Lady C and Me

Lady C and Me

16 April 2014

One of the odd joys of teaching "The Dream of Rhonabwy," from Lady Charlotte Guest's translation of the Mabinogion, is being able to cite myself - even if most internet sources seem to be completely unaware of my book, as well as several other biographies and published versions of her diaries. What's worse is that all of them use the same dreary portrait of her as a formidable dowager. Formidable she was, no doubt. But a cougar rather than a dowager, dying her hair over her daughters' angry objections and taking her son's tutor, Charles Schreiber, sixteen years her junior, as her second husband.

Usual Portrait of Lady Charlotte Guest
Usual Portrait of Lady Charlotte Guest

More Formidable Portrait<br/>of Lady Charlotte Guest
More Formidable Portrait
of Lady Charlotte Guest

That forceful personality, however, was tempered by a romantic streak that led Lady C to stretch every boundary of the conventional life she seemed destined to lead. An earl's daughter with a bookish bent, she first fell in love (arguably somewhat predictably) with her impecunious tutor. Despite her heart being broken when her family forbade the match, she recovered to flirt with Disraeli (who seemed in equal parts impressed with her potential dowry and intimidated by the number of languages she spoke), before she made the eminently practical marriage to John Guest, who owned an ironworks in Wales. By all accounts, what seemed like a "bad" marriage to a man twenty-eight years her senior, who was also "in trade," was largely quite a successful one. However, her diaries record at least one scene that suggests John Guest was jealous of Lady C's relationship with her dashing cousin, Austen Henry Layard, the discover of Nineveh - an accusation made all the more interesting by the fact that Layard eventually married Lady Charlotte's daughter, Enid. Nonetheless, the closeness between the cousins might have merely reflected their shared antiquarian passion, a passion that led Lady Charlotte, who did not speak a word of Welsh when she was married in 1833, to have mastered the language well enough to produce the first published translation of the collection of Welsh tales known as the Mabinogion between 1838 and 1849.

Cover of <i>The Mabonogion</i>
Cover of The Mabonogion

John Guest's interest in learning was far more utilitarian than his wife's, but no less admirable. A self-made man, of whom it was said that whenever he spoke in Parliament, someone lost money, he strove to educate his workers, motivated equally as much by a practical appreciation of the value of an educated workforce as by any ideology. Lady C whole-heartedly supported her husband's project, establishing schools for children and women to complement her husband's classes. One wonders how this educated aristocrat could possibly connect with such students, especially when one reads her exasperated journal entry that "Some young ladies do not know how to spell 'Thessalonica.'" However, the pub that still bears her name is testimony to the affection with which she is still remembered.

<i>The Lady Charlotte</i> public house in Dowlais
The Lady Charlotte public house in Dowlais

That affection also stems from the role Lady C played in running the ironworks as her husband's health declined. In fact, Guest had such confidence in his wife's abilities, that his will appointed her trustee until their son reached his majority. Almost as soon as Guest died, Lady Charlotte was faced with a miners' strike, during which she faced down the other administrators on behalf of the workers. On a personal level, her concern for her workers is reflected by her encounter with a child working in the mines, who lied and told her she was twelve (the legal age to work), when he was clearly no more than six or seven. Her exasperation with the parents who routinely forced their children to lie about their age was offset by a clear-headed acceptance of the fact that they lied because they needed the money, and instead of removing the child, she found him a safer job above ground.

Schreiber Collection Catalogue
Schreiber Collection Catalogue

After her second marriage in 1855, Lady C cut back on her responsibilities at the ironworks. But her ambitious nature couldn't stay quiet for long, and she eventually established a second (or would that be a third?) career as a connoisseur, amassing a collection of china that now belongs to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Her collecting diaries are still considered an essential source for serious china collectors. But even more telling is the story told by Montague Guest about the famous dealer Joseph Duveen taking a long and tedious journey on the trail of some wonderful china in an out of the way village - only to see Lady C's fly leaving the village as he approached it, her triumphant smile announcing that she had beaten him to the treasure.

Even in extreme old age, when her eyesight had failed - after her having tried, with characteristic determination, to have her cataracts galvanized with electricity - Lady C's restless sense of purpose never deserted her. She lived out her old age, not as a static dowager in a portrait, but walking back and forth along the upper hallway of her daughter's house in order to get her exercise, knitting red mufflers to be given to hansom cab drivers, while reciting Homer to keep her mind active. It's kind of how I'd like to see myself going. But that's only part of the reason I'm so attached to her. More important, from my point of view, is the fact that Lady C awakened in me a completely unexpected taste for delving in archives.

Aberystwyth, home of the National Library
Aberystwyth, home of the National Library

Lady Charlotte's archives are kept in the National Library of Wales, in Aberystwyth, a town that has completely stepped out of time. The trip there was a kind of British idyll, beginning with the British train system, which tries to make up for not running on time with ineffectual announcements from the conductor, assuring us that they have radioed ahead to see it if might be possible to hold our connection for another quarter hour or so. Regretfully, the despatchers could not. And so I got a chance to get to know downtown Birmingham. And my husband, coming to join me a week later, got a scenic stop at Wolverhampton (which is, to be fair, Robert Plant's home, holy ground for any man who came of age in the 1970s).

The George Hotel in Wolverhampton
The George Hotel in Wolverhampton

My days quickly settled into a routine: Clumsily knocking the kiwi fruit from the footed glass dish onto my hostess' starched white tablecloth at breakfast; taking the mile-long walk up to the library, with a quick pause to try to pat one of the flock of sheep that grazed on the nearby hills - and never succeeding. (Sometimes, I think my entire experience of Europe, be it Dartmoor, Switzerland, Ireland or France, has been nothing but one extended attempt to finally succeed in patting a sheep.) A Cornish pasty for dinner on the Boardwalk - where the entire town's population seems to turn out for a stroll after supper - and then back to my room with Jilly Cooper's latest and the National Eisteddfod playing in Welsh on the telly.

But the great joy of archives is that they thwart routine when you least expect it. Sometimes, that can be annoying, as with the supercilious librarian who assured me that the "metal box" listed in the archive had to be empty. On the very last day I was there, I finally managed to persuade him to at least look at it, mostly by pleading that I had come all the way across the Atlantic to see it and it would be hard to come back. He eventually grudgingly conceded to bring it up only if there was something in it. And there was something in it. There was plenty in it, including several fair copies of Lady C's translations, as well as an unpublished translation of Aucassin and Nicolette.

But at other times, an archive's surprises can quite literally tear a hole in time and space, allowing you to reach out and quite literally touch others' lives. It was such a moment that truly hooked me on archives. I was reading a diary entry about Charles Schreiber picking lilies of the valley for Lady C during a visit to her son at Oxford - and noticed a stain on that page that was clearly the impression of a lily of the valley leaf. But that was only half the discovery - the other half was the dried leaf that tumbled out from where it had been carelessly placed inside the back cover. It matched the impression perfectly - and my greatest satisfaction from that trip is knowing that leaf is now back where Lady Charlotte herself placed it.

© - Erica Obey
Photos © - George Baird