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Bethan Jenkins, Between Wales and England: Anglophone Welsh Writing of the Eighteenth Century. Reviewed by Matthew C. Jones.

Thursday, October 1, 2020 - 15:33

Bethan Jenkins, Between Wales and England: Anglophone Welsh Writing of the Eighteenth Century (University of Wales Press, 2017). 248 pp. (Hdbk., £85.00, ISBN 9781786830296)

Matthew C. Jones
Northeastern University

Early in Between Wales and England: Anglophone Welsh Writing of the Eighteenth Century, Bethan Jenkins identifies the central issue that necessitates turning attention to “Anglophone Welsh writing” (that is, literature published in English by bilingual Welsh-English authors). Responding to Linda Colley’s construction of “Britishness” in her celebrated 1992 Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837, Jenkins writes that “the character of Britishness is essentially English (and of a specific English region…)” (29). As the authors, work, and histories Jenkins brings together testify, contemporary Welsh figures understood this mentality’s inherent threat to their culture and language. As importantly, they likewise knew that in order to reach those who threatened them they needed to convey their anxieties in the dominant language of English. Jenkins’s engagement with Colley’s book raises a significant question: why grapple with a twenty-five year-old monograph in 2017? The answer, as Jenkins sustains persuasively throughout, is that its most problematic conclusions continue significantly to affect British historical and literary parlance, and these same conclusions are themselves but recent formulations of attitudes and cultural structures that reach back to the eighteenth century.

In its challenge to these conventions and their effects, Between Wales and England examines three distinct yet interactive long eighteenth-century histories: that of Wales, that of Britain, and that of English-Welsh hegemony. The book’s structure capitalizes on these interwoven histories: following an introductory chapter (“Welsh Writing in English and the Idea of Britishness”), Jenkins devotes chapters each to three bilingual Welsh antiquarian-poets whose lives span this period and whose work profoundly influenced contemporary British letters: Lewis Morris (1701-1765), Evan Evans (“Ieuan Fardd,” 1731-1788), and Edward Williams (“Iolo Morganwg,” 1747-1826). Following these are two ostensibly more general chapters on “Patronage” and on “Translation.” I say “ostensibly” because these closing chapters demonstrate one of this book’s greatest strengths: although she treats “patronage” and “translation” within broad British literary contexts, her analyses move chronologically, with the careers of Morris, Evans, and Williams functioning as signposts within them. This methodology serves firmly to anchor each of these Welsh figures in the atmospheres surrounding print culture—which, as I shall describe, is in each case well deserved—while augmenting certain facets of their lives as we are introduced to them in their eponymous chapters. Further, the figures’ indispensable roles in these chapters invite reevaluations of the earlier chapters, which readers come to realize transcend biography. Ultimately, readers learn that Wales, its literature, and its identity were pervasive presences across the British public sphere, and they performed quintessential roles in the shaping of what has come to be understood as British Romanticism. 

Yet, while Jenkins aptly proffers new material for ongoing literary and historical discussions, her evaluations stand with equal strength, and perhaps even more importance, as correctives. The book’s organization especially shines as an appraisal and indictment of Wales’s colonial history. By transitioning between biographical and thematic histories, Jenkins is able to introduce and confront two dimensions of the colonial question: England’s slow consumption and appropriation of Welsh identity over hundreds of years, and the discrete ways that figures resisted it during each constituent epoch. The former concern frames the entire study, guiding readers from the 1536 Act of Union (which deemed the Welsh language “unnatural” and barred non-English-speakers from state office [2-3]), through consequent attitudes that “accessing Britishness can therefore only be legitimately done through the medium of English” (4), to the Romantic era, which witnessed the state’s “increased co-opting […] of the older word for Welsh—British—as its way of describing this new would-be-national identity” (xiii). This trajectory was abetted by certain details the significance of which might otherwise be overlooked, such as the effects to Welsh people of being without any cultural institutions (such as a capital or a library [171]), of having limited access to formal education and housing no universities (“Those Welshmen who needed a university education had to cross the border to study—to be educated was, in a sense, to be Anglo-Welsh almost by definition” [9]), and of being a conquered “other” (“The notion that the English and Welsh were two separate races was a mainstream view in the eighteenth century” [5]).

This background leads to the anxieties, idiosyncrasies, and networks of the three named figures and how they confronted those great convergences of identity of “patronage” and “translation.” The navigations of each are contextualized by engagement with who are more widely recognized figures. Morris elevated his loyalism in the period that saw the Seven Years’ War while supplicating the Crown for assistance in his ambitions to map Wales; Evans sought to polish prevailing conceptions of ancient Welsh bardism during his correspondence with Thomas Percy; and Williams—whose legacy has benefited by being the focus of a recent University of Wales book series—tried to rectify what he saw as faulty histories promulgated by James Macpherson (to say nothing of his encounters with virtually every canonical Romantic figure).

In the end, Jenkins admirably canvasses the three histories that the book addresses and offers compelling challenges to a status quo within which they have been largely unconsidered. As she explains, current conceptions of Welshness and Britishness do not begin and end with Colley, but are ubiquitous; by minimizing if not ignoring Welsh literary authors and Wales’s literary history, “the assumption is often made that there are no views, dissenting or otherwise” to be found in it (xv). Not only were there views, but those expressing them recognized and challenged the structures that would come to cloud their legacies. As importantly, people read these authors, and these authors influenced British literary culture. Jenkins rectifies the silences that have veiled them and makes them and helps make their contexts visible once again.