The Life of Rebecca Jones: A Novel
(originally O! Tyn y Gorchudd)
by Angharad Price,
translated by Lloyd Jones,
afterword by Jane Aaron.
MacLehose Press 2014 (2002)
I was given a long life. It has spanned the whole of the twentieth century and has been full of experience. I have felt the rough fist of misfortune and the soft palm of joy. I have spent many hours in darkness. Yet light came anew. I learned that the price of having is losing.
The life of upland farming communities has never been an easy one. In southern Snowdonia one such farmstead has survived a millennium on the flanks of Maesglase mountain between Dolgellau and Dinas Mawddwy, but one may wonder for how much longer, especially with the rapid changes wrought from the 20th century onwards into the present.
The Life of Rebecca Jones recounts the deeds and experiences of the Jones family from Tynybraich farm over the course of that century, told as by Rebecca herself. Only, this being a nonfiction novel, it’s actually told by Angharad Price, Rebecca’s great-niece, and so could be called a recreated autobiography or memoir. That doesn’t detract from its utter authenticity though, nor from its poetic power nor its emotional impact.
For this is a novel about continuity; or rather continuance, when a lack of disconnection or interruption cannot be taken for granted. “Continuance is painful,” Rebecca tells us. “It is the cross onto which we are tied: its beams pulling us this way and that. A longing for continuance lies at the heart of our nature.” And yet, “we are born to die. And we spend our lives coming to terms with that paradox.”
This is a beautiful heartful novel which deserves its plaudits. Among other things, in focusing on one valley — Cwm Maesglasau — it allows the reader to observe the regular patterns of the year as seasons come and go: the daily life at the farm, the wonders of nature, the familial customs that formed the bedrock of rural communities. But we also see that such patterns of living were not universal because the Jones family had to cope with unforeseen vicissitudes: three of Rebecca’s brothers were afflicted with blindness. The repercussions of this were that all three went off at an early age to Worcester College, established for “the blind sons of gentlemen”; and in later life a BBC documentary in the 1960s was to feature their remarkable story.
The original title of this novel was O! Tyn y Gorchudd which could be roughly translated from Welsh as “Oh, pull aside the veil.” The author’s choice of this title was taken from a hymn written in the 18th century by one of the family’s ancestors, Hugh Jones, in which the mist which often masks Maesglasau mountain symbolises the veil that can hide the sinner from the figure on the cross, and the stream that tumbles down a spectacular waterfall through the cwm represents the blood that cleanses away sins. But of course the phrase can also refer to the veil that hid the world from the brothers’ sight, just as Tyn y Gorgudd could, coincidentally, be translated as The House of the Veil; after all the farmhouse was called Tynybraich, meaning the house on a spur of land.
However, in the television documentary the women of the farm were largely unseen and this, I think, is one of the veils that Angharad Price was concerned about drawing back: Rebecca herself, and her mother, her paternal grandmother, her sisters-in-law, her nieces. In rural life women were expected to play supportive but secondary roles yet they were crucial lynchpins, for without them traditional farming just wouldn’t continue. Another veil that the author wanted to pull aside was the pace of change and the effect the outside world has had and continues to have on isolated communities. Already it was happening in the last century, especially following the Great War, then as communications and technology and the invasion of English culture proceeded apace the world Rebecca knew at the start of the century was unrecognisable at the end. Even the ancient farmhouse was demolished and replaced.
But not everything changed so obviously. The valley, the mountains, the stream, remain as before and the flowers, the sheep and the birds of prey are still in evidence. The prose poetry of old Hugh Jones which peppers the pages witnesses to nature’s hold on Maesglasau, even if traffic on the A470 may now thunder past on the way to or from Dolgellau and beyond. And Hugh Jones’ poetry is matched, even in this sensitive translation into English by novelist Lloyd Jones, by Angharad Price’s priceless prose quietly telling the passing of years. The text may be at times sparse, almost matter-of-fact and shorn of any unnecessary adjectives or adverbs, but emotions, though held in check, remain raw, and the way words are used is telling.
If we imagine The Life of Rebecca Jones flowing like the Nant Maeglasau, there will be a parting of the mist in the final sentences that will reveal why it’s important that the life of women like Rebecca is told. And if, as she says, the “price of having” is indeed losing, we will understand that loss can manifest in many forms and that we have to be prepared to pay the price. I feel extremely privileged to have read this deeply affecting novel, as you may have guessed; it paints a portrait of a close-knit way of life that is slowly unravelling.
A rendition of Hugh Jones’s hymn O! Tyn y Gorchudd by a Welsh chapel choir, starting at 0:32
A work read for Dewithon, the Wales Readathon, on St David’s Day