Honno readers will probably be familiar with the work of Ystradgynlais-born Menna Gallie (1920-1990) since the press has reprinted three of her novels. Her witty Travels with a Duchess appeared in paperback in 1996. In 2003-4 Honno Classics gave us an insider's perspectives and, for once, a woman's view of the mining valleys by making available again Strike for a Kingdom and The Small Mine, tales of communities, strikes and socialism along with a liberal dash of sex and suspense!
Having known Menna well â€“ she was my mother's neighbour in Newport, Pembrokeshire â€“ and working in Welsh women's history, I wrote the Introductions to the first two reprints (the literary scholar Jane Aaron introduced The Small Mine). Aided by the wonderful Menna Gallie archive now available at the National Library of Wales, I have given talks about Menna's life and work and written a forthcoming article about her for Llafur, (Journal of the Welsh People's History Society, 2006). And, in the process of researching, I came across a bit of a mystery.
In 1970 Menna's novel You're Welcome to Ulster was published. Drawing on her years in Northern Ireland (when her husband was a professor at Queens, Belfast) at a time of intense political activity, it is perhaps her most serious novel. It's even prefaced with excerpts from the 1922 Special Powers Act. Menna's engagement with issues such as republicanism and religion is set alongside the story of the heroine's affair with a married man. This blending of the personal and political was not appreciated by some of her male reviewers.
On re-reading the novel for my talks I discovered, to my surprise, that there is an important difference between the UK and American editions. The latter includes what is called 'A Prelude'. Set in a Welsh pub, it consists of a (6-page) conversation between militant Welsh nationalists awaiting an arms cache from the Irish. There are some stock figures including a scholarly ideologue. None of this appears in the UK version. Why, I asked myself, might this have been so? Menna's book had been written at a volatile and literally explosive time in both Northern Ireland and Wales. A trial of Free Wales Army activists in Swansea in 1969 generated considerable publicity. Perhaps in such a political climate it was thought expedient (by the publisher Victor Gollancz?) to omit the Prelude from the UK edition.
Unfortunately, Gollancz no longer exists and there are no extant Gallie letters in the publisher's archives at Reading University to throw further light. Menna's cousin Annest Wiliam, source of much knowledge about the novelist, was also unaware of the Prelude. We agreed that the piece looked as though it might have been written rapidly and in response to a request. Menna's fiction was best known in the United States and she was full of admiration for her American editor, Joan Kahn. Perhaps she had composed the Prelude in response to a US request to make the plot more intelligible by explaining more clearly how a nationalist youth from Cilhendre (her fictional Welsh mining village) could be on the run in Ireland and linked to Irish republicanism. Aware from my own visits to the United States how little is known about the Welsh (unlike the Irish) in large swathes of the country, it seemed worth following up. Since I was going to the States myself on a lecture tour, I decided to visit Columbia University, New York to consult the archive of Menna's prestigious US publisher, Harper & Row.
A few weeks ago I did just that. I spent a fascinating couple of hours consulting the Gallie correspondence. But when the fire alarm rang, followed soon afterwards by the ominous sound of fire engine sirens, I felt as though I was in a Menna Gallie novel. I was by now nervously sitting in the university gardens with just one dollar and a Metro card in my pocket. My handbag, complete with passport and money, was shut in a library locker six floors up.
Fortunately it was literally a false alarm and a little later I resumed my research.
I didn't find proof positive. Is historical research ever that neat? But I did find something that suggested that the American publisher might have been keen for further elucidation. The Reader's Report for You're Welcome to Ulster suggests that whilst the descriptions of the Irish family and their involvement in Ulster politics are very well done, the Welsh heroine Sarah is not so convincing. Moreover,
"The religious controversy, the events stemming from it, the young Welsh runaway and the red-bearded Catholic militant â€“ their relationship to Sarah still seems a little murky to me. Their meaning for her, as well as the death at the end, doesn't seem adequately explained â€“ and since this, rather than the controversy itself, is the core of the book, I feel that the novel itself isn't fully realized." (Harper & Row Correspondence, Box 101, Reader's Report, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Butler Library, Columbia University).
So, perhaps Menna obliged. And, whatever, the glimpse into her correspondence with Harper & Row enabled me to see just how much this Welsh writer was appreciated in the United States. There are even words of praise for Strike for a Kingdom from Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1961 Joan Kahn expressed her certainty that Menna would be one of Harper's most important novelists for years to come. Unfortunately, by the time she died in 1990, her work was no longer in print. Nevertheless, Honno is now helping to change this and revive Menna Gallie's reputation.