"Feet in Chains" by Kate Roberts
Translated from the Welsh by John Idris Jones.
I picked up the book "Feet in Chains" (Traed mewn Cyffion) by Kate Roberts in Oxfam Porthmadog one morning. To be honest, I recognised the Peter Prendergast painting on the cover and was intrigued- the writer's name was curiously familiar too. It was only 99p...I could hardly go wrong, could I?
Back home with a cup of coffee, I scanned the first page, then went back and read the first three paragraphs, whereupon the afternoon slid by as I read on, oblivious to my surroundings. It's a good job I'm my own boss!
Afterwards, I remembered something on the internet about Kate Roberts. She was the Brenhines ein llên (The Queen of our Literature), a towering figure in Welsh writing, which is saying something.
Like I said, I was drawn in right from the off. The book opens with a young newly married woman listening to an outdoor sermon in North Wales during a preaching festival. The year is 1880:
"The hum of insects, the gorse crackling, the murmur of heat and the velvet tones of the preacher endlessly flowing."
What a beginning! She had described the Wales I love in that sentence and I was there on the hillside with Jane Gruffyd. Although in my case, I would have been scanning the skyline for slate quarries, not listening to the preacher. Nevertheless, Robert's description of his words reminded me of a stream coming off the mountain, an endless, mellifluous sound, but meaningless. Then she subtly burlesques the preacher and the congregation:
"He (the preacher) was able to preach effortlessly, restricted only by his clothes and his collar pressing in on him."
and the ladies:
"Their new shoes were pinching, their stays were too tight and the high collars of their new frocks were almost choking them."
It's a fine introduction, and though religion makes few significant appearances after this, the book soon settles into it's work, becoming a beautifully evocative study of family life, set against the hardships and pettyness of community and quarry. Jane's relationships with her husband and her children are drawn honestly and clearly without any false-sounding notes. There is no plot, except for the inexorable ticking of the clock as life moves on; the novels sets itself deeper into the landscape and into the reader with every page. After a while, I was struck with a slight resemblance to Jane Austen in the way Roberts uses humour and pathos with her characters, but unlike Austen, it is rarely at their expense.
The injustices at the quarry are drawn well, particularly with the "Little Steward", Morus Ifan, a small man of tiny achievements who took every advantage over the men in his charge. Robert's words have the ring of veracity when she describes the quarrymen, presumably at Moel Tryfan or Alexandra quarry:
"He could see the men in the shed, their caps pulled down over their eyes, cold and miserable, waiting by the doors of the shed for the hooter to sound. Like grey rats in their holes, they would peer round the doorposts. Then, when the hooter blew, they rushed headlong like a pack of hounds down the tramline towards the mountain."
The nature of work in the quarry is described through the thoughts of Jane's son Will, and her husband Ifan. The ever-dwindling rewards of their way of life are set against those perceived of the townsfolk who cut about in the latest fashions. There are parallels to be drawn here with the present day and our obsession with material things, thus being the unwitting dupes of the monied few.
While the tone of the book is often dour, like the grey landscape it is set against- and the hardships of the characters test them severely, the relationships between the family themselves are a source of both brightness and of conflict. Their inherent nature shining out from the many difficulties. Jane's alliance with her husband's sister Geini, forged early on in the novel, is particularly satisfying. She stands with Jane against the tyranny of her mother in law and is a source of emotional support. Family, of course brings pain and hurt, causing the son Owen to wonder about his choices and situation. The family have sacrificed much to send him and his brother Twm to university, putting a strain on ther family finances- when he gains employment, Owen sends home every penny he can. His sister, Sionedd, however is a self serving, shifty character who inherits their grandmothers money and yet gives none of it to help out. There are some fine passages where Owen tries to reason this out, but comes to a working conclusion that it is human nature and "he hates them all for it," as he sits surrounded by portraits of his ancestors. Roberts lets us know that he realises eventually how for him, ultimately it's about being honest, about having a duty of care. About love for one's family.
I shouldn't have been surprised, that the book takes a strongly left wing viewpoint - this was Wales at a crossroads and the son William is a passionate advocate of the union. Seeing that the men at the quarry were too meek to challenge the quarry owners, he goes away to make a new life for himself in the collieries of South Wales, becoming a Union official.
The war comes, an English war, a capitalist war that they want none of, but taunted by the folk in the town and by their uunsatisfactory situations, the boys enlist and Twm is killed. What shocked me was that the letter to inform the family of Tom's death in action was written in English. Neither Jane nor Ifan could read it and they had to ask a shopkeeper, who delivered the devastating news.
I put the book down reluctantly after I had finished it. I realised that it had touched me because it is set in a place I love and is about a people who fascinate me. I also sensed that it could have been written about society today and the themes that recur, the inequalities, the manipulation by the wealthy. And about the squabbles and small victories of ordinary family life. All that was missing was the very real concerns over the environment and our future- but I wouldn't wish that on Robert's characters!
The book I had bought was a Seren imprint, translated by John Idris Jones, a translation that gave me all the salient bearings to make sense of the story and it's characterisation. I haver since read a review of a new translation, by Katie Gramich- it will be interesting to see how this compares.
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