Guest Post – The Well-Read Dragons, February 2014

Patrick O’Brian’s first novel makes a splash with the Well-Read Dragons
Guest post by Robert Minish
On February 1, [2014,] the Well-Read Dragons held their bi-monthly meeting at Black Bear Crossing at Como Park [in Saint Paul, MN.] Testimonies, originally published under the title Three Bear Witness, gave rise to a stimulating discussion.

Many St. David’s members, no doubt, as well as a few of our book club members, are familiar with the bulk of O’Brian’s works, the Aubrey/Maturin nautical historical novels. Those are vastly different from Testimonies, which is set in North Wales, where O’Brian and his first wife lived from 1946-1949.

The setting of the novel closely resembles Cym Croesor, a remote valley. Jim Perrin, writing in the New Welsh Review, tells of rereading three books, Testimonies, first published in 1952, John Wain’s A Winter in the Hills, and The Welsh Girl. He describes the three as “markedly similar in settings among the agricultural/industrial interface along the northern and western margins of Eryri: sheep country; slate country; Kate Roberts Country.” Croesor

Our group found Testimonies to be a very compelling description of the dark side of life that can be found in some small rural communities. Though the main character, Joseph Aubrey Pugh, and the heroine, Bronwen Vaughan, fall deeply in love, their relationship is never consummated, and, they may have thought, had been kept hidden. The locals, stirred by a malevolent minister, Pritchard Ellis, jump to the conclusion of adultery and ostracize the two lovers, but especially Bronwen. Perrin observes that “O’Brian excels in the use of the unspecified to add imaginative force.” This technique is apparent at the end when Bronwen either is poisoned or poisons herself.

Our discussion brought forth many quotations showing O’Brian’s mastery with words and his observations on Wales and the Welsh.

“Where’s the Welsh Gentry? It is either extinct or anglicized.”

“You know the great importance of the chapels here, and the prestige and influence a deacon has: you can hardly overestimate in the high farming valleys where there is no other authority or public opinion—where public opinion is integral and undiluted, I should say.”

That quotation prompted Austin to tell about a chapel in Wales where the deacons acted as little gods. There was a time when a local garbageman was elected a Deacon. The head Deacon welcomed him and said they would be pleased to accept his contributions, though they doubted that there would be many. The garbageman replied that he was always sent to where there was rubbish to be collected.

“His wife [Bronwen] was a big help to him. She was very pretty when she was young; she came from the same part of the country as he did but I had not known her before she came to our valley.”

“They said she was not very great as a housekeeper; however that may be, she was a great help to him.” Clearly, her failure as a housekeeper was a fault not fully overcome by her being “a great help to him….working before the light and after it.”

“There is Rousseau’s saying that every man is inwardly sure he is the most virtuous being alive. But how far down can that go? All the way to an atheistic parricide who lives by robbing the blind? Or is there a point where it must be abandoned, and if there is, what does it feel like after.”

The Preface by Delmore Schwartz praises the quality of O’Brian’s writing: “At first one thinks the book’s emotional power is remarkable enough for the beauty and exactness of phrasing and rhythm which can only be characterized by quotation:….But the reader soon forgets the style as such—a forgetting that is the greatest accomplishment of prose—in the enchantment and vividness of the story.”

What Schwartz quoted was the opening paragraphs of the “testimony” of John Aubrey Pugh. Jim Perrin in his review also quotes from the opening paragraph. What better way to encourage people to read this novel than to repeat the first few sentences from the beginning of Pugh’s testimony:

It was September when I first came into the valley: the top of it was hidden in fine rain, and the enclosing ridges on either side merged into a grey, formless cloud. There was no hint of the two peaks that were shown on the map, high and steep on each side of the valley’s head. This I saw from the windows of the station cab as it brought me up the mountainous road from the plains, a road so narrow that in places the car could barely run between the stone walls.

With that quality of writing, Perrin is “grateful for the one ‘Welsh’ novel O’Brian did write before the rigging of his imagination became entirely salt-encrusted.” I believe all members of the Well-Read Dragons would agree.