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Autobiography Margiad Evans

Visionary and lyrical

Originally published in 1943, Margiad Evans’s Autobiography is not a conventional work of life writing. Rather it is an intimate portrait of the author’s inner life of her and an experiment in what she calls “earth writing”. According to Professor Diana Wallace, who has written a perceptive introduction to this new edition in the Welsh Women’s Classics series from Honno Press, “it explores in delicate and precise detail Evans’s intensely-felt, even mystical, relationship with the natural world”.

Born Peggy Eileen Whistler in Uxbridge in 1909, she chose a Welsh pen name because of her family links to Wales. As a child she fell in love with the Border country around Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire. “Being a child is the most important thing that ever happens to us”, wrote Evans, and indeed her wonderfully evocative book by her is full of intense memories of childhood and early encounters with nature.

She married Michael Williams in 1940 and in the book he becomes “M-”, described as “the dear companion of my faulty nature and physique”. They moved into a cottage on a hill above Llangarran, west of Ross, with views across to the Welsh mountains. The typical Herefordshire landscape of rolling hills and meandering streams inspired some of her best work in prose, fiction and poetry.

Of the thirteen sections in Autobiography, four are taken from Evans’s diary. They demonstrate her belief that writing about nature required “swiftness and intensity of feeling” if the author was to capture the immediacy and wonder of the experience. Ella’s ability to convey that special moment of deep connection to nature is what makes this book so uniquely beautiful. In many ways it is a masterclass on nature writing, as she discusses how to “write from your eyes and ears, and your touch”. She is acutely aware of the limits of language and the writer’s struggle to “show more of moments, days, of life, than paper can take”. Mundane, everyday tasks such as reviving a fire in the hearth – “like a bundle of smoky rook’s feathers, stirred in its iron nest” – are transformed by her luminous prose de ella into something wondrous and new.

In this evocative and deeply personal book, she describes her life and work in the countryside (cutting logs, hoeing a beet field), her anxiety about writing (or rather not being able to write) and her “longing to be wild” as a child. Her de ella love of solitude is a recurring theme: “Oh the happiness of being alone – it’s like having only one door to yourself and that bolted and firm walls round.” Such is the profound connection Evans feels to the landscape that she never feels lonely: “the earth forever innocent is forever my companion”.

Visionary and lyrical, this is a remarkable work of nature writing, as well as a memorable insight into the life of an author whose work deserves to be more widely read.

£9.56 (RRP 10.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

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