REVIEW by Liz Jones

NWR Issue r29

Caradoc Evans: the Devil in Eden

by John Harris

Caradoc Evans’ reputation will not leave him alone. More than a century after the publication of My People, his debut collection of short stories, the ‘best hated man in Wales’ sobriquet still attaches itself to his name.

Like him or loathe him, his defining role in Welsh literature is now undisputed – thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of the author John Harris. As editor and bibliographer of Caradoc’s work (he is almost always Caradoc, rarely Evans) for over three decades, he has succeeded in rescuing Caradoc from his ‘slide into oblivion’.

The Devil in Eden marks the full flowering of his efforts. A pleasing mix of the scholarly and gossipy; it is a virtuoso performance that showcases the author’s intimate knowledge of his subject. As a literary biography, it promises to be a major work in the study of Welsh writing in English; a genre in which Caradoc’s road from speculative self-styled provoker to canonical figure has been a rocky one.

Through a combination of dogged determination and a stubborn talent, Caradoc used his apprenticeship in the drapery trade as an escape route from rural ennui to his Promised Land of London. Putting himself through years of night school, he eventually gained a footing in Fleet Street and a job in the rapidly growing field of journalism; a career that took him from the subediting desk at the Daily Mirror to an editorship at the popular literary journal, TP’s Weekly (via a stint at Ideas magazine as the most unlikely of agony uncles). But it was through moonlighting as a literary author that he was to make his name.

While his savage tales of Welsh rural life were admired in London literary circles (numbering TS Eliot, James Joyce and JB Priestly among his admirers), in Wales they ignited a blaze of hurt and rage. His unique mix of Biblical language and literal (mis)translations of the Welsh (a combination that imbibes his austere tales with a powerful mythical quality) led to accusations that he was holding Wales up to English mockery. But it was the unremitting grotesqueness of his work that caused the greatest offence. Tales such as ‘Be This Her Memorial’ (in which a poverty-blighted widow, forced to live on a diet of boiled rats, is in turn eaten by them) and ‘A Father in Sion’ (where a husband keeps his supposedly mad wife tethered in the cowshed) exploded Wales’ sentimental love for its hallowed cynefin. Caradoc’s insistence that his stories were based on truths, observed during his childhood in the Ceredigion village of Rhydlewis, only poured more oil on the fire.

A revolt against Caradoc, spearheaded by the Western Mail, led to (among other reactions) the banning of his ‘treacherous’ books from bookshops in Wales, a near-riot at the 1923 play, Taffy, in London and a refusal to hang his portrait at the Glynn Vivian Gallery in Swansea. (Later, when the picture found a home in the foyer of London’s Grafton Theatre, an anonymous St David’s Day attacker slashed the canvas across Caradoc’s throat.)

Caradoc was no misunderstood artist, and took delight in his reputation as a renegade. The author of tales as grotesque as they are beautiful, as realistic as they are fantastical, he appeared as abrasive and contradictory as his fiction. He was, writes Harris, ‘a bohemian peasant, a belligerent flatterer, a misogynistic feminist [and] a defamer of the chapels he appreciatively attended.’ Digging beneath the myths and stereotypes, this biography lays bare the tangled roots of this most complex and compelling of figures.

Later in his career, the successes of his early collections were to elude him (although Harris claims his wartime novella, Morgan Bible, as a late return to form). While the barbed satire continued, his writing had lost much of the power and subtlety of his earlier works as he began to sound like a parody of his former self.

Then events took an unexpected turn. His early works were ‘discovered’ by a small but influential group of young Welsh writers, among them Gwyn Jones, the founding editor of the Welsh Review, who commissioned a series of Caradoc’s memoirs for the journal, and Dylan Thomas who, in his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, paid homage to ‘the great Caradoc Evans’.

Perverse, iconoclastic and ground-breaking, Caradoc Evans tore down the old shibboleths of chapel and community, clearing the ground, for those Welsh writers that followed, to be as brave and as angry, as non-lyrical and, above all, as unsentimental as they pleased. (Without Caradoc, would we have Cynan Jones or Caryl Lewis, let alone the Thomases RS and Dylan?) Dragging Welsh writing in English out of a fog of sentiment, he held his people up for brutal examination under the harshest of lights.

Even today, our opinion of Caradoc – our ability to assess his work on literary, rather than moral or patriotic grounds – may be seen as a measure of our self-confidence as a nation.

Liz Jones' biography of the romantic novelist (and wife of Caradoc Evans), Marguerite Jervis, will be published by Honno later this year.

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