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A Time To Laugh by Rhys Davies — working class trouble and strife

Cover image of A Time To Laugh by Rhys Davies,  a novel set in the Welsh valleys at the turn of the twentieth century

I suppose the title of this book was meant to be ironic since there is very little merriment in Rhys Davies’ tale of trouble and strife in a Welsh mining community on the eve of the twentieth century.

Life in the Rhondda Valley has never been easy but a new sliding scale system of wages becomes a tipping point. If demand for coal drops, the miners’ wages (which are already low), will fall even lower. Faced with the colliery owners’ refusal to recognise the increasing hardship caused by this system, the miners go on strike.

Support for their fight for fair pay and conditions comes from an unusual source: Tudor Morris, a young doctor, who has returned to the valley to join his father’s practice. His involvement with the miners’ cause puts him at odds with his father and with the local “establishment”.

It’s the conflict between Tudor’s duty to his family and social class and his social conscience that provide the tension in A Time To Laugh. The young man is expected to marry his childhood sweetheart Mildred, who, as a solicitor’s daughter, comes from his own class. But he cannot resist the passion and energy of Daisy, sister to one of the leaders of the workers’ movement. Will Tudor fall into line or gamble his future prospects and even his life by allying himself with the working class?

The novel starts dramatically as the miners’ anger turns to violence. They smash shop windows, attack police officers and then ambush the soldiers sent to quell the rioting.

Yelps, oaths and groans filled the bleak January air. Policemen roared, kicked on their fed belies and swiped vengefully across jaws; rioter yelled with the scratched hysteria of men fed for days on rage — but they were laid low, red flecked foam at their lips.

Unfortunately Davies doesn’t sustain the energy of his first few chapters and the book gets bogged down by scene after scene in which various characters explain their stance on the miners’ situation.

So first we get Tudor discussing the situation with his father, then with Mildred and her father. A few chapters later Tudor puts the miners’ case to the colliery owner and then to a church minister. These interactions robbed the novel of any vitality and instead of being invested in the theme of Tudor’s dilemma or the emergence of a desire for social reform, I was bored. It was a relief to get to the end.

An article in WalesArtReview suggested that some of the characters in A Time To Laugh and Davies’ “unflinching descriptions of poverty, sensuality and sin” are reminiscent of the novels of Emile Zola. But Zola never preaches to his readers in the way that Rhys Davies does, not even in Germinal  which similarly deals with the dire conditions of coal miners. Rhys Davies may be considered one of the most influential of twentieth century Welsh authors because he was the first novelists to depict industrial Wales. But to put him on a par with Zola is simply ludicrous.

A Time To Laugh by Rhys Davies: Footnotes

Rhys Davies was born in 1901 in the Rhondda Valley, the son of a shopkeeper. Despite leaving school at the age of 14, he became one of the most prolific and accomplished of Welsh prose authors, with more than a hundred short stories and eighteen novels to his name. He lived for much of his life in England, seeing Wales through the perspective of an outsider/insider. He died in 1978.

A Time To Laugh was written in the 1930s though it depicts the Rhondda Valley in the 1890s. It was the middle title of what became known as the Rhondda Trilogy , following Honey and Bread (1935) and preceding Jubilee Blues (1938). A Time To Laugh was originally published in 1937 and re-issued in 2014 by Parthian Books as part of the Library of Wales collection (a Welsh Government initiative to celebrate Wales’ literary heritage in the English language).

This is book number 4 in my #22in22 project to read more books from the hundreds that lie unread in my bookshelves. I’m also counting it as a contribution to Reading Wales Month #Dewithon22 hosted by Paula at BookerJotter.

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