Richard Llewellyn’s novel (1939) and John Ford’s film (1941)
Comment realized by Alain Beltran, Senior Research Fellow, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
Reference novel: Richard Llewellyn, How Green Was My Valley, Michael Joseph Limited, London, 1939.
The 1939 Bestselling Novel
Richard Dafydd Vivian Llewellyn Lloyd – more commonly known as Richard Llewellyn (1906-1983) – was a British writer with a deep attachment to his Welsh roots. He published How Green Was My Valley in 1939. It was an immediate success, and remains his best-known work. It is hard to know exactly when the story is set. Reference is made to Queen Victoria (died 1901), when a Welsh miners’ choir sings in front of the Empress of India, and to the Second Boer War in South Africa, which began in 1899. Based on these indicators, the pivotal date can be put at around 1900. But in another part of the novel, there is a clear reference to strong-arm action by the government in London against striking miners at the initiative of Home Secretary Winston Churchill. These events took place in the Rhondda Valley in Wales in 1910. Lastly, the narrator is speaking 20 years after the events he is recounting, between the wars, which corresponds to the long decline in the coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... industry in Wales. The valley in question is not specified either, but could be any of the countless valleys in South Wales leading to the port of Cardiff, particularly the Rhondda Valley as noted earlier. The Rhondda Valley, which experienced a mining boom between 1848 and 1925, was known for its religious movements (Baptists), its very strong family ties, its excellent choirs and its political activism, among other things. The region described by Llewellyn shares these very same characteristics.
Shades of Green and Black in My Valley
The novel is a long reminiscence: the narrator, Huw Morgan, is about to move away from the village where he grew up and is looking back over his youth in this green valley that has become a coal mining center: “I remember how cold was the green down there. Only in our Valley was there a colliery to poke its skinny black fingers out of the bright green” (page 47). Indeed, “all along the river, banks were showing scum from the colliery sump, and the buildings, all black and flat, were ugly to make a hurt in your chest. Our Valley was going black, and the slag heap had grown so much it was half-way along to our house” (page 48). The story traces the fortunes of the Morgan family, a large and close-knit tribe. The reader follows the vicissitudes of family life, dominated by a patriarch attached to tradition but gradually losing powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... . The family’s other anchor is the mother. She is economical, resilient, restrained and esteemed. Huw, the young narrator, dares not break the social codes of the community (and neither does his sister Angharad). Romances with happy and less happy ends, disputes, strikes and accidents gradually get the better of what was originally a highly cohesive group.
The community is dominated by intense faith, boundless solidarity, choirs and rugby. All the men work in the mine, often from a very young age. However, the crisis in the coal industry lurks from the very opening pages. Jobs are threatened by workers from other parts who are prepared to accept less attractive working conditions and wages. “The ironworkers started to work in the pit for not much more than some of the boys. Some of them even started pulling the trams in place of the ponies. A lot of the older and better-paid men got discharged without being told why, although it was put out that they were too old and could not work as well as they might” (page 21). The miners are split on how to react about their bosses, the strikes and the union (created in secret). In the face of the collapse of wages and the lack of sympathy among the mine owners, a strike breaks out. At first, Dada Morgan relies on discussion and his faith. But his voice carries less and less, and he gradually changes his tune. A compromise is eventually found, with a salary floor. But the profound unity symbolized by the choirs is actually on increasingly shaky ground. Two of the brothers leave to look for work abroad. A fatal accident hits the Morgan family directly. Revolutionary trends start emerging. Nevertheless, young Huw chooses to go down into the pit: “But there was always a fear in me, down there, that I never lost” (page 339). Despite this anguish, Huw knows that becoming a miner gives him a status in his community and makes him feel like a man. However, fresh strikes break out, this time longer and fiercer. The village community is shattered and antagonisms rise to the surface. Sometimes the old cohesiveness returns: the miners band together to save the ponies working in the pit. But it’s too late. When he tries to repair a sabotaged pump, Huw’s father is the victim of an accident. Huw is at his side when he dies. It’s the last straw – the intense bond with his land is definitely broken. Huw ends up packing to leave his valley. But the valley regains its greenness as soon as he leaves behind the dust and the massive and ominous slag heap. It remains colorful and warm in the memory of those who loved and suffered there.
Five Oscars for the Film
How Green Was My Valley was meant to be filmed in Wales with famed director William Wyler. But the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 put paid those plans. The set was built in California, and renowned filmmaker John Ford (who had just finished The Grapes of Wrath) stepped in to replace Wyler in the director’s chair. It ended up being Ford’s favorite work in his rich and varied filmography. How Green Was My Valley won five Oscars, including Best Film (1942). It is quite faithful to the book and follows young Huw as he goes back over his fondest memories of his valley. John Ford’s warmth for his characters is evident throughout. The director clearly loves the family, especially the father, the mother and young Angharad. The film has a somewhat Irish aspect (like many Americans, John Ford was of Irish origin), and the cast includes Maureen O’Hara, who was later to play the heroine of The Quiet Man. The novel’s political aspects are softened (the United States entered the war in late 1941 and was keen to promote unity). Shot in black and white and running for two hours, the film is also memorable for some classic scenes such as the daughter’s wedding, the lines of miners singing in chorus at the end of their hard day’s work and a bed of daffodils in the spring. The film as a whole is infused with a certain nostalgia for a past that is gone forever. Ford is touched by these characters who are no longer at home in a world that has changed profoundly (a recurring theme in a number of his films, such as The Searchers).
Wales and Coal
Welsh coal had exceptional qualities, with steam coal fueling Britain’s industry and maritime expansion from the 18th century. It generated a lot of heatIn the field of statistical thermodynamics today, heat refers to the transfer of the thermal agitation of the particles making up matter... but little flame or smoke when burned. It was carried in the bunkers of merchant and Royal Navy ships around the world. Welsh miners were also renowned for their physical resilience and their qualities as workers. In South Wales, coal became a major industry, supplying Cardiff, Newport and later Swansea with products for export by sea, providing work for a labor force that the metallurgical industries, less blessed by nature and in swift decline, could no longer employ in sufficient numbers. And so Wales came to be peopled with hamlets and villages of miners, or towns stretched along its narrow valleys. Cardiff become the world’s biggest coal port. Welsh production totaled 8.7 million metric tons in 1855, and grew to 43.9 million metric tons in the 50 years to 1905. Around 1913, more than 250,000 Welsh miners produced roughly 57 million metric tons of coal. This growth led to the overpopulation of the narrow valleys of the region’s south, where iron and coal were often the only industries.
The interwar period was a tough time that saw falling productivity (production peaked at more than 310 metric tons per miner per year around 1880 before falling steadily to 200 metric tons in the early 1920s). Technical underinvestment and relatively high wages (not to mention the revaluation of the pound sterling, which hurt the British economy) stopped British coal from playing its traditional role. The Samuel report (1926) recommended a significant reduction in wages accompanied by an increase in working hours. This resulted in a fruitless general strike lasting nine days. The coal sector’s decline continued unabated. Structural factors exacerbated the crisis, including a high level of fragmentation (more than 3,000 mines, half of which employing fewer than 100 people), little modernization, an emphasis on immediate gains, and an overabundance of labor (there were 1,100,000 miners in Great Britain in 1913, versus fewer than 800,000 in 1938). The harshness of the job discouraged younger people, who were not very enthusiastic about going down into the pit, even with good wages. The worsening of the crisis, after 1929, resulted in unprecedented unemployment: 90% in Rhondda, 75% in Brynmawr and at least 33% on average; half a million workers had to take “exile” in London and the Midlands. The Rhondda Valley lost a fifth of its population in the 1930s. There is little doubt that these events inspired Richard Llewelyn, even though he placed them before the First World War (Émile Zola took a similar approach in Germinal, when he describes the mines of his time but places the action under the Second Empire).
Find out more:
- -How Green Was My Valley (at the end of the book, Llewellyn gives a lexicon of Welsh expressions and describes the pronunciation of names, some of which are quite unexpected: Gwylym, Ceridwen, Angharad, etc.).
- -Georges Croizard, “La crise du charbon en Grande-Bretagne”, L’information géographique, May 22, 1946.
- -A remarkable critique of John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley by Jean-Baptiste Thoret (2015), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8j6EKti4kc
- -A website on the Rhondda Valley: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhondda