'Queen of Welsh Letters' Who Left Her Mark on 20th-Century Literature; Retrospective Wales : KATE ROBERTS: Writings Told of Life in the Slate-Quarrying Communities

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), November 27, 2001 | Go to article overview
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'Queen of Welsh Letters' Who Left Her Mark on 20th-Century Literature; Retrospective Wales : KATE ROBERTS: Writings Told of Life in the Slate-Quarrying Communities


Byline: RHODRI OWEN

KATE ROBERTS, widely considered to be the pre-eminent prose writer in Welsh of the 20th Century, was born 110 years ago this week on November 29, 1891.

Roberts, who was brought up in Rhosgadfan, near Caernarfon in the heart of the slate quarrying community, began writing about her childhood environment in the 1920s and continued publishing novels and short stories for the next 70 years.

Her work was not widely recognised beyond Wales until she reached her 70s, but has since been translated into many languages.

She described her background in an interview with The Western Mail in 1979.

"My father was a crofter and a quarryman in Snowdonia, " she said. "My mother had a little schooling and went into service at 10. I was the child of a second marriage.

My father had three boys and was 40, my mother one son and she was 36. Then there was myself and some more brothers."

At 11 years of age she won a scholarship to her county school.

"My mother didn't really want me to go, " she recalled. "She thought I should stay home and help but my father persuaded her."

After winning a scholarship to University College of North Wales, Bangor, she graduated in 1904 with first class honours having read Welsh, Latin, history and philosophy.

Between 1915 and 1935 she worked as a Welsh teacher in primary and then secondary schools in South Wales, including a stint at Aberdare County Girls' School.

When her younger brother David was killed in the war in 1917, Roberts, according to Derec Llwyd Morgan, "felt she had to say something or sink". She began writing in earnest shortly afterwards and her first volume of short stories was published in 1925.

Hers were works of sadness, underscored by subtle hope and happiness, and told of the harsh but proud life in her slatequarrying community.

In the epic Traed Mewn Cyffion (Feet in Chains) a mother receives news of the death of her son in the war and has to have it translated.

Another, a widow, has her pension cut off because she kept a few pigs and hens.

Both were based on actual occurrences.

While in South Wales, Roberts met Morris Williams, a native of Groeslon not far from Rhosgadfan, at a summer school and they were married in 1928. They bought a small printing firm, Gwasg Gee, in Denbigh and ran a weekly newspaper, Y Faner. Williams died in 1946 but Roberts managed the firm until 1956.

In 1950 Roberts was awarded the degree of Doctor of Literature of the University of Wales. In his citation, Professor GJ Williams said she was "assured of a place in the classics of Welsh literature".

In 1960 she received a special pounds 100 award for literary merit from the Arts Council of Great Britain for Te yn y Grug (Tea in the Heather), a volume of short stories for children.

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