One of the most interesting things about the best Welsh novels is that, until relatively recently, there was very little Welsh fiction in English, making it the newest body of fiction in the English-speaking world. Moreover, the novel form was relatively late in coming to Wales, as before the twentieth century Welsh writers writing in English seemed to favour poetry and short stories. Those forms have a rich body already, whereas the novel is only relativley recently beginning to take off.
Welsh fiction in English tends to focus on Welsh rural life, particularly that in the industrial valleys of South Wales. The most recent of that fiction are novels that attempt to come into the mainstream – experimenting with the subtleties and varieties of the Welsh language within the wider context of established British fiction. Here are some of the best examples of Welsh fiction.
My People by Cadadoc Evans, 1878-1945, caused a literary sensation when it was published in 1915. It was particularly hailed in England as a literary work comparable with James Joyce’s. In England critics praised it as a work of art comparable with the French writer, Zola’s novels. It is a collection of themed short stories subtitled Stories of the Peasantry of West Wales, which made Evans famous as the writer of a new kind of fiction. The work is clearly influenced by the American Sherwood Anderson’s book, Winesburg, Ohio, including the use of Anderson’s severely cut-down prose, later adopted by Hemingway as his characteristic style.
Feet in Chains
Feet in Chains, 1936, is the English translation of the novel, Traed Mewn Cyffion, by Kate Roberts, born 1936. It’s a very vivid, although bleak, depiction of the life of a community in a Welsh slate quarrying town. It focuses on the lamentable condition of women in the community and for that reason it is not an easy read. The novel is rich in detail regarding local opinions about the war, their place in society, and the injustices inherent in the social system with a great deal of explanation about the war and the social system. Feet in Chains was a very popular novel and it earned its author the unofficial title, The queen of our literature.
How Green Was My Valley
How Green Was My Valley (1939) by Richard Llewellyn, 1906-1983, is set in South Wales during the Victorian era. The narrator is Huw Morgan, a son in the Morgan family, who tells the story of his family. Although Llewellyn frequently claimed that the novel was based on his own experience, biographers found, after his death, that his own growing up was far removed from that of Huw Morgan’s. Llewellyn won the American National Book Award. The novel was also voted favourite novel by its members. He had spent some time in Gilfach Goch and gleaned information for his book through talking to the local mining families he had befriended
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, published in 1940, by Dylan Thomas 1914-1953, is a collection of stories about a child growing up in Wales. It’s clear that the title, and the theme – a child growing up – are either a tribute or a flippant reference to James Joyce and his classic Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The stories are autobiographical, all set in the South Wales city of Swansea, where Dylan Thomas grew up. Most of the stories are comical and they range from early childhood to their protagonist’s experience as a reporter for the South Wales Daily Post. The language in this prose piece is as vibrant, creative and resonant as it is in Thomas’ poems and his great radio play, Under Milk Wood.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, published in 1964, by Roald Dahl (1916-1990) is a children’s novel that would make it into a list of the top novels of any country and it has become something of a cult novel. Charlie Bucket, a child growing up in a poor family, wins a golden ticket that allows him to visit a local chocolate factory and from there Roald Dahl weaves a wonderful, magical story, clothed in his unique creative language, in which he invents new words and phrases, capturing the imagination of generations of children. The novel has been adapted in several media, usually using the name of another character, Willy Wonka, in its adaptations. In 2012 the UK Royal Mint issued a first class stamp bearing the image of Charlie Bucket holding his Golden Ticket.
I Wrote a Letter To my Love
I Wrote a Letter To my Love is the 1970 Booker prize-winning novel by Bernice Rubens (1923-2004). It’s a favourite love story among Welsh people. In her late fifties, Amy, having grown up regarding herself as unattractive, and having always been ignored by men, decides to grasp her fate with both hands and make a play for the happiness that has always eluded her. It is a bold and dangerous course and Rubens tells the story in a straightforward, unsentimental way. Rubens is the only Welsh writer to have won the Booker Prize twice
The Pillars of the Earth
The Pillars of the Earth is an historical novel, 1989, by Ken Follett better known as an adventure and thriller writer with such familiar titles as On the Wings of Angels and Eye of the Needle. Set in the 12th century in “Kingsbridge”, the events surround the building of a cathedral, tracing the development of Gothic architecture and the lives of the priory and the villagers as they cope with the events of their time, which, in the perspective of our own, were such things as the sinking of the White Ship and the assassination of Thomas Becket. It was an immensely successful novel, a best-seller, and made into an eight part television series and a video game.
His Dark Materials
His Dark Materials, 1995, is actually three novels, a trilogy by Philip Pullman, born 1946. The three novels, Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass follow two children as they travel through several parallel universes. The novels have been stereotyped as children’s or young adults’ novels but Pullman did not have that as a goal when he wrote them, and, indeed, they appeal to readers of all ages who enjoy fantasy fiction. The trilogy has been awarded several prizes, including the Carnegie Medal for Northern Lights and The Whitbread Book of the Year for The Amber Spyglass. It has not been all plain sailing for Pullman as his novels, including those in the trilogy, have attracted the attention of the religious communities with their perceived criticism of religion.
The Aberystwyth Series
The Aberystwyth Series, consisting of six novels published between 2001 and 2011 – Aberystwyth Mon Amour, Last Tango in Aberystwyth, That Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth, Don’t Cry For Me Aberystwyth, From Aberystwyth with Love, The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still take the reader into a Welsh seaside resort in an alternative universe, also named Aberystwyth. Its detective, Louis Knight, wages a local war with the Druids. Pryce regarded the cataloguing of the moral turpitude of Aberystwyth, which is turned into a city reminiscent of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles as his writerly destiny. The novels are written in the hard-boiled prose developed by Chandler, which has earned Pryce the appellation “the king of Welsh noir.”
Grits is the debut novel of Niall Griffiths, born in 1966. Its publication in 2000 presented the world with a new literary voice, bringing Welsh writing squarely into the twenty-first century. Set in Aberystwyth, it is heroin and alcohol-soaked and dripping with petty crime and promiscuity, all mixed together with passionate, poetic prose, it offers a comparison with the novels of the Scottish writer, Irvine Welsh. It became a best-seller and led to the output of several more novels from Griffiths, including the popular, extremely violent Sheepshagger and his 2003 Stump, which won the Wales Book of the Year award.
And that’s our pick of the best Welsh novels. You may also like our article on the best Welsh authors. What’s your take – any Welsh books missing from this list you think we should add? Let us know in the comments section below.