This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo
THE CONTROVERSIAL CARADOC
31 December 1878: Caradoc Evans, Welsh short story writer, born.
Admired by some and reviled by others, the controversial Welsh short-story writer Caradoc Evans ripped the veil of sentimentality from rural Wales with his stories of little villages hidden in valleys and reeking with malice.
He was born David Caradoc Evans near Carmarthen in South Wales and spent a childhood marked both by poverty and turmoil: his father had been ostracized and disowned for assisting in the sale of a farm of a man being evicted for defying his landlords voting instructions in the election of 1868. Such shunning of the landlords and their allies would soon become famous in Ireland as boycotting. Years later, Evans family still suffered the repercussions of this incident, and set the young Caradoc at odds with his boyhood community.
After a brief schooling and an unhappy stint as a drapers assistant, Evans took a creative writing course at a local community college and eventually got himself a job at the weekly magazine Ideas, of which he became the editor in 1915.
Like many writers before him, journalism shaped his writing, giving him a lean, no-nonsense style. The short stories he began writing in 1915 were characterized by a reporters keen and unsentimental habits of observation.
At the time, this was a risky thing for a writer to do. Sentimentality ruled in popular fiction in the early twentieth century, and especially so in the Celtic countries, whose large numbers of emigrant and newly-urbanized workers sought to look back at their rural backgrounds through the lenses of nostalgia. In Scotland, this type of literature was called kailyard stories after the dooryard cabbage patch found by many a crofters cottage. Evans first story collection, My People, kicked up a storm when it was published in November 1915, for instead of nostalgic sentiment he sketched a rural Wales riven by greed, class conflict, and family violence, all presided over by repressive and domineering Methodist chapel ministers. His rendering of Welsh rural dialect also annoyed people, who found such quaint phrases as whisper you me condescending.
Welsh reviews of My People were scathing. To many it seemed a betrayal for Evans to expose the seamier side of Welsh society, especially when the political rise of Lloyd George was giving many Welsh a long-overdue sense of national pride and respectability. To threaten this newfound and fragile respectability, especially during wartime, seemed to many Welsh an all but unforgivable act.
Outside Wales, Evans gained a notable ally in the American writer H.L. Menken. When fresh storm clouds gathered over the publication of Evans second collection, Capel Sion, in 1916, Menken offered to buy up 100 copies of the book and distribute them gratis to YMCA libraries. But in Wales, the reaction of Capel Sion led to police raids on bookshops in an effort to sieze and suppress the book on the grounds of indecency.
Undaunted, Evans carried on, and produced the short story collections My Neighbors (1919), Pilgrims in a Foreign Land (1942), and The Earth Gives and Takes All (1946), plus the novels Nothing to Pay (1930), Wasps (1933), This Way to Heaven (1934) and Mothers Marvel (1949).
But whatever success his writings enjoyed in England and America, Evans was still detested by many in Wales. When his play Taffy premiered in London in 1923 the opening night crowd included such celebrities and luminaries as Mrs. Lloyd George, H.G. Wells, and Margot Asquith. But the crowd also included numbers of Welsh demonstrators who, in a manner much like the reception that would be given to the premier of Sean OCaseys play The Plough and the Stars in Dublin three years later, disrupted the performance and shouted catcalls. The hatred of Evans proved more lasting than an outburst of opening-night rowdyism: years later his portrait was slashed while on display in a gallery, and this was after two Welsh galleries refused to hang it at all.
Caradoc Evans died on 11 January 1945, and his last two books were brought out posthumously. After sinking into relative obscurity in the decades following his death, Caradoc Evans books were reprinted, with much less outrage, in the 1990s. In recent years he has enjoyed some rehabilitation among a new generation of Welsh readers, but his reputation as the storm petrel of modern Welsh literature persists.
The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2003 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.
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