Thursday, August 1, 2013

HILDA VAUGHAN, A Thing of Nought (1935)

I've been so wrapped up in researching and updating my new Overwhelming List that I haven't gotten around to actually writing anything here in a while.  I have a longer post coming in a couple of day, but in the meantime I thought I'd post just a few words about this lovely little book.

I finished it just before bed one night recently, and I think it haunted my sleep a little.  Really more of a short story than a novella even, but very powerful.  Recently I compared Eiluned Lewis's The Captain's Wife to the pioneer novels of Willa Cather.  I don't know what it is with Welsh writers and their ability to remind me of American writers I haven't read in ages, but the tragic love story of A Thing of Nought seems to just cry out for comparison to Edith Wharton's gorgeous little masterpiece, Ethan Frome (1911).  It has the same almost mythical qualities of great love thwarted by misfortune.

I hadn't read Vaughan before.  She wrote ten or so novels, some of which, including The Battle to the Weak (1925) and Here Are Lovers (1926) seem to have been reprinted and gained some critical attention in recent years, while her later novels remain more or less forgotten.  Critics seem to agree, however, that A Thing of Nought is one of her strongest works.

In brief, it's the story of Megan Lloyd and Penry Price, the youngest of five sons of a Welsh farm family, who fall in love but are separated when Penry must go to Australia to make enough money to marry.  He asks Megan to wait for him for seven years, and she does so without question, but Penry faces one misfortune after another, making money and losing it, until, disheartened and despairing, he writes and tells her to wait no more.  Luck is against him and they will never be able to marry.

Along comes Rees Lloyd, a "repent ye stinking sinners" kind of Calvinist preacher.  In one of the few moments of (almost) comic relief in the novel, the effects of his preachings on adultery are described:
So great was his fervour and eloquence that women sobbed aloud, and men rose to confess to fornication before an hysterically excited congregation.  Strange things came to light in Alpha Chapel.  The impressionable young were overwrought; the elders shook their heads.  Weak brethren, they declared, committed sins in order to enjoy the notoriety of penitence.  Some were even so wicked as to invent sins which they had not committed.
Rees falls in love with Megan, and the story plays out relentlessly from there (I won't spoil it by saying more, as it is well worth reading for yourself).  But although tragic, Megan's character is a compelling and eternally hopeful one, who possesses a rather inspiring strength and finds the best in everyone, including Rees.  And what adds a little extra interest, from a literary/analytical viewpoint, is the framing device.  The story is recounted by an unnamed narrator, a young woman about whom we know little except that she sees Megan as a saint and that Megan's story, told to her when Megan is already elderly and awaiting death, has helped her through a difficult time in her life.

It is indeed the kind of story one might want to hear when times are rough.

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