Welshness and Britishness: The Case of Richard Llewellyn

Dr Wendy Ugolini, University of Edinburgh

 

On reading Richard Llewellyn’s novel, How Green Was My Valley, as a child, its nostalgic depiction of life in a Welsh mining community provided a shorthand way of connecting with my paternal grandfather’s Welsh heritage. I had little sense, then, of what Sam Adams refers to as the novel’s ‘historical and topographical’ distortions nor imagined that Llewellyn himself so closely shared my grandfather’s identity as an English man with diasporic attachments to Wales.

How Green Was My Valley was published within a month of the outbreak of the Second World War on 2 October 1939, becoming an instant best-seller in both Britain and America: The New York Times viewed it as ‘The most magnificent novel ever produced about Wales’. In 1941, the novel was made into an Academy Award-winning film, thus linking Llewellyn indelibly in the public mind with a vision of Wales and Welshness. At the time of publication, however, there were mutterings about the novel being a ‘misrepresentation of Welsh life’: a typical product of those who ‘wrote about Wales for a market’. These suspicions seemed to be confirmed when, after his death in 1983, it emerged that Llewellyn was not born in the Welsh cathedral city of St David’s as he had long-claimed, but rather in London to Welsh parents. This revelation attracted accusations of duplicity with one newspaper headline trumpeting ‘How phoney was my valley’.

In my research article for Cultural & Social History, I explored the evolution of this dual Welsh and British identity.

From the 1941 American film of ‘How Green Was My Valley’

Richard Herbert Vivian Lloyd – who adopted the pen name Richard Llewellyn – was born in Willesden in 1906 to restaurant manager, William Llewellyn Lloyd, and his wife Sarah Ann, and was the product of a lower middle-class English suburban childhood. Yet, from the first flush of literary success, Llewellyn allowed himself to be perceived as Welsh, weaving a narrative cultural hinterland which included a birthplace in Pembrokeshire and a paternal grandfather who worked at a colliery in Gilfach Goch.  Commentators such as John Harris and Adams have attempted to explain the motivations behind Llewellyn’s determined self-representation as Welsh. My recent article for Cultural & Social History takes forward their work by foregrounding the importance of Llewellyn’s diasporic claim to Welshness and acknowledging the functioning of what I term ‘English Welsh duality’ – a potential identification with both England and Wales amongst the descendants of Welsh migrants living in twentieth-century England. It draws upon a range of previously unpublished and intriguing life-writing sources including letters from Llewellyn’s father, BBC radio scripts, Welsh Guards documents, MI5 reports, family memoirs and wartime love letters. I was particularly interested in Llewellyn’s involvement in key sites of British identity formation during the Second World War including the BBC and the British Army.

Merfyn Jones makes the point that for the second generation Welsh in early twentieth century England, being Welsh was very often a matter of choice or self-identification.  My article suggests that Llewellyn often engaged upon the act of masquerade, electing to emphasis his Welshness and mask his English upbringing, to provide ‘a partial covering’ of his identity. His parental Welsh heritage clearly mattered to him and held meaning. Llewellyn spent childhood holidays in Wales, particularly with his maternal grandparents in St. David’s. He is also recorded in the 1911 census as staying with his paternal aunt in Cardiff (significantly, it recorded Llewellyn as an English speaker, not a Welsh speaker as he often asserted). In later life, Llewellyn often rhapsodized about his ‘beautiful Mama’, whose death in 1928 potentially nurtured his emotional identification with Wales, and wartime letters from his father, who evacuated from London to Bala in 1940, testify to a closeness between the two men.

When he was completing How Green Was My Valley, Llewellyn undertook fieldwork in the South Wales coalfield in order to learn more about his ancestral ‘home’ of origin (his father’s maternal grandfather was a cashier at one of the collieries in the 1880s). However, rather than being able to draw upon family knowledge, Llewellyn spent time in Gilfach Goch with a local miner, Joseph Griffiths. Significantly, Llewellyn found this contact via the Welsh Department of Foyles bookshop in London which was managed by Joseph’s son, Will. This ‘London-Welsh cultural centre’ was a significant meeting place for Welsh writers in London and demonstrates the importance of Welsh diasporic networks in supporting Llewellyn’s evolution as a writer.

The Second World War presented Llewellyn with opportunities to consolidate his publicly endorsed position as a ‘Welsh’ author, brought about by the success of his novel. During the war, the promotion of images of Wales and Welshness were central to the BBC’s imperial and global projection of the British nation and the BBC, in both Cardiff and London, were keen to use Llewellyn’s services as a broadcaster.  As his novel had been particularly well received in North America, including amongst the Welsh diasporic population, the BBC Overseas Service invited Llewellyn to broadcast to US audiences. Between December 1940 and January 1941, Llewellyn provided a series of talks under the title Democracy Marches.  These radio scripts both subscribe to dominant wartime narratives of British stoicism and assert a specifically Welsh perspective. In one notable example, Llewellyn gives the impression that he had grown up in St David’s, recalling his grandmother ‘among the sweetpeas in her garden’ and his childhood self, chasing geese down the road. Yet his monologue also makes sense if viewed from the perspective of an English schoolboy on his holidays and, as a source, highlights Llewellyn’s complex and ongoing navigation of selfhood.

Finally, my article also addresses Llewellyn’s fascinating decision, at the age of thirty four, to volunteer to serve in the Welsh Guards, arguing that this enabled him to access a specifically martial form of Welsh identity and to further consolidate his Welsh sense of self. It is worth noting that Llewellyn’s claim to Welshness was warmly reciprocated by his regiment, the Regimental Lieutenant-Colonel, ‘Chicot’ Leatham, boasting in 1941, that the regiment’s distinguished recruits included ‘a brilliant Welsh author’. The fact that Llewellyn was embraced as a cultural representative of transnational Welshness within wartime Britain, underlines the significance of English Welsh dual identifications, which emerged from the Welsh diaspora in England, and which, I argue, functioned as an important strand of pluralistic Britishness in the Second World War.

 

Read more in the Cultural & Social History article

SHS members can access the journal via this website here.

Read more blog posts by CASH authors here.

 

About the Author: Dr Wendy Ugolini is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests focus on the relationship between war and identity in the twentieth century. Her first monograph, Experiencing War as the “Enemy Other”: Italian Scottish Experience in World War II (Manchester University Press, 2011), was awarded the Royal Historical Society’s Gladstone Prize. Her most recent article is ‘The “Welsh” Pimpernel: Richard Llewellyn and the Search for Authenticity in Second World War Britain’, Cultural and Social History, published online 15 March 2019.

One response to “Welshness and Britishness: The Case of Richard Llewellyn

  1. I read the book as a boy and remember the 1960s BBC version.I re-read the book as a Welsh speaking adult with a family history of mining and one grandfather dying in a pit accident.
    I found it inaccurate, oversentimental, totally misleading about Christian conduct and stereotyped.
    I wish I hadn’t re-read it!

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