Kate Roberts

(1891 - 1985) - Brenhines ein Llên - Queen of Welsh Literature

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Born in Rhosgadfan as Katherine Roberts, Kate Roberts was a Merch y Chwarel. She was the daughter of Catrin and Owen Roberts. Owen was a quarryman, and their small holding/house “Cae’r Gors” - where she lived until she was 18 - you can still visit today. Her books describe life in the north Wales quarrying communities - particularly the life of Merched Chwarel - in ways that chime more with what we’ve found in our ‘original sources’ research (via Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru) than anyone else.

Writing in Welsh, she adopted a ‘rigorously realist mode of expression… chronicling the lives of hardship struggled through by ‘her’ people’. She explicitly challenges stereotypes, describing the role of the chapels as important social and cultural (rather than primarily religious) institutions, exposing the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in everyone. She particularly takes a good pop at the aspiring ‘post colonial’ attitudes of aspiring middle class women.

Kate Roberts’ main characters are women, and their role and work and achievements (holding things together despite everything) are compelling.

Here is an extract from Katie Gramich’s introduction to the English translation of “Feet in Chains”:

“Kate Roberts was the most important Welsh female novelist and short story writer of the twentieth century. From 1918 to early 1980s, she produced an impressive body of literary work, including eighteen volumes of creative prose, extensive political journalism, a number of plays, many critical essays, and a voluminous and interesting correspondence. In addition to being a writer, she was a political activist and one of the first and most industrious members of Plaed Genedlaethol Cumru, the Welsh Nationalist Party, founded in 1925, as well as an impassioned and successful campaigner for Welsh-medium education. “

My own connection with Kate Roberts, originally from reading her novels as a ‘way into’ better understanding my adopted country, was finding an old typed copy of one of her plays - Y Canpunt - in some old family books given to me by Catrin Roberts in Blaenau. It turns out that the play, which doesn’t carry the names of any authors, was originally written while Kate lived in South Wales. Here she wrote plays set in the Valleys, with Betty Eynon Davies and Margaret Price, including Y Canpunt in 1924. The version I’d found had been re-translated back into Iaith y Gogledd, ar lafar. It was written just as people of Blaenau would speak, and so easy for a welsh learner to understand (joy!). The characters were the same, but the owner of the mine became the owner of the quarry, and the story rips along at a fine pace, turning everything on its head and taking a pop at the rich aspiring widow and her daugher (who like to speak English and who look down on everyone else), and an under-appreciated young local girl who turns out to be clever, loyal and fantastically manipulative.

I hope to do something with the play as part of Merched Chwarel.

Story contributed by Lindsey Colbourne