Gaskell and the Perception of Wales in Eighteenth and Nineteenth-century Writing
The last section ended on a note of sexual licence creeping into the interpretation of Nest’s behaviour, which may have been a nod to a political debate in the British parliament during the mid-1840s. At this time, the behaviour of the Welsh people was a particular cause for concern among the English ruling elite. Social behaviour was believed to be closely connected with education, and therefore the MP for Coventry, William Williams, himself a Welshman, called for an Inquiry into the State of Education in Wales. In the eyes of Williams, and the British Government in general, the Welsh people were becoming increasingly unruly and riotous and were therefore threatening the very foundations of English society. In 1846, Sir James Kay Shuttleworth, a friend of the Gaskell family, was involved in the commissioning of this inquiry, leading to the publication of a report in 1847 which ‘aroused considerable shock and outrage in Wales, particularly in response to its findings that sexual impropriety was rife in the principality’. It is highly likely that William and Elizabeth would have read this document before the redraft of her story for its 1850 publication in Household Words. Jo Pryke who examines the report in some detail in issue 13 of the Gaskell Journal, states that it ‘received sensational coverage in the English press, confirming derogatory English stereotypes of the Welsh’ (p. 78). It is therefore no great surprise that Gaskell uses Wales as a backdrop for her examination of female sexuality in ‘The Well of Pen Morfa’, ‘The Doom of the Griffiths’ and Ruth.
Wales came to represent many things: a nation caught between oppositional stereotypes. It was a place of pastoral innocence but also of immoral behaviour; freedom was set against religious constraint and the rural landscape existed side-by-side with heavy industry. In her own case, Elizabeth’s uncle and cousin, both Samuel Holland, had slate mines in Blaneau Ffestiniog ten miles away from their home at Plas Penrhyn, a more rural part of north Wales.
Gaskell’s story and the contested nature of Wales itself bring to mind a painting, named ‘Salem’ by Sydney Curnow Vosper, executed over 50 years after Gaskell’s ‘The Well’. The painting shows a woman whose lateness for chapel is coupled with her arrival in what might be considered an ostentatious shawl, far too showy and ornate for the occasion. Her lateness, noted on the clock behind her, could be attributed to laziness or a lack of attention to her religious duty. The shawl suggests vanity or perhaps rebellion against Calvanistic austerity. Some close observations have even noted the Devil on the elbow of her left arm, the arm which also carries her hymn book or Bible, making the Devil’s presence questionable to say the least. Another reading might suggest that this woman was merely following tradition by wearing the traditional Welsh costume on her regular visits to worship God in Chapel. How then do we interpret this image? It is as ambiguous as Gaskell’s writing and dependent on our own preconceptions.
Dr Diane Duffy