Alexander Cordell - a view of Wales

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It would not be stretching things too far to suggest that many people living outside Wales formed their initial opinions of the country – and possibly still do - from reading the historical novels of Alexander Cordell.

Those novels – in particular the three books in the Mortymer Trilogy – offer a romantic but essentially accurate picture of life in early industrial Wales, in the iron districts of Monmouthshire.

The three Mortymer novels depict the hardships and the pain endured by Iestyn Mortymer and his family but also give a graphic and compelling account of the warmth and comfort provided by a close-knit community – people facing adversity together. Cordell's books centre on the struggle for workers' rights, the Chartist movement and rural disputes such as the Rebecca Riots.

Alexander Cordell was born George Alexander Graber on 9 September 1914 in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). His father was a serving soldier and the young Alexander followed him into the Royal Engineers, serving firstly in the ranks, then gaining a commission. He rose to the rank of major, was wounded during World War Two and, following his resignation, became a quantity surveyor.

Married to Rosina Wells in 1937, Cordell and his family moved to Abergavenny and it was here that his love of Wales really began to grow. He started to write, partly from desire but also, partly, from financial requirements. As he later said, probably with his tongue firmly in his cheek: "Whenever Rosina wanted a new coat I'd sit down and write a short story."

Writing under the pen name of Alexander Cordell, the industrial areas of east Wales soon began to exert a powerful influence on him. He wrote 30 books in all but undoubtedly his finest achievement came in the shape of Rape Of The Fair Country. Close behind come the other two books in the trilogy, The Hosts Of Rebecca and Song Of The Earth.

He did not just write about Wales. One of his most entertaining books, Race Of The Tiger, is about Irish emigration and takes place mainly in the USA.

He was at his best, however, writing about the places that he loved and knew well. Books such as The Fire People, about the Merthyr Rising and the martyrdom of Dic Penderyn, and This Sweet And Bitter Earth, which deals with the Tonypandy Riots, ensured that his name and his works remained at the forefront of peoples memories for many years.

Cordell – as he now was – left Wales on several occasions, settling for a while in Hong Kong and on the Isle of Man. But he was always drawn back to Wales and lived, at various times, in places as diverse as Chepstow, Milford Haven and, finally, Wrexham.

Rosina died in 1972 and just a year later Cordell married for a second time. The death of Donnie, his second wife, clearly plunged him into a state of depression and on 13 November 1997 his body was found on the Horseshoe Pass outside Llangollen.

It has been suggested that Cordell went to this bleak and remote spot with the intention of taking his own life. He certainly had brandy and anti-depressant pills in his possession at the time. But, it was soon discovered, he actually died from a heart attack. He lies buried at Llanfoist, in the heart of his beloved industrial east Wales.

These days there are four Cordell Country Trails to take visitors around the areas he wrote about. There is even an occasional literary prize in his honour.

Alexander Cordell captured the mood and atmosphere of industrial Wales. His writing has been accused of being overblown and too deliberately Welsh but there is no denying the power and the majesty of his words. He remains a writer of great renown.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by Noreen

    on 11 Feb 2013 10:58

    I took "Hosts of Rebecca" away with me on a weekend trip to France. Couldn't get my head out of it. People thought I was ill, I just wanted to sit there and finish the book. A wonderful story and to think I've been missing it all these years. Now it's back to "Rape of the Fair Country." I'm probably ready.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by Cordell_museum

    on 10 Feb 2013 17:28

    Very interesting article - we have an Alexander Cordell display room at the Blaenavon Community Heritage and Cordell Museum, Blaenavon. Cordell had been a regular visitor to Blaenavon and his novels certainly placed Blaenavon on the World map and no doubt was a significant step in Blaenavon gaining World Heritage Site status in 2000. He had the ability to 'read' the industrial landscape and locate primary source information. In addition he interviewed local people in 1956, a significant year, as there were people alive at that time who had been born in the 1870's and were able to relate many stories to Cordell about iron-making in the town during that period, including their forefathers stories which he included in his books.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Noreen

    on 6 Feb 2013 20:06

    To be honest with you, I read Cordell when I was in school. Didn't like him, found him too sickly sweet. But I think I'll go back to Hosts of Rebecca now and see if I've changed my mind. I'll let you know.

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