The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

Gaskell and the Perception  of Wales in Eighteenth and Nineteenth -century Writing

[Pic: Wikimedia Commons]
During our study session in November 2020, a number of ideas were aired and questions asked about the use of Wales in Gaskell’s ‘The Well of Pen Morfa’ and also as a setting in the literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With Ruth selected as our book for discussion in 2021 and a conference in Caernarfon next July, it seemed timely to consider some of the points raised about Wales and its place in literature.

During the French Revolution and its aftermath, which included the twelve years of war with Napoleon (1803-1815), a trip to Wales was a natural alternative to European travel, as the conflict made access to continental Europe difficult and dangerous. Thus travellers sought alternatives, some choosing the exotic Orient, others staying closer to home, and enjoying tours of Scotland, Wales and the Lake District; areas that had been immortalised by Romantic poets and novelist such as Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey.

The mountain ranges of Wales were suitably remote and, though somewhat lacking in the grandeur of the Alps, they did provide the facility for travellers to experience the sublimity that was such an integral part of Romantic discourse. Wales was also seen as a wild, untamed place. As William and Elizabeth Gaskell travel over the pass of Llanberis during their honeymoon tour of Wales in 1832, William comments on the ‘wondrous wildness and rugged grandeur of the scene’. [1]

However, Wales was not just viewed as a place of great wild beauty, it was also thought of as a place with less social control, wilder because it was less civilised than England. Elizabeth writes: ‘I think the Welsh gentry seem not to have progressed beyond what the English were two centuries ago… everybody seems to consider justice and revenge in their own hands’[2]. Therefore, as well as having wild and rugged scenery, Wales became a site of cultural difference, a place where the modern world had not yet reached and as such, it was often imagined as a place to live out a rural idyll, familiar yet different; a lens through which to view and examine culture and social mores

Michael Freeman notes that in the two centuries between 1700 and 1900 there were 1,200 written tours of Wales alone (both manuscript and published). Some examples of work pertaining to North Wales are: Joseph Craddock, Letters from Snowdon (1770); Samuel Johnson, A Diary of a Journey into North Wales (1774), and Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Wales (1778), all notably by men. The latter publication by Pennant was a popular text, often cited by writers and critics alike.

Of these 1,200 written tours of Wales, Freeman notes that only about a sixth were written by women and ‘only 20 were published during the life of the authors’ or very soon after their death[3]. Brian Dolan also observes the nineteenth-century’s dearth of women’s travel writing[4]. However, there was not such a dearth of fiction written by women, works which often used their own travel journals to provide descriptions for the settings for their narratives. Gaskell’s works abound with descriptions of her travels both in Wales and in continental Europe.

Of earlier novelists who used Wales as a setting, one of the most popular was Catherine Hutton (pictured, 1756-1846), now almost completely overlooked. Others were: Catherine Parry, Eden Vale (2 vols., 1784); Anna (Agnes) Maria Bennett, Anna; or, Memoirs of a Welch Heiress (4 vols., 1785); Mrs H. Cartwright, Retaliation, or, The History of Sir Edward Oswald and LadyFrances Seymour (1787), Powis Castle (2 vols., 1788); Charlotte Smith, Emmeline, or, The Orphan of the Castle (4 vols., 1788); Mary Wollstonecraft, Original Stories (1788); Annabelle Plumptre, Montgomery; or scenes in Wales In two volumes (London: William Lane, 1796), and Elizabeth Ryves, The Hermit of Snowden, or, memoirs of Albert and Lavinia (1789). In her essay ‘Wales as Nowhere: the tabula rasa of the Jacobin imagination’, Caroline Franklin gives a comprehensive list of late eigtheenth-century writing about Wales. [5]

However, when compiling such a list we must not forget the poets, in particular Felicia Hemans who was immensely popular until her death in 1835. Matthew Jones writes of Hemans: ‘Felicia Hemans has come to be understood as a national voice of early-nineteenth-century Wales, where she lived and wrote during some of her most formative years’, although Hemans was actually English, born in Liverpool during 1793[6]. She published a collection of Welsh Melodies in 1822, “The Meeting of the Bards, written for an Eisteddfod, held in London, May 22nd, 1822,” and “Farewell to Wales” (1827).  My particular favourite is ‘The Rock of Cader Idris’ in which Hemans connects landscape with the birth of poetic imagination; the Celtic Bards with the Welsh Shamanic tradition. The narrator, possibly female writes how those who sleep one night in the hollow of the giant’s seat (Cader Idris) might die, become insane or ‘ inherit / A flame all immortal, a voice, and a power!’, in other words become a poet.

Wales, therefore, became an impressive backdrop to much eighteenth and nineteenth –century writing. It was Romantic in the literary sense but it was also steeped in myth and legend which we shall examine in part two.

We’ll post part two on December 28th, 2021.

Dr Diane Duffy


[1] Jenny Uglow, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories (London: Faber, 1993). p. 81

[2] Chapple and Shelston, Further Letters of Mrs Gaskell (Manchester: MUP, 2000) , p. 9

[3] Michael Freeman; see also Benjamin Colbert, A Database of Women’s Travel Writing 1780–1840

[4] Dolan, Brian, Ladies of the Grand Tour (London: HarperCollins 2001)

[5] For fuller lists consult Moira Dearnley, Distant Fields: Eighteenth-Century Fictions of Wales (Cardiff, 2001), appendix pp. 237–40; Andrew Davies, ‘“The Reputed Nation of Inspiration”: Representations of Wales in Fiction from the Romantic Period, 1780–1829’ (unpublished Cardiff University PhD thesis, 2001). See also Sarah Prescott, Eighteenth-Century Writing from Wales: Bards and Britons (Cardiff, 2008), pp. 121–55.

[6]“I Fear the Spirits of Its Celebrated Bards, Are Entirely Fled”: Felicia Hemans’s Wales Revisited [accessed Dec.2020]