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

In my last post we examined the landscape of Wales and touched on its legends in the poetry of Felicia Hemans. In part 2, I examine Wales as a site of myth and legend. Wales was imbued with the myths and mysticism of its Celtic past and this also became a source of inspiration for nineteenth-century writers.  The country had a strong bardic tradition, hosting a National Eisteddfod which dated back to 1176 and, of course, parts of the landscape had close associations with the Arthurian legends, some believe Arthur was himself Welsh and his chief mentor, Merlin a bard/seer.  During the nineteenth century there was a growing interest in folklore which began in Germany around 1812 with the publication of  Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Antiquarians also actively began recording the customs and traditions of different areas of Britain. By 1838, the first part of Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Welsh legends, The Mabinogion appeared in print; it was finally completed in 1845. These collections of legend and folklore had been part of an oral tradition which was historically associated with the figure of the bard and with women. It is therefore not surprising that women appropriated the fairy tale form in their fiction. Gaskell was no exception. ‘The Well of Pen Morfa’ is in some ways a retelling of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’. Throughout the text there are references to ‘enchanted autumn’, a time when the near fatal accident at the well occurs, the ‘ fairy-gifted child’ and the romantic meeting with the prince, but Gaskell’s story is fixed in reality, the prince is a farmer and the fairy tale evaporates into the stark reality of a harsh rural economy.

Jane Aaron notes that during the late eighteenth century this focus on myth, antiquity and a romantic backdrop became widespread:

English language popular fiction… picaresque, sentimental and mildly Gothic novels, located in the so-called ‘Celtic fringe’. Celtic scenery provided such novelists with a fashionably ‘sublime’ backdrop, against which the ‘uncorrupted’ native inhabitants of the wild ‘fringes’ could feature in travellers’ tales as embodiments of that still very influential Rousseau-esque ideal of the ‘Noble Savage.[1]

I stress English language here as it is worth noting that many of those writing about Wales were actually English, although some, like Hemans, had been living in Wales for extended periods, others regularly visiting, but few were Welsh by birth.

Catherine Hutton was from Birmingham, ‘an educated woman of a certain social class travelling for leisure’ she had  ‘a romantic and profoundly utopian view of Wales as a space of physical freedom for women, derived from her experiences’(p. 97)[2]. Similarly Ann Hatton, otherwise known as Ann of Swansea, was from Worcester and also depicts Wales as a harmonious place:

in which the inhabitants are at one with nature, while the supposedly enlightened civilisation of the English gentry is consistently represented as artificial, corrupt and preoccupied with the acquisition of wealth to the detriment of all natural feeling’ (Cambrian Pictures II, 116)

Nature and feeling were integral parts of eighteenth-century writing, concepts which leeched into the nineteenth century, even reaching down to the works of Elizabeth Gaskell.

Freedom also meant the ability to break socially prescribed models of behaviour which could be viewed in both a positive and negative light. Gaskell, however, is not using the landscape to examine the nature vs nurture debate, another common feature of late eighteenth-century writing; her use of location is to undercut the very Utopian existence that Hatton is trying to establish for Wales.

Initially Gaskell stresses the isolated nature of Pen Morfa – once a prosperous town, it had  been cut off rom the developing world by the construction of the more modern Tre-Madoc, leaving the old world abandoned and  stagnated:

high and dry, three miles from the sea, on a disused road to Caernarvon… do not think there has been a new cottage built in Pen-Morfa this hundred years, and many an old one has dates in some obscure corner which tell of the fifteenth century.

It is a place which maintains old traditions such as the passing on of family names and the custom of ‘the little wedding’ which is discussed at some length by Jo Pryke in the Gaskell Society Journal issue 13, a tradition that actively reinforces the English impression of Wales as a backward and immoral nation.

Gaskell’s story initially presents  a close and hospitable community; one family ‘wished me to drink tea with them ‘, another, an old couple, ‘welcomed me in Welsh; and brought forth milk and oat-cake with patriarchal hospitality’. Yet these people like the village itself are also decaying:

Sons and daughters had married away from them; they lived alone; he was blind, or nearly so; and they sat one on each side of the fire, so old and so still (till we went in and broke the silence) that they seemed to be listening for death.

If this is an idyllic Utopia, Gaskell is introducing darkness in the form of crippled children and hardship. Despite her stress on a mother’s love and devotion, the woman whose son is crippled remains ‘solitary and friendless’.

Morfa Lodge, Porthmadog (Wikimedia Commons)

Similarly Gaskell undercuts the concept of  ‘a harmonious state in which the inhabitants [of Wales] are at one with nature’ (p. 82) created in the works of writers like Ann of Swansea and Catherine Hutton, Gaskell presents a much darker and more  subversive view. The area surrounding Pen-Morfa is only superficially beautiful; the cruel reality of the place is hidden from view. In this way landscape is presented as a character with beautiful clothing but a cruel nature:

The great, sharp ledges, which would otherwise look hard and cold, are adorned with the brightest-coloured moss, and the golden lichen….the scarlet leaves of the crane’s -bill, and the tufts of purple heather, which fill up every cleft and cranny;…The village well is sharp down under the rocks. There are one or two large sloping pieces of stone… which are always slippery; slippery in the summer’s heat, almost as much as in the frost of winter….

Similarly, in this village there is an ambivalent attitude to the young Nest, Gaskell’s protagonist. She can be read as having youthful exuberance and innocence, enjoying the freedom only childhood or perhaps rural Wales can offer women, or as some residents view her,  flirtatious, vain and projecting a sexual appeal that is considered socially transgressive. Yet, ironically women are expected to make themselves attractive to entice a husband, that is as long as they do not overstep the bounds of feminine modesty. As marriage and motherhood were then the main goals of a woman’s life, Nest’s tragedy becomes heightened as she is deprived of both. Does her transgression warrant such punishment?

Moreover, women who flaunt their physical attributes are particularly condemned by the church, and the Welsh Nonconformist religion, ‘Chapel’, was particularly strict. Jane Aaron notes that:

Eighty per cent of those attending places of worship in Wales in 1851 were Nonconformists, with the Calvinist Methodist sect accounting for the largest number. Old Dissent – Baptists, Congregationalists, Unitarians and Quakers – had been a significant force in Wales since the Civil War.[3]

Gaskell’s words are chosen carefully to show the duality in the words ‘she knew she was beautiful, and delighted in it’. Delight could represent the Blakean view of  happy  innocence, yet that reading is undercut by the word ‘knew’ which adds a darker impression  of sophisticated scheming. For, as Gaskell points out, interpretation is subject to individual beliefs, prejudices and sometimes a desire for revenge:

some, who had interpreted her smiles and kind words rather as their wishes led them, than as they were really warranted, found that the beautiful, beaming Nest could be decided and saucy enough; and so they revenged themselves by calling her a flirt.

Perhaps we read Nest as the English read Wales itself, ambivalently.

I’ll continue this discussion of the duality present in our reading of Wales in part 3 (published 12 January 2022)

[1] Jane Aaron, Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing in Wales: Nation, Gender and Identity  p. 9 [Nov. 2020].

[2] M -A. Constantine. ‘ “The bounds of female reach”: Catherine Hutton’s Fiction and her Tours in Wales’, Romantic Textualities: Literature and Print Culture, 1780–1840, 22 (Spring 2017)  [Nov. 2020].

[3] Jane Aaron, Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing in Wales : Nation, Gender and Identity [accessed Dec. 2020]