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Legacies of Recuperation: Feminism, Suffrage and the New Woman in the Honno Classics Series

Reviewed by Michelle Deininger.

Books reviewed in this essay:

Jane Aaron and Ursula Masson, eds.  The Very Salt of Life:  Welsh Women’s Political Writings from Chartism to Suffrage.  Dinas Powys:  Honno, 2007.  316 pp., ISBN 9781870206907, pbk. £8.99.

Katie Gramich and Catherine Brennan, eds.  Welsh Women’s Poetry 1460-2001:  An Anthology.  Dinas Powys:  Honno, 2003.  416 pp., ISBN 9781870206549, pbk. £12.99.

Jane Aaron, ed.  A View Across the Valley:  Short Stories by Women from Wales c. 1850-1950.  Dinas Powys:  Honno, 1999.  286 pp., ISBN 9781870206358, pbk. £7.95.

Bertha Thomas.  Stranger Within the Gates.  Ed. Kirsti Bohata.  Dinas Powys:  Honno, 2008. 269 pp., ISBN 9781870206945, pbk. £8.99.

Amy Dillwyn.  A Burglary; Or “Unconscious Influence”.  Ed. Alison Favre.  Dinas Powys:  Honno, 2009.  350 pp., ISBN 9781906784072, pbk. £10.99

Amy Dillwyn.  The Rebecca Rioter:  A Story of Killay Life.  Ed. Katie Gramich.  Dinas Powys:  Honno, 2004.  178 pp., ISBN 9781870206433, pbk. £8.99

Allen Raine.  Queen of the Rushes:  A Tale of the Welsh Revival.  Ed. Katie Gramich.  Dinas Powys:  Honno, 1998.  341 pp., ISBN 9781870206297, pbk. £7.95.

As Jane Aaron notes in her insightful introduction to A View Across the Valley: Short Stories by Women from Wales (1999), “present-day readers have not been afforded much opportunity” (xiv) to hear the voices of Welsh women in work published before 1960. This review essay discusses a number of texts all reissued by Honno, the community co-operative and feminist press founded in 1986 that reinvests its profits in its own future publishing projects. Honno’s work forms part of a wider project to uncover this wealth of literary material and has been “instrumental” in recuperating and re-evaluating Welsh women’s history over the last two decades (John 7). As highlighted in the preface to Queen of the Rushes, Allen Raine’s (Anne Adaliza Evans) 1906 novel (and the  first in the series when it began in 1998), the imprint seeks to aid the process of  “rediscovering and chronicling hitherto hidden women’s history” by reissuing “neglected and virtually forgotten literary texts by Welsh women from the past” (n. pag.). Honno Classics concentrates on the literature of Wales written in English, while its sister imprint, “Clasuron Honno,” dedicates itself to Welsh language texts. Because several texts published in the English language imprint include Welsh writing in translation, readers can gain a wide understanding of the important cross currents in both languages.

The Honno Classics series does more than simply reprint these texts; it republishes them with critical introductions whose contextual and historical material open the literature to a range of fascinating critical approaches. Since the Honno Classics project began, the press has made major inroads in recuperating these women’s voices and their works in a range of genres:  political writings, poetry, the short story, and the novel. What becomes increasingly evident when we begin to explore the work of Welsh women writers, such as Bertha Thomas, Amy Dillwyn or Sara Maria Saunders, to name a few, is the extent to which the Honno series not only reimagines a literary landscape for women writers, but profiles the valuable academic labour women scholars have spent on the texts and that enables future critical writing about Wales’s literary history.

Understanding the somewhat marginal position Welsh writing in English once occupied in and outside academia is essential in grasping the pace at which turn-of-the-century women’s writing has been rediscovered and re-evaluated. Aaron’s introduction to A View Across the Valley emphasizes this particular body of writing’s omission from school and university curricula (xiv).  Laudable developments in education in Wales in the last decade have counteracted this elision to some extent. The National Assembly initiative to give every Welsh secondary school a set of Library of Wales texts as of 2006, secondary examination syllabi’s increased attention to Welsh texts, and the inclusion of Welsh writing in English in undergraduate and postgraduate courses have cultivated more rigorous appreciation for this body of literature. Internationally acclaimed research centers such as Swansea University’s Centre for Research into the English Literature and Language of Wales (CREW), with its Master’s degree programs in Welsh writing in English, have enhanced the reputation of Welsh writers, while organizations like the Association for Welsh Writing in English (AWWE) have worked tirelessly to raise the profile of Welsh writers. Recent scholarly publications have provided nuanced and wide-ranging secondary material on Welsh writing in English, making these works more available for teaching at the undergraduate level. 1   Honno (which publishes only work by women from Wales) and other Welsh publishers like Parthian and Seren underpin and compliment these critical endeavours.

Without this burgeoning legacy of cutting-edge research, a complex understanding of the relationship between Wales and the New Woman would be impossible to achieve. Variously stereotyped or caricatured in the 1890s as women who “walked without chaperones, carried their own latchkeys, bicycled, [while] the more daring ones smoked cigarettes, cut their hair, or wore divided skirts and plain costume in accordance with the principles of rational dress” (Schaffer 39), literary representations of the New Woman symbolize social, cultural and ideological unease with gender definitions and reflect broader concerns about social order and hierarchical structures in the public and private domains. While there has been much critical groundwork regarding the British New Woman in current decades, representations in the Welsh tradition have received less attention. As I have explained, only recently has a fuller account of this female tradition’s history become available. This review essay, then, has a dual purpose – to explore representations of Welsh women’s personal and political autonomy in the context of suffrage and proto-feminist debates, and to examine the critical approaches the Honno Classics series provides that broaden our studies of Welsh writing in English.

Political Writing: The Very Salt of Life

In their foreword to The Very Salt of Life: Welsh Women’s Political Writings from Chartism to Suffrage (2007), Jane Aaron and Ursula Masson underline the anthology’s aim: to bring Welsh women’s history “vividly to life through the participants’ own strongly-felt words” and “to explode the notion that Welsh women of previous generations did not struggle for gender equality in the homes, schools, chapels, workplaces and voting-booths of Wales” (i-ii). One of the volume’s many strengths lies in its clear and methodical structure. It tackles four thematic strands: nationalist and language politics, feminist dissent in various public arenas, Liberal and Labour movements, and the suffrage movement. Since Aaron and Masson open each section with its own detailed and stimulating introduction to contextualize each author and text, they frame and illuminate writing previously accessible only in archives or specialist libraries for a far wider audience.

One particularly important context the anthology discusses is the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the State of Education in Wales (1847), known as “The Blue Books” or, often, “The Treachery of the Blue Books.” While this report predates the New Woman debate, it informed so many aspects of Welsh political and literary writing, and especially over the issue of gender, that it cannot be ignored. Those readers familiar with Welsh history will be all too aware that the report was carried out following the 1839 Chartist uprising  and the Rebecca Riots, which occurred from 1839 to the mid-1840s  (and the focus of one of Amy Dillwyn’s novels, discussed below) to examine the extent to which the Welsh working classes could learn the English language. The English government assumed the lack of education in English caused this Welsh social unrest. As Jane Aaron emphasizes, the report was conducted by English speakers, and, not surprisingly, far from positive in its findings, determining that the Welsh were lazy, ignorant and immoral. The Very Salt of Life includes the passionately argued 1848 response to the report by English-language poet and biographer Jane Williams,  “Artegall; or Remarks on the Reports of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the State of Education in Wales.” Williams, known by her bardic pseudonym “Ysgafell,”  invokes the champion of justice from Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Her text painstakingly rebuffs and challenges many of the Inquiry’s findings, undermining its imperialist ideology in a particularly articulate fashion. Williams writes that the reports have “done the people of [Wales] a double wrong. They have traduced their national character, and in doing so, they have threatened an infringement upon their manifest social rights, their dearest existing interests, . . . their local customs, and their mother tongue” (18). The effect the Reports had on perceptions of Welsh women was particularly egregious as it depicted them as promiscuous and sexually abandoned. For example, in a section entitled “Morals in Brecknockshire,” David Griffiths,  a “working-man at Builth,” notes that “The young women are in general unsteady; nothing is thought of having a bastard, and, when in the family-way, they walk as publicly as a married woman”(Report on the Counties of Brecknock, Cardigan, Radnor and Monmouth 58). Another, “Morals in Radnorshire” includes the opinions of local magistrate, the Reverend R. Lister Venables, who states that “Unchastity in the women is, I am sorry to say, a great stain upon our people” (60). Although men too were castigated for slovenliness and drunkenness, the charge of moral laxity was particularly damning for women. This mid-nineteenth century report haunts many of the texts Honno reprints. Its pervasive images of Welsh culture and of Welsh women, deriving from England’s  imperialistic desire to categorize and subdue, were those vital, as postcolonial literary studies have shown, for women to “write back” to. The number of “good,” hardworking and decent Welsh women the Honno Classic texts portray, such as Gwenifer in Raine’s Queen of the Rushes, prove a fundamental rejection of the corrosive stereotypes.

The anthology well represents contemporary social debates, especially those on equal educational opportunities and women’s suffrage. As Kirsti Bohata has noted, the standard omission of Wales from accounts of the British suffrage movement has led to “the popular portrayal of Wales as a backward and patriarchal nation” (“’For Wales, See England?’” 643). The Very Salt of Life demonstrates how flawed this portrayal is in its wide selection that includes significantly influential writers, Ellen Hughes, for instance, whom Aaron describes as “arguably the Welsh-language author of the period who comes closest to being a feminist in the modern sense” (75). Hughes was a columnist for the Welsh language magazine Y Gymraes (1896-1934), a publication in itself a vital resource for further work on the relationship between the New Woman and Wales. 2   Literally meaning “The Welsh Woman,” the long-running magazine featured many articles on women’s suffrage and education. For those unable to read the original Welsh, Aaron and Masson supply translations of Hughes’s articles, further ensuring that crucial essays like “Woman – Her Claims and Her Rights” (1892) reach a wider readership. Here, Hughes writes

With regard to Woman’s claims, we would have expected that in this “enlightened age” no man of common sense could think of doubting them. And the idea that an elder of the wisdom of Mr Gladstone should doubt the capacity of the majority of women to vote in an election strikes us as wondrously astonishing! (146-147) 3

The article discredits reasons why women appear inferior, underlining that it is women’s domestic work that has such a detrimental effect on their lives, since they are “surrounded by pigs and cattle, crocks and pots, with barely a minute from dawn to dusk to collect their thoughts, with their daily tasks demanding the full involvement of their energy” (148). Hughes asks “What would Socrates have done if he had not had five minutes in which to think?” (148). When comparing Welshmen’s attitudes with Englishmen’s, she finds them sadly similar in their ability to “los[e] the capacity to reason as soon as the question of the position and claims of Woman is brought to their attention” (147), suggesting clear disapproval and perhaps a sense of national dismay.  Ellen Hughes and Jane Williams are only two in the anthology’s diverse and fascinating selection of Welsh women who wrote political essays. Their relentless questioning of the period’s traditional (and outmoded) views of women highlights the wider preoccupation which resounds through all examples in Aaron and Masson’s excellent collection – to undermine and, thus, to change perceptions of and the realities for women in late nineteenth-century Wales.

Lyric and Verse: Welsh Women’s Poetry 1460-2001: An Anthology

As with The Very Salt of Life, Honno’s Welsh Women’s Poetry 1460-2001 (2003), edited by Katie Gramich and Catherine Brennan, anthologizes an array of neglected women’s writing and has far reaching implications for studies in this body of Welsh women’s poetry. The anthology prints its Welsh texts alongside their English translations, allowing all readers – those fluent, those with the tiniest smattering of Welsh, and those unable to read Welsh – to follow the originals. Gramich and Brennan’s  inclusion of early material, from writers such as Gwerful Mechain (1462-1500), is particularly striking as these poems dramatically alter conventional perceptions about the subject matter women chose for their poetry. Mechain wrote devotional poems such as “Christ’s Suffering,” but also poems like “To the Vagina” that celebrate the female body more than we might expect in that late medieval time, indicating there is much to discover in this female literary heritage. The editors’ choice to mingle poems originally written in English with those in Welsh ensures that the distinct, though related, histories of women’s poetry in Wales have ample representation and establish a sound grounding for various feminist and pro-suffrage opinions.

An historical crosscurrent that runs through The Very Salt of Life and Welsh Women’s Poetry is the Temperance movement. As in England, the movement was one bound up with feminist principles and often tied closely to other social reformist causes. The Sunday Closing Act of 1881, legislation relating specifically to Wales alone, highlighted the importance abstinence from alcohol had to Welsh culture. Gramich and Brennan emphasize in the anthology’s comprehensive introduction that for some Welsh language poets, who wrote and published under Welsh bardic pseudonyms, the “ideology of Temperance is, for them, a feminist ideology” (xxxi). For example, Catherine Pritchard (1842-1909), or “Buddug,” opens her  poem “The Battle of Temperance and Bacchus” with a persuasive call-to-arms:

To arms, sisters of temperance!
We are in the midst of a great fight;
We must win through perseverance,
No peace ‘til victory’s in our sight:
Caught in the claws of the demon drink,
Our dear Wales is shamed and in need;
Temperance will unchain her, link by link –
By its hand she will be freed.  (145)

It is tempting to emphasize a close intertwining of alcohol’s chains with those of patriarchy. However, as Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan has argued the complex relationship between the temperance and the suffrage movements in Wales was far from clear due to the latter’s perceived “Englishness.” Lloyd-Morgan does claim that although some of the poetry and prose women produced during this era remain “purely [of] historical rather than literary interest, there can be no doubt that the movement itself provided a major incentive for women to write and publish, as well as boosting their self confidence as writers, . . . creat[ing] a respectable context in which to write” (142-3) just as the temperance activists’ struggles sharpened their sense of the prejudices against women (148). Despite what Gramich notes as the tonal awkwardness that can plague translations, Buddug’s poem imagines Welsh women as part of a wider sisterhood and in language that anticipates the compelling rhetoric of empowerment and autonomy that characterized second wave feminism in the 1970s.

Given the perceived relationship between suffrage and Englishness, it is not surprising, then, that Welsh language authors demonstrate degrees of commitment to the movement and its values. Buddug writes in another poem, “Cranogwen,” named for another influential Welsh woman poet, that her literary sister’s “genius” and “dazzling skill with the pen, / Quicken my soul – and inspire my own song” (143), intimating a purely female and Welsh language tradition as the origins for poetic inspiration. However, she ends her poem with a question that looks beyond Wales and to all women: “For who today can claim that superiority / And intellectual greatness can’t exist in woman?” (143). The anthology’s many poems iterate the forceful vision for women’s rights these Welsh writers shared. Elizabeth Mary Jones (1878-1953), or “Moelona,” writes with a clear feminist sensibility in “Again” when she questions “When will woman gain her rights? / When will we win the vote?” (163). Not unlike Jane Hughes in her columns for Y Gymraes, Ceridwen Peris (Alice Grey James, 1852-1943) stresses  the reality of women’s lives, particularly those women in the working class. In “One or Two Details about Women” she writes:

Housework’s a slog and it never seems done,
Whereas singing a song is just so much fun.
But as a woman’s who’s wise can tell
You can keep a house and sing as well.  (151) 

The poem proposes a possible middle ground that allows space for a woman’s artistic freedom that does not disrupt the unavoidable labour in women’s domestic work. In “A New Year’s Greeting – 1929” Peris alludes to the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 which allowed women over the age of twenty-one to participate in general elections:

Women of Wales! Let the New Year
Be good, happy, carefree, all that’s fine.
For this is the year of years –
Nineteen hundred and twenty nine!
All women now possess the vote
When they’re twenty-one years old!
Where’s the prophet of the future?
Who could have such a thing foretold?   (151)

Amid the poem’s celebratory sentiments and emphatic punctuation, Peris sounds a cautionary note as she warns “Be careful; of what you do be certain, / Remember this – the effect will be on the statute books of Britain!” (151). Women’s votes, the poem argues, will stimulate social transformation but could have paradoxical consequences in reaffirming British superiority. The poem moves into advocating a gentle nationalism that would preserve Welsh history and customs:

Remember the old hearths of Wales,
Which awake in us a sad hiraeth
Remember our pure, humble mothers –
And fathers, renowned for their faith . . .  (153)

Peris accentuates an inherently Welsh nature with “hiraeth,” a noun that comprises nostalgia for personal, spatial, local and national pasts and one difficult to translate satisfyingly into English. 4 Set alongside the work of her fellow female Welsh language poets, Peris’s poetry explores both sides in the cultural debate: on the one hand, the need for change and progress for women; on the other, the strong desire to retain what is distinctive about Welsh life. The anthology’s array of Welsh language voices, combined with those of English language writers, such as Emily Jane Pfeiffer (1827-90), who supported social justice for women, guarantees that readers can explore and understand the relationship between women, the Temperance movement and wider issues of feminist awakenings in Wales and to a degree previously impossible.

The Short Story: A View Across the Valley and Stranger Within the Gates

Literary scholars and authors have documented that historically the short story abounds with figures of the rebel, of the outsider. Frank O’Connor, for instance, has applauded the form’s suitability for “outlawed” peripheral characters on the “fringes of society” (18). Similarly, Clare Hanson has claimed it “a vehicle for different kinds of knowledge, knowledge which may be in some way at odds with the ‘story’ of dominant culture” (6). Consequently, the short story seems a genre particularly apt for representations of the New Woman and her concerns since, as the critical heritage has established, New Woman fiction portrays “strong heroines who rebel against the limitations placed on their lives” (Nelson xii). Dissatisfied with the “story” other authors (and modes) constructed about femininity and constrictive gender roles, women writers who used the short story form could write new narratives that better fit their lives and experiences. Two titles in the Honno Classics series well represent Welsh women’s achievements with the genre:  Jane Aaron’s compilation A View Across the Valley:  Short Stories by Women from Wales c. 1850-1950 and Bertha Thomas’s reissued 1912 collection, Stranger Within the Gates.  Both make available stories that have been out of print or lain long dormant in magazine archives. The fine scholarly quality of their books’ comprehensive and expansive introductions makes each invaluable in reimagining women’s literary history in Wales.

Aaron’s A View Across the Valley is the first collection of women’s short fiction from Wales that challenges previously conceived notions about that fiction’s quality and importance. Furthermore, it revises when the short story “begins” in Wales, conventionally thought to be 1915 when former draper’s apprentice and journalist Caradoc Evans published his satirical collection, My People. Evans wrote these stories, as Aaron emphasizes, partly as a “riposte” (xvi) to Allen Raine’s often romanticized view of Wales (discussed below); his distorted yet compelling representations of Wales have skewed a fuller understanding of the genre’s development. One other early example, the 1937 and anonymously edited Welsh Short Stories: An Anthology, devoted almost half its pages to female authors, perhaps due to the compilation assistance of Welsh novelist Elizabeth Inglis Jones, the only woman acknowledged in the book’s anonymous “Publisher’s Note.” Anthologies of short stories from Wales have increasingly marginalized women writers, either featuring them very sparingly or omitting them entirely. Aaron accentuates the detrimental effect this inconsistency in publishing practices has had on establishing, let alone maintaining, a tradition of women’s short story writing in Wales, asserting that “no woman writer has been presented by these anthologies as an indispensable contributor to the genre, and no acknowledged foundations have been laid for a specifically female tradition” (xv-xvi).

The anthology features a generous range of nineteen authors from the mid-nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. Important contributors to the genre’s place in the Welsh tradition include Mallt Williams (1867-1950), Gwyneth Vaughan (1852-1910), Dorothy Edwards (1903-34) and Hilda Vaughan (1892-1985). In their variety, the stories depict women’s experiences through a diversity of female types, from the oppressed victim to the independent New Woman. Some focus on cruelty toward older women, as in Allen Raine’s “Home, Sweet Home” (1908) whose heroine, Nancy Vaughn, economically dependent on her son and a nuisance to her daughter-in-law, is “long accustomed to neglect and loneliness” (45). Nancy’s farm, Bronwylan, lies on the boundary of two parishes, making her ineligible for financial assistance from either. Nancy is tricked by her son John into entering the workhouse. Though somewhat sentimental, the story has a keen political edge as it draws attention to the plight of women in old age and their lack of protection by church and state. In an especially distressing scene, Nancy appears before the workhouse board, that “stolid group of Bumbledon” (54) and a bastion of patriarchal authority; she must listen to a letter her son John wrote in which he renounces any filial responsibility to her. It is her realization she has been abandoned by not only the parish but by her own family that finally makes Nancy give up hope. Raine concludes the story with Nancy attempting to walk the long distance home from the workhouse in the snow. She is discovered the following day, with “the pure white snow for her winding sheet, and the big grey boulder for a headstone.” She has “reached Home” and found peace in death (58).

Sara Maria Saunders’s “Nancy on the Warpath” (1897), which features another Nancy, makes a sharp contrast with its strong-minded and opinionated female protagonist.  Though not so well known to modern day readers, the bilingual Saunders (1864-1939) was very popular during her lifetime and wrote many stories for journals printed in the Welsh language.“Nancy on the Warpath,” however, appeared in “Welsh Rural Sketches,” a series written in English that ran in the journal Young Wales from 1896-1899. Focusing on rural life, Saunders’s fiction is distinctively Welsh in its portrayal of the connection between the village community and the Methodist chapel. One of this particular story’s main contrasts is in the domestic worlds of Mrs. Morris and her daughter-in-law, Nancy, married to Edward and long estranged from his father. When Mr. Morris prevents his wife from seeing their first grandchild, despite some initial attempts to change his mind, Mrs. Morris “quail[s]” before her husband, prompting the narrator to note, “when you have been under subjection for thirty years, you lose the capacity for self-assertion” (27).  Luckily, and as the story’s title suggests, the more self-assured Nancy defies this paternal injunction and unites Mrs. Morris with the ailing Edward, thought to be on his death bed.  At other times, Nancy follows the established paradigm for female duty, tending to her mother-in-law, for instance, and getting her appropriate medical care when she is sick.  However, Nancy’s confrontations with Mr. Morris make particularly striking impact, especially when she threatens to expose his cruelty to those in his village parish should he reject her proposal for his invalid wife’s care.  She speaks with remarkable and bold self-confidence:

“Well,” Nancy replied, “it’s one or the other, and if you refuse both, then I’ll call the attention of the church to your conduct, and I’ll ask them if they consider that a man who has rejected every advance on the part of his son, who allowed his only son to be on the brink of death without stretching out a finger to help him, who leaves his sick wife to the tender mercies of a lot of stupid, ignorant servants. I’ll ask them if they think such a man as that is fit to be a deacon? I’ll tell you, Mr. Morris, you’ll have no chance. (35)

As M. Wynn Thomas states, Nancy’s “mastery of language” makes her “an avatar of the Welsh women writers of the period” (103). With Nancy, Saunders symbolizes women’s potential to wrest power from the hands of patriarchal figures within the conservative rural community of late nineteenth-century Wales.

Honno Classics’ republication of Bertha Thomas’s writing revives another key group:  middle-class, anglicized – or “Anglo- Welsh” – women writers, who “have been overlooked, excluded or misrepresented by narrow assumptions about their class and perceived national identity” (“The New Woman and ‘Anglo-Welsh’ Hybridity” 17). 5  In her acknowledgements for Stranger Within the Gates, Kirsti Bohata declares this Honno edition of Thomas’s short stories would not exist if it were not for Jane Aaron’s “pioneering work” in critical studies on Welsh women authors. Bohata’s indebtedness indicates an almost organic cross-fertilization in the growth of women’s literary studies in Wales. Stranger Within the Gates combines Thomas’s Picture Tales from Welsh Hills (1912) with her other proto-feminist material, including her witty article, “Latest Intelligence from the Planet Venus,” originally published in Fraser’s Magazine in 1874.  The stories focus on the displaced individual – the alien, the interloper, the marginalized, and those geographically separated from their homelands and cultures. The stories show Thomas’s familiarity with late-century debate on topics such as eugenics and disability.  Underpinning them all is her unremitting examination of class and the constraints class bias places on perceptions of identity, especially – although not exclusively – female identity. In “The Only Girl,” for instance, upper-class Edith cannot understand or appreciate the “feeble-minded” Catrin, an extraordinarily hardworking woman who is “slightly deficient intellectually,” asthmatic, and epileptic (25). Other stories explore anxieties about the permeability of presumably rigid class distinctions. For example, in several Thomas uses courtship and marriage across social classes to probe these concerns. In “The Way he Went,” Elwyn Rosser marries the English Aline, “of an alien nation and class, a class somewhat higher than [his] own” (79), whom he meets while studying at Oxford. The story has some melodramatic aspects, including a tragic ending, but sensitively examines the consequences an English education has on shaping Elwyn’s character. In contrast, “The Courtship of Ragged Robin” wittily explores the mismatched romance of the eponymous Robin, who has “obviously fallen somewhat from the estate [into which] Robert John David Morgan Lloyd was born” (148), and London-born Lois, a servant who believes in “order and symmetry” (147). By the end of the story both characters realize that they are unsuited and, independently of each other, decide to end the relationship.

In addition to her fiction’s attention to class concerns, Thomas’s stories reflect a strong  relationship with New Woman fiction in how they delve into the “crisis of definition” (Pykett x) about gender roles. “The Madness of Winifred Owen” (a story Aaron includes in A View Across the Valley) questions these definitions across two generations of women. The story unfolds as Winifred, the matronly proprietor of an inn, recounts her youthful experiences to a young, single woman visiting Wales. Winifred tells the cunning plan she devised to thwart her father in his choice of her husband and her romance with Walter Trinaman, the sailor whom her father forbade her to marry. Although the unnamed female listener seems to represent autonomy and independence, Thomas creates a rather unsympathetic version of this New Woman, who arrives complete with bicycle. 

About her own generation, Winifred remarks: “We were not brought up to consider our fancies, for father was a very masterful man” (10).

In her perceptive article “The New Woman and “Anglo”-Welsh Hybridity,” Bohata contends that “Thomas goes to some lengths to show how female resourcefulness, ingenuity and perseverance may be found in traditionally female spheres of home and marriage . . . as well as guises more immediately associated with the New Woman” (26). Winifred represents that traditional resourcefulness: after having had her fair share of adventures travelling the world with Walter, she returns to Wales and takes over the inn where they had first met. At the tale’s conclusion, Thomas belittles her anonymous New Woman character even more. When the guest states “enlarging and improving the inn” will “attract numerous summer visitors of a better class” (20), Winifred rejects the idea.  Refurbishment is incompatible with her original reasons for returning. As long as she remains there, so, too, will the inn “stay as it was when [she] first met Trinaman” (20). It could be argued Thomas ends her story on a conservative note as she seems to re-establish Winifred’s obedience to paternal authority. The guest believes Winifred is restrained by outdated modes of thought and the narrator also remarks that Winifred “believed in class distinctions” (5). However, Thomas affirms a woman’s independent choice to preserve the past. The tale’s final paragraph portrays Winifred as a survivor and one whose dignity make the “middle-class” visitor feel “commonplace” (20) in comparison.

Bohata attributes Thomas’s “ambivalent treatment of ‘the Woman Question’” (viii) to the generational gap between Thomas and the writers of the 1880s and 1890s. Yet, as she also has shown, in the Anglo-Welsh literary tradition “stereotypical New Women characters are always outsiders, aliens, visitors to Wales [but] crucially they are also observers and recorders – positions which raise their narrative status significantly” (“The New Woman and ‘Anglo’-Welsh Hybridity” 29). Thomas’s position as Anglo-Welsh, both inside yet intrinsically outside Welsh culture, reverberates through her representations of these female figures, letting her survey gender roles from the vantage point of both perspectives.

The Novel and the New Woman: Amy Dillwyn and Allen Raine

Honno Classics series’s reissue of two of Amy Dillwyn’s novels, The Rebecca Rioter: A Story of Killay Life (1880) and A Burglary; or “Unconscious Influence” (1883) validates her primacy in any full understanding of late nineteenth-century women’s writing in Wales.  In her perceptive and stimulating introduction to A Burglary, Alison Favre applies John Sutherland’s terminology when she says Dillwyn is among the great “underread” (vii), those many Victorian novelists immensely popular during their own lifetimes, virtually unknown now. With A Burglary, the novel’s neglect may well be due to its roots in sensation fiction, that genre so focused on crime, secrets and false identities. As an established critical heritage has defined, sensation novels, morally and aesthetically suspicious, were not considered “serious” fiction. Only in the later decades of the twentieth century has their cultural significance been re-evaluated, which, in turn, has allowed authors such as Dillwyn a similar reassessment.
Dillwyn (1845-1935) is a particularly fascinating figure in Welsh women’s history. Her industrialist father, Lewis Llewellyn Dillwyn, was a Liberal M.P. for Swansea, while her mother, Bessie de la Beche, had travelled extensively with her natural scientist father and gained firsthand knowledge of geology and entomology. (Indeed this scientific background influence appears in A Burglary’s moth leitmotif, a pattern I discuss below.)  Dillwyn was a tomboy and smoked cigars. She was known for her charitable work, her business acumen: after her father died in 1892, she turned his failing zinc factory into a profitable success. She supported the suffrage movement and adopted rational dress’s liberating costume. Dillwyn’s liberal and independent upbringing and her allegiance to women’s causes influence her novels’ depiction of gender and politics and in ways fairly progressive for the period.

The feminist principles by which Dillwyn herself lived have recognizable parallels in her work, particularly in A Burglary. Set near Cwm-Eithin, “a thinly-disguised Swansea” (x) as Favre notes, the novel focuses on the Rhys family home of Llwyn-yr-Allt. While staying at the house, Mr. Rhys’s niece, Ethel Carton, is robbed of an expensive necklace that she has just worn to a local ball. The novel describes the burglary’s aftermath and its effect on a network of middle- and upper-class characters that includes Ethel, the Rhys family, Richard Richards, a local collier and poacher (wrongly accused of the crime), and the crime’s actual perpetrator, William Sylvester. Imogen Rhys, Ethel’s cousin, is especially intriguing since her attitudes about women’s attire and marriage let us read her as a prototypical New Woman.

Dillwyn uses costume to set Imogen apart from other girls of her age and class. When she appears in the novel’s opening pages, she is about to “come out” in society. She still enjoys many of the same freedoms as her brother, Ralph (and even affects his mannerisms). They hunt together for moths which they capture and exhibit under glass; Isabel displays an unladylike “fit of rabid entomology” (1). Both wear the “rough and carelessly put-on costumes” of “Welsh flannel, corduroys, [and] thick boots” (2) which are practical and egalitarian in sharp contrast to the finery of the men and women who attend the ball that same evening. The following day, Imogen dresses for a fishing expedition in a similarly “unfeminine” fashion: “a strong serge dress and jacket, Welsh flannel petticoat turned up at the bottom with waterproof lining, thick greased boots that had never known blacking, and leglets, i.e., short leather gaiters reaching from the top of the boot to halfway up the leg” (9-10). Dillwyn accentuates the outfit’s practicality. As the narrator comments archly, “It was a costume that was, no doubt, more serviceable than elegant; but it was eminently workmanlike” (10).

Although Imogen and her brother regard the ball costumes’ “daintiness of attire” with contempt and associate that wardrobe with the “restraints of high civilisation and the artificial life of society” (2-3), Ralph later declares his gender bias when he says “A man’s got to do something, of course” while “a woman can’t have any profession except to marry” (29). Imogen struggles with the ideological view. As the narrator explains, “the popular idea that it was the natural destiny of all women to get married if possible, seemed to her to be an insult to her sex, and she was always ready to oppose it fiercely whenever it was brought forward in her presence” (29-30). Dillwyn’s novel questions women’s independence in any domestic or intimate relationship, not just matrimony.  While moth-hunting symbolizes a woman’s entrapment in marriage, it also implies the complicated desire in Imogen’s attraction to her cousin, Ethel – she is seduced by the thought of being “caught and tamed” (89) by her. Imogen, however, becomes increasingly conservative as the narrative progresses. By its conclusion she has accepted Sir Charles Dover’s marriage proposal, agreeing to a domestic arrangement she had previously rejected and moving into the artificial world she sought to evade. It could be argued that Dillwyn is unable to sustain a feminist tale about female autonomy; the recurring imagery of moth hunting suggests that Imogen’s freedom is both fragile and short-lived. Like the moths, Imogen is trapped by external forces, particularly those familial and social expectations for “feminine” behaviour.

Dillwyn’s The Rebecca Rioter makes a “radical rewriting” (v) of definitive events in Wales’s history and draws on Dillwyn’s father’s eyewitness account of the Rebecca Riots, especially an 1843 attack on the Pontardulais Turnpike. The uprisings began in South West Wales towards the end of the 1830s to protest the high taxes levied at toll gates throughout the rural areas of Wales. In her astute introduction, Katie Gramich explains the Rioters took their name from the passage in Genesis, 26:40, which says “And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her […]Let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.” In the riots, men disguised themselves in women’s clothes and used the figure of Rebecca to symbolize their rebellion against the English government (xi).

The Rebecca Rioter was published three years earlier than A Burglary. Dillwyn uses a male protagonist’s first-person narration, and yet, despite its formal differences, The Rebecca Rioter anticipates and shares thematic concerns with the later novel.  As with A Burglary, Dillwyn manipulates the constricting discomfort of women’s dress for the novel’s argument about women’s issues and Welsh identity. For instance, Evan Williams, the narrating hero, describes the Rebeccaites’ ritual of dressing themselves as the Biblical female figure:

We certainly were a queer-looking lot of women with black faces, and beards and whiskers peeping out under the white caps. We did not much like the dresses, and felt extremely thankful that we were not obliged to wear such uncomfortable costumes. I remember I thought the Welsh flannel bedgown I had on was the most disagreeable garment I had ever worn in my life (81)

Dillwyn’s later employment of dress in A Burglary continues her earlier focus on uncomfortable clothing to critique women’s confinement within patriarchal structures.  However, disguise in The Rebecca Rioter has complexities the later novel avoids. As Gramich succinctly notes, we are “presented with a woman masquerading as a man who is masquerading as a woman”; we can read Evan as “speaking” for the author herself (xv). Feminist and postcolonial studies frequently pinpoint ventriloquism as a narrative strategy that assists writers in “writing back” and frees them from complicity in dominant ideologies. Dillwyn’s use of ventriloquism to give voice to her working-class hero could be regarded as somewhat condescending, especially in how she represents his speech. She was, after all, educated, successful, and of the higher class. While both novels show the extent to which Dillwyn deconstructs and unravels fixed gender roles, The Rebecca Rioter lets us draw a fundamental parallel between the peripheral and marginalized position of both the woman writer and her working-class male character.

Although she was extremely popular during her writing career, after her death in 1908 Allen Raine (1836-1908) practically disappeared from the canon of Welsh writing in English, dismissed as an insignificant or simply a bad writer.  Indeed, her 1906 Queen of the Rushes: A Tale of the Welsh Revival has been described by Sally Jones as comprising “sober, precise, even witty depiction[s]” of rural life in prose which “can only be described as romantic gush” (31).  Honno Classics’ reissue of the novel, with Kate Gramich’s incisive introduction, places it within a broader feminist framework and asks us to reconsider Raine’s work.

Born Anne Adaliza Evans, Raine was a solicitor’s daughter from the small market town of Newcastle Emlyn in Cardiganshire, a product of the middle classes, well educated (at Carmarthen, and later at Cheltenham and London), and well off.  Raine emblematized much we assume about the Victorian lady and woman author. She adopted an “androgynous pseudonym” (3) for her fictions. She suffered physical maladies in the early years of her marriage, phases of semi-invalidity Gramich categorizes as “a typical Victorian lady’s illness: fatigue and prostration which confined her to her couch” and commonly identified as “signs of frustration with the lack of opportunities afforded to women”(4). (Amy Dillwyn endured similar complaints.)  It was not until the 1890s, when she was in her 60s, that Raine began writing seriously, a pursuit that may have alleviated her earlier malaise. Raine’s position as a fairly Anglicized, middle-class wife gave her a privileged place from which she could speak about Welsh culture and identity. 

As Gramich makes clear, voice is central to the novel – namely, who has the power to speak and to make themselves heard above others. In Queen of the Rushes, Gwenifer, one of the female protagonists, is mute from shock after witnessing her mother’s death in a boating accident. Other characters are similarly bereft of stable family structures:  Gildas, the young man orphaned by the same boating calamity, and Nance, like Gwenifer, another motherless character. After her father remarries, Nance moves with her grandfather to Scethryg, the farm Gildas has inherited from his father. The novel is a complex web of romantic attachments: Gildas ignores Gwenifer to marry Nance who loves the sailor Captain Jack who, in turn, loves Gwenifer. Misunderstandings and rejections surround the novel’s core action: Nance’s desertion of her husband and her involvement in the Revival of 1904-1905. Raine even briefly includes in her cast of characters Evan Roberts, the Calvinistic Methodist and leader of the Revival who sought to rejuvenate religious fervour in Wales in the early years of the twentieth century.

The Revivals gave women a space to speak and Raine explores that freedom at various points in the text when female members of the congregation, like Nance, the counterpart to the silent Gwenifer, articulate their religious zeal. Although the suffragist movement lacked a strong foothold in Cardiganshire, Gramich claims the “outbreak of female self-assertion” characteristic of revivalist meetings was “a Welsh substitute for suffragism” and “challenging the chapel hierarchy could be seen as analogous to challenging the Government itself” (12). Similarly, M. Wynn Thomas notes ways Raines’s novel “registers unease at the socially disruptive licence granted . . .  to women not only to speak in public but to voice their most private passions and even to vent their resentments against men” (62). Throughout the novel, Gildas remains sceptical of the Revival; like Gwenifer, he prefers to find God in quiet contemplation and solitude, an attitude and an affinity which cause Nance to be increasingly resentful. Unconvinced by public declarations of religious fervour, Gildas states: “I am not against [the Revival]; may be ‘tis wanted; but I am against these wild ways – people showing their hearts to the world, and crying out they are sinners!” (141). During one meeting, when Nance begs for what she and the rest of the local community perceive as Gildas’s spiritual salvation, the narration’s tone alludes to the excessive and quasi-sexual ecstasy of in Nance’s prayers:

But Nance was quite oblivious to the crowd around her. Alone in a whirlwind of stormy passions, she was pouring out her soul in a fervid appeal for help. Oh for an anchor to hold on to in the sea of unrest on which she was tossing! Oh for a breath from Heaven to fill her sails, and waft her to rest and peace! (148) 

Ironically,  the “anchor” Nance seeks in her devotional act is not God, but Captain Jack, as Raine’s nautical imagery reveals. Raine suggests throughout that Nance lacks a fundamental grounding, a deficiency Gramich convincingly attributes to that lost maternal guidance. Raine shows the Welsh Revival brings different, and highly qualified, freedoms. For characters like Gildas and Gwenifer, it reinforces their beliefs in a personal – and far more private – relationship with God. For those like Nance, willing to throw herself into its public and patriarchal arena, it leads to madness rather than religious certainty. Made more spiritual and morally conscientious by the Revival, Captain Jack refuses to leave Scethryg and its farm community with Nance, whose futile efforts to desert her husband effectively silence her. In the narrative’s transferral of power, Gwenifer regains her voice trying to dissuade Nance from abandoning Gildas for Jack. Nance, from then on, speaks only in “a little moan, a little gibbering” (316) and “indistinct mutterings” (318). Raine makes voice central to her novel, but the narrative implies that female speech, and by association, female agency and power, exacts a very high price.

The Honno Classics series makes obvious the intense, political dynamism in its mission to revise perceptions about women’s writing in Wales. Jane Aaron and Ursula Masson’s urge to “explode” notions about women’s history, echoes Angela Carter’s memorable words: “Reading is just as creative an activity as writing and most intellectual development depends upon new readings of old texts. I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode” (69).  Since its founding, Honno has kindled these new readings and shown the great imperative to refrain from homogenizing Welsh women writers. The series is reasonably priced, with texts ranging from £8 to £13, and Honno’s recent decision to produce digital editions can only increase the imprint’s international audience and further guarantee readers will be find the works. Honno Classics series stands out from other “classic” reprints, including those of the Library of Wales, because of the academic rigor in the books’ introductory materials and textual apparatus. The editors all maintain a skilful balance that stimulates undergraduate and postgraduate critical thinking and avoids alienating the general reader. The introductions’ incisive subheadings which signal sections on biography, contextual information and critical approaches are a particularly effective strategy, letting the reader peruse at will. Critical methodologies are presented in an accessible manner due to their clear and well-defined terminology. Katie Gramich, for example, in her introduction to Queen of the Rushes, draws on the feminist theories of Hélène Cixous in a nuanced and convincing way, while Alison Favre, with her commentary on A Burglary, looks at the effects of literary techniques and produces a complex reading of the novel’s imagery.

Even the texts’ cover art and stylish design lend weight to the painstaking research and invaluable biographical information the series provides. The cover art strengthens key aspects about an individual work. For instance, The Very Salt of Life shows a woman in Welsh costume astride a dragon, a striking image from a poster for the 1926 National Eisteddfod that provided a forum for women’s public engagement with Welsh cultural activity. Others feature paintings by important women artists in the Welsh visual arts, such as Gladys Vasey’s 1939 portrait of her daughter Gabrielle on the cover of Welsh Women’s Poetry, or Gwen John’s Girl in Profile (from the late 1910s) on A View Across the Valley. Both show the female form in detail, reinforcing the series’s project of illuminating women’s neglected literary traditions. Without doubt, Honno Classics series greatly contributes to the literary scholarship of Welsh women writers.  In doing so, it continues to establish a legacy for a wider feminist project of recuperating, and rejuvenating, our appreciation for the rich virtuosity in this body of women’s writing.

Michelle Deininger is a final year PhD student at Cardiff University. Her thesis traces a tradition of Welsh women's short stories in English from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. She has recently published an essay on taboo in Bernice Rubens’s fiction in Mapping the Territory: Critical Approaches to Welsh Writing in English, edited by Katie Gramich and published by Parthian Press.


1 Gender Studies in Wales, the series published by the U of Wales P in Cardiff, has been pivotal in this area of literary and women’s studies.  Feminist and cultural geography critical approaches, by those such as Jane Aaron and Katie Gramich, are invaluable.  Equally impressive are books in the University’s Writing Wales in English series; see, for instance, Bohata’s Postcolonialism Revisited.

2 For further details, see “Y Gymraes” in Stephens’s The New Companion to the Literature of Wales.

3 Hughes refers to Liberal leader William Gladstone’s opposition to the Women’s Suffrage Bill of 1892.

4 For a more detailed gloss of this Welsh word, see “Hiraeth” in Stephens’s New Companion to the Literature of Wales.

5 “Anglo-Welsh” has become a contested term in Welsh literary studies, partly due to the fact that it privileges Englishness over Welshness. “Welsh Writing in English” has become the more widely used term, although it has its own issues. In Thomas’s case, as Bohata argues, the term still has some value as it aptly describes her hybrid yet clearly Anglicized position. 

Works Cited

Primary Texts

Aaron, Jane, ed.  A View Across the Valley: Short Stories by Women from Wales c. 1850-1950.  Dinas Powys, Wales: Honno, 1999.  Print.

Aaron, Jane, and Ursula Masson, eds.  The Very Salt of Life: Welsh Women’s Political Writings from Chartism to Suffrage.  Dinas Powys, Wales: Honno, 2007.  Print.

Dillwyn, Amy. A Burglary; Or “Unconscious Influence.”  1883.  Ed. Alison Favre. Dinas Powys, Wales: Honno, 2009.  Print.

---.  The Rebecca Rioter: A Story of Killay Life. 1880.  Ed. Katie Gramich.  Dinas Powys, Wales: Honno, 2004.  Print. 

Gramich, Katie, and Catherine Brennan, eds. Welsh Women’s Poetry 1460-2001: An Anthology.  Dinas Powys, Wales: Honno, 2003.  Print.

Gramich. Dinas Powys, Wales: Honno, 1998.  Print.

Thomas, Bertha. Stranger Within the Gates.  1912. Ed. Kirsti Bohata. Dinas Powys, Wales: Honno, 2008. Print.

Secondary Sources

Aaron, Jane. Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing in Wales: Nation, Gender and   Identity. Cardiff: U Wales P,2007.  Print.

Bohata, Kirsti. “‘For Wales, See England?’: Suffrage and the New Woman in Wales.” Women’s History Review  11.4 (2002):  643-56.  Print.

---. “The New Woman and ‘Anglo-Welsh’ Hybridity.”  New Woman Hybridities:       Femininity, Feminism and International Consumer Culture, 1880-1930.  Ed. Ann Heilmann and Margaret Beetham.  Abingdon: Routledge, 2004. 17-34.  Print. 

---.  Postcolonialism Revisited. Cardiff: U Wales P,2004. Print. Writing Wales in Eng.

Carter, Angela. “Notes from the Front Line.”  On Gender and Writing.  Ed. Micheline Wandor.  London: Pandora P, 1983. 69-77.  Print.

Gramich, Katie. Twentieth Century Women’s Writing: Land, Gender, Belonging. Cardiff: U Wales P,2007.  Print.

Hanson, Clare, ed.   Re-reading the Short Story.  New York: St. Martin's, 1989.  Print.

Jones, Sally.  Allen Raine.  Cardiff: U Wales P, 1979.  Print.

Lloyd-Morgan, Ceridwen.  “From Temperance to Suffrage?.”  Our Mothers’ Land: Chapters in Welsh Women’s History, 1830-1939.  Ed. Angela V. John. Rev ed. Cardiff: U Wales P, 2011. 134-156. Print.

Nelson, Carolyn Christensen, ed..  A New Woman Reader: Fiction, Articles and Drama of the 1890s.  Peterborough, ON: Broadview P, 2000.  Print.

O’Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. Hoboken, NJ: Melville House, 2004.  Print.

Pykett, Lyn. The “Improper” Feminine: The Women’s Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing. London: Routledge, 1992.  Print.

Reports of the Commission of Inquiry into the State of Education in Wales. In Three Parts. Part I, Carmarthen, Glamorgan and Pembroke. Part II, Brecknock, Cardigan, Radnor and Monmouth. Part III, North Wales. 1847. National Library of Wales Digital Mirror. Web. 8 Mar. 2012. .

Schaffer, Talia. “’Nothing But Foolscap and Ink’: Inventing the New Woman.”  The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact: Fin-de-Siecle Feminisms. Ed. Angelique Richardson and Chris Willis. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. 39-52. Print.

Stephens , Meic, ed.The New Companion to the Literature of Wales. Cardiff: U Wales P, 1998.  Print.

Thomas, M. Wynn. In the Shadow of the Pulpit: Literature and Nonconformist Wales. Cardiff: U Wales P, 2010.  Print.

Welsh Short Stories: An Anthology. London: Faber & Faber, 1937.  Print.