Kate Roberts Russell Davies - Essay

Russell Davies

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 Chains: no space to accommodate outstanding characters. Even Jane Gruffydd, glimpsed first as a hot-and-bothered young wife at an open-air preaching festival in 1880, and then followed through into grandmotherhood, is not much more than a starting-point for the familial history, and a marker of its progress through time. Sympathy and narrative points of view pursue different characters at different times, according to which of the Gruffydd children currently has a problem symptomatic of the general scene….

Russell Davies, "Patience in Caernarfon," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3949, December 2, 1977, p. 1397.