Margiad Evans (1909-1958) was Peggy Whistler’s pen name. She was born in Uxbridge, but claimed the Welsh Border country around Ross-on-Wye as her spiritual home from her first visit to an uncle and aunt’s farm as a child. The Whistler family moved to a house just outside Ross later when Peggy was twelve. That is where her writing career began, the towns and landscapes of the area a barely disguised backdrop to her fiction.

Her first novel, Country Dance (1932) has a beautifully balanced structure representing the movement across the border of Ann Goodman, a young woman with a Welsh mother and English father, and the rivals for her love, Evan ap Evans whose name proclaims his heritage, and the Englishman, Gabriel Ford. The autobiographical fiction The Wooden Doctor came out in 1933, and Turf or Stone the year after that. Creed (1936) was her last and most ambitious novel, not remotely autobiographical and yet curiously representative of the total passionate commitment she displayed towards her beloved countryside, to her lovers, and to her writing.  Evans also wrote short stories, collected as The Old and the Young (1948), Poems from Obscurity (1947), Autobiography (1943), and finally the brave and heart-breaking Ray of Darkness (1952), an account of the onset and treatment of seizures caused by a brain tumour, the illness from which she eventually died at the age of 49.

Throughout her life Evans wrote incessantly. Her husband Michael Williams donated many of her letters, journals and diaries to the National Library of Wales after her death. The 1930 years are written in bound volumes; later exercise books, or scraps of paper document her frenetic emotional responses to relationships, as well as always testifying to her abiding love of nature. A picture of an emotionally intense family life emerges in the earliest entries: quarrels with her mother, sometimes bitter rivalry with her sister Nancy, spats and arguments with friends. In The Wooden Doctor (1932) the narrator’s detached but shocking comment ‘our home among the quiet fields became a cage of savagery’ neatly sums up one aspect of her family’s relations documented in her journal.

The narrator and protagonist of her novel The Wooden Doctor is Arabella, significantly a name Evans often used to refer to herself in her journals. She burned the early ones from her adolescence, but the novel tells the story of the years of her obsession with the family’s real life G. P., Doctor Dunlop, who becomes the fictional eponymous ‘wooden’ Dr Flaherty, a middle-aged man unresponsive to her adolescent declaration of love. The painful self-exposure evident in the fiction is the more remarkable once one reads in her diary that Dr Dunlop even failed to acknowledge the copy she sent him.

A picture also emerges in the journals of Evans as an unconventional young woman who took great sensual delight in her body. Several times she records swimming naked in the river Wye with her sister Nancy, on one occasion ‘two astonished men’ stared at them from the opposite bank’; elsewhere she says ‘we looked white and sparkling like jewels when we climbed out of the water and crouched under the banks drying ourselves on our knickers in the wind and sun’.  She was proud of her body and observed that nakedness changes one’s behaviour, ‘One acts strange when one’s naked: the shoulders swing, the arms glide, the back arches and the breasts expand in the air…’ The sisters shared a lack of inhibition.  One afternoon Peggy, in the kitchen making coffee, heard Nancy calling from the garden, ‘Sister…sister, come and dance for Harry’. ‘Harry’ was flying dizzy circles above their garden in his monoplane. Peggy picked up her skirt and chased ‘slowly and ridiculously about Nancy’ who was already ‘whirling and twirling in her chintz coat and her bushy hair floating’.  Peggy remarks in her diary that ‘Last time he flew in our sky I remember we were washing up on the grass, and the time before we were naked’.

Evans expended a great deal of emotional energy on writing her final novel Creed. Her diary entries for the period of its composition have none of the fun evident in the episodes described above.  Life was hard and emotionally exhausting, and it is difficult not to see some of that leeching into the fiction. Creed was never reprinted after it first appeared in 1936, so Honno’s new edition is especially welcome. It is not a polished novel, it conveys a sense of being deliberately rough-hewn, as rough and uncompromising as its characters. It takes on and challenges ideas about love, belief and wickedness, and although the rain is practically incessant throughout, the descriptions of drenched nature are acutely and imaginatively observed, powerful testimony to Evans’s attention to detail, to her imaginative and unusual perceptions, and her skill as a writer.

Sue Asbee

 

 

Margiad Evan’s novels – The Wooden Doctor and Creed have been republished by Honno, with introductions by Sue Asbee. You can buy them both through our website.

With thanks to Jim Pratt (nephew of Margiad Evans) for the pictures of Margiad Evans.