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Kate Roberts: Y Byw Sy’n Cysgu (The Living Sleep; later: The Awakening)

This book was first published in English by John Jones (who also published Kate Roberts’ Traed Mewn Cyffion (Feet in Chains)) in a translation from the Welsh by Wyn Griffith. It was then published by Seren in 2006, in a translation from the Welsh by Siân James under the title The Awakening, presumably to distinguish from the Griffith translation. The Welsh translates literally as The Living That Sleep.

At the beginning of the novel Lora Ffennig is awaiting the return of her husband, Iolo. They have two children, a girl, Derith, and a boy, Rhys. Iolo works as a clerk for a local solicitor, Aleth Meurig. Meurig is a widower and employs a housekeeper (whom, we later learn, he does not like) called Mrs. Amred. (There does not appear to be a Mr. Amred). He also employs Loti Owen, who is the best friend of Annie Lloyd, a school teacher, who lodges with the Ffennigs. Annie Lloyd is not entirely happy in her job, not least because of the school secretary, Esta, Iolo’s sister. Indeed, Lora is not too fond of her sister-in-law or, indeed, of her mother-in-law. Finally, Loti Owen is not happy with Mrs. Jones, her landlady and would love to come and live with the Ffennigs.

As far as Lora knows, Iolo is visiting a farmer friend. She is somewhat surprised that she has never met this farmer friend nor has he ever visited the Ffennigs. We soon realise that the farmer friend is a woman and is, indeed, Mrs. Amred. Moreover, Lora and we quickly learn that this time Iolo is not coming back. Not only has he left her and gone off with Mrs Amred, he has stolen all the money she has saved from the rent she receives and also stolen from his employer. Surprisingly, neither of them pursue him for the money stolen nor for child support.

When it is learned what has happened, she gets a lot of support, from friends, neighbours, the local minister and family. In particular, she gets support from Meurig. We soon learn that, though he has lost a clerk, a housekeeper and some money, he is not too disappointed, as he he is clearly interested in Lora, though she is adamant that she is still married to Iolo. Not surprisingly, people are highly critical of Iolo and Mrs. Amred. Loti is one person who benefits, as she can now become a lodger with Lora.

However, getting back to a normal life, which also means getting a job, and dealing with the children, is tricky. She was tired of all this talking, talking in a void, everybody thinking of himself and not commiserating with her. No-one could understand her feelings, nor could she reveal them to anyone. Her best friend lives in London and they only meet once a year.

Meurig comes and visits regularly, but only when there are others there and, though he does not entirely hide his feelings, he certainly does not push his cause. Lora is away of his interest and though she feels that she could reciprocate, she remains loyal to her marriage, while despising Iolo. We follow her feelings – as regards Iolo and Meurig, as well as regards her situation as a woman deserted by her husband and not getting the sympathy she feels that she deserves, and, of course, the effect on her children, in a diary that she keeps.

This is feminist novel and there is no doubt that Roberts is raising concerned about the treatment of women. Lora is roundly condemned for letting Meuring into her home, even though the two are never together alone. Indeed, even the local minister comes round to criticise her for it. It is made clear that Meurig (or any other man in a similar situation) is not condemned.

Lora is clearly a victim here, even though she tries very hard to avoid being one. Things keep going wrong – her children, her sister, the local gossip, her reputation and, above all, her own feelings and depression, asking where she went wrong, when, of course, she did not.

This is a fine feminist novel, written in 1956, when feminist novels were not really discussed as such. It has maintained its reputation as can be seen with the two translations, but though readily available in English, it does not seem to have attracted too much attention in the rest of the English-speaking world, including England, which is a shame.

Publishing history

First published 1956 by Gwasg
First published in English by John Jones in 1976
Translated by Wyn Griffith (John Jones); Siân James (Seren)