In the preface to The Collected Stories of Rhys Davies, Rhys Davies says that short-story writers write for love, not money. A short story gives “the release of a day off,” while novels are “noisy and dense.” Davies says he “dives” into a story’s elements in the first paragraph. Middle episodes move quickly and conclude with either a surprise ending or an uncertain resolution.
Wales in the years between 1920 and 1970 is the setting for most of Davies’ naturalistic stories; a few have settings in London or on the Continent. However, universal themes emerge: the struggle of the individual for self-determination; youthful idealism followed by disillusionment; frustrated sexual relationships between men and women; greed and guilt that erode the spirit; economic and social restrictions that lock women into poverty, abuse, or outmoded traditions; the realistic, occasionally humorous, effects of death on the living; the power of secrets; and the need for revenge.
Character-driven, many of Davies’ stories have real-life connections. He skillfully characterizes coal miners emerging from collieries deep in the earth, their “bodies black with coal dust, their eyes white as marble, and their lips glistening red”; their wives and mothers, harassed by meal preparation and ritual baths; lonely travelers on trains in England and France; women who have “stepped over the line” of propriety and duty; and vengeful women.
Davies’ early stories have a somber tone. Later, he interjects wry humor into ordinarily somber situations, such as death and its rituals. For example, in “Resurrection,” a woman who is properly “laid out” in her coffin sits up and asks for a drink of water. Her angry sister, who has spent time and money in preparation for the funeral says, “Lie back, thee, lie back. Dead you are.” Davies got this idea from “laying out” rituals in Clydach. A few of Davies’ stories, such as “The Farm” and “The Revelation,” are lighthearted romances.
During Davies’ boyhood in the early 1900’s, he observed a woman who bought large quantities of groceries on credit at his parents’ Royal Stores in the mining village of Clydach. In “The Nightgown,” a fictionalized true story, Davies evokes sympathy for this hardworking Welsh woman, locked into her role as servant for her burly husband and five strapping adult sons. Mrs. Rees suppresses her femininity and wears baggy clothing and her son’s cast-off cap. Without benefit of praise or affection, she spends her days dutifully cooking and laundering. After laboring in the coal mines, her husband and sons return home to bathe in the kitchen tub, dress in freshly ironed clothing, and consume a huge meal. Then they leave for soccer games or the tavern.
Gradually Mrs. Rees’ health declines, but the men never notice as long as good food and clean clothing are prompt. By saving a few pennies each week from household money, she secretly buys a lovely white silk nightgown and instructs her neighbor to “lay her out” in it someday. The end of the story fully reveals the Rees men’s callousness. When she dies, they are shocked to see her dressed “like an angel” in the lacy gown, but with their typical lack of empathy they wonder if insurance will cover the gown’s extra expense. Then, without shedding a tear, Mr. Rees asks the neighbor if she knows any respectable widows or spinsters who might replace his dead wife.
“The Trip to London”
Davies observed travelers on frequent train trips between London and Wales and also on the Continent. His observations prompted...
(The entire section is 1505 words.)