Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price

First published in Welsh as O! Tyn y Gorchudd 2002


Translated by Lloyd Jones and published in English 2012









[North Wales, 1912]

There is a photograph, in faded black-and-white, showing the family at Tynybraich in their Sunday best…

I stand in the narrow gap between my mother and my brothers, perched on the edge of a stool. My two feet are splayed as I make room for my brother whilst attempting to keep my balance. Gruffydd’s hand covers mine. My mother’s left hand barely touches my shoulder. Hidden from sight, my brother William’s hand grips my long tresses. Two bows of lace lie on either side of my head, like two dragonflies resting on my hair. I am wearing a new pinstripe frock with a starched collar and four silver buttons: lady, baby, gypsy, queen… And a cameo brooch passed down from my mother.

I was never so proud! My joy is evident. The excitement of the picture-taking shimmers in my eyes: the pomp of the setting; the camera’s awesome technology; the miracle of the end-product.


observations: This is a treasure of a book, one that pulled me in and completely enthralled me. It tells the story of a real person, but not someone you would have heard of: Rebecca Jones was the author’s great-aunt, and Angharad Price has imagined her life as a first-person narrative. Rebecca Jones lived in a remote valley in North Wales for her whole life: her family had farmed in the same place for a thousand years. In the book, Rebecca Jones imagines her mother’s marriage and then the birth of the whole family, starting with herself in 1905, then goes on to tell the story of the farm during the 20th century. Life isn’t easy: ‘Olwen Mai died when she was two weeks old. Born in May. Dead in May. Even the bluebells lasted longer.’

Some of her siblings were born blind, to a life of unimaginable difficulty. And yet – arrangements could be made for them to be educated at special schools. This meant they lived away from the family from an early age (for one of them, an unthinkable 3 and a half), and their achievements are remarkable. But their opportunities meant there was no money left to do more than the minimum for the sighted children. But Rebecca never complains, and she is stalwart, she works hard all her life for little reward – she points out that the women often work beside the men on the land, then go and prepare the food while the men relax.

But this is not a plaintive or miserable book, it is just a spell-binding description of one life, and of the changes that are coming – as motorized vehicles, radio and telephone arrive in the valley. It is one of those books that concentrates on something that seems to be very small, but makes you think that you can see the big things all the better for having read it.

As you read it – and it is a very short book - you are wondering: did Angharad Price question her great-aunt closely, was she perhaps a favourite relation? Price decided to turn the memories into this beautiful memoir – why did she choose this form? And at the end your questions are answered.

The picture is, obviously, the photo being described: it is taken from the book, and is used with the kind permission of the author.

In my personal pantheon of great books about small communities, The Life of Rebecca Jones stands alongside No Great Mischief by Alastair MacLeod and That they May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern – click to see the blog entries.

8 comments:

  1. Moira - Oh,, this does sound like a wonderful story. I really enjoy that 'down to the human level' look at coming of age, at an era, at a place, etc.. And just from the bit you've shared it seems that Price's writing style is smooth and flows well. This one goes on my list.

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    1. Yes, I love the idea of seeing the wider world by studying something small-scale, and Angharad Price is a marvellous writer.

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  2. This sounds very good too. I will have to seek it out. You are adding too many books to my list.

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    1. I do recommend it if you can get hold of it - and it is short!

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  3. Sounds wonderful to me. I like to read about regular people who struggle through life, like most of us.

    Have you read Welsh librarian, Mari Strachan's The Earth Hums in B-Flat, set in the 1950s in rural Wales and Blow on a Dead Man's Embers, set in 1921 Wales, post-WWI and a bit of PTSD involved? Wonderful characters.

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    1. I haven't read Strachan, but you are the 2nd or 3rd person to recommend her to me, so I must take a look.

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  4. Moira, I enjoy reading memoirs and biographies as well as historical works of this nature and while I have read a few of them, I find them overwhelming, albeit in a good way; perhaps, owing to the depth of the subject matter that covers period, lives and times of the characters, and places and settings. Sometimes it feels like going back in time and reliving their lives and their struggles.

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    1. Yes Prashant, I like them too and I know what you mean. But I am endlessly fascinated by the details, and the way lives change.

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