A Welsh Witch by Allen Raine (1902)

Anne Adaliza Beynon Puddicombe – who wrote under the name Allen Raine – was a popular novelist in her day,  selling more than two million books and seeing some of them turned into very early silent films.

I can understand that success, because this book was beautifully written and the story it told was captivating.

That story tells of the lives of four young people who have grown up in a  sea-side village of Treswnd on the Cardiganshire coast:  Catrin Rees, Goronwy Hughes, Yshbel Lloyd and Walto Gwyn.

17434791Catrin is the ‘Welsh Witch’ of the title. She was happier out on the hills and in the countryside than she was at home with her father, who had struggled to cope since the death of the gypsy girl he had married, and her two dour brothers. The natural world had become her natural home, and she had an uncanny intimacy with it. But when she spoke to the village priest about how she saw God and his work not in the church but all around her every day, he condemned her, he spoke out against her, and she was ostracised by his congregation.

Goronwy was her only friend. He had been away at sea when that great drama was happening, and curiosity took him out into the countryside to see Catrin. That curiosity grew into friendship as he came to understand her way of life and to appreciate – and share – her relationship with nature. In time that relationship grew into something deeper but careless words from Goronwy did a great deal of harm.

Yshbel was the girl he intended to marry. They had been childhood sweethearts, and though he was a farm boy and her family was of rather higher social standing, they saw much that was good in Goronwy and agreed to an engagement. They simply asked that it be a long engagement, and they sent Yshbel to visit relations in town so she could see that there were other possibilities open to her before she finally settled down. Yshbel had a lovely time, she saw wonderful possibilities, but she missed her home and the countryside terribly, and she was trouble about her engagement. She and Goronwy were the best of friends, she didn’t want to hurt him, but she had deeper feeling for someone else.

Walto, Goronwy’s best friend was that someone else, and he was miles away, in the coalfields of Glamorganshire. He loved his home village but he was the only son of a widowed mother who could see no future for him there and encouraged him to go. Because he wanted her to be happy, and because he was in love with the girl he believed loved and would marry his best friend, he went ….

These characters, their experiences, and the world around them were beautifully realised; and that drew me right into the story. It moved slowly and I was happy with that, because I loved hearing the characters talk, I loved being in the country with them, and I loved the time taken to reflect.

The stars that glittered in the sky above Penmwntan, the moon that shed so soft a light over the landscape, looked down also upon the solitary figure of a girl, who had sat long in the same position, leaning against the rough-shelled rock which she had chose for her seat; her feet hanging down so near the water that sometimes the swelling wave reached them, and wetted the soles of her little wooden shoes. It was Yshbel, whose footsteps often turned to the broken rocks lying under the cliff. She looked at her cottage door, where the fire lit up the tiny window and the open doorway, but she took no step towards it. The moon was so enticing, the waves lisped so softly at her feet, the breeze blew so gently around her, and all the mysterious sounds of night which came to her over the sea, awoke within her such dreams of beauty and happiness that she could not leave her rocky seat. She was often musing thus,dreaming of the wonderful world beyond the horn of the bay, the towns, the cities, which she heard the sailors speak of sometimes.

Fate, or rather Providence, had ordained that her lot should be cast in scenes where the rough exigencies of life brought out the stronger traits of her character, and checked the tendency towards romance which was strong within her. They could not, however, entirely quench the poetic temperament with which she had been endowed, and, as she drew her fingers over her coral necklace, it not only reminded her of the scenes of grandeur and beauty with which it might link her in the future, but also led her back in thought to the past years of her life, the happy wanderings on the shore, the joyous hours spent idling on the shimmering sea, the cosy hearth where her childhood had glided so peacefully away ….

A great deal happens along the way. There is as a shipwreck; there is a land dispute that is solved in the most unexpected way; there is a journey with gypsies,  into unfamiliar country ; and there is underground mining disaster that leaves men trapped.

All of these events are vividly realised, and it is so easy to believe that they really happened, that they were events that the characters would look back on in years ahead.

I was particularly taken with the two young women at the centre of the story – Catrin and Yshbel. At first I thought that the author might be setting them up as opposites, but I soon realised that they had a great deal in common, and the difference was in their circumstances.

Their characters and their relationship – all of the characters and relationships – evolve in a way that feels entirely natural and right as the seasons pass.

The story is well crafted, and it speaks profoundly of the pull of home, and of the pull of settings one’s own course through life.

It is sentimental at times, it contains some familiar tropes,  but as a whole it works wonderfully well and I am looking forward to investigating the author’s other books.

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This is my first book for Dewithon –  this year’s Wales Readathon – and I have another one waiting to be read ….

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