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Kate Roberts: Traed Mewn Cyffion (Feet in Chains)

Kate Roberts’ father was a quarry worker and this novel, her first full-length novel, is set among the quarry workers of the fictitious town of Moel Arian in North Wales, from 1880 to the middle of World War I. We follow the fortunes and misfortunes of the Gruffydd family. At the start of the novel Jane has just married Ifan. She is looking fine in her clothes. Her bustle was the biggest, the satin of her dress the stiffest and heaviest, her frock had the most frills and her hat carried the biggest feather. While this might seem to be setting her up as a person of distinction, it does, as we shall see, have the opposite intention, as her appearance now will be very different from her appearance later, when the family is poor and their clothes are shabby.

Ifan works in the local slate quarry and one of the themes of the book is how badly the slate workers are paid and treated. During the course of the book, Ifan, who is not a weak man, will be treated badly and paid badly, partially because the slate industry faces its own problems – competition from abroad and a downturn in the building industry, the main user of slate – and partially because the bosses are happy to exploit the workers, knowing that they have few alternatives. Ifan’s problem is made worse because of the two bosses, known as the Steward and Little Steward. The Little Steward is married to Doli, who used to be Ifan’s girlfriend. When his father died (in an accident at the quarry) and his brothers moved away, the burden fell on Ifan and his sister, Geini, to look after Sioned, their very difficult mother. Ifan delayed marriage and Doli went off with the Little Steward, who is now resentful of Ifan and makes sure that he pays the price.

We do follow Ifan’s relationship with his mother and, in particular, poor Geini, who is left looking after her mother, till, well into the book, she finally revolts and marries her long-time boyfriend. However, in particular, we follow the story of Ifan and Jane. They have six children, three of each. With the downturn in the slate industry and exploitation by the bosses, times are hard for the Gruffydd family and much of the book is about how they struggle to make ends meet. They have a smallholding, which Ifan has too look after, following a hard day at the quarry, and that helps. They grow food and have a few animals but the couple struggle. Jane with six children and no mod cons (we see her doing the laundry the old-fashioned way on several occasions) works very hard. Not surprisingly, the children are fairly immune to the struggle of their parents. Owen, one of their sons, does very well in the music and poetry completion, and wins some money (one shilling and a penny, about five and half pence in current money). His parents, instead of congratulating him on his success, demand the money and he only hands it over reluctantly and very bitterly, resenting this for some time.

Inevitably the parents struggle with their children in different ways. Sioned, the eldest and named after her grandmother, is somewhat wayward. She pretends to be with her grandmother, when she is out with her boyfriend. She will have several boyfriends and ends up marrying one, who will steal money from his employer and disappear, presumably going to the United States. Two of the boys, Owen and Tym, do well at school and get scholarships to high school and then college and become teachers though Tym, in particular, hates his job. Wiliam (sic) works in the quarry, hates it, is badly paid and badly treated and finally leaves and goes to work in the mines in South Wales. The other girls marry.

The main focus, perhaps inevitably, is on Jane who struggles and is rarely happy with her life, as there are bills to be paid, debts, more work, difficulties with her children and mother-in-law and the loss of her children when they move away. What if there wasn’t anything? Owen asks his mother. What if there was nothing, nothing there (pointing to the sky) or nothing anywhere, and we weren’t here either?, to which Jane replies It would be marvellous, my boy.

One of Jane’s problems is that she does not speak English and this causes problems. When Owen does well at school and wins prizes, Jane declines to go as she fears the ceremony will be in English and she will be unable to speak to the other parents. The issue of the increasing use of English is key and it would be interesting to read the Welsh text to see how many English words have been used. (The English text does have a few Welsh words in it).

The other issue is the rise of the Independent Labour Party and trade unions. Wiliam is a key supporter of both, which does not help his job at the quarry but is disappointed that while some people join the ILP and/or the union, all too many do not.

This book is not a Northern Wales version of How Green Was My Valley. The Morgan family in that book is much closer than the Gruffydd family and the problems they face tend to be gradual rather than cataclysmic. There is no how green was my valley, not least because virtually no-one in this book has a happy life. Roberts presumably was basing her story on her own life and that of her parents. There is no doubt that life was grim for them as it was for the Gruffydd family. This book is probably a more realistic account of what life really was like than How Green Was My Valley.

Publishing history

First published 1936 by Gwasg
First published in English by John Jones in 1977
Translated by John Idris Jones (Seren); Katie Gramich (Parthian)