Hywel Teifi Edwards: Historian of Victorian Wales and the National Eistedfodd

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Hywel Teifi Edwards was Professor of Welsh at the University College of Swansea from 1989 until his retirement in 1995. He had spent some 30 years at Swansea before his appointment to a chair, during which he won a reputation as the pre-eminent authority on the literature of Wales in the 19th century, especially that produced under the aegis of the National Eisteddfod, which was revived and put on a more secure footing in the 1860s. His knowledge of the colourful personalities and often bitter controversies animating the festival's affairs was encyclopaedic and his enthusiasm for its role in fostering the indigenous language and culture of Wales knew no bounds.

The fruits of his research first appeared in two substantial volumes, namely Yr Eisteddfod 1176-1976 (1976), in which he traced the origins of the institution from the gathering of poets and musicians held at Cardigan under the patronage of the Lord Rhys in 1176, and Gwyl Gwalia (Festival of Gwalia, 1980), a magisterial study of the Eisteddfod between 1858 and 1868, when it was established as the paramount forum for the national culture of Wales.

Hywel Teifi, as he was known in Wales, was a great admirer of the Eisteddfod as a truly popular institution which did much to save the Welsh language from the oblivion into which Victorian values threatened to consign it, but he was no blinkered zealot and could be acerbically critical of its foibles and shortcomings, among which were nepotism and a false antiquarianism that undermined its legitimacy in some quarters.

He was particularly scathing about Hugh Owen (1804-81), the influential civil servant who worked long and hard to draw Wales more firmly into the orbit of the British State, especially as far as its language was concerned: like many members of the anglicised middle classes in his day, Owen kept Welsh low on his list of priorities and urged his countrymen, the majority of whom were Welsh monoglots, to adopt English as the sole language of Progress, Empire and Commerce.

Under the influence of Owen and his acolytes, the Eisteddfod persuaded poets to yield their traditional pride of place to musicians and singers, notably those who performed for the Queen and won for Wales its reputation as "the Land of Song". It also attracted the English-speaking gentry and a small entrepreneurial class who insisted on introducing a "Social Science Section" which offered prizes for essays on social, commercial, industrial and scientific subjects, an innovation soon abandoned, however, for lack of interest on the part of a people hungry for poetry and music.

Hywel Teifi explored the psychology of this woeful interlude in the history of Welsh culture in a memorable lecture entitled "Baich y Bardd" [The poet's burden] at the National Eisteddfod held in Cardiff in 1978, an occasion on which his laconic wit and trenchant views were warmly appreciated by an audience of a thousand and more. There was something attractively iconoclastic in his approach and people enjoyed the demotic language he habitually used to deflate the pompous and topple sacred cows from the Welsh mantelpiece. A more sober account of the contribution made by the Eisteddfod is to be found in his monograph in the Writers of Wales series (1990), one of his rare publications in English.

The attraction of music in Victorian Wales was particularly potent. During the last decades of the 19th century the harpist and the male voice choir came into their own, huge crowds listening to the recitals in rapt awe and quasi-religious zeal comparable to the fervour later seen at international rugby matches. The choirs gave Wales a cultural identity when it most needed one: the 456-strong South Wales Choral Union, for example, conducted by the blacksmith-cum-hotelier Griffith Rhys Jones (known by his bardic name, Caradog) sang to tremendous acclaim at the Crystal Palace in 1872, after which the Welsh became renowned for this mode of singing.

Hywel Teifi made a special study of this phenomenon, which was social as much as it was musical, and in his short book Eisteddfod Ffair y Byd (1990) he wrote graphically about the impression made by Welsh choirs at the Chicago World Fair of 1893. He returned to this subject in Jiwhili y Fam Wen Fawr [Jubilee of the great white mother], about how the Welsh celebrated Victoria's Jubilee in 1887, which was the subject of his lecture at the National Eisteddfod in 2002.

On a wider canvas, Hywel Teifi traced the social fabric of Victorian and Edwardian Wales in his book Codi'r Hen Wlad yn ei Hol (1989), the title of which – "To raise the old country to its feet" – was the motto of the great patriot Owen M. Edwards in his Herculean efforts to improve the teaching of Welsh in the schools of Wales and provide reading material for the common people. It focuses on the failure of the Welsh intelligentsia, after the infamous Blue Book reports of 1847 which had impugned the morality of the Welsh people, to mount an effective resistance to the imperial mindset which had confined Welsh to the home and chapel and refused it a place in law, education and public life.

The book also examines how a handful of writers, among them the polemicist Emrys ap Iwan and the novelist Daniel Owen, challenged the prevailing mood which revered all things English, and how Welsh literature, desperate to demonstrate the purity of the Welsh character to "onlooking nationalities", reached a nadir from which it took a long time to recover. The most spirited chapters describe the raising of funds for the erection of a memorial to Llywelyn, the Last Prince of independent Wales, at Cilmeri near Builth, where he was killed by Anglo-Norman forces in 1282, and an hilarious account of the National Pageant staged by members of the romantically inclined gentry and industrialists of Cardiff in 1909.

The same regard for culture as the product of political and social attitudes informs Arwr Glew Erwau'r Glo (Brave hero of the coal acres, 1994), a study of the miner in Welsh literature between 1850 and 1950. Although born in the village of Llanddewi Aber-arth in rural Cardiganshire (from the river in which county, Sir Aberteifi, he was given his middle name), Hywel Teifi had his family roots in the coal valleys of Glamorgan. He set about demolishing the image of the Welsh collier as, at best, a virtuous but pathetic victim and, at worst, a dangerous revolutionary. At the heart of the book is a discussion of the outrage caused by Kitchener Davies's play Cwm Glo (Coal valley, 1935), which depicts the baneful effects of unemployment on the morals of a mining family during the Depression, the most shocking of which has the daughter walking the streets of Cardiff as a prostitute.

Hywel Teifi's keen interest in the theatre, especially amateur drama, is to be seen in Codi'r Llen (Raising the curtain, 1998), an illustrated account of the myriad drama companies that flourished in all parts of Wales in the inter-war years.

It should come as no surprise that Hywel Teifi Edwards was not content to be confined to the groves of Academe. He was an active member of Plaid Cymru from his undergraduate days at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, and stood twice as the party's candidate. At the General Election of 1983 he contested Llanelli and, four years later, Carmarthen, where he made a dent in the Labour vote. A left-winger, he had nothing but contempt for the Labour Party in Wales, which survived the creation of the National Assembly in 1999. He also served as a Plaid member on Dyfed County Council for 14 years.

An able public speaker, he often put me in mind of Aneurin Bevan in his mastery of the pregnant pause, the dramatic gesture and the swift delivery of the coup de grâce that could be as devastating as it was wittily phrased, while his ebullient, not to say bullish manner, was always impressive. The same qualities brought him many invitations to take part in radio and television programmes, and he did so with a gusto, eloquence and erudition that were his trademarks.

The high regard in which he was held by Welsh writers was expressed in the Festschrift published in 2008, Cawr i'w Genedl ("A giant for his nation"). He leaves a wife and two children, one of whom is the well-known broadcaster and BBC newsreader Huw Edwards. It gave him intense satisfaction to see his son, a Welsh-speaker, presenting a BBC Wales television series, The Story of Welsh, in the spring of 2003.

Meic Stephens

Hywel Teifi Edwards Welsh literary historian: born Llanddewi Aber-arth, Cardiganshire, 15 October 1934: Professor of Welsh University College, Swansea, 1989-1995 (Emeritus); married Aerona Protheroe (one son, one daughter): died Llanelli, Carmarthenshire 4 January 2010.