Rape of the Fair Country by Alexander Cordell
|Rape of the Fair Country by Alexander Cordell|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: An unflinching look at the plight of the workers in the coal and iron industries in South Wales in the first half of the nineteenth century. Compelling writing and a gripping story. Highly recommended. I listened to an audio download which was excellent. Narrator of the audio version, Matt Addis, popped into Bookbag Towers to chat to us.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 316/11 hours 6 min||Date: January 1959|
|Publisher: Victor Gollancz|
When we meet Iestyn Motymer it's 1826 and he's just eight years old, but starting work at the Garndyrus furnaces near Blaenavon. His father sees it as the right thing to do and his mother knows that the money will be needed as there's another child on the way, but Iestyn's older sister, Morfydd, is adamant that it's wrong for women and children to work in either the mines or the ironworks. She believes in the aims of the Chartist movement whilst her father, Hywel Mortymer, is loyal to the ironmasters, but events involving his own family will later force him to question this loyalty. The Mortymers are better off than many in Blaenavon, but they're still at the mercy of the ironmaster and the agent: suspension or blacklisting (which can extend to relations) can leave any family penniless and starving.
I first read Rape of the Fair Country in the mid sixties, not long after it was first published. At the time I'd recently moved to South Wales and was puzzled by an iciness towards the English: I was nudged in the direction of Alexander Cordell's Rape of the Fair Country and The Hosts of Rebecca (the final part of the trilogy, Song of the Earth would not be published until the end of the decade) and soon understood why memories are long and forgiveness slow. There's an unflinching look at the hardships suffered, not just by the Mortymers but by all the workers and their families. Serious injuries and even death are commonplace.
The subject matter is brutal but the writing is elegiac and evocative:
I thought of my river, the Afon-Lwydd, that my father had fished in youth, with rod and line for the leaping salmon under the drooping alders. The alders, he said, that fringed the banks ten deep, planted by the wind of the mountains. But no salmon leap in the river now, for it is black with furnace washings and slag, and the great silver fish have been beaten back to the sea or gasped out of their lives on sands of coal. No alders stand now for thy have been chopped as fuel for the cold blast. Even the mountains are shells, groaning in their hollows of emptiness, trembling to the arrows of the pit-props in their sides, bellowing down the old workings that collapse in unseen dust five hundred feet below. Plundered is my country, violated, raped.
It's not just the story of the Mortymers, or even of Blaenavon and Nantyglo, but of the Chartist Movement and the birth of Trade Unionism. The events might be fictional, but they're true to the course of history, with Rape of the Fair Country ending with the disastrous Newport Rising of 1839. The research to write the book must have been extensive, but Cordell makes it seem effortless: momentous events viewed through the lense of a very human and likeable family.
More than half a century on from when I first read the book I had the opportunity to listen to an audio download from one of my favourite narrators, Matt Addis, but I worried that he would be unable to do the book justice: there's a substantial cast list, male and female, young and old, all of whom would require slightly different voices. 'Demanding' didn't quite seem to cover a recording such as this, but I've doubted Addis before and discovered that it was unnecessary. I was always aware of which character was speaking and unlike many narrators there was never any 'bleed back' into the narrator's natural voice when a character was speaking. It's a five-star book with a five-star narration.
You can read more about Matt Addis here.
Matt Addis was kind enough to be interviewed by Bookbag.
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