Why you should care
Because Wales does romance as well as it does rugby — which one would you rather read about?
No day encapsulates the romance that courses through Welsh culture quite like St. Dwynwen’s. Each Jan. 25, Welsh romantics stir from their winter slumber to pay homage to Wales’ patron saint of love by buying flowers, writing cards and exchanging gifts with their sweethearts. If it sounds a little similar to Valentine’s Day, that’s because it is. But Dwynwen’s Day is no Welsh knockoff.
In fact, while Chaucer was sealing Valentine’s fate as a symbol of courtly love, Dwynwen (supposedly a real fifth-century Welsh girl) was simultaneously being immortalized as a llatai — “basically a love messenger … sent by the poet with a message to his beloved,” explains Tomos Owen of Cardiff University’s English literature department — in a 14th-century Dafydd ap Gwilym poem. As Dwynwen exemplifies, there’s a long tradition in Welsh literature of depicting love, from the Middle Ages to the present day, Owen says. However, love in contemporary literature is often more satisfyingly multifaceted, “figured as happening against the odds or forged under traumatic circumstances,” he adds.
So, in lieu of a Hallmark platitude this St. Dwynwen’s Day, indulge in some self-love (not that kind!) and dive into these complex, century-spanning reads on love in, around and, perhaps most importantly, for Wales.
THE DOLL FUNERAL, BY KATE HAMER (2017)
Born in England and based in Cardiff, Hamer knows a little about in-betweenness, a notion that infuses her sophomore novel by way of ghostly apparitions and the omnipresent Forest of Dean on the Welsh-English border. Love may be the driving force here, but this engaging tale is quite clearly not a love story. Rather, it’s a rumination on family ties, past and present. Familial love — regardless of blood ties — manifests itself in increasingly complicated ways, leading the novel’s youthful protagonists down devastating paths.
OUTSIDE THE HOUSE OF BAAL, BY EMYR HUMPHREYS (1965)
Outside the House of Baal is, according to Katie Gramich, a lecturer on Welsh literature at Cardiff University, “a poignant story of the aftermath of love in old age.” Humphreys sweeps through half a century of family history in 400-plus pages, connecting and reconciling the dual timelines of Kate and J.T. in the present day along the way. It’s in the minutiae of the mundane and the simplest of acts where we see what Gramich calls “that early love and affection … bubbling under the humdrum surface of life.”
A WELSH WITCH, BY ALLEN RAINE (1902)
Romantic love, often thwarted and rarely straightforward, is a given in this turn-of-the-century classic. Raine’s deep love for her homeland and her “meticulous depiction of life in rural west Wales,” Gramich says, are also constants. As such, Catrin, Yshbel, Walto and Goronwy often take a backseat to the setting, and the fictional fishing village of Treswnd becomes to A Welsh Witch what New York is to Sex and the City — the fifth and arguably most important protagonist. The witchcraft the title alludes to is — as it so often was and continues to be — doublespeak for empowered womanhood.
RUNNING FOR THE HILLS, BY HORATIO CLARE (2006)
Boy meets girl. Girl insists they buy rural sheep farm. Boy leaves girl. Somewhere along the way, boy and girl have two children, the eldest of which writes Running for the Hills. In this memoir of sorts, excerpts from his mother’s diary and some semifictionalized passages concerning his parents’ early relationship combine with Clare’s adult reflection. Rest assured, it doesn’t read as incongruously as it might sound, anchored by a depiction of love — at turns romantic, self-sacrificial and parental — that looms as large as the Welsh hillsides the characters call home.
SUBMARINE, BY JOE DUNTHORNE (2008)
Submarine is a peculiarly moving comic depiction of several adolescent firsts. Our unreliable narrator, Oliver, is not pierced serendipitously by Cupid’s arrow but instead slowly, steadily poisoned by the intoxicating force of first love. Dunthorne does a stellar job of capturing male adolescence in all its … glory? As Oliver vacillates believably between know-it-all precocity, cringeworthy 15-year-old-boy dialogue — “my hot rod touches her vag” — and schoolboy errors (shagging on his parents’ bed, smoking pot in a car), his parents’ complicated relationship bubbles away in the background, as does what Gramich calls the “very astutely observed” Swansea backdrop.