Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Wild women helping Welsh learners - Book review of Merched Gwyllt Cymru (Beryl Griffiths)

One of the problems with learning a language is the limited accessibility of reading matter that is simple enough to be understood with the limited vocabulary and grammatical constructions possessed by a learner. Children's books might seem to be an obvious answer, but in fact they are not a solution. A toddler who speaks Welsh as their first language, for example, already knows phrases and words that I have yet to meet.

I found this out to my chagrin a year into learning Welsh, when I was not able to understand a Postman Pat book I found in the local Tenovus charity shop! Also, there's a limit to how much Postman Pat I want to read...

One answer is to turn to books written specifically for learners, with purposely limited sentence constructions and listed vocabularies. I will be featuring some I have found useful in future posts.

The other answer is a bilingual book, which has the text in Welsh on one page and in English on the facing page. I have just finished such a book: Merched Gwyllt Cymru - Wild Welsh Women by Beryl Griffiths.

This  is a collection of short biographies of Welsh women throughout history, who broke with convention in one way or another. It starts back in the mists of time with a retelling of the myths of Ceridwen, Arianrhod and Blodeuwedd.

We meet the warrior queen of the Iceni, Buddug (Boudicca) who led a rebellion against the Roman colonisers, and the princesses Nest, Gwenllian (a lesser known earlier Gwenllian, not Llywelyn ap Gruffudd's daughter) and Siwan of the 10-13th centuries.

Catrin o Ferain was called the Mother of Wales after her death in 1591. She outlived four husbands, while navigating her way through the political turmoil of the Elizabethan era. Her descendants were found in most of the families of the North Wales gentry.

Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby fled from Ireland so as to be able to continue with their relationship in peace, finding refuge in Wales, where they became known as the Ladies of Llangollen. Their home attracted many prominent authors and poets. William Wordsworth managed to offend them in a sonnet, referring to their house, Plas Newydd, as a "low roof'd Cot".

Ann Griffiths, who became converted during the revivalist period at the end of the 18th century, went on to write some well-known and loved hymns.

Another featured writer, this time of novels, is Elizabeth Amy Dillwyn (1845-1935), who triumphed over financial adversity and became a successful businesswoman.

Buy Merched Gwyllt Cymru and get free delivery worldwide.

The most recent biography is of Megan Lloyd George (1902-1966), Liberal and then Labour MP. I enjoyed hearing of her riposte to a farmer during hustings on Anglesey in 1928. Accused by him of not even knowing how many ribs a pig has, she invited him to join her on the platform so that she could count them!

However, it is the women from the lower levels and margins of society who make the most colourful impact in this "wild" parade. These include Marged ferch Ifan, who, standing over 6 feet tall, was not only a rower, wrestler and innkeeper, but also a renowned harpist. Jemima Nicholas, a cobbler and as tall as Marged, single-handedly caught 12 French soldiers who had come over the Channel as part of an invading army. They are joined by the thief Mary Lewis, the gypsy Alabina Wood, Betsi Cadwaladr, who ran away from home at the age of nine, travelled the world and went out to be a nurse in the Crimea at the age of sixty-five, and Annie Ellis, who emigrated to America and kept a lodging house in the Wild West.

While not women at all, the "Rebeccas", who led their "daughters" in mass actions to destroy tollgates, also get a chapter.

My favourite wild woman, however, is definitely Gwerfyl Mechain, who lived in the second half of the 15th century. Not only did she dare to enter the then male world of poetry, she proved to be as accomplished as any man in mastering the extremely difficult Welsh verse form cynghanedd. Her poetry includes discourses on women's concerns such as rape and domestic violence. She was also at times raunchier than many of her contemporary male poets. Criticising men for "Leaving the centre without praise / The palace where children are gained", she continues with her own detailed description and praise of that part of the female anatomy. I was amused to note that while the Welsh page cites the next five lines of the poem, the author refrains from supplying a translation for the English page!

In all, this was a most enjoyable book and I learned a lot of new things. I don't pretend that I was able to read all the Welsh. Nevertheless, I was able to read quite a lot, while casting occasional glances at the English text when I got stuck. I found this less wearing than having constantly to look up words in a dictionary. I would unhesitatingly recommend this book to anyone at my level of Welsh (Sylfaen) or higher as an enjoyable and informative way to practise Welsh. Since the book is bilingual, I would also recommend it to anyone who wishes to find out something about Welsh women who stood out from among their contemporaries.

Buy Merched Gwyllt Cymru and get free delivery worldwide.

No comments:

Post a Comment