Rhys Kaminski-Jones reviews
Between Wales and England:
Anglophone Welsh writing of the Eighteenth Century
by Bethan Jenkins
‘What have I, who am a Welshman, to do with English poetry?’ This question, posed by the scholar, cleric, and poet Evan Evans in 1772, is at the heart of Bethan M. Jenkins’ vibrantly written and intellectually important study of eighteenth-century Welsh writing in English. The answer, even though a clear majority of eighteenth-century Welsh people remained monoglot Welsh speakers, is ‘an increasingly large amount’ – the authors populating Jenkins’ pages were drawn to write in English by a complex range of motivations. Prominent among them was a desire to establish Welsh and Welsh-language culture as a vital part of wider British identity. To do so, however, meant using the tongue of an Anglophone state that treated Welsh with combined indifference and intolerance, making these English-language works deeply problematic texts, fraught with competing (and perhaps incompatible) cultural loyalties.
It is only recently that the eighteenth century has been reclaimed as a vital period in Anglophone Welsh writing, undermining the still-pervasive impression that Welsh literature in English is a post nineteenth century phenomenon. In fact, Jenkins is good at demonstrating that her subjects recognised an Anglophone heritage going back to the Middle Ages, tentatively constructing a tradition in which they themselves could operate. But despite the book’s focus on English-language writing, its greatest strength is its unusually thorough bilingualism: this is a necessary critical perspective for a period in which Anglo- Welsh writing was ‘in essence a minority literature’, and a welcome instance of modern Welsh-medium thinkers being used to interpret the nation’s contentious Anglophone past.Sign in to read more