Rhys Davies, The Black Venus (Howell, Soskin, 1946)
[originally posted 14Aug2000]
Honestly… I’ve no idea why I picked this up. I had mistaken Mr. Davies for someone else, I think, but the books in front of me were cheap enough (five bucks a box sales… gotta love ’em) that I tossed it into the crate. And, of course, when that happens, what one gets is usually not what one expects. What one ended up getting is a turn-of-the-century rural Welsh town and a rather sprightly little tale of women’s liberation.
Olwen Powell, a village maiden with decided un-Victorian ideas, is the center of attention here. She is a practitioner of an ancient Welsh custom known as courting in bed (it’s not what you think, and while I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out exactly what it entails, I never did; it doesn’t detract from enjoyment of the narrative not to know), and thanks to the derogations of the local Catholic priest and one of his parishioners, Olwen, and in a greater sense the custom itself, are standing trial for it. Obviously, the trial doesn’t take up the whole book, but to reveal its outcome (and, for that matter, any more of the plot) would constitute a spoiler. No matter.
Davies writes in such a way that I kept being forced to check the copyright date on this book. The pages fly, which is unheard of in a WW2-era novel; the subject matter is most certainly more modern than one would expect, especially with a setting in the very early twentieth century; and most importantly (and excellently), Davies keeps the dialect of his characters in check. It’s not familiar diction, but it’s not unfamiliar enough to trip a reader up. I kept thinking I was reading a novel that had been published, at the very earliest, during the nineteen sixties. But no, from everything I can discern, that 1946 is kosher.
An amusing little comedy/drama of manners. If you stumble upon it in a used bookstore, it’s worth getting. ***