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Emyr Humphreys: A Man’s Estate

Philip Elis wants to marry Margaret but he has little money, the job promotion he was hoping for did not materialise and his aunt is unable or unwilling to give or lend him any more money. Generally, things are not going well for him. He was hoping that his job as a medical researcher was going to lead to a promotion but he was passed over for a man whom he considers his inferior, though it is clear that the main reason was not because of his intellectual skills but because of his attitude. Criticising his boss’ work was not a good idea. His prospective father-in-law is not impressed with him and in way that reminds me of John Worthing discussing the matter with Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, he has to admit that, while he may have a family, he does not know who they are. We learn, though more from his sister, whom he has never met and did not even know existed, than from him, of the details of his family.

Felix Elis was a successful Welsh M.P., thought highly of by Lloyd George and a man with a future. He spent much of his time in London, while his wife, Mary, remained in Wales. However, he died of pneumonia at around the age of forty. At the time he and his wife had a daughter, Hannah, who is one of the narrators of this novel. She is now thirty-five, still unmarried, asthmatic and looked down on by everyone, including her mother and stepfather. At the time of Felix Elis’ death, Mary was pregnant with Philip. Mary had, however, learned that Felix had a mistress in London and fathered a child by her maid. She is so upset that, when Philip is born, she refuses to look at him and he is immediately given up to adoption to his aunt Gwendoline Esmor, who also happens to have been Felix Elis’ mistress. It is she, a school headmistress, who brings up Philip without any contact whatsoever, at Mary’s request, with his Welsh family. However, under the law of entail, it is Philip as the eldest surviving male who is entitled to inherit the farm where his mother, sister and stepfather live.

Soon after Felix’s death, Mary had married Vavasor, Felix’s cousin. They had had a son, Dick, who was unruly and very badly behaved, frequently in trouble with his parents but also with the law. He did badly at school and was friendly with the bad elements in the town. However, when his stepfather put him to work on he farm, he seemed to do fairly well. When war came he signed up and was killed. We learn much about what went on in the town from Hannah and from Idris Powell, the local vicar. Gossip, of course, abounds and it is Mary Elis who seems to run the town, though she has a rival in the form of the local garage-owner, Wally Francis. Hannah, meanwhile, lives an unhappy, spinster existence. She hopes that Idris Powell will propose to her but she is disappointed here as in everything else. Meanwhile, Philip decides to go to Wales to see what the situation is and whether there is any money he can claim and family he can identify to help him in his quest to marry Margaret.

Philip’s story is almost incidental to the novel, occurring mainly in the opening and closing parts of the novel though, of course, having a major effect on the other characters. The novel is essentially taken up with the people of the village of Pennant, focusing on the Elis family but also on Idris Powell, the vicar, and Ada Evans, daughter of the maid Felix Elis had an affair with. Ada directly and indirectly affects virtually everyone the village. She herself has struggled with her upbringing but is determined to make something of herself and escape her upbringing, her mother and her brother, and she is prepared to make certain sacrifices to do so. Poor Idris Powell is a man lost, unable to cope with the chapel politics or his own feelings. No-one really comes out of this well but Humphreys tells a wonderful Welsh story of guilt and ambition and revenge and sexual passion,

Publishing history

First published by Eyre & Spottiswoode in 1955