Rhys Davies was among the most dedicated, prolific, and accomplished of Welsh prose-writers in English. With unswerving devotion and scant regard for commercial success, he practised the writer’s craft for some fifty years, in both the short story and the novel form, publishing in his lifetime a substantial body of work on which his literary reputation now firmly rests. He wrote, in all, more than a hundred stories, twenty novels, three novellas, two topographical books about Wales, two plays, and an autobiography in which he set down, obliquely and in code, the little he wanted the world to know about him.
So prodigious an output was made possible largely because he shared his life with no other person, giving it up entirely to his writing. By temperament a loner, and a gay man at a time when homosexuality was proscribed by law, he chose to keep himself apart from all coteries. Except for a few years as a draper’s assistant on first going to London, he managed to live almost wholly by his pen, his meagre income unsupplemented by teaching, journalism, broadcasting, or hack-work of any kind. He sat on no committees, subscribed to no religious or political dogmas, and never sat in judgement on his fellow-writers. He believed the proper business of a writer was to be writing.
He was born at Blaenclydach, near Tonypandy in the Rhondda, in 1901, the son of parents who kept a grocer’s shop. Leaving school at 14, he had a few menial jobs and helped at Royal Stores until, at the age of twenty, appalled by the Valley’s coarse life, its chapel-culture and his own sexuality, he was ready to leave for London. He was never to live permanently in Wales again. But although the Rhondda had marked him indelibly, all his early writing is set there. At first he imitated the writers he most admired: Chekhov, Flaubert and D. H. Lawrence; but found his own voice during the 1930s, primarily in the short-story form, of which he was soon hailed as a master.
Despite his professional single-mindedness, and a parsimonious streak in his nature, he was not a recluse and was sometimes to be seen at one of Fitzrovia’s famous pubs or at the Progressive Bookshop where he enjoyed talking to other writers like H. E. Bates and Liam O’Flaherty. He befriended the painter Nina Hamnett and the writer Anna Kavan, both ‘ruined characters’ of the type he preferred, and in 1928, while staying in Nice, he was invited to spend time with the Lawrences on the Côte d’Azure. There was something eirenic in his character which made him attractive to women in particular. His heroines are usually strong, passionate and articulate women, striving to overcome the obstacles that keep them from a full emotional life, while their menfolk tend to be hapless victims of misfortune. Davies had three sisters on whom he drew for some of his portraits.
The writer gave an account of his early life in Print of a Hare’s Foot (1969), a charming but most unreliable book from start to finish in that it often fails to tally with the known facts and disguises people and events with adroit use of smoke and mirrors. A more reliable picture is to be found in his novel, To-morrow to Fresh Woods (1941). There are autobiographical elements in most of his books but they are always projected through the prism of the author’s own personality – secretive, ironic, giving little away about himself, and always preserving the inviolable self which he prized above all else.
By the 1960s Wales and the Rhondda, about which Davies had written so vividly, were becoming distant memories. His visits home grew fewer after the deaths of his parents and, as the Rhondda changed, he slowly lost contact with it. In 1967 he won the Edgar, a prize awarded by the Mystery Writers of America, for a collection of stories, The Chosen One (1967), and in 1968 he was admitted to the Order of the British Empire. In 1971 he was given the Welsh Arts Council’s principal prize for his distinguished contribution to the literature of Wales, but could not be persuaded to attend the reception in Cardiff. His last books, for the most part, explore such themes as crime, drug addiction, narcissism and aberrant forms of human passion. He died in a London hospital on 21 August 1978.
The appeal of Rhys Davies’s work shows no sign of fading. Its humour, inventiveness, attention to significant detail, skill in creating moments of high drama, its ear for dialogue and the telling turn of phrase, and the writer’s delight in human nature in all its variety, make his books compelling reading. In practising the ancient art of the story-teller to such excellent effect, he wrote books that have a timeless and universal quality.
Extracted from Rhys Davies: a Writer’s Life (Parthian, 2013) by Meic Stephens. Copyright.