ONE of Wales’s foremost writers in the 20th century reached a very special milestone this week, as he celebrated his 100th birthday.
Novelist Emyr Humphreys of Llanfairpwll, who has dedicated the best part of his life to portraying Welsh life during the 20th century through the medium of English in a series of novels over the years, was honoured in a meeting held in his home village, Llanfairpwll, Ynys Mon on Monday night.
He was described as a “Welsh resistance fighter using words” in a lecture delivered by his friend and former colleague Professor M Wyn Thomas, of Swansea University.
“A colonized country with a colonized mentality”
“Emyr Humphreys identified Wales’s main achilles heel, i.e being a colonised country with a colonised mentality after being ruled by England for so long” said Professor Thomas.
“His novels engage with this idea of being a colonised nation, and how that has impinged upon Welsh people in different ways during their lives in the 20th century”.
Amongst his most memorable novels are “Little Kingdom”, “An Absolute Hero”, “A Toy Epic”, “Bonds of Attachment“, “A Man’s Estate” and “Outside The House of Baal”
Professor Thomas described Emyr Humphreys as being a passionate campaigner as well as a being a perceptive observer of Welsh life. Having regained Welsh as an adult, he was instrumental in the campaign to restore the original name of his childhood village, Trelawnyd in Flintshire from the English “Newmarket” name imposed on it. He was also a conscientious objector during the second world war.
Professor Thomas said that one of the novelist’s greatest attributes was his ability to create rounded and believable characters, whilst remaining sceptical about their inner motivations at the same time – displaying “that sliver of ice in the brain” referred to by another great 20th century novelist, Graham Greene.
Secularism and the decline of the non-conformist legacy
He said that Emyr Humphreys’s outstanding novel was probably “Outside the House of Baal”, which considers Wales’s nonconformist legacy and its decline in the face of secularism during the 20th century through the eyes of a minister, Reverend J. T. Miles, reminiscing about the past at the end of his life.
“Our nonconformist legacy has been a huge and positive part of the Welsh experience over the years, but Emyr was also aware of some of its limitations – and this ambivalence is displayed brilliantly in the person of Rev J T Miles, who reflects on some of the changes he has encountered during his life in Wales as a minister” said Professor Thomas.
A warning against the abuse of power in any setting
“JT has given his life to serve the religious cause in Wales, but at the same time he’s used it to promote his own ego and his own agenda as well. In a way, the novel is also a warning against the abuse of power in any setting, beyond religion itself.”
Professor Thomas added that one of the novelist’s primary drives in his work was to present the story of Wales and Welshness to an audience who had been deprived of the Welsh language through no fault of their own.
“Hopefully, this momentous occasion will draw the attention of more Welsh people to his work, and encourage more reading of these novels, which are such a vivid snapshot of Welsh life in the 20th century”.
Professor Thomas’s new book on Emyr Humphreys in “The Writers of Wales” series is now on sale in bookshops throughout Wales for £16.99