Border Country

By Raymond Williams

Cover of Border Country

Synopsis

Border Country (1960) was Raymond Williams’ first published novel. This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of the Price family and their experiences living in a small village in the Welsh border country. As well as being a sensitive, lyrical portrayal of interpersonal relationships – wives and husbands, fathers and sons, friends and colleagues – Border Country is a story about a village, and the powerful social and historical forces that impact upon places and the communities who inhabit them.

Related to this is the novel’s concern with the different ways in which it is possible to view, experience and inhabit a place. This theme plays out through the structure of the novel: two counterpointed timelines allows the novel to contrast two radically different ways of experiencing a place. One timeline charts the long view of Harry and Ellen’s life as they establish a home for themselves and raise their son in the village. The other portrays Will/Matthew’s return home as an adult to visit his dying father. Williams himself discussed this dualistic aspect of the book in a film he made with the BBC:

When I was writing […] my novel Border Country, I was thinking of this place, and coming back from a city, seeing a country in which I’d grown up, I was trying to make a contrast between two ways of seeing the same place.

Setting

The novel is located in the village of "Glynmawr" in the Welsh border country. Though fictionalised, Glynmawr is closely based on Williams’s real home village of Pandy. While place names and local landmarks are changed (for example, the local market town of Abergavenny is renamed "Gwenton", and the Skirrid Mountain (Ysgyryd Fawr) is renamed the "Holy Mountain"), the geographical setting of the novel is remarkably similar to the real Pandy, with features such as the river, the railway, and the road, accurately described. Williams deliberately renamed places as a way of distancing his fiction from reality. This seems to have been because he had earlier caused some consternation in the village, having written a play at Cambridge that referred to real people and places. As helater explained: ‘the magazine in which it appeared got back home and all hell broke loose. A son of the village had gone away to slander it…’ Politics and Letters (London: Verso, 2015 [1979]), p. 31.

Plaque at Raymond Williams’ birthplace, Llwyn Derw, Pandy
Plaque at Raymond Williams’ birthplace, Llwyn Derw, Pandy

The notion of Glynmawr as a "border" space is an important aspect of Border Country. The notion of "borders" of various kinds are a key trope in the novel: from the geographical border between Wales and England that Will/Matthew must cross to return home; to the social and political borders that exist within – and between – people and places. Though Glynmawr is on the surface a single "place", it contains within it multiple borders and divisions: from the personal – between personalities, families – to the political – between social structures, professions, and classes. Raymond Williams alluded to this notion of borders between interlocking internal structures himself in an interview with the magazine New Left Review:

I come from Pandy, which is a predominantly farming village with a characteristic Welsh rural structure: the farms are small family units. My father began work when he was a boy as a farm labourer. But through this valley had come the railway, and at fifteen he got a job as a boy porter on the railway, in which he remained until he went into the army during the First World War. When he came back he became an assistant signalman and then a signalman. So I grew up within a very particular situation – a distinctly rural social pattern of small farms, interlocked with another kind of social structure to which the railway workers belonged. They were unionised wage-workers, with a perception of a much wider social system beyond the village to which they were linked. Yet at the same time they were tied to the immediate locality, with its particular family farms Politics and Letters (London: Verso, 2015 [1979]), p. 21

Main Characters

The novel is centred around the Price family. Will/Matthew is a lecturer in economic history based in London. He is known by two names: "Matthew" is the name given him by his father, Harry, named on his birth certificate against the wishes of his mother, Ellen; this becomes the name he goes by as an adult, and in present-day scenes, the narrator refers to him by this name. But "Will", the name his mother had chosen, is the name he is known by in the village, both as a boy and on his return as an adult. In scenes of his upbringing, the narrator refers to him as "Will". We will defer to the narrator’s usage when discussing passages.

Another central character is Morgan Rosser, a work colleague of Harry’s who, alongside his daughter Eira, becomes a lifelong presence in the Prices’ lives. Also present is a whole cast of secondary characters; Mrs Lucas, Morgan’s housekeeper; Mr Pugh, the local vicar; Major Blakley, a retired army officer; Jack Meredith, another of Harry’s railway colleagues.

Plotlines

There are four plotlines to explore for Raymond Williams' Border Country:

  1. Will/Matthew's Journey Home
  2. Harry and Ellen's Arrival
  3. Morgan's Journey
  4. Will/Matthew's Journey Out