Mr Emyr Humphreys

Elected: 2013

Area(s): Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Specialist Subject(s): English Literature, Welsh Writing in English

Emyr Humphreys (1919-2020) was a towering figure on the cultural scene in Wales for more than seventy years. His first novel, The Little Kingdom, appeared in 1946, while a collection of new poems, Shards of Light, came out late in 2019,  just short of his hundredth birthday. In the interim he wrote poetry, cultural histories and critical essays, wrote and directed plays, produced films and documentaries, and was involved in protest movements (on behalf of the Welsh language) that briefly landed him in gaol.  His earliest mentor was Graham Greene, and his early career pioneering radio and drama at the BBC in Cardiff saw him work alongside Richard Burton, Siân Phillips, Hugh Griffiith and Peter O’Toole. Even more importantly, it gave him an opportunity to collaborate extremely closely with his hero and mentor, Saunders Lewis, and to champion the plays of one of his closest friends, John Gwilym Jones, the leading Welsh-language dramatist.

An earlier period in London, when living in Chelsea just around the corner from T. S. Eliot,  had enabled him to form friendships with such important young emergent artists as Patrick Heron and Terry Frost, to get to know novelists such as C. P. Snow, Rosamund Lehmann and Anthony Powell, and to see luminaries such as Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Dame Edith Evans perform on the stage. At that time, his star was very much in the ascendancy in the fashionable cultural circles of the metropolis. But with that world at his feet, he elected to turn his back on it all in favour of a teaching post at Pwllheli, on the Llŷn Peninsula. Nor was it the first time for him to put the interests of Wales above personal ambition and opportunity. Based in Florence after the war, he had been sorely tempted to settle comfortably there into a Continental lifestyle, but  had decided instead to return to a bleak, austerity-ridden Wales.  Moral choice was always to be for him a sine qua non of meaningful, civilized human existence, and the plots of many of his novels pivot around the revealing and fateful choices made by their leading characters.

But Emyr Humphreys was first, foremost and last a writer of fiction. Over his long lifetime he published more than two dozen novels,  choosing in most of them  to address the unfashionable ‘matter of Wales.’  He is accordingly recognized to be the premier anglophone novelist of twentieth-century Wales. His greatest work was probably Outside the House of Baal (1965), a remarkable multifaceted portrait of Welsh Nonconformist culture; his best-loved was  A Toy Epic (1958 ) , a short novel that affords a brief, unforgettable glimpse of three boys growing up the troubled 1930s in the north-east corner of Wales; and his most ambitious undertaking was the seven-novel epic, The Land of the Living (1971-91) an overview of twentieth-century Welsh history that was Brechtian in its narrative technique.

Raised during the immediate aftermath of the First World War, he became a lifelong pacifist partly because he had seen the effects of gassing on his father. And as an anglophone native of the border region of Flintshire whose eyes were opened to the complex totality of Wales partly in consequence of learning Welsh as a young adult, he instinctively cultivated an outlook that was simultaneously committed and detached. Very much a combination of participant and onlooker he was well able to appreciate Graham Greene’s advice to a novelist always to protect the chip of ice in the brain.

During the course of his life he experienced not one but two cultural conversions. The first occurred when he was a sixth former. The burning of the building site of a government bombing school at Penyberth stirred his imagination, and opened his eyes to the ‘colonial’ situation of Wales. It also made him a ‘dissident’ for life. Learning Welsh and joining Plaid Cymru followed, and his course was thereby set towards operating biculturally.

The second cultural conversion was occasioned by his experience, at the end of the Second World War, of administering a large refugee camp in the very heart of Florence. It enabled him to familiarise himself first with the art, then with the literature, of Italy, and for the rest of his life that country remained second only to Wales in his affections. One of my last visits to him found him reading Dante’s Divina Commedia again in the original, with Daniel Rees’ outstanding Welsh-language translation alongside.  Devotion to Italy (which he visited on a regular basis) became the cornerstone of Emyr Humphreys’s ardent Europhilia. He was a very early and impassioned Welsh European, who reluctantly accepted that before Wales as a whole could embrace the same vision it would first of all have to become more Welsh.

Believing that, given the parlous condition of Wales, a writer should not separate creative work from social, political and cultural action, he regularly intervened, through both word and deed, in key areas of Welsh life. He was a public intellectual, on the Continental model, and always considered himself to be a European writer. Typical of the community of Annibynwyr (Welsh Congregationalists) of which, though raised an Anglican, he became a member, his emphasis on individual responsibility made him instinctively suspicious of state control, as of any hint of social engineering, and he was highly sensitive to the many instances of the hegemonic power of the dominant Anglo-American culture.

His acknowledged eminence not only as a writer but as a man of letters and a prominent and influential public intellectual made him an obvious  candidate for Fellowship of the Learned Society of Wales as soon as it was formed. He accepted that invitation with all the dignity and the humility that was the hallmark of his impressive character. With his passing Wales has lost one of the most prominent, loyal and respected creative figures in its long history;  and the  Society has lost one of its most revered Fellows.

M. Wynn Thomas