Rhys Davies 1903–1978
Anglo-Welsh novelist and short story writer.
With his first novel, The Withered Root, Davies set the pattern for most of the works to follow. His settings and characters are Welsh, yet Davies evokes the universal in his themes. His writing is characterized by precise, elegant prose and keen observations of humanity.
Many of his novels explore the dark side of the Welsh temperament, as in The Dark Daughters, and their plots unfold through macabre situations and happenings. His short stories are considered his best work. The sardonic humor which occasionally shows through in his novels is more apparent and polished here. The publication of The Best of Rhys Davies is bringing new attention to all his writings.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., Vols. 81-84 [obituary] and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4.)
The Times Literary Supplement
If a novel has to be judged, like a dramatic work, by the interplay of its personalities or by the grip with which conflict of wills compels attention to the outcome, then Mr. Rhys Davies's "The Withered Root" … will disappoint. But the title plays fair, and truly suggests that the drab, not the dazzling, is to come. In his first sentence Mr. Rhys Davies takes us to a "dwelling in one of those naked rows, chiefly occupied by colliers, that rise, shrouded in grey coal dust, on the Valley hills." He takes us to the Valley, and there or thereabouts firmly he keeps us. The Valley, one of those many valleys across South Wales which coal has populated, shuts in the book as it shuts in its thousands of inhabitants. In the first chapter Reuben Daniels enters the Valley, not by choice but by being born, and leaves it by death in the last. That is all. It is the story of a man and a people, a man whose force of mind tries to break through the psychological mists that enshroud his fellows, and to show them the light beyond. He wins and he loses; for we are in Wales, and something cracks too soon.
The tale itself is slight. The central figure, Reuben Daniels, for all his "taut strength" is not vital enough to give it life. "Morgan the Bakehouse" nearly, but not quite, lives up to the glamour of his name. The rest are little more than skittles, whom Reuben either bumps up against or does not. Yet, however formless his men and women, Mr. Davies...
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[The appearance of "The Withered Root"] in this country introduces a young writer of more than ordinary talent, and a book which, as a first novel, has penetration, grace of style and a scrupulous sincerity.
Mr. Davies has localized an important theme from the idiosyncrasies abounding in the "religious" character. His approach and perspective are, however, gratefully un-Freudian…. His argument is a simple one—that the revivalist or fanatic, before his soul has been clouded with sawdust, turns to God to compensate for the lack of a completed earthly existence.
No doubt the game works both ways, and an Elmer Gantry, a trifle fed up on heavenly love, will turn zealot only with respect to the fleshpots, but Mr. Davies foreshortens his hero's life dramatically, a little too forcibly, perhaps, but still at the point where his sincerity is undiminished and his soul remains as crystal to the eyes of the sympathetic onlooker. The situation in his book develops into tragedy, not sharply limned or objectively realized, but taking place in the etherealized atmosphere of a young dreamer's hesitancies and doubts, his sudden exaltations and swift, abiding depressions. His death in the end is rather a symbol than a finality; a symbol of the book's objective incompleteness, but acceptable enough as the final curtain call on what is especially vivid as a shadow drama.
The tale moves swiftly, dramatically, with...
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V. S. Pritchett
[Mr. Rhys Davies is of a lively and independent nature. In A Time to Laugh he] takes an idealistic young doctor living in a mining valley in Wales and pushes him into the middle of the working-class conflict at the beginning of this century. The doctor breaks with his bourgeois girl, who is very well drawn—how well we know one another, we bourgeois!—marries a working-class girl—not so well known—and goes to live in the toughest slum of the town. There is some romantic wish-fulfilment going on here, but the material is excellent, in the first place because the Welsh are a nation of toughs, rogues and poetic humbugs, vivid in their speech, impulsive in behaviour and riddled with a sly and belligerent tribalism. Mr. Rhys Davies handles this expertly. He is passionate, athletic, comical and lyrical by turns. He is out in the streets when the windows smash. The doctor and his Daisy are romantic types, of course, presented without criticism. Indeed, original sin vanished from the leading people in political fiction; the only crimes and the only virtues are ideological. There are some excellent minor stories in the book, which is dramatic and alive from the beginning down to the marvellous New Year party at the end.
V. S. Pritchett, "Political Novels," in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1937 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), n.s. Vol. XIII, No. 316, March 13, 1937, p. 428....
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The Times Literary Supplement
The novels of Mr. Rhys Davies have revealed a true development. As his last one, "Honey and Bread," was his most delicately and sensitively felt, so its sequel, "A Time to Laugh," is his strongest and most consistently satisfying, his largest not merely in length. We call it a sequel, and it is truly so, though the connexion in terms of characters is a tenuous one, and it may be read independently with complete enjoyment. Only Bronwen, heroine of "Honey and Bread," that almost-idyll of a typically lovely South Wales valley on the eve of its industrial transformation, lives on into this new work, as grandmother of the hero of this story of the same valley sixty years later, at the very end of the nineteenth century.
The earlier book was, up to its last pages, pastoral; this, in contrast, is angrily industrial. The whole life of the valley now centres in the coalpits, and now, where peace was, is the ceaseless, bitter struggle for power. The story opens on the violence of strike-riots and the looting of food-shops, quietens for a while, rises again to anger in another strike and yet more prolonged clashes with fellow-miners, police and soldiers, and then, following a perceptible but natural rhythm, subdues itself to the moment of pause which greets the new century's advent.
All the characters are well chosen to give to the tale its fullest value….
Many scenes stand out as especially vivid—the...
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Rhys Davies has never gained the appreciation in this country that he receives in England. It is likely that his work is accepted there for its accurate portrayal of life among the Welsh coal miners, while to us, less immediately concerned with the factual material, the conflicting and disruptive forces at work in Mr. Davies's mind are more apparent. For there is a deep inner cleavage in his loyalties and interests. Intellectually, he is ruled by an alert social consciousness; he is a radical who cannot for long forget the economic cancers that trouble his land. But emotionally he is more than a little moved by the spirit of fantasy that courses through his Celtic veins: he can go only so long without acknowledging, either gayly or pathetically, his contempt for material circumstance. And he falls just short of the genius needed to synthesize these two conflicting elements in his personality.
It is this cleavage that weakens "A Time to Laugh" to its very underpinnings, for it never becomes clearly either a strike novel or the story of a man's quest for satisfying human relationships, but vacillates uncertainly between the two. When Mr. Davies runs into the great unresolved dilemma of all strike novelists—the improbable utopianism of complete victory and the unacceptable pessimism of complete defeat—he shifts the emphasis to the human story. And when the human story threatens triteness he gives the reader a shot of violent realism....
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Seeing how enjoyable and fresh are the greater number of these new short stories [in The Trip to London] by Mr. Rhys Davies, it is perhaps ungracious to begin by saying that too many short stories are being written now. But then, too much of everything is being written; there are too many novelists, the poets are too many and portentous, and wherever a cat jumps there are only too many observers-on-the-spot ready to whip out their notebooks. Inspiration seems to lie very thick on the ground in these days of despair. One wonders why. But as to the short story, it is possible that the form suggests itself to the unsuspecting as easy to manage, easy to trick.
Mr. Rhys Davies is anything but unsuspecting; on the contrary, he is a most accomplished, skilful writer, who in his best work shows himself again and again as complete master of what he chooses to do. It is odd, therefore, to find him in one or two of these new stories, notably Orestes and Spectre de la Rose, letting them write themselves, with passages of dialogue that are slipshod and sometimes even untrue, and with a kind of slackness towards the whole theme which is disappointing, and leads him in Orestes at least to an improbable and cheap conclusion. Spectre de la Rose, which is about a night of the Blitz in London, is not very well written, and leads one to wonder why so far so little that is really good has been done on a theme which...
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Mr. Rhys Davies is so completely a master of the short story that one has little to say of him, except to express wonder at his sustained vis comica, his superb gift of complete characterisation in the smallest conceivable space, and his consistently felicitous inventiveness. When he abandons comedy, he is often equally impressive: in [The Trip to London] there is a story called The Public-House, about a child's first contact with adult lustfulness, which is well enough done to bear comparison with Joyce's terrifying story An Encounter, which has a similar theme. I think it is merely the juxtaposition, within a single volume, of disparate scenes—Wales and England—that gives one an occasional doubt about the success of Mr. Davies's non-Welsh stories. The long Orestes, in the present collection, has remarkable power, though its parallels with the fall of the house of Atreus seem, for all their cunning, to be a little over-sought. It is greatly to Mr. Davies's credit that even when the opening of one of his tales—The Last Struggle is a present example—leads us immediately to conjecture its middle or end, the excellence and originality of his writing persuade us to go on; and he never fails to reward us.
Henry Reed, "New Novels: 'The Trip to London'," in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1946 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. XXXI, No. 784,...
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The Times Literary Supplement
In The Dark Daughters Mr. Rhys Davies plunges the reader into a Victorian world of passionate hates;… he has a weakness for melodrama (visible at times through the rich exterior) and the ability to evoke a sickly miasma. Mansell, a chemist, is an adventurer with luck; by keeping shady houses around Paddington he amasses the fortune for which he had craved. For years he plunders the world, using those around him with cynical disregard for their humanity. In the end he is brought to book, first by his conscience and then by his three terrible daughters who, when they are grown up, pursue him with a single-minded ferocity. Not even King Lear, whose story this part of the book closely follows, suffered such a ruin of personal relationships and feelings. All this is luridly described, but the story is so excellently contrived that it has a fascination of its own.
"Anguish of Childhood," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1947; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2387, November 1, 1947, p. 561.∗
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In fascination by horror, that enjoyable emotion, [The Dark Daughters] does remarkably well. And there is an original flavour in the form of a kind of crazy brusqueness that we much appreciate. The story of The Dark Daughters is terrific. Mansell Roberts was the son of a farmer, a man who, after financial catastrophe, "remained isolated in Biblical studies" for the rest of his days. His son, reacting from his early home life, developed an overriding ambition to make money…. Well, the long and the short of it was that he killed both wife and mistress with his Turk-like tyranny and all his miserly tricks. They both died of broken hearts. And then … he was left alone with his three daughters….
All three of them, spinsters of vitriolic temper, and all deeply corroded by the years of hatred and oppression at home, rose up like adders from the grass, rounded upon their father and took over command. From then onwards Mansell is hounded by his daughters to his grave. He locks himself in the turret to avoid ever seeing them, and emerges only at dead of night, with lamp held aloft, to descend into the cellars and visit his grim "secret"—the magnificent coffin he keeps down there in readiness. What a film all this would make! Especially after the snow has descended upon the ill-omened house, which it does halfway through the book. The macabre quality of the snowy landscape is magnificently described, as it shines...
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Even in a full-length novel like "The Dark Daughters," Rhys Davies' talents as a short-story writer show through. Somewhere near the end of his book, in clear-cut relief, stands his imaginative concept complete: a house of hate dominated by three harpies who torment their father to death for his sins. This pretty Grand Guignol conceit takes care of everything. The rest of the book seems to be merely a recital of events leading up to the crime.
The author has a special touch with the dark unease of the Welsh temperament. Even in his most sedate vein of storytelling there is a trace of inner disorder, a faint stirring of horror which often leads the reader to the thin edge of fear. No matter where you start with Rhys Davies, you are apt to end up on intimate terms with the macabre.
In this novel Mr. Davies employs no subtle lure to the everyday imagination. There is a house of hate to be built and the life of Mansell Roberts is the very cornerstone of that house. Unsparingly the author gives us the dismal saga….
There is nothing moving about the manner of his undoing…. [The] mechanical precision with which the three girls are prepared for a psychopathic ward leaves no room for pity or tenderness. There are a dozen shocking situations in this story which leave no sensation. Mr. Davies' words and manner are shock-repellent….
During the scenes where the avenging furies turn the...
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G. F. Adam
[We] can explain much of the passionate imagery in Davies' work as the outcome of a childhood of repression and introspection. This aspect of his art is particularly traceable in his early novels, and we know that before he left the Rhondda for his first paid job, the young dreamer wrote down innumerable tales and also vague phantasies of an imaginary race of Welsh ancestors….
Childhood impressions form much of the basic material in his novels. Their harsh features belong to the rigid Welsh Nonconformist puritanism in which he grew up, the "physical phenomena of the slagheaps and slums, over-drinking and furtive sexuality", while the lyrical element, veiling his naturalism in all his novels to a greater or less extent, is drawn from his dreamworld of childhood. In the boy-hero of To-Morrow to Fresh Woods Davies has created not only a portrait of himself as a child and adolescent, but an expression of the imaginative artistic mind in the conflict with the world of reality. (p. 49)
There is moreover much evidence in his early work of the great influence of the Authorised Version. The Welsh puritans imbibe a particular richness of phrase and imagery from their constant reading and memorising of the Bible. This fact is noticeable not only in the whole of Anglo-Welsh literature but in the everyday-speech of the ordinary Welsh people, and Davies was no exception to its powerful educating influence. The Bible, more...
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[In "Boy with a Trumpet" Rhys Davies] mines his boyhood and background thoroughly with skill and success. It is obvious that many of the tales represent a fictional treatment of actual incidents; there is the terror of small-town reality in them…. Plot, as the professional storyteller knows it, does not exist for Mr. Davies; he exposes raw material, examines it and leaves it; he does not even offer a use, morally or sentimentally, for what he exhibits. His writing, therefore, is almost reportorial, except that by cunning selection and delicate emphasis it enters the field of art.
There is a single point of view in all of Mr. Davies's stories; he is objectively compassionate, concerned with the tragedy of every human life, but without indignation or regret for the inevitable action which reduces human aspirations to ashes. In the title story a boy raised in an orphanage longs for the death of the world so that he may return to the womb of life. He knows that his only hope of a normal life lies in finding a mother; when the prostitute he elevates to this position brutally rejects him Mr. Davies does nothing more than describe the sunlight on the bed in the room and the cracks in the paint on the wall. That is all there is, he seems to say, and there is nothing you can do about it. He is as noncommittal in "Resurrection," a nakedly terrible episode in which an invalid woman recovers from "death" and tries to get out of her casket, only...
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There is a story, "A Human Condition," in [Boy with a Trumpet] which describes the desperate search for liquor of a bereaved husband. He needs the liquor as armor against his grief and also to shield him from the disapproving eyes of his wife's relatives. Having managed, one way or another, to get enough to drink, he maintains a drunken dignity on the way to the cemetery but, on reaching the edge of the open grave, totters and falls in, thus earning a deathless reputation for passionate devotion and heroic grief.
This melange of grief, irony and humor might better have been the title story, since it is typical of most of these tales in its racy, earthy smell of thoroughly human conditions like the canvases of Brueghel and the tales of Chaucer. Because the stories are told by a sophisticated and honest writer, few of the human conditions are unnaturally simple or completely solemn—love is a negligible detail humbly trailing the hugely comic and awesome urge for procreation which dominates "Abraham's Glory"; and sometimes the grave gives out roars of laughter, as in "Mourning for Ianto."
Although Davies' mood is most often that of Olympian humor and the view that of a distant if kindly eye, there are some powerfully bitter stories….
With few exceptions, the stories treat of Welsh miners and farmers, a society of hard-working, realistic people who stubbornly cherish their earth and their...
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The carpentry shows too clearly in ["Marianne"]. The overextended revenge theme, the concluding twist almost right out of O. Henry, the last few pages in which all debts are paid out, all ends patly tied up—these things jut out, there is scarcely anything subtly organic about them: the narrative necessity too obviously springs from the author and not from the characters or situation.
But if the scaffolding protrudes, nevertheless, Davies has draped upon it some of the most compellingly written dramatic and emotionally evocative experiences to come along in some time. Often his style is pure biting and brooding poetry. At other times it is starkly naturalistic. The birth-scene, Marianne dying, and particularly the long series of small but battering domestic quarrels with which Barbara flails the bewildered Geoffrey to disintegration—these are the work of a writer to be respected.
It is because Mr. Davies has such great gifts that the defects of this novel glare. But read it yourself. Perhaps you will believe that by his poetic gifts and dramatic insights Davies overcomes his novel's handicaps. I almost do myself.
Hugh McGovern, "Grim Tale of a Sister's Revenge," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), January 27, 1952, p. 4.
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For somber portrayal of love, hate, and the dark passions that lie on the outer rim of sanity, Rhys Davies of Wales has few peers. In a score of novels … he has developed a rotund, coldly exact style which seems perfectly tailored to his blend of morality play and Welsh Gothic. True, his offering may seem cheerless, macabre stuff to readers on a bland diet. So, for many of the same reasons, is Dostoevsky cheerless. Yet "The Dark Daughters" … and ["Marianne"] are distinguished by the author's rare mastery over individual scenes and characters and by the force of his indignation, which casts a dull glow over the entire proceedings. In our uneasy present, when many writers are preoccupied with the tensions of the day, Mr. Davies sticks to timeless problems of birth, death, motherhood, family relations and male vs. female.
This is not to say that his skills as a writer are always strong enough or sharp enough for the tasks set before them. Intensity of the author's emotional feeling obscures (but does not hide) the fact that he depends upon an adjectival style to convey it. At climactic moments, characters sometimes orate when the reader expects them to react. With all his Celtic passion, Mr. Davies can be fairly accused of lacking the humor and tenderness which together spell warmth. But he will not be accused of lacking dramatic power or a gift for catching complex human relations at high tide.
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Mr. Davies is very much in the classic tradition. The seven stories he presents [in "The Chosen One and Other Stories"] … are traditional in topic and treatment, if not in theme. Most of them deal with villagers and country people in Wales, describing in highly polished ways their tragedies and comedies. If our great-grandparents could have read them 75 years ago, they would have felt admiringly comfortable in the presence of Mr. Davies's smooth writing, his tidy ironies, his nice equilibrium of setting, plot and character, his rustic dialects, his neat denouements, many of them ending with twists or tricks. Some of the stories have real vigor, notably the title story, which is about a simple-minded Welsh workman whose genteel but demented landlady tries to seduce him by blackmail. But on the whole Mr. Davies's achievements are more technical than emotional, his characters more engaging than engrossing. The diet is, by and large, bland.
Laurence Lafore, "Tales of Two Worlds," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 13, 1967, p. 4.∗
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Mr. Rhys Davies is a very good writer who in a long life has never had the public recognition he deserves. One hopes that … [Print of a Hare's Foot] will help to repair the omission and serve to remind people that he is among the best short story writers of our time. Indeed, [these autobiographical fragments] have the same qualities of freshness and compassion that are revealed in his stories; the difference is that here it is his own experiences which Mr. Davies recounts, only he sees them with very much the same eye as he turns upon those of others.
Print of a Hare's Foot tells the story of Mr. Davies' early life, first in childhood and youth in one of the most remote outposts of the Rhondda at the beginning of this century, and later as a young man on the threshold of a literary career in London. Mr. Davies is an old man now, but one has the sense that he still sees with a boy's clear vision. Many people before him have attempted to describe the extraordinary, one is tempted to say unique, society that until recently existed in the mining valleys of South Wales; no one, I think, has brought it to life quite so vividly as Mr. Davies does here. (p. 74)
Mr. Davies' account of his childhood and youth in this exotic society has a wonderful spontaneity; every detail in it is vivid, exact, authentic, and never blurred by overemphasis or exaggeration. He has the seeing eye of the born writer, but what comes...
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The thin line that separates the mystery from the psychological novel can be admired in ["Nobody Answered the Bell"]…. There are killings, it is true. But these are subservient to the grim story of two mad Lesbians and the life these terrible women try to make. This is a strong and deadly book; and, incidentally, not in the least prurient. Davies, who has made his mark with mainstream fiction, is of the objective style. He writes with a sure hand. And each fingernail on that hand is tipped with poison. (p. 50)
Newgate Callendar, "Criminals at Large," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 14, 1971, pp. 48, 50.∗
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The characteristic qualities of detachment and insight which we find in Rhys Davies's work are particularly exemplified in his more recent novels and stories…. It is noteworthy that in these novels and stories he continues to surprise the reader with some new setting, some new situation, or some sharply observed character which both particularises and illuminates his theme.
Davies's talents as a novelist have never been shown more impressively than in The Painted King (1954). The skeleton of the novel is the story of Guy Aspen, an immensely successful writer-producer-actor of London musical comedy. (p. 55)
Around this regal figure of show business, Davies creates three or four characters, people very much in their own right, from whose perspective we see Aspen's character piece by piece. There is Guy's dominant mother, the singer and old trouper, Madame Annie, Guy's assistant, Judith Cottar, and Jorgen, another of Guy's retinue. All these subsidiary characters have a firm grasp of reality which eludes Guy Aspen, increasingly incapable of differentiating between the real and the tinsel world of his musical comedies.
Davies's story explores both the half-world of London bed-sitters and apartments …, as well as the backstage of theatreland with its feverish rivalries and ambitions. (pp. 55-6)
At the heart of The Painted King is Guy Aspen's personality. (p. 56)...
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The majority of [the stories in The Best of Rhys Davies] are told with a wrily humorous appreciation of the lapses into disorder to which even the most disciplined lives are sometimes subject. People fall far, they fall unexpectedly and they fall funnily; but they rarely do themselves or others lasting injury. But there are two masterly pieces in which the tone is graver and the outcome less jokey. In 'The Chosen One' one of those sullen uncomfortably passionate young men who so often appear in Davies's work is so far baited by the imperious eccentric who owns his rented cottage, that he is eventually driven to murder her. In the other, 'I Will Keep Her Company', an old man marooned in his isolated home by a blizzard, maintains a lonely vigil by the corpse of his wife, while a busy-body district-nurse attempts to organise his rescue.
The one English story, 'A Visit to Eggeswick Castle', is also a gem….
The one failure is 'Nightgown'. It is possible to believe in the down-trodden miner's wife, whose whole existence is spent in preparing baths and vast meals for her rampant menfolk—a husband and five sons; but there is a sentimentality, rare in Davies's work, in the account of how this pathetic woman slowly saves up in secret to buy herself a white silk nightgown, which is eventually to become not only the one beautiful thing that she has ever possessed but also her shroud.
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Alun R. Jones
At their best, which is very fine indeed, Rhys Davies's stories [in The Best of Rhys Davies] achieve a hard, self-contained robustness; lean, spare and direct they move relentlessly towards their endings…. His art, like all accomplished art, shows no signs of struggle or agony; the vision is captured easily, in familiar surroundings as natural as conversation and as unnerving as ghosts. For he was haunted by the voices of his native Wales, its countryside, its manners and its people; deformed by chapel hypocrisies, liberated by circuitous contact with a pagan past, his characters flourish in the privacy of their own lives…. His imagination transformed the actual into the bizarre, for in his stories the conventional and the ordinary come at the reader from strange and unexpected angles of experience. To show his wit and his intelligence he laces his malice with humour and his compassion with derision. His spite is reserved for the absurdity of the human situation. "Nightgown" shows the influence of his friend D. H. Lawrence in a story of the hard peasant/miners and the gentle woman struggling to assert a little of life's tenderness; "Canute" has achieved something like classic status as the drunken Rowland fails to hold back the rising tide in the Gentleman's Convenience; and "The Chosen One" remains a fine study of murderer and victim, the victim imperious and in control.
These dozen stories … demonstrate something of his...
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