My new novel, The Covenant, coming out in August, is set in West Wales in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Set a novel in that period in a city, in London or Manchester, and it wouldn’t be difficult to paint a period that everyone with any knowledge of history would recognise.
My characters would be flag-waving for the Empire and possibly their sons would be out there, carrying our trade and accompanying our adventurers around the world, whether the indigenous people wanted us or not. They might be soldiers embroiled in Afghanistan (plus ça change) or crushing rebellions in China and fighting wars in South Africa and the trenches of Europe. They could be participating in administrations that were starving millions in India, or they could be at home working in the clamour of industry, in cotton mills or ironworks, in banks and shops.
Motorised vehicles were appearing and my characters would travelling around on bicycles or in omnibuses. They would be totally at home with the railways that could carry them to every corner of the land. If they were very daring and very rich, they might even be taking to the air. They would have gas lighting in their houses or, if grand enough, might be installing electricity (although my mother, living in Cardiff in the 1920s and early 30s, still had gas lights in the living rooms and candles upstairs). Their world would have been quite recognisable to the reader, industrialised, confident, profiteering and surging forward.
But a novel set in rural West Wales is going to lack most of those markers that would help a reader place it in time. It’s an area that, until recently, has existed in an alternative time zone out of kilter with the rest of the world. It wasn’t surging anywhere. Even when I moved to the area in the early 1980s, I felt I was slipping into somewhere still marooned in the 1950s, if not earlier. Researching for my first novel, A Time For Silence, set in the 1930s and 40s, I read newspaper articles on the introduction of electricity in the 1950s – and that was just in the towns. Official reports had noted the poor housing, hygiene and malnutrition prevalent in rural Wales at the start of the twentieth century and it was still being blamed for the high level of TB in 1939. A diet of potatoes and tea was not uncommon.In the 1980s we were told about an old lady, in living memory, who used to live a few doors away in what must have been a traditional long house, with cows occupying one half of the building. Each morning the cows would come in, through her front door and hall, politely tilting their heads so their horns wouldn’t disturb the pictures on the walls, as they made their way into the milking parlour.
The gentry of the area would not have been troubled by primitive housing or malnutrition and they probably had homes in London as well as their country estates. They would have been au fait with everything fashionable, modern and advanced, but ordinary people, who had never moved far beyond their own parishes, were still living in a world only a very small shuffle removed from the world of their ancestors one or two hundred years before.
West Wales was not totally isolated in world terms. Ships were sailing to America from ports like Cardigan, Newquay and Aberystwyth in the 19th century, but inland the area lagged behind. Railways had been threading through the country, expanding horizons spectacularly since 1825, but branches only extended into North Pembrokeshire towards the end of the century – to Cardigan in 1886, and Fishguard in 1906.
Motor cars began to appear in the 1890s – the first one was driven on British roads in 1895. By 1900, when Prince Bertie acquired one, there were still only a few hundred in Britain. Very few would have made their way to West Wales, especially to isolated villages where roads were still mud tracks.
In the big world, agriculture was becoming ever more mechanised, with mowers, reapers and binders, seed drills, steam engines and, finally in the 20th century, tractors. But these were not for the small-scale farmers with a few acres.
In The Covenant, a relatively wealthy farmer acquires a tractor in the course of the Great War, but the Owens, with their 24 acres, 1 rood and 8 perches, continue to rely on sickles and scythes. Partly poverty and partly an obstinate but pious determination to labour as Adam had done.
By 1919, the wealthy farmer has the luxury of a Ford Model T, but the Owens are still using a horse and trap or taking a daring ride on the charabanc from the nearest market town.
Newspapers were in circulation and, like every other community in Britain, from the largest city to the smallest hamlet, my characters feel the impact of the Great War, the shared patriotism and the private grief. But it is their little patch of land that really matters to them, not the fate of the Empire. It’s their minister’s decision to become a missionary that really opens up their horizons and that’s a matter of the next world, not this one.