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?

Uncovering 19th Century Welsh Writers in English

For many, Caradoc Evans’ infamous collection of short stories My People (published in 1915) is considered the first example of Welsh Writing in English. It was this controversial work that led the Welsh press to name him ‘the best hated man in Wales’.

However, there are a variety of writers, many of them women, who were writing from and about Wales in the nineteenth century. I came across the novelists and short story writers Anne Beale and Allen Raine in Jane Aaron’s collection of Short Stories A View Across the Valley. Anne Beale (1815-1900) was born in Somerset but settled in Llandeilo in 1841. She published at least five novels and a collection of short stories titled ‘Stories and Traits of the Welsh Peasantry’, published in 1849 – nearly 30 years before Caradoc Evans was born! She had a successful career and is seen as the predecessor to the more well-known Allen Raine.

Anne Adaliza Evans (1836-1908) adopted the masculine pseudonym Allen Raine when she embarked upon an extremely successful career as a novelist, selling over 2 millions books in her lifetime. She was brought up in Newcastle Emlyn but it was her holidays in Cardiganshire that inspired most of her work.

Both Beale’s and Raine’s work has not been well regarded in the past as many critics have denounced their images of Wild Wales and their romantic love story plots. However, more recently their work has been taken more seriously and even considered as the first instances of Welsh Writing in English. Thanks to Welsh publisher Honno Allen Raine’s work is now becoming more accessible. Raine’s novel The Welsh Witch has recently been republished by the press that specialize in Welsh women’s fiction- I thoroughly recommend it!

Honno Press – A View Across the Valley

A View Across the Valley: Short Stories by Women from Wales c. 1850-1950

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Edited by Jane Aaron, this anthology of Welsh short stories is a great way to access Welsh Writing in English. Honno are a press located in Aberystwyth who specialize in publishing women’s literature and this anthology has been a vital part of recovering little-known or forgotten Welsh women writers and their work.

You only have to scan the author biographies at the back of the book to understand how Welsh women writers have been neglected over the past 200 years. In many cases there has been no republication of the authors work for decades. For example, the short story ‘Mad Moll’s Story’ by Anne Beale has not been published since its original publication in 1849! Bangor University Library actually holds a copy of this publication, battered and falling apart, it is the sad reality and reminder of the legacy of some Welsh writers which needs to be rejuvenated. If it wasn’t for Jane Aaron’s edited collection I would probably never have come across these unique short stories.

In terms of content, you will find themes that are common in the short story genre in general. A form favoured by the outsider and those on the edge of society, the short stories depict women who feel peripheral in their Welsh lives. As the title suggests the women often look across the valley (able to connect with the Welsh landscape) rather than connecting with the people who live in the valleys below. For this reason the stories offer a great insight into the lives of Welsh women from pre- to post-industrial Wales.

If you enjoy this collection I would definitely recommend Honno’s Welsh Women’s Poetry edited by Katie Gramich and Catherine Brennan. This is a ground-breaking bilingual anthology that includes women’s poetry from 1460 to 2001. Both books are vital to the recovery of Welsh writing and a great way to access Welsh Writing in English.