Katharina Bielenberg: publishing THE LIFE OF REBECCA JONES

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Katharina Bielenberg tells the publishing story of The Life of Rebecca Jones.

"In 2002, Angharad Price was awarded the National Eisteddfod Prose Medal for her novel in Welsh O! tyn y gorchudd (“O! pull back the veil”). In fact she had written it specifically for the competition. The theme that year was autobiography, and the deadline gave her the impetus to pursue an idea that had been with her for a while – to write about her father’s family over a century of farming in the Maesglasau valley. In the tradition of the ceremony, she was called upon by the name “Maesglasau” – her chosen pseudonym – to make herself known from amongst the audience and declare her “true” identity, after which she was escorted to the stage in a colourful procession to receive the medal. The following year O! tyn y gorchudd was the winner of the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year award.

A few years later her bilingual Welsh publisher, Gomer Press, produced an English translation – beautifully, delicately wrought by fellow writer Lloyd Jones – and The Life of Rebecca Jones became available to English readers for the first time. Angharad appeared at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival and came to the attention of MacLehose Press. Our edition followed, together with still more recognition for this quiet and yet powerful classic set deep in the Welsh valleys. Publication rights have now been sold for translation into German, Romanian, Bengali, and most recently Catalan and Castillian.

For Angharad, writing creatively in a language other than Welsh was not a consideration. “I conceived it as a Welsh-language novel,” she said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph in 2012. “It had to establish itself as a Welsh novel. I decided to give the impression of slightly more formal, biblically inflected Welsh, and to recreate the language of a Sunday School.” But in amongst the formality and the realism of farming life through the twentieth century there are passages of real poetry and some of the very best writing about landscape.

We sent a copy to Ronald Blythe, author of Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (which, like this book, combines elements of fiction with the reality of village life and farming in East Anglia). This was his response:

“It is not easy to put into the customary admiring words what I felt as I read Angharad Price’s astonishing novel. Perhaps an admiration verging on awe. Ancestral farms have been traditional material for storytellers but few have captured their true life. It was both beautiful and appalling, noble and pitiful, hard and yet free. But Rebecca Jones the unmarried woman who watched it coming to an end saw it as none of these things. Simply as what happened. It is stunning in both senses of the word. A great addition to rural literature.”

In 2012 the family celebrated 1,000 years of farming in Maesglasau: a family tree, kept in a handed-down Book of Common Prayer, documents their husbandry of the land since 1012. There can scarcely be deeper roots."

Katharina Bielenberg is Associate Publisher at MacLehose Press

Elise Williams