Tuesday, 21 June 2011

More reflections on M. Wynn Thomas', In the Shadow of the Pulpit (2010).


I said that I'd return and comment again, in a slightly more reflective way, on M. Wynn Thomas', In the Shadow of the Pulpit: Literature and Nonconformist Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010). So having now read the whole of it, what do I think?

Well to begin with the book has been extremely well received, even nominated for the Wales Book of the Year award this year (http://www.literaturewales.org/the-long-list/). So it going to be very influential in framing contemporary views on Wales' nonconformist heritage. Its a fine book in many ways, richly detailed, erudite and certainly an excellent read. But there are a number of problems with it.

Firstly, its a work of literary criticism in the main, and needs to be read as such. Its not primarily a work of history, leave alone theology. Having said that, and despite the inclusion of a bluffers guide to nonconformity as its first chapter, the book really needed a more thorough earthing in the best contemporary scholarship, both historical and theological, on Welsh nonconformity. This would help clear away some of the more obvious outdated and plainly simplistic interpretations.

The main analytical sections in the book are based on close readings of a wide array of early twentieth century Anglo-Welsh writers, Idris Davies, Gwyn Thomas, Caradoc Evans, Dylan Thomas all figure prominently, the vast majority having reacted against their nonconformists upbringings to a greater or lesser extent. While these authors certainly paint a rich picture, or at least one picture of nonconformist Wales in the early twentieth century, I wonder how representative it really is? The picture that emerges from their writings is of a nonconformist Wales that was dark and oppressive, the result of a grim Calvinistic theology, where most ministers and chapel elders were hypocrites, who said one thing and did another, especially where sexual morality was concerned. Whilst I wouldn't want to doubt that picture in its entirety, like most caricatures it has enough truth in it to give it some resonance, but again how representative is it?

Its here of course that the historical and theological dimensions are so necessary. The Welsh nonconformity depicted by these writers was the Victorian variety, that highly respectable, middle class religion is seen as being normative in Thomas' account. But was it? Again its here that the problems with the books engagement with Calvinism are problematic, since by the early twentieth century, or even before that, the heyday of Calvinism had long since passed. Was it Calvinism these writers were reacting against, or was it hypocritical Victorian respectability?

For a more positive analysis/interpretation/assessment of Welsh nonconformity, Thomas turns to the voice of the novelist Emyr Humphreys, for a final chapter which he subtitles: 'The Chapels write back'. While Humpheys is certainly a major interpreter of twentieth century nonconformity, his perspective is again not without its problems. While rightly pinning many of the endemic problems within nineteenth century nonconformity onto the scurrilous attacks of the 1847 Blue Books, attacks which forced the nonconformist leadership along the road of middle class respectability, Humphreys sees the accomodation with the English incomers as the biggest problem. It was nonconformity's 'devil's bargain with that culturally threatening language' (pp.297-8), that hollowed out Welsh Dissent of, well of its dissenting tradition. For Humphreys then the essence of nonconformity was the ability to dissent from the status quo, but from the latter decades of the nineteenth century, Welsh nonconformity accomodated itself to English bourgeois culture, and of course the English language. The true twentieth century heirs of the nonconformist tradition for Humphreys were therefore the founders of Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Language Society. Nonconformist decline is therefore equated, to a greater or lesser extent, with Anglicisation. Of course, there are elements of truth to this, but a much more careful theological interpretation is also necessary; the reality was that the evangelical theological heart had been ripped out of Welsh nonconformity by the early twentieth century, in its place all that remained was a socially based moralism and a little later Welsh nationalism. Decline was inevitable, and that decline was not unique to Wales by any means! The real inheritors of Wales' nonconformist past were now to be found elsewhere, and not necesarily always within the mainline Welsh denominations.

My biggest problem with the book then is the lack of nuance, a lack born of an incomplete grasp of the historical context, informed by the latest scholarship, and a lack of engagement with theology, with belief. Thomas' book then, while informative as regards the attitudes of these early twentieth century Anglo-Welsh writers towards Welsh nonconformity, should be read as just that - the way in which some disaffected Anglo-Welsh writers came to terms with their nonconformsit upbringings. It should not be read as a rounded interpretation of Wales' nonconformist past.

Thomas' picture should, therefore, not be read back into earlier generations of Welsh nonconformity without significant qualification.

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