Friday, May 18, 2012

A Vanished Way of Life

How Green Was My Valley
How Green Was My Valley 

“But you have gone now, all of you that were so beautiful when you were quick with life. Yet not gone, for you are still a living truth inside my mind. 
So how are you dead, my brothers and sisters, and all of you , when you live with me as surely as I live with myself.”  ― Richard Llewellyn, How Green Was My Valley

Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 international best-selling novel, How Green Was My Valley, stands the test of time as a literary classic. He tells the story through narration of the main character, Huw Morgan, of his Welsh family and the mining community in which they live. The novel is set in South Wales in the reign of Queen Victoria. The story is about the Morgans, a poor but respectable mining family of the South Wales Valleys. Huw's academic ability sets him apart from his elder brothers and enables him to consider a future away from this troubled industrial environment. His five brothers and his father are miners; after the eldest brother, Ivor, is killed in an mining accident, Huw moves in with his sister-in-law, Bronwen, with whom he has always been in love. His further development and how he deals with tragedy makes this an elementally interesting story.

The title of the novel appears in two sentences. It is first used in Chapter Thirty, after the narrator has just had his first sexual experience. He sits up to "... look down in the valley." He then reflects: "How green was my Valley that day, too, green and bright in the sun." The phrase is used again in the novel's last sentence: "How green was my Valley then, and the Valley of them that have gone."

While I read the book many decades ago when I was a teenager I came to it through first viewing the classic film version of the story. John Ford’s movie based on the novel won the Oscar as best movie of 1941, and I remember my first viewing as it stood out even on our small television screen. Roddy McDowell is the image of Huw Morgan and I remember still the faces of Walter Pigeon and Maureen O'Hara and the beautiful hills and valley. I was moved by the admittedly melodramatic scenes and led inexorably to Llewellen's original.
Set in a Welsh coalmining village in the last quarter of the 19th century, its themes of spiritual longing and soaring opposed to physical yearning and bondage are developed in a language that is both lucid and rich in the storytelling tradition. The author delights readers by his incisive observations of quotidian phenomena that, although set in a distant time and place, seem universal in character. This is what it takes to write a novel that transcends generations. This was a melancholic elegy for departed loved ones and the vanished way of life of a Welsh coal mining town and it is one of the most beautiful books that I have ever read.

How Green was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn.  Macmillan, 1940.


Melody said...

I loved this when I read it in high school, and I've been meaning to read it again. I'm glad to hear that it's still wonderful. :) Reading your post brought all those feelings rushing back from when I read it the first time. I think I'll move it up on the priority list.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. It is truly one of those books that you never forget about.

Calabama said...

Perceptive review of a great book. Thanks for reminding me of it -- now I'm going to read it again!

James said...

You're welcome, as this is truly worth rereading; one of my favorite historical novels.