The Secret Room [Y Stafell Ddirgel]

Eames, Marion

Laughter fills the first few pages of this novel: the laughter of the Dolgellau Hiring Fair of 1672, as the crowds celebrate their new-found freedom to enjoy themselves. Within a few hours the crowd is a frenzied mob, drowning an old crone in the river. The horror of their cruelty, the complaisance and acquiescence of his privileged peers, and his own impotence to resist sets the novel’s protagonist, Rowland Ellis, on a dangerous course of self-discovery as he questions what lies beneath the surface of his settled life. ‘Far better leave things as they are,’ the rector tells Rowland, but change is inevitable. This is the strength of The Secret Room: it wears its historical and local knowledge lightly, yet solidly enough for us to participate in the tension and emotion experienced by the characters, faced with painful dilemmas and religious persecution.

The interaction is centred on a gathering of Quakers in the small market town of Dolgellau, north Wales, concentrating on Rowland Ellis’ journey from sceptic to believer and the inward and outward struggles that ensue. We see how suspicious society is of difference, and how threatened the authorities feel by those who question, as religious persecution increases.

The narrative is driven by the choices Rowland faces: between his faith and his

beloved wife, who wants no part of it; between his faith and his land, which the courts threaten to confiscate and between his faith and his first language, since the English Quakers see Welsh as a barbaric barrier to true communion.

What is the ‘Secret Room’? It is a phrase taken from the writings of Morgan Llwyd, a Puritan divine with Quaker sympathies, who wrote, ‘Go into the Secret Room, which is the light of God within you’. But if Morgan Llwyd’s secret room is that inner spiritual experience which renders external authority null and void, the novel also teems with other subversive secrets. A teenage girl expresses her awareness of her nascent sexuality ‘as if she was half-opening a door of a strange disturbing room’, and few of the characters seem capable of emotional honesty. The dialogue is one of the novel’s strengths, but what is left unsaid between Rowland Ellis and the others holds a more destructive significance. The value of speech itself is subverted in the context of the Quaker meetings, where Ellis learns that silence can lead to meaningful communication. Marion Eames heightens the sense of secrecy and questioning uncertainty using imagery of light and dark, inviting us into the internal lives of her characters, our feelings intensified by a landscape that seems to reflect their thoughts.

The Secret Room is enjoyable and accomplished but its enduring appeal since its publication in 1969 is in its exploration of modern concerns within a credible emotional context, without being anachronistic. It raises questions about civil liberty versus social cohesion and the relation of church and state and about free speech and freedom of conscience versus political consensus; the rights of the individual and the fear of difference and dissent. These issues were relevant in the political ferment of the 1960s in Wales and in the political instability of seventeenth-century Britain, and are still relevant in the global politics of the twenty-first century. AB


Suddenly, for an instant the crowd was silent — then as if bidden by some unseen leader, the mob broke into loud cries: ‘The witch. Here she is!’ — ‘To the Wnion* with the witch!’

Yelling, they made way for a cluster of youths who were dragging an old woman behind them. Fear had made her staring eyes round as an owl’s. Her wrinkled mouth, open wide in a scream, revealed one yellow fang of a tooth. Her grey hair hung in greasy knots over her shrunken shoulders. Desperately she tried to pull the remnants of her tattered clothing over the exposed esh of her old body, and a hoot of laughter went up as one of the men tore her shirt apart to reveal her yellow sagging breasts. 5