MANON JAMES’s substantial and meticulously argued piece of academic research, with 214 works cited in the bibliography, hinges on in-depth interviews with 13 Welsh women, ranging from Christian to atheist. They each reflect on how Wales’s culture, religion, and particular denominations have influenced their life’s story and fashioned Welsh female stereotypes and role-models.
James also features five women writers who poignantly epitomise Welsh identity and religion: Menna Elfyn, Mererid Hopwood, Charlotte Williams, Jan Morris, and Jasmine Donahaye (whose Jewish roots enable her to reflect on Wales-as-Israel). Elfyn’s riposte to chapel deacons, aloof from domestic chores, is iconic: “Listen here, little masters, if Christ came back today, he’d definitely be making his own cup of tea.” Welsh poets, such as R. S. Thomas and Gwenallt Jones, transgress the boundaries between the sacred and secular, and James’s own poetry enables her reflections to make a quantum leap.
The 1847 Inquiry into the State of Education in Wales (the so-called Blue Books) deemed Welsh women to be slovenly, “in the constant habit of being courted in bed”. This produced a backlash that imposed impossible expectations of respectability and chastity upon Welsh women, epitomised (if overdrawn) by the banishing of the unmarried pregnant woman from chapel in Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley. Despite “the cultural cringe of a colonised nation” and “the tyranny of kind and nice”, another tradition was forged, synthesising the strong Welsh woman and the fiercely protective “Welsh mam”. English women may have been velvet, but Welsh women, “whose mam-face could break up an LA gang-fight”, were pure as steel.
Attitudes of Calvinist Methodism, “a monster created to dominate others”, still prevail; one interviewee deems herself “a lazy bitch” for sharing domestic chores with her partner. Another stopped attending a church whose pastor declared that “no fat, ugly chicks were allowed.” James is fond of her own Church in Wales: a Church unafraid of its own tenderness, celebrating a more tolerant Christianity, particularly kind to the fat and ugly.
But, for James, the institutional Church fails to appreciate that society is no longer collective, but individual, and that subjectivity is king in a world where expert professionals are no longer gods. This life-changing story of Welsh women, journeying from “being mortal to natal”, their nascent strength forged in the midst of their very weakness, encourages the Church to sport its own mam-face to transform even Good Fridays into Easter.
The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an hon. assistant bishop in the diocese of York.
Women, Identity and Religion in Wales: Theology, poetry, story
Manon Ceridwen James
University of Wales Press £24.99
Church Times Bookshop £22.50