The Fiction of Emyr Humphreys

Posted on 16 February 2011

The Fiction of Emyr Humphreys by Professor Linden Peach

Now in his 91st year, Emyr Humphreys was once described by R.S. Thomas as ‘the supreme interpreter of Welsh life in English’. For over half a century, Emyr Humphreys has made an extraordinarily impressive contribution to the literature and culture of Wales as a novelist, short story writer, poet, dramatist and television producer. It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that a book should now be written reflecting upon his life’s work.

Published by the University of Wales Press, The Fiction of Emyr Humphreys: Contemporary Critical Perspectives by Professor Linden Peach is the first in-depth study of Humphreys’ fictional works.

In the text, he examines Humphreys’ work through contemporary ideas from critical, cultural and gender studies, stressing its relevance to twenty-first century readers. His reflections include discussions on issues of war, contested masculinities, Welsh women’s history, strangeness and ‘otherness’, father and daughter relations, and identity in linguistically complex environments.

Professor Peach describes Humphreys as writing ‘protesting’ fiction – a phrase often used by the writer himself. There are many radical themes in his work including pacifism and Welsh nationalism. And Humphreys did not shy of embracing them in his own life during times of difficulty. His pacifism owes much to the fact that he never knew his father other than as an invalid from the First World War and to the influence of the progressive wing of Nonconformity. At the outset of the Second World War, he declared himself a conscientious objector - Outside the House of Baal includes one of the most vivid and moving accounts of what pacifists on the home front had to endure.

Highlighting the value of Humphreys’ work, Professor Peach makes the point that the majority of Wales’s most important writers hail from south Wales, but Emyr Humphreys , born in Prestatyn (1919), has spent most of his life in Anglesey (north Wales) where he now lives. As such, his novels offer an alternative perspective on modern Welsh history to that of the writers and historians of south Wales. Indeed, Emyr Humphreys is one of the foremost Anglo-Welsh novelists and has authored 21 novels, one of which won the Somerset Maugham Award and another, The Toy Epic, now an A-Level set text, the Hawthornden Prize.

Early in life, Humphreys’ conversion to Welsh nationalism was inspired by the influence of one of his teachers at Rhyl County School and by the arson attack on the bombing school at Penyberth. The speech of Saunders Lewis, one of the arsonists and a leading writer, in Welsh from the dock at Caernarfon Court had a lasting impact upon him, fuelling his interest in the Welsh language and Welsh culture. At what was then the University College of Wales Aberystwyth, he studied history and learned to speak Welsh. Although most of his best work is in English - about which he has never been able to shake his feeling of postcolonial guilt - its content and its frames of reference, including allusions to Welsh mythology and literature, bring a Welsh-language Wales to life.

Dr Kirsti Bohata, assistant director of the Centre for Research into the English Literature and Language of Wales, Swansea University, says of The Fiction of Emyr Humphreys:

“Peach conveys the sheer vibrancy of Humphreys’ ‘dissident prose’ with infectious enthusiasm, while at the same time providing a masterclass in reading his novels with reference to contemporary literary theories”

Professor Peach added:

“When Humphreys started writing Wales was of course a very different country to what it is today. It did not even have its own capital city let alone any kind of self government. The Welsh language did not have the status it has now. The struggles in that area were just beginning. Humphrey's fiction addresses the ebb and flow of nationalist aspirations. It makes us realise that although there is much still to do we must not take for granted what has been achieved in the last half century.”

Now Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Wales, Professor Peach was in 2009 made a member of the Welsh Academy, and the previous year was elected Fellow of the English Association. This is his second major work on the fiction of Wales. His earlier book Contemporary Irish and Welsh Women’s Fiction was described by Lucy Thomas in Planet as ‘an insightful introduction to a dynamic area of study’ and ‘a valuable contribution to Welsh-Irish and gender studies’ by Laura Wainwright, Irish Studies Review. He has had a long standing interest in Humphreys’s work, ever since he invited him as a younger writer to speak to the student English society at what was then the University of Wales Aberystwyth. His book is the first to make use of the extensive Emyr Humphreys archive in the National Library of Wales drawing insights from Humphreys’ various drafts, editing, unpublished essays, notes and fragments. Its combination of contemporary critical ideas and archive scholarship will recommend the book to students and teachers alike.


Notes to Editors:

9780708322161 The Fiction of Emyr Humphreys: Contemporary Critical Perspectives £18.99

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