I’m a great believer in the fact that there is a right time for every book – which is probably why I have a gigantic TBR, because all those books are just waiting for me to find the appropriate space to get to them! A case in point is today’s book, which is the last one I’m going to be covering for our #ReadIndies event. The book is “Monica” by Saunders Lewis and it’s been sitting on the TBR for quite some time, but was on my wish list for even longer before I finally found a copy. Even though we visited Wales every year when the Offspring were young, I eventually found a copy in the local Oxfam Bookshop! Which just goes to show you should always check out your local shops!

My interest in reading the book actually grew out of those regular visits to North Wales, as I stumbled across mentions of Lewis in relation to his politics; as well as his writing, he was also an activist and one of the founders of Plaid Cymru, and it was the plaque mentioning this which I saw in Pwhelli. I was exploring a number of Welsh authors at the time, including Idris Davies and R.S. Thomas, but a problem for me was finding translations; I simply don’t have the linguistic skills to learn Welsh… However, “Monica” has been translated by Meic Stephens and as it’s published by indie outfit, Seren, it also counts for #ReadIndies as well as the #Dewithon – result!!

Invalids are not the only victims of ill health. It can sometimes ravage the strength of youth, snatching it from the joys of life and shackling it to a bedside where it has to wait, amid the fug and stench, on death’s victim. If there is no relief, it comes to bear the marks of futility, of separation from joy. Monica spent the years of her youth like a bird beating against the bars of the cage.

“Monica” was first published in 1930, and it’s a dark and perhaps unexpected story from a Welsh author at that time. The 90 page novella compresses much into its narrative, telling of the life of the titular Monica McEwan, and the story is one of thwarted and warped desires, as well as something of a critique of suburban Welsh life. As the book opens, Monica and husband Bob are living in a suburb of Swansea, having moved away from Cardiff where her sister and father live. Monica is unburdening herself to an invalid old lady neighbour, relating her youth , which was mainly spent taking care of an invalid mother, her dreams and fantasies of romance, and her eventual marriage to Bob after stealing him from her younger sister. You would think, therefore, as the neighbour does that Monica would be happy having got her man and being pregnant with his child; however, nothing is as simple as that…

Terror is mute and shapeless. The skull and grave are but the playthings and bogeys of the imagination. It is not they which inspire terror but the last minutes, the ceasing to be.

Monica is a character who’s been damaged by her upbringing, longing for love, escape, something more than the everyday burden of caring for others. She’s older than Bob, had thought she would not be able to carry a child (which she doesn’t seem to want much) and the passion she felt for her husband seems to have turned to hate. The suburban life, with petty gossiping neighbours and a rigid social strata, is portrayed in all its nasty glory, and as the book goes on, Monica sinks into sloth, despair and filth. Bob strays (as has a neighbouring husband) and receives a dark reward for his unfaithfulness, and the distance between the two is shown starkly in his inability to do anything to improve Monica’s condition. The future does not look good for either of them…

She was the same person now as she had been all those years ago in the streets of Cardiff. Nor would she ever be different. She had lived long enough to know that character is formed by what we make of our early years. That is what is so cruel about our fate: it is what takes shape inside us during the self-conscious period of our lives, when neither reason nor judgement exercises control over our blood, which rules us right up to our dying breath.

It’s not hard to see how shocking this book must have been to 1930s Welsh sensibilities; without wanting to make any kind of sweeping statements, I can remember how conservative North Wales still was when we began to visit in the 1970s/1980s, with Sundays dry and everything closed, chapels on every corner and a sense of a strong religious ethos. Step backwards to the 1930s, and a book covering the kind of subject matter this does would have really caused a stir, and it’s been described as a ” shallow story (which) leaves a foul taste in one’s mouth”. I think that’s missing much of what’s going on here – let me explain why…

For a start, it’s been suggested that Lewis, who was a convert to Catholicism, was making a moral point with the book; although that’s belied by the sympathetic portrait of Monica. She may have stolen her sister’s fiance, she may be driven by her desires, but Lewis shows how her thwarted upbringing stunts her emotional growth. She’s not capable of a deep relationship, simply one driven by physical passion, and her husband is really no better; he’s easily seduced away from the sister, and his weak character fails to save Monica from herself at a number of points.

As the afterword by Bruce Griffiths points out, the book is closer to something like “Madame Bovary” or Mauriac’s “Therese” than anything in the Welsh canon; and it seems to me that Lewis was doing something very radical by taking what would be regarded as a ‘continental’ storyline and transposing it into a very traditional Welsh setting. Confronting the realities and hypocricies of that kind of crushing suburban life was obviously too much for many critics to handle; and in fact, still is, from what I can see of the online response. Monica’s life and fate are not happy ones; but where was it written that fiction has to have a happy ending, as life certainly doesn’t!

Saunders Lewis 1916 (Y Drych, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Personally, I thought “Monica” was a powerful and poignant story; the subject matter may not be palatable to some, but it explores sympathetically yet realistically the effects of a person’s upbringing, the problems of domestic life and boredom which faced many women in the 20th century, and the risks of a relationship with only the physical and not the emotional or intellectual. It’s not a perfect book; sometimes a little melodramatic, sometimes a little unreastic (for example, how did Bob not know how much older Monica was than him since her date of birth was presumably on their marriage certificate??) But Lewis has created a memorable setting and heroine, tackled some difficult themes and created a novel that, if it had been published for example in French, could well be regarded quite differently. “Monica” was a great book to finish #ReadIndies on, and I really do think it deserves to be better known.