Eiluned Lewis is one of those wonderful female authors who wrote from the heart about places she knew and loved, and who appears – like so many authors of her generation – to have been unjustly forgotten. First published in 1934, Dew on the Grass tells the autobiographical story of a young girl and her siblings growing up in the Montgomeryshire countryside in Wales. Among Lewis’ concerns here are ‘gender domesticity, Welsh culture and the rural environment.’
The novel has been reprinted in recent years by Honno, a focused press which focuses on translating works by Welsh women into English, and in bringing neglected novels back for new generations to read. The insightful introduction which accompanies the novel has been written by Katie Gramich, a Professor at Cardiff University. She writes at the outset of the reception of Dew on the Grass, which was ‘phenomenally successful’ upon its publication, ‘attracting positive reviews from literary critics, going rapidly through a number of editions, being translated into several languages, and winning the Gold Medal of the Book Guild for the best novel of the year.’ Gramich then goes on to speak of Lewis’ own life. I knew next to nothing about the author when I began to read, but feel rather familiar with her after learning about her early life, and the things which inspired her to begin a writing career.
Lewis’ focus within Dew on the Grass certainly lies with her child characters. Gramich writes that ‘both mother and father are very much background figures in Lewis’s fictional world, where the norm, the central consciousness is that of the child.’ She goes on to compare Lewis to Dylan Thomas in their use of the child’s viewpoint, ‘though her work in this mode predates his by several years… Like Thomas’s, Lewis’s child-world is not pure idyll but a place of imagination and delight hedged around with menace, punishment and disappointment.’ Gramich also gives a comparison between Lewis and Katherine Mansfield, one of my all-time favourite authors, which piqued my interest in the novel still further.
Rather than exploring the working class in her novel, as a lot of her contemporaries tended to do, Lewis looks at an upper middle-class family named the Gwyns, who are Anglo-Welsh landed gentry. Nine-year-old Lucy, ‘dreamy, accident-prone and acutely alive to the world around her’ is the second eldest daughter. She is a thoughtful child, and continually muses about the world around her.
Lewis’ prose is described as ‘sensuous, evocative and nostalgic’, and it often manages to be all of these things at once. Of the house in which Lucy and her family live, for instance, she writes: ‘Succeeding generations of farmers and small gentry had added to the house, here a storey and there a room, heedless of symmetry or foundations, so that on starry nights, when the wind rushed… walls rocked, joists groaned and cracks widened ominously in the plaster.’ Dew on the Grass is filled with charming and touching details: ‘The names of their [the Gwyns’] four children, who grew up at Pengarth, were recorded by a pencilled legend on the stable door of stout oak. It ran “Delia, Lucy, Maurice (in boots), Miriam (barefoot)” – being a memorial of the height of the young Gwyns at the time of this story.’
Movement, particularly with regard to the younger characters, has been captured beautifully: ‘Released at length from the spell of Louise’s eye and the cool, leafshadowed nursery, they danced out on the lawn, shouting, hopping with excitement, ready for something adventurous, scarcely able to contain their glee.’ The natural world of Lewis’ novel has been romanticised in the gentlest and loveliest of manners; it never feels overdone or repetitive, and is largely filled with purity and charm.
The structure of Dew on the Grass fits the plot wonderfully. It is made up of a lot of short story-length vignettes, and is overall a rather a quiet, but highly engaging, book. Dew on the Grass is a celebration of Welsh life, and of childhood; it is clear that Lewis’ homeland was much cherished by her. Filled with an innocent and nostalgic charm, the novel is quite quaint in some ways, but thought-provoking in others. This forgotten novel certainly presents a bygone way of life, filled with beauty and sheer delight.