing it for Gabriel to read; the translation is for the benefit of the general reader who cannot be expected to understand Welsh beyond "Nos da".

Margiad Evans (a psuedonym for Peggy Whistler) wrote three other novels, and two volumes of poetry, as well as an autobiography and an account of her experience of epilepsy - she died from a brain tumour in 1958 at the early age of 49.  Last year there was a centenary conference about her at the University of Swansea; I hope this means she is more likely to be read, as her sparse and lyrical prose merits attention, and Country Dance has resonated with me for some time.

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