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Emyr Humphreys: Outside the House of Baal

In his introduction to this novel, Humphreys states that, in 1963, he was inspired to write this novel in part because he was aware, talking to his parents and parents-in-law, that the world was changing very much, moving away from the old Wales of legend and religion to a more modern one. The best way to show this change, he felt, was writing what he called a long novel, by which he meant not just one with many pages but one which covered a relatively long period of time. This novel starts early in the twentieth century and continues to the early 1960s, i.e. just before publication date. It tells the story of two families but it also tells the story of Wales during that period.

The first family is the Jones family. When we first meet them there are seven children and two parents, with the mother soon to die. There had actually been three other children but all had died very young. Humphreys mainly focuses on the two girl, Kate and Lydia, though the five boys all appear. The family has a farm and, as Kate will later say, their father seems to do little actual work but delegates the farm work to the five boys and the various farmhands, while the girls do the housework and cooking. A few of them will later say that all were very much exploited by their father. Kate, the older of the two girls, is somewhat reserved but also somewhat grumpy. She does have the odd suitor as she gets older but rejects them all. Lydia is much more of a free spirit, often going against her father and older sister. Of the boys, it is the oldest, Dan Llew, who escapes first. He has a business sense and soon sets up and buys various local businesses but is always interested in earning money. The other boys feature much less in this book.

The other family is the Miles family. They have just one boy, Joseph Trevor, known, to most, as J. T. His mother died when he was very young and his father later remarries. After school, J.T. initially becomes an apprentice to a blacksmith. He works hard and conscientiously, in marked distinction to his fellow apprentice. But J.T. is very religious and manages to get a place at a religious college. It is there that he meets Griff, one of the Jones boys, and they become friends. Griff admits to J.T. that he has not the slightest interest in becoming a priest but has merely gone to the college to get a free college education. Griff introduces J.T. to his family and, at first, it seems that he might marry Kate but, eventually, he marries Lydia. Meanwhile, he has become a pastor but a controversial one. In many ways, he is the voice of Humphreys and speaks out against what he sees as wrong, telling those who criticise him, including many fellow churchmen, that it is a Christian duty to oppose wrongdoing. In particular, he opposes war and, when World War I comes and patriotism is strong, even in Wales, he continues to oppose the war and gets beaten up for his troubles. Eventually, when Lydia accuses him of cowardice, he becomes a stretcher bearer.

While we follow the story of the Jones-Miles families, we also see the situation in the present day, i.e. the early 1960s when this book was written. Indeed, the book opens with this period. J.T. is living with Kate, his sister-in-law. We learn that he is a widower with three adult children and she a widow. Kate and Dan Llew are the only two of the Jones family still alive and Dan Llew is suffering from dementia. What Humphreys does throughout the book and does with this comparison with the present day is to show how Wales has changed dramatically since the period before World War I and, in his opinion, not necessarily for the better. He laments the left-wing tradition, the loss of Welsh culture, including but not limited to the language, urban development, the exodus of young Welsh people to England and elsewhere and the closure of the mines, leading to massive unemployment and misery. We see all of these events happen, primarily through the eyes of J.T. who is committed to fighting injustice, often at the expense of and to the disgust of his family. As a portrait of Wales during this period, this is a first-class novel and certainly one of the few top quality long Welsh novels, in the tradition, as Humphreys himself has claimed, of Daniel Owen. Sadly, it does not seem to be too well-known outside Wales, which is a great pity. Though out of print, it is not difficult to obtain.

Publishing history

First published by Eyre & Spottiswoode in 1965