Caradoc Evans: The Devil in Eden

John Harris
Publication Date: 
Monday, November 26, 2018
No votes yet

Caradoc Evans (1878-1945) was a controversial author, most famous for his stories in My People, copies of which were publicly burned in Cardiff. Stylistically inventive, the stories unflinchingly (and unflatteringly) criticised Edwardian Welsh society. The Western Mail called it “the literature of the sewer”. English reviewers claimed it was “a book of great literary merit” and “a triumph of art”. The response defined the rest of Evans’ literary career.

In Caradoc Evans: The Devil in Eden John Harris has written the definitive biography of Evans. He investigates what lay behind the writing, and its impact on Wales and beyond. Evans is also revealed as a polemicist on issues like the rights of workers, the conduct of the Great War, and the status of women. A leading London journalist, Evans had a popular weekly column in which he responded to readers’ views in trenchant fashion. As Harris argues, challenging convention was his life’s work.

As well as exploring this controversy, Harris shows that Evans was a political radical, a mover within London literary circles, a popular journalist and something of a philanderer. For the first time Evans’ relationship with his second wife, Marguerite Barclay, is given in some detail. She was the exotic and hugely dramatic novelist and theatre person, the self-styled Countess Barcynska, who had a profound effect on Evans.

Extensively researched and brilliantly written, Caradoc Evans: The Devil in Eden is a revelatory and necessary insight into the man, his country and his times.




Review by Harry Readhead, The Cardiff Review

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

THERE’S A STARK contrast between the title of John Harris’ book, The Devil in Eden, and the unassuming, bespectacled figure depicted on its front cover. And yet David "Caradoc" Evans was at one point in time the enfant terrible of the British literary scene, thanks to a slim collection of short stories depicting life in rural Wales.


At that time in the early 20th century, such subject matter was rarely afforded serious treatment. The public record of contemporary opinion on rural Wales and Welsh life amounts to a handful of patronising remarks made by the English ruling class: it was in 1905 that H. H. Asquith said he would "sooner go to hell than to Wales."


Evans changed that. He made rural Welsh life his principal subject, and depicted it without compromise as wretched, miserable, unduly influenced by austere nonconformism. His treatment was serious—if exaggerated—but his portrayal was damning. His first book, My People, was seen by his compatriots as unprintable "filth" and, moreover, as a betrayal of the worst kind. In one vignette, Evans describes a starving old woman eating a rat. More sinister, he tells of another woman judged to be insane by her pious husband and condemned to live in a loft.


It was these tales, and others like them, that established Caradoc Evans as the titular "devil" or, in the words of the Welsh press, "the best-hated man in Wales." And yet John Harris, in this comprehensive account of the writer’s life, manages to deftly navigate a life and career chiefly known for causing outrage. In doing so, he shines a light on the literary figure who inspired Dylan Thomas, and whose debut work of fiction has since been compared favourably to Joyce’s Dubliners.


Harris paints a picture of a man vexed with the perceived hypocrisy and cruelty of those in the village in which he grew up. His childhood in Rhydlewis was impoverished and unhappy, and at the age of 14, he left for Barry, Cardiff, and then London, where he found work as a journalist.


Throughout his life, Evans seemed to define himself in opposition to what he saw around him, becoming a political radical and turning his pen to social issues such as the rights of women and workers. It was in spite of this contrarian instinct—or perhaps because of it—that Evans flourished on Fleet Street, spending five years at The Daily Mirror and then editing the literary magazine T.P.’s Weekly.


He cultivated a notorious persona, dressing in the kinds of suits and hats that would appal those of more traditional tastes back home in Rhydlewis. During a summer visit to see his sister and nephew, he describes a pair of cockle-shell glasses dangling "at the end of some sort of black string-like material" as "just for swank!" Yet this flamboyance seemed to disguise a darker Caradoc Evans—one who drank to excess, betrayed his wife, and had a vision of the world that was unrelentingly bleak. Indeed, Duncan Davies, a childhood friend, said that Caradoc’s "curious impish whimsicality" belied a "deep seriousness and sadness beneath."


From 1915 to 1946, Evans produced 11 works of fiction, in which he displayed not only his antipathy towards the country of his birth but also a highly inventive prose style which had its origins, somewhat ironically, in the Welsh tongue. None of these works come close to My People in their tone or content, which is not to say they weren’t striking: Welsh book shops refused to sell Capel Sion, Evans’s second collection of stories, in which a pregnant maid is tricked into falling into a well so the father of her child-to-be can marry someone else.  


Harris also gives considerable space to Evan’s relationship to the romantic novelist Marguerite Barcynska, with whom he conducted a long affair while still married to his first wife, Rose. The "Countess", as Evans would call her, described in her own 1946 biography of Evans the way in which he had swept her off her feet: "He stormed his way into my heart exactly as he had stormed his way through life," she said; "There was no calm in him." Harris argues that there was genuine affection between the two, and indeed it was Marguerite who would be with Evans when he died. She chose as his epitaph: "Bury me lightly so that the small rain may reach my face and the fluttering of the butterfly shall not escape my heart." Her insight into Caradoc’s character is some of the most penetrating of that offered by others quoted in the book. "In his heart Caradoc is a flaming Welshman," she said, "a Calvinistic Methodist who will never be able to extricate from Calvinism. The roots are too deep."


The exhaustiveness of Harris’s book makes clear the author’s own sincere fascination with Evans. Harris, formerly a lecturer in bibliographical studies at Aberystwyth University, said he felt a strong attraction to Caradoc Evans following a move to western Wales. An intimidating volume of papers, correspondence, articles and more strengthen his book and make it the definitive biography of a writer who remains divisive. Scholarly comparisons with Joyce and Swift, as well as praise from the formidable critic H. L. Mencken, reflect the universality of a body of work seen chiefly—and unjustly—as a mere rebellion against rural Welsh society.


Harry Readhead is a writer, editor and critic based in London. His work has been published in The Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post and other outlets in the UK and US. He tweets at @henry_readhead.

Review by Liz Jones, New Welsh Review

Friday, February 1, 2019


Caradoc Evans’ reputation will not leave him alone. More than a century after the publication of My People, his debut collection of short stories, the ‘best hated man in Wales’ sobriquet still attaches itself to his name. 

Like him or loathe him, his defining role in Welsh literature is now undisputed – thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of the author John Harris. As editor and bibliographer of Caradoc’s work (he is almost always Caradoc, rarely Evans) for over three decades, he has succeeded in rescuing Caradoc from his ‘slide into oblivion’. 

The Devil in Eden marks the full flowering of his efforts. A pleasing mix of the scholarly and gossipy; it is a virtuoso performance that showcases the author’s intimate knowledge of his subject. As a literary biography, it promises to be a major work in the study of Welsh writing in English; a genre in which Caradoc’s road from speculative self-styled provoker to canonical figure has been a rocky one. 

Through a combination of dogged determination and a stubborn talent, Caradoc used his apprenticeship in the drapery trade as an escape route from rural ennui to his Promised Land of London. Putting himself through years of night school, he eventually gained a footing in Fleet Street and a job in the rapidly growing field of journalism; a career that took him from the subediting desk at the Daily Mirror to an editorship at the popular literary journal, TP’s Weekly (via a stint at Ideas magazine as the most unlikely of agony uncles). But it was through moonlighting as a literary author that he was to make his name. 

While his savage tales of Welsh rural life were admired in London literary circles (numbering TS Eliot, James Joyce and JB Priestly among his admirers), in Wales they ignited a blaze of hurt and rage. His unique mix of Biblical language and literal (mis)translations of the Welsh (a combination that imbibes his austere tales with a powerful mythical quality) led to accusations that he was holding Wales up to English mockery. But it was the unremitting grotesqueness of his work that caused the greatest offence. Tales such as ‘Be This Her Memorial’ (in which a poverty-blighted widow, forced to live on a diet of boiled rats, is in turn eaten by them) and ‘A Father in Sion’ (where a husband keeps his supposedly mad wife tethered in the cowshed) exploded Wales’ sentimental love for its hallowed cynefin. Caradoc’s insistence that his stories were based on truths, observed during his childhood in the Ceredigion village of Rhydlewis, only poured more oil on the fire. 

A revolt against Caradoc, spearheaded by the Western Mail, led to (among other reactions) the banning of his ‘treacherous’ books from bookshops in Wales, a near-riot at the 1923 play, Taffy, in London and a refusal to hang his portrait at the Glynn Vivian Gallery in Swansea. (Later, when the picture found a home in the foyer of London’s Grafton Theatre, an anonymous St David’s Day attacker slashed the canvas across Caradoc’s throat.) 

Caradoc was no misunderstood artist, and took delight in his reputation as a renegade. The author of tales as grotesque as they are beautiful, as realistic as they are fantastical, he appeared as abrasive and contradictory as his fiction. He was, writes Harris, ‘a bohemian peasant, a belligerent flatterer, a misogynistic feminist [and] a defamer of the chapels he appreciatively attended.’ Digging beneath the myths and stereotypes, this biography lays bare the tangled roots of this most complex and compelling of figures. 

Later in his career, the successes of his early collections were to elude him (although Harris claims his wartime novella, Morgan Bible, as a late return to form). While the barbed satire continued, his writing had lost much of the power and subtlety of his earlier works as he began to sound like a parody of his former self. 

Then events took an unexpected turn. His early works were ‘discovered’ by a small but influential group of young Welsh writers, among them Gwyn Jones, the founding editor of the Welsh Review, who commissioned a series of Caradoc’s memoirs for the journal, and Dylan Thomas who, in his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, paid homage to ‘the great Caradoc Evans’. 

Perverse, iconoclastic and ground-breaking, Caradoc Evans tore down the old shibboleths of chapel and community, clearing the ground, for those Welsh writers that followed, to be as brave and as angry, as non-lyrical and, above all, as unsentimental as they pleased. (Without Caradoc, would we have Cynan Jones or Caryl Lewis, let alone the Thomases RS and Dylan?) Dragging Welsh writing in English out of a fog of sentiment, he held his people up for brutal examination under the harshest of lights. 

Even today, our opinion of Caradoc – our ability to assess his work on literary, rather than moral or patriotic grounds – may be seen as a measure of our self-confidence as a nation.


Reproduced with the permission of New Welsh Review. See the full article here.

User Reviews

Sorry there are no reviews yet for this book