Mapping Coalfields Literature 1880-1948: South Wales, North East England and Scotland

Mapping Coalfields Literature 1880-1948: South Wales, North East England and Scotland

PhD student Alexandra Jones (Swansea University) engages with a regional approach to the study of disability in coalfields literature.

‘Normalcy is culturally contingent rather than universal.’

Clare Barker. Postcolonial Fiction and Disability: Exceptional Children, Metaphor and Materiality. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011 p4.

The importance of considering cultural difference has been key to my work on a literature thesis for the Wellcome trust project Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields. Coalfields communities were highly distinct, not least because disability was a commonplace reality; coal had one of the highest rates of disabling accidents of any industry, as well as causing debilitating and life-shortening ‘dust’ diseases. Communities with high levels of disability will conceptualise normality differently, changing both the way that disability is perceived and how it is represented in literature. Whilst there are obviously similarities between the coalfields because of the focus on a shared industry, there are also historical, social and geological differences, which contribute to differences in the history of disability. For example, South Wales was recorded as a region with one of the highest numbers of accidents, and nearly 90% of the diagnosed cases of pneumoconiosis in 1939 and 1945[i]. Therefore, it is important to consider the coalfields both in terms of their difference as an industrial community, and in terms of regional variations.

In order to do this, mapping the existence of coalfields literature was the first challenge. In doing so, it revealed clear differences in terms of academic engagement with coalfields writing. Scant attention has been paid to the coalfields literature in North East England and Scotland and texts are often rare and out-of-print. Whilst there are some studies that look generally at the literature of Northern England, or England in the context of regional literatures, there is rarely specific focus on North East English literature. Whilst there are articles and chapters looking at collier novelist Harold Heslop, these tend to be in the context of working-class or proletarian writing, rather than taking a regional perspective. There would certainly be value in looking at the North East within this regional context, as many distinct characteristics emerge, both in publication and in specific social, racial and cultural discourse. For example, the prevalence of Methodist publishers producing novels by Methodist ministers on North East English colliery life c.1880-1920.

The situation in Scotland is different as there are many wide-ranging studies of Scottish literature, and some rare out-of-print literature is published by the Association For Scottish Literary Studies. However, the coalfields writers are generally overlooked, even in studies of industrial literature. I have identified four novelists of 1880-1948, of whom only Joe Corrie draws much critical commentary and then only for his plays. He was a prolific playwright (of about one-hundred plays), and he is also of interest from a Scottish national theatre perspective for his notorious dispute with the Scottish National Players (for rejecting In Time o’ Strife (1927), which Corrie believed was because of its strong socialist politics). Although his plays were never performed by the Scottish National Players again, in 2013 this controversial play was adapted and performed by the National Theatre of Scotland. A collection of his plays, poems and theatre writings was also released in 1984[ii] by the politically engaged 7:84 Theatre Company (a title based on the 1966 statistic 7% of the population of Great Britain owned 84 % of the wealth). However, Corrie deserves far more attention to be paid to his work, not just as a prolific playwright, but also as a poet, short story writer and novelist. Similarly, Tom Hanlin, although less well known now, had international success with his first novel, and his later novel Miracle at Cardenrigg (1949) would be particularly of interest to a four nations approach for its reflections on Irish Catholics in Scotland.

In contrast, South Wales has been relatively easy to map because of existing research on its coalfield literature within the context of Welsh writing in English[iii], and obtaining texts has been made easier by the publications of the Library of Wales, Honno Classics series and University of Wales Press in particular. Some of the key Welsh-language coalfields material is also available in (out-of-print) translation, such as T. Rowland Hughes’s novel William Jones (1944), J. Kitchener Davies’s play Cwm Glo (1934) and some of Gwenallt’s (David James Jones) poetry. An early ex-collier novelist, Joseph Keating, has also attracted interest as an Irish writer (although born and raised in South Wales), and his autobiography was republished within the Classics of Irish History[iv] series.

Mapping this literature has been important because it has revealed some striking regional differences. For example, during the surge in coalfields novels of the 1930s South Wales is the focus of more than double the number set in the North East and only one coalfields novel is set in Scotland. This is partly because of a much greater range of writers setting material in South Wales, including all the women coalfields novelists I have found for these three regions. As such, this mapping has provided critical dimensions for my research, as well as highlighting how further work could be done to create a fuller picture of the literary output of Britain’s industrial regions.

[i] Arthur McIvor & Ronald Johnston. Miners’ Lung: A History of Dust Disease in British Coal Mining. Abingdon: Ashgate Publishing Group, 2007.

[ii] Joe Corrie. Plays, Poems & Theatre Writings. Linda Mackenney ed. Edinburgh: 7:84 Publications, 1985.

[iii] For example, Stephen Knight. A Hundred Years of Fiction: Writing Wales in English. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2004.

[iv] Joseph Keating. My Struggle for Life. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2005 [1916].

Alexandra Jones is in the third year of her PhD at Swansea University, working on ‘Disability in British Coalfields Literature: 1880-1948.’ Her research is funded as part of a five-year, interdisciplinary Wellcome Trust funded project, ‘Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields, 1780-1948’ (www.dis-ind-soc.org.uk).

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