Many of you will know that although I’ve lived in Yorkshire now for over twenty-five years, I will always have a Welsh heart. So when Elizabeth Jane Corbett wrote to me about her new novel, The Tides Between (recently released by Odyssey Books), I was immediately enchanted. “It is an historical-coming-of-age novel about fairy tales and facing the truth”, she told me, “set on board a nineteenth century emigrant vessel and has embedded Welsh fairy tales and elements of Celtic mysticism”. I added it to my reading list without hesitation, promised a review in February/March, and asked Elizabeth to tell me more about her Welsh connections – after all, you don’t really expect such elements from a Melbourne-based author. I found the story she shared with me absolutely fascinating and just a little bit inspirational – I think you might too.
Welcome to Elizabeth – with her wonderful story about finding her way home…
It started with a mid-life crisis. On approaching a significant birthday (let’s not be specific), I realised I’d always wanted to write a novel. I’d never written a novel before. But moving to Australia had been the defining event of my childhood and I’d done a history degree as an undergraduate and loved reading historical fiction. So, an historical novel? But I still had four children living at home and absolutely no research budget. So it would have to be an Aussie immigration novel so I could access resources easily.
At university, I’d been fascinated by Caroline Chisholm, a nineteenth century immigrant woman who advocated on behalf of vulnerable female migrants to Australia. I borrowed some biographies of Chisholm, then broadened my research to immigration in general. By which stage, to my immense surprise, characters were forming in my mind. A young girl called Bridie was the main one. She’d lost her father in tragic circumstances. I had this notion that a creative young couple would help her come to terms with her loss. Initially they were Irish. But I had a research trip planned and I’d be relying on long lost family accommodation (yep, stingy Aussie) and I didn’t have any family in Ireland. Dad was English but Mum was born in Wales. So why not make my creative young couple Welsh? Looking back, I am struck by how casually that decision was made.
It has changed my life in so many ways.
I knew nothing about Wales back then, apart from rugby and male voice choirs. But rugby wasn’t invented in 1841 and mass male-voice choirs as we now know them were only in their infancy. Besides, I wanted the Welsh couple to be an agent of change in the life of my young protagonist and, even if I could have invented a scenario in which a whole choir emigrated en mass, I doubted a fifteen-year-old girl would find it inspiring. Some quick research told me Wales also had a strong bardic culture. Hmm…maybe my Welsh couple could be storytellers?
I read the Mabinogion and a host of other Welsh fairy tales. Wow, like wow! These stories were part of my heritage. How come I hadn’t know about them? On reading How Green was my Valley, I realised Welsh people spoke English differently. I thought research might shed some light on the idiomatic sentence formations. To my surprise, I discovered there were Welsh classes in Melbourne. I enrolled for a term, just to get a sense of the language.
I had four children living at home in those days. I must admit being able to say, I’m off to my Welsh class, and walk out the door was part of the appeal. But I also found the Welsh language strangely enticing. It had words like Gwdihw, which means owl and sounds like toowit toowoo, and pilipala which means butterfly and sounds like wings fluttering, and corgi which means dwarf dog, and drewgi (skunk) which literally means stink dog, and buwch goch gota’r haf (ladybird), which means short red cow of the summer. One term of lessons turned into two, and then three.
Before long, Welsh class had become part of my life.
I didn’t expect to ever speak the language. I’d done Japanese at school and never progressed beyond the basics. But reading those fairy tales and learning the language of my forebears was awaking hidden parts of me – parts I hadn’t known existed.
I finished the first draft of my novel and got shortlisted for a manuscript development award. So, maybe I could write? I joined the Historical Novel Society and started reviewing and writing articles for their quarterly magazine. I also won the Bristol Short Story Prize.
Then disaster struck. Our youngest daughter began to work her way through a list of every parent’s worst fears. The running away, the self-harm, the dropping out of school and shoplifting had a terrible effect on my mental health. I couldn’t write. I could barely function. My husband urged me to take a break. We had loads of frequent flyers points.
Why not travel to the land of words and stories?
In preparation, a friend suggested I try Say Something in Welsh. I felt so fragile. The idea of doing strange online language course terrified me. But I summoned the courage to try a lesson. Aran, the man on the podcast, was so kind and encouraging. He told me I was doing a great job, I would succeed. It was like rain on parched earth. I felt like a failure in every other area of my life. So, I chose to believe him.
I did Cwrs Haf (summer school) in Aberystwyth, the following year. Whilst there, I met Veronica Calarco, an Aussie artist living in Wales. When Veronica set up Stiwdio Maelor, a residential studio for artists and writers, I became her first long-term volunteer.
I joined Merched y Wawr (a Welsh women’s group) during the seven months I spent living in Wales. I attended Capel Cymraeg (Welsh language chapel). I also revelled in my weekly Welsh classes. In between working at the studio and improving my Welsh, I finished the final draft of my novel. The Tides Between – a strange, whimsical, coming-of-age novel about fairy tales and facing the truth that was quite unlike the Aussie immigration saga I’d envisaged. Yet I’d found my voice in its creation and learned to speak a new language and, somehow, in the process of all that reading and writing and realising, I’d found my way home.
Elizabeth, thank you – a wonderful story that makes me considerably ashamed that my own grasp of the Welsh language has now diminished to the occasional “Penblwydd Hapus” or “Nadolig Llawen”. I’m very much looking forward to reading The Tides Between.
About the author
When Elizabeth Jane Corbett isn’t writing, she works as a librarian, teaches Welsh at the Melbourne Welsh Church, contributes articles to the Historical Novel Review and blogs at elizabethjanecorbett.com. In 2009, her short-story, Beyond the Blackout Curtain, won the Bristol Short Story Prize. Another, Silent Night, was short listed for the Allan Marshall Short Story Award. Her debut historical novel, The Tides Between, was published by Odyssey Books in 2017. Elizabeth lives with her husband, in a renovated timber cottage in Melbourne’s inner-north. She likes red shoes, dark chocolate, commuter cycling, and reading quirky, character driven novels set once-upon-a-time in lands far away.