John M. Jones
Kate Roberts has been rightly called "Brenhines ein llên" (Queen of our literature). She is the author of countless short stories…. Yr Wylan Deg (The Beautiful Sea Gull) is her most recent volume….
Roberts's stories do not conform to the usually accepted pattern of the genre. They are more like anecdotes or mood pieces, with minimal construction and very little plot Their charm lies in their simplicity, their sentimentality and their appeal to the Welsh spirit. Many of the main characters are elderly, as is the author herself, and this is appropriate; one writes best about an age one knows best. Her style is pure classical Welsh, though the sentences are short and are not involved; her dialogue is colloquial without containing the barbarisms so frequent in today's Welsh prose.
Her outlook is strictly Victorian; there are no incidents of premarital love, no foul language, no dramatic confrontations such as one finds in the real world and as modern fiction in other lands has so vividly portrayed. In fact, there are no real villains—only misguided, selfish, weak or spiteful people. Roberts's characters live in a sterile world where most people are good and where the religiosity of former years is still a reality. There are few great joyful moments but few overwhelming tragedies either; life is a pilgrim's progress, not a Rabelaisian riot. The overall tone is sadness and recollection…....
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[The title Feet in Chains] will perhaps raise expectations of a struggle with the earth and with the bosses; but these expectations are confounded. When the phrase "feet in chains" occurs in the text, to be sure, it is in the context of a character's infuriated wonderment at his workmates' reluctance to unionize. It is a political matter. But the phrase has wider and deeper critical implications, fulfilled only in the last paragraphs of the book, where Owen, a college-educated son who is gradually merging again with the background he had threatened to escape, is suddenly moved to act again: "that was what was wrong with his people. They were courageous in their capacity to endure pain, but would do nothing to get rid of what caused that pain." This sounds, in isolation, like the standard left-wing cry of 1936 …; but in the context of Miss Roberts's undramatic, elliptical narrative, it seems a good deal less strident. It is a prepolitical critique: not an incitement to the throwing off of chains, but a contribution to the realization that the chains are there, forged by several centuries of simple stoicism in a working landscape which, if not inhospitable by some standards, could well be called ungenerous.
In a picture of a society that is too patient for its own good, there is necessarily very little satisfaction for the devotee of the psychological novel. Three and a half decades pass in the 130 pages of Feet in...
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Bedwyr Lewis Jones
The struggle [depicted in Traed mewn Cyffion (Feet in Chains)] is dire and grim, heroic in its simple fortitude in the face of economic injustice which neither [the central character] nor her husband understands. The children in their various ways seek an escape…. But Kate Roberts is not concerned with the trails they pursue; for her it is enough to note that the escape routes represent outside influences undermining the closely knit, isolated society which she has protrayed….
All this, with the subtle interplay of one character upon another, is narrated with laconic spareness in a novel where there is no release, only the ability to suffer without being destroyed. Kate Roberts observes, she selects, she records; she does not analyze. But her ability to catch significant detail with hard, sympathetic exactness resuscitates a whole way of life—at least in the original Welsh, where the diction, heavy with local idiom, is an integral part of what is portrayed.
Bedwyr Lewis Jones, "Africa & the West Indies: "Feet in Chains'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1979 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 53, No. 1, Winter, 1979, p. 170.
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