Friday, 1 March 2013

Guest Post - Margaret Evans Porter

I am truly honoured to welcome today's guest to my blog, Margaret Evans Porter is the author of an impressive list of Historical Romances. I had the privilege to meet her at last year's HNS Conference and she really is as lovely as her novels..

St. David’s Day and 18th Century Wales - Margaret Evans Porter

Hark, the distant village peal,
In sweet responsive sound,
Bids blythsome echo hither steal,
To cheer the hamlet round;
And hark, the sweetly tinkling rill,
And hark, on every spray,
The feather'd race the chorus fill,
To hail St David's day.

Thomas Dibdin, 1801
My novella The Love Spoon was inspired by a souvenir I purchased in North Wales craft shop years ago—now prominently featured on the ebook cover. The setting is Betws-y-coed and the story unfolds between the Welsh feasts of St Dwynwen’s Day (25 January) and St David’s Day (1st March). St Dwynwen is the Welsh equivalent of St Valentine, and on that feast love tokens were offered. St David (Dewi Sant), the patron saint of Wales, died on 1st March, 589, and for centuries this has been the date of Wales’s national celebration.
David, born in Wales of royal blood, was educated in Cardiganshire. During his ministry he made many pilgrimages and even travelled as far as Jerusalem, where he was made an archbishop. He was noted for performing miracles, his most famous occurring when he raised up the ground on which he stood so that the crowd could see him! He founded monasteries throughout Wales and in England, including the one in Pembrokeshire where he was buried—the cathedral dedicated to him is located on the site. In the past it was a popular place of pilgrimage: a single visit to St David's was equal to one pilgrimage to Rome; three visits there were the equivalent of making a pilgrimage to distant Jerusalem.

In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, St David’s Day activities in London prompted mockery from the English. The wearing of a leek in the hatband led to derision, and rhymes and jokes referring to Welshmen, or Taffies, were never complimentary!

David’s personal symbol, the leek (cenhinen) became the traditional emblem. Eventually it was superseded by the daffodil, which begins its bloom in early March, and whose Welsh name Cenhinen Pedr translates as ‘Peter’s leek’—leading to confusion and over time a melding of their significance.  Modern-day celebrations include parades, eisteddfodau (poetry recitations and/or choral singing). Women wear their traditional Welsh dress—tall black hat, woollen shawl, long skirt of wool. Cawl, a dish of potatoes and other root vegetables and meat (lamb, mutton, or bacon if living inland) or fish in coastal regions, is typically served.

Perhaps my Welsh ancestry is partly responsible for my affinity for Wales, and the frequency with which I return, and the romantic relationship in The Love Spoon unfolds in the places I know best. As well as relying on my own experiences, I benefitted from a wealth of primary source material.

In the late 18th century, North Wales was ‘discovered’ as a destination for tourists. Improved roadways—relatively speaking—in the remote regions allowed for easier travel than in the past. Persons crossing to Ireland via the Holyhead ferry often paused in their journey to admire Mount Snowdon’s peak, as well as nearby lakes, streams, and coast. Artists recorded the region’s dramatic landscape, and the publication of prints added to area’s reputation as a picturesque and scenic destination. Antiquarians and naturalists published accounts of their journeys, describing the natives’ quaint and foreign customs. The era’s fascination with ancient Britain—in particular Celtic history and the bardic tradition—fuelled interest in Welsh lore and legends. 

As an example of the effusions inspired by the North Wales scenery, I offer a late 18th century visitor’s description of the view from Snowdon:

‘On the summit, the air was perfectly mild and serene and I could with pleasure contemplate the amazing map that was unfolded to my view…rivers, plains, woods, rocks, and mountains, six and twenty lakes, and two seas…Who could take such a survey without perceiving his spirits elevated in some proportion to the height? Who could behold so bountiful a display of nature without wonder and ecstasy?’

English tourists regarded people of the remote mountains with a certain amount of condescension Says one late 18th century visitor, ‘The people seem there to have an innocence and simplicity of character, unknown in the populous parts of our own country…A rustic bashfulness and reserve seem to be  general features in the character of the Welsh people.’ He adds, ‘The women of the mountainous parts of the country are generally of a middle size, though more frequently below that than above it. Their features are often very pretty….They wear long blue cloaks that descend almost to their feet. On their legs they have blue stockings…They often employ their time in knitting.’

A 19th century female visitor also notes the women’s dress: ‘All women among the lower orders in Wales wear men’s hats over muslin caps, and a long blue cloth cloak, which gives them, at some distance, the air of ladies….Many were riding on spirited little Welsh ponies. The young women seem so constantly at work that they are seldom to be met…a stranger might almost have fancied that all the women in Wales were old.’

In writing The Love Spoon I’ve tried to depict with reasonable accuracy the lives of people during that time—young and old—as well as several Welsh customs. After a period of concentrating on biographical historical novels I very much enjoyed writing the fictional romance between Gwendolyn Pryce and Hugo Meredith, who have far more in common than they initially assume. I have no doubt that I’ll re-visit this fascinating period in Welsh history for future projects!

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Margaret Evans Porter said...

Thanks so very much for letting me come over and play!

Petrea Burchard said...

Delightful. The research is half the fun, don't you think?

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