Iris Gower: Bestselling author whose hometown of Swansea informed her historical romances
Wednesday 28 July 2010
“The town of Swansea disputes alone with Cardiff the title of Metropolis of Wales,” wrote Wirt Sykes, folklorist and United States Consul at Cardiff in 1883. “Its situation is very fine, between lofty hills, on a bay so lovely that it has often been compared to that of Naples.” The compliment might well have served as epigraph to the novels of Iris Gower, who took the town’s topography, rich history and seafaring traditions as inexhaustible material for all her work.
Few novelists have enjoyed commercial success and worldwide fame as much as Iris Gower, unless it be Catherine Cookson, to whom she was often compared. Her books appeared regularly in the PLR lists of the hundred books most frequently borrowed from public libraries, sometimes at the rate of nine or ten titles a year, and they sold in their hundreds of thousands to a loyal readership throughout the English-speaking world. She published in all some 45 books, including about 30 novels, all of which were inspired by the town, later a city, where she had been born in 1939 and had lived all her life, or else by Gower, the nearby peninsula from which she took her pen-name.
She once told me she had also considered Iris Langland and Iris Caswell as pseudonyms, after two of the bestknown resorts in Gower. Educated at the College of Art in her hometown, and working as a barmaid, she began writing for financial reasons, contributing articles and short stories to women’s magazines. Her first two novels, Tudor Tapestry (1974) and Bride of the Thirteenth Summer (1975), caught the then current vogue for light historical fiction about the Tudor period. But it was in her next books, The Copper Cloud (1976) and Return to Tip Row (1977), that she began using the 19th and early-20th century industrial Swansea setting that she was to make her own. The often grim condition of the working class pitted against local capitalists might have made for novels with a social message, a genre fully explored by other Welsh prose writers, but she was able to strike a sunnier note and create characters and scenes that were convincing and memorable without recourse to ideology.
Once the taste for things Tudor had faded, she turned to writing about more exotic climes, but it was Copper Kingdom(1983), combining the romance of the earlier books with the meticulously researched history of Swansea as the “Copper Capital of the World”, that established her in the international bestseller lists. Swansea is recognisable in these books as “Sweyn’s Eye”, a reference to the town’s Viking origins; the name denotes “Sweyn’s Island”. She was particularly good at conveying the bustle of commerce, the noise of heavymachinery and the perils of working and living in one of the most unhealthy milieu created by the Industrial Revolution. Several titles appeared in a linked sequence under the title “Sweyn’s Eye”: Proud Mary (1984), Spinners’ Wharf (1985), Morgan’s Woman (1986), Fiddler’s Ferry (1987) and Black Gold (1988).
That she was able to produce a novel a year, and usually with huge commercial success, is testimony to the tenacity of this most professional of writers and the readership she nurtured and strove to please. Even after her husband’s sudden death, she carried on writing, putting in eight hours a day at her desk. Although some of her books are family sagas, they have considerably more substance than the average novel in this genre, their historical veracity and strong female characters having earned them a place on school syllabuses. Her heroines, in particular, are often complex and highly spirited characters who rise above the passion and pain of their lot in life eventually to triumph against the odds and thereby find happiness – usually in the arms of the men they love. They run farms single-handedly, take over pottery businesses and refurbish rundown hotels with no help from the men in their lives.
In TheRowan Tree (2003), set in 1831 and perhaps the most accomplished of her later work, drovers bring their cattle on the hoof from west Wales to London’s Smithfield, working out their destinies as they go. It was followed by Halfpenny Field (2004), the second in the “Drovers” series: when Gower had a resounding success with a book she was always canny enough to follow it up with a sequel.
With Act of Love (2006) she began a sequence set in Swansea’s Palace Theatre and in Bargain Bride (2007) she introduced a new heroine, Charlotte Mortimer, who has to agree to a marriage proposal that looks more like a business contract.
Inevitably, academic critics looked down their noses at Gower’s novels, paying them no more attention than that reserved for bodice-rippers. That is to overlook their racy plots and vivid characters and to take a somewhat snooty attitude to books which are meant to afford pleasure to large numbers of readers. Modest and unassuming, she cared not one jot for the academics’ put-downs, intent only on entertaining her large readership. Described by one journalist as “a cross between a sensible grandmother and the feisty heroine of one of her own novels” – her hair was the colour of flame – she had the advantage neither of a teaching post nor the patronage on which many writers rely, winning no major prizes and needing no subsidy for her writing. She did, however, earn an MA in creative writing at Cardiff University and, in 1999, was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the University of Wales, Swansea.
Iris Davies (Iris Gower), novelist: born Swansea 1935; married 1958 Tudor Davies (died 2002, two sons, two daughters); died Swansea 20 July 2010.
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