PODCAST: ‘The Welsh Industrial Novel’ – a lecture by Raymond Williams

This month on the Raymond Williams Society blog we continue with our coverage of a new project to digitise recordings of lectures by Raymond Williams.

Phil O’Brien writes…

The second instalment of the ‘Raymond Williams Tapes’ podcast is a recording of Williams delivering a 1977 lecture in Aberystwyth on ‘The Welsh Industrial Novel’.  It is better known from the version given as the inaugural Gwyn Jones Lecture in 1978, first published by University College Cardiff Press a year later and collected in Culture and Materialism (1980). The recording below captures – along with the humour in some of Williams’s observations – an attempt to map out the contours of what were memorably labelled industrial novels in Culture and Society (1958).

The first half of the lecture discusses the English industrial novel of the 1840s and 1850s – offering a detailed account of the work of Elizabeth Gaskell, for example – before moving on to the Welsh industrial novel by the likes of Gwyn Jones, Jack Jones, Gwyn Thomas, and T. Rowland Hughes. Williams also comments on the ‘lateness’ of the industrial novel in Wales but there is no mention of Lewis Jones – the author of Cwmardy (1937) and We Live (1939) who features in the published essay – while his analysis of George Borrow’s Wild Wales (1862) is also missing as are the reflections on James Nasmyth’s autobiography.

Instead, Williams introduces his analysis by locating the first writing about industrial working-class experience in melodrama and The Factory Girl (1832) by Douglas Jerrold. It is a play which, in ‘Social Environment and Theatrical Environment’ (1977), he describes as an ‘attempt to dramatize a new social consciousness’. This crossover touches upon one of the fascinating aspects of working on the Williams tapes: picking out the strands which appear in the original lectures and which are then taken up elsewhere in his published work. The tapes also document that remarkable ability Williams had of thinking through complex intellectual ideas as he spoke; he described this process – exemplified by The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970) – in Politics and Letters as ideas occurring ‘while actually speaking’.

IMG_20200616_133059The 1977 version of ‘The Welsh Industrial Novel’ – seemingly delivered at what was then University College of Wales, now Aberystwyth University – contains the seeds of arguments on working-class writing and Welsh fiction which Williams took up later across a series of published essays. You will hear ideas which form part of ‘Region and Class in the Novel’, ‘Working-Class, Proletarian, Socialist: Problems in some Welsh Novels’, and  ‘The Ragged-Arsed Philanthropists’ (all from 1982). The same can also be said of a Williams lecture titled ‘British Working-Class Literature after 1945’ uncovered as part of my new project. It will be published for the first time in a special issue of this year’s Key Words on working-class writing. One of the challenges in writing of working-class experience in the novel is presented by its form, Williams argues; they are challenges with social, political, and historical implications which are all explored in ‘The Welsh Industrial Novel’ and faced by ‘reaching for new perspectives and new forms’, according to Williams.

Many thanks to the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust for making this project possible and to Merryn Williams for her continued support.

Amiel Melburn

Phil O’Brien is the author of The Working Class and Twenty-First-Century British Fiction (Routledge, 2020). He is secretary of the Raymond Williams Society and on the editorial board of Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism.