The Soldier and the Gentlewoman, originally published in 1932, puts a pitchfork in the romantic notion that soldiers returning from war would find a willing wife and a grateful village waiting for them. Hilda Vaughan writes a disturbing defence of the woman’s right to inherit the family estate, and disrupts the social niceties by showing what could happen when such a woman – in this case the vengeful, obsessive, angry and ignored daughter of the house – organises her own fate, like a man-eating spider. Nothing and no-one will take from her the estate and the valley for which she has laboured all her youth.
Gwenllian Einon-Thomas is nearing forty when the war ends and the death of her brother hands the Plâs Einon estate – her home, her heritage – to an unknown cousin who doesn’t even live in Wales. Captain Dick Einon-Thomas has survived the war, and is a decent sort of chap, but he is not the hero we might expect. He comes from Streatham (not a very nice suburb of south London), because his father married down, to the Einon-Thomas family’s fury. Class is a problem for Dick, since he knows he ought to belong where his father came from, but his mother’s background makes him all too vulnerable to bullying, even if he does appreciate fine china (aesthetic tendencies are a code for innate upper-classness). His first appearance shows him resentful and ruffled by the knowing attitudes of the village men in the Green Dragon pub, the night before he visits his inheritance. He’s desperate to not feel in the wrong place, which has been his experience as a young officer from not quite the top drawer throughout the war. He is not local, doesn’t know the names or the pronunciations they bandy about when they bother to speak English, and he is angrily aware that he is being flattered for somebody else’s benefit. The hero of a novel should never feel unsure or uncertain, so that’s the first rule in romantic fiction broken.
What about the women? Captain Einon-Thomas meets the three Einon-Thomas ladies for luncheon at the big house. The widow of the dead Squire is uninterested though pleasant, clearly already living her new life on the Riviera. The married sister has the friendliest smile and the warmest handshake, but she doesn’t live there, she follows her husband who’s about to stand as a Labour candidate in the 1919 elections. The third sister, Gwenllian, offers her hand: ‘it was cold and glossy, and narrow, like a serpent’. Brrr.
But Gwenllian warms up when Dick blusters in protest at the very idea of a Labour candidate, and actually invites him back for lunch so she can give him a private tour of his property before the lawyer arrives. He’s pleased but surprised, though doesn’t fool himself that she’s suddenly fallen in love with him. It’s probably their shared Unionist politics: ‘She was, after all, so much older than himself’. Dick is the fly, and Gwenllian is the spider, and the estate and its people are the web. He does not escape, because she will do anything to keep her hold on her land. She was once in love with a man who waited for her for a year, but he sailed for India when she would not leave the estate while her uncaring father was dying, and then all she had was her younger brother’s charity.
Vaughan’s skill in allowing us to feel sympathy and horror for both Gwenllian and for her doomed husband Dick – yes, her age somehow did not matter – makes this novel uneasy and compelling. Gwenllian is not an out-and-out monster, since we can empathise so much with her thwarted yearnings, but can we condone everything she does? This is a beautifully written novel, truly a Welsh Women’s Classic, and uncomfortably clear-eyed about people’s motivations. We never lose our first impression of Gwenllian as a snake.
Hilda Vaughan, The Soldier and the Gentlewoman (1932) (Honno Press, 2014), ISBN 978 1 909983 11 3