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Writer Bernice Rubens honoured with Purple Plaque

30 Jun 2024 4 minute read
Photo Desmond Clifford

Desmond Clifford

The first woman and, to date, the only Welsh novelist to win the Booker prize, Bernice Rubens, has been honoured with a “Purple Plaque” at the house where she grew up on Kimberley Road in Penylan, Cardiff.

Purple Plaques are erected to note the contributions of Remarkable Women in Wales – Rubens’ is the seventeenth so far awarded.

Bernice Rubens was born in 1923 and started life at 9 Glossop Terrace in Splott, an area she described as “the unmentionable and indisputable armpit of Cardiff”.  That house is no longer there.  During the war her parents took advantage of lower property prices to move to Penylan.  “We went posh.  Well, poshish…Penylan was the habitat of the upwardly mobile…it was but one step away from Cyncoed,” she wrote in her memoir When I Grow Up (2005).

Strikingly successful

She lived with her parents and siblings at 101 Kimberley Rd for her remaining years at school and studies at Cardiff University (she regarded her English Literature degree as poor preparation for a career as a novelist).  She then moved away, first to Birmingham as a school teacher and then to London where she became a film-maker and a strikingly successful novelist.

Pogroms

Rubens’ father escaped Czarist pogroms in Latvia.  He took a boat from Hamburg believing he had a passage to America.  He was fleeced – even then criminal people smuggling was rife – and essentially dumped in Cardiff.  He was a practical man and made the best of things setting up as a tailor in Splott.  Her mother’s family had fled Poland for similar reasons.  Bernice’s Jewish identity was uppermost and is very present in her writing.  Her relationship with Cardiff was strong and life-long, though her decades away in London fed a sense of creeping alienation and complexity towards Wales.

Tensions

The Rubens family were close and loving though Bernice hints at tensions.  Her parents cultivated an intense passion for music and all three of Bernice’s siblings made a living from music at different times.

In this hothouse Bernice was less accomplished than her brothers and sister but she maintained that the essential quality of music – listening – made her a better writer.

She wrote that her parents’ sense of expectation for achievement was a form of “abuse” from which they all suffered.  Some of these tensions and domestic claustrophobia can be felt in her Booker Prize winning novel The Elected Member (published 1969, Booker Prize 1970), a tale of thwarted talent and family complexity, and Madame Sousatzka (1963) based on her bother’s experience as a music prodigy.

Bernice Rubens

Celebratory

The Purple Plaque was unveiled outside the address on Kimberely Road on 21 June.  In celebratory atmosphere the sponsoring Welsh Government Minister Jane Hutt acknowledged that Bernice Rubens expressed some dated views about bilingualism in Cardiff but that she was proud of Wales and Wales was proud her and her achievements as a novelist.

One of Bernice’s daughters was present for the unveiling but speaking for the family, Rubens’ grandson Josh Lilley, talked about Bernice and her family’s pride in Cardiff and Wales, and emphasised that Rubens always regarded herself as Welsh.

The Cardiff poet and author Peter Finch gave an appreciation of her work, and recalled inviting her to sign books at a shop he ran in Cardiff, and recommended his favourite among her novels, I Sent A Letter To My Love (1975) set in Porthcawl.

With a permanent memorial to Bernice Rubens now in Cardiff, perhaps interest in her work will grow among a new generation.  She published a prolific 26 novels in all.

The Elected Member (1969), which won the Booker Prize in 1970 – beating Iris Murdoch, among others – is perhaps her best known.  Peter Finch’s recommendation I Sent A Letter To My Love (1975) is well-chosen.  We might add The Sergeant’s Tale (2003) and Madame Souzatzka (1962) which also features as a film starring Shirley MacLaine.


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Sneb yn gwbod.
Sneb yn gwbod.
14 days ago

Moved away from Wales to teach in Birmingham. Some things never change.

Mandi A
Mandi A
13 days ago

Pleased to see that Bernice Rubens might get a few new readers 20 years after her death. A perceptive observer of “ordinary life”, who stands in the generation that produced some great – and approachable – women novelists, Muriel Spark, Penelope Fitzgerald, Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge, even Winifred Holtby who died so young, all born outside of London and mostly outside of the Oxbridge bubble. A latecomer to writing, to come through as the second only winner of the Booker Prize, and the first woman, was a huge achievement. She should be on the WJEC A level syllabus giving young… Read more »

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