Jill by Amy Dillwyn

Amy Dillwyn was arguably one of the most remarkable women of her age. She came from an accomplished family, being the daughter of Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn, an industrialist and MP for Swansea, the niece of John Dillwyn-Llewelyn, a pioneer photographer, the granddaughter of Sir Henry Thomas de la Beche, a geologist and the great-great-granddaughter of William Dillwyn, an abolitionist. You can read more about the Dillwyn family on the Dillwyn project website run by the CREW centre at Swansea University.

However, Amy Dillwyn wasn’t only an author, but also a well-known public figure, one of the first female industrialists and one of the first women to stand for election to a borough council. After the death of her brother and father she took over her father’s spelter works which were on the brink of bankrupcy, gave up the family home to run the family business and eventually managed to save over 300 jobs. The book group agreed that given her accomplishments, Amy Dillwyn’s work is not as well-known as it should be and the discussion revolved around the novel as well as more generally the fact that women are often airbrushed from history.

Jill is Amy Dillwyn’s fourth novel and was published in 1884. It is a bildungsroman as well as a feminist manifesto. Here’s a video of Kirsti Bohata from Swansea University, the editor of the book, talking about Jill.

The main character is a feisty young woman coming from a well-to-do family, who after her father’s remarriage runs away from home and finds work as a maid in London. In one of her positions she meets Kitty Mervyn with whom she falls in love, but her love must stay unrequited both because of their gender and lower social class which Jill takes on. Later on in the story she is injured and ends up in hospital where she befriends the head sister of who she also becomes very fond of. Shortly after being discharged from the hospital she learns about the death of her father and the fact that she had inherited the family home. She returns home, settles down and takes on the role of a lady squire.

Jill as a character however is not a straightforward heroine. Dillwyn has managed to create a three-dimensional character that is both believable and has a very strong presence. She is tomboyish, strong-minded, extremely manipulative and willing to do almost anything to achieve what she wants. Despite the fact that Jill’s life after running away from home is very eventful, at times her personality is so strong that it overshadows the narrative.

Amy Dillwyn wrote that she ‘abhorred domestic novels’ and books with ‘too much love in them’. There are no strong male characters in Jill, while there are three very strong independent women.The novel reminded me of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in that the main protagonist also struggles to get along with her relatives and after coming of age decide to leave home (or, in case of Jane Eyre, a boarding school) and look for employment. Jill may well have been a rewriting of Bronte’s novel and reaction to and a critique of traditional plots and gender relations of 19th century novels.

Next month we will be reading Feet in Chains by Kate Roberts. Those of you that have read it, please let us know down in the comments what you thought of it. One of our readers found it rather bleak. Would you agree with that? What do you think of the new translation by Katie Gramich? In what ways does the original Welsh version differ from the translation?