Thursday, November 15, 2018

Lady Charlotte Guest - Victorian powerhouse of myth and iron

by Deborah Swift

Next weekend* I am booked to give a talk on the Mabinogion, the extraordinary collection of Welsh myths that were first brought to prominence in England by Lady Charlotte Guest. Not only are the myths fascinating, but Charlotte Guest was quite a phenomenon herself.

Charlotte Guest

Born Charlotte Bertie in May 1812, she was the eldest child of the ninth Earl of Lindsay of Lincolnshire, and was brought up at Uffington House, a large country estate. When she was six years old, her father died and her mother remarried a vicar, a man whom she disliked intensely. Charlotte was a bookish and intelligent child, and being educated at home, her only escape was into literature. She soon taught herself several languages, including Arabic, Hebrew and Persian. She began keeping a journal when she was nine, and so we know a lot about her life, because she carried on writing it for another seventy years - until she was was seventy-nine! 

Page from Charlotte Guest's Diary

Her interest in Wales and its history began after meeting the MP for Merthyr Tydfil,  John Josiah Guest.  Full of vitality and energy, Josiah ran the largest ironworks in the country, the Dowlais Iron Company, which employed 7,000 workers. In 1833 Charlotte and John were married. Charlotte took a keen interest in the business, and in the welfare and education of the workers. Moreover, she was keen to escape the oppression of her step-father and Wales was suitably far from her family home.

Ever a keen linguist, she launched herself into learning Welsh. At that time there was a romantic revival and a strong interest in Arthurian legends. Charlotte began translating some Medieval Welsh tales into English. These tales were part of an oral tradition, and drawn from the written sources of the Llyfr Coch o Hergest, or Red Book of Hergest. Her translations included the four branches of the Mabinogi, three Arthurian Romances, and a translation of the well-known myth Taliesin

The Lady of the Fountain  (an Arthurian tale) was first published in 1838, and in 1849 the collected tales appeared as The Mabinogion in a lavishly illustrated edition. Since then they have been widely studied by poets such as Tennyson and scholars of Welsh and Celtic mythology, as well as those interested in the spiritual and wisdom traditions they embody. The myths are much-loved by illustrators too, trying to capture the unknowable in paint.

Click picture for more great
illustrations by Lee

Back to Charlotte Guest.  Not content with documenting the ancient tribes of Britain, Lady Charlotte also produced her own tribe - ten children: five boys and five girls. She was ambitious for her children, marrying them into the aristocracy and ensuring their education through the schools she endowed (the Dowlais Central Schools cost £20,000 to build - an enormous sum in the Victorian era.) This area of Wales was heavily influenced by Chartism, and these principles were evident in Charlotte Guest's educational ideals for her workforce.

On her husband's death she became the only active trustee of the ironworks, and ran the business. Astute and energetic, she insisted on being in control. This included negotiating terms when the men went on strike, and dealing with dissatisfied workers who in those times were unused to being ordered by a woman. One cannot help but think, that the models of the powerful women in the tales from the Mabinogion must have proved an inspiration to her when faced with these difficulties.

Dowlais House, centre of Charlotte Guest's empire

Two years later Charlotte fell in love with her son's classics tutor, Charles Schreiber. They shared a passion for history and collecting ceramics, and from then on they travelled the continent collecting, as many wealthy Victorians did. Their collections were left to the nation and are housed in the V&A, where there is a 'Schreiber' Room, and in the British Museum, which houses her collection of playing cards and fans. In 1891 she became the first woman to receive the freedom of the Worshipful Company of Fanmakers. 

Below - an unmounted fan-leaf,  painted for the occasion of the Schreibers' silver wedding anniversary in 1880, now in the British Museum.

Lady Charlotte died in 1895 but it wasn't until 1950 that her grandson, the Earl of Bessborough, published edited highlights from her diaries. The originals are now housed in the National Library of Wales. 

Charlotte Guest is chiefly remembered for her translations of the Mabinogion, from which we receive most of our knowledge about Welsh mythology, including the story of Rhiannon, the tale of the mysterious mound that leads to the Otherworld, Bran and the ravens that now roost in the Tower of London, about Arianrhod and her turning wheel of stars. Although many now take issue with Guest's translations, without her a whole generation of people would have had the door to these wisdom stories closed to them.

Work with the myths and stories of the Mabinogion still goes on, and new translations have appeared and continue to do so, proving that good stories always outlast those that tell them.

Watch a BBC video about The Mabinogion
The Dancing Floor Film - new film based on Mabinogion Myths

The Mabinogion - translations by Guest, Davies, Jones
National Library of Wales

* This post is an Editors' Choice post, originally published on this blog on 16 March 2016


Deborah Swift is the author of seven novels for adults and a trilogy for young adults. She lives in the North of England close to the mountains and the sea. Follow her on Twitter @swiftstory or find her on her website


  1. Great blog and wonderful that Charlotte Guest's translation is still going strong. The Mabinogion fascinates me too and I like the theory that Princess Gwenllian was one of the creators of the tales.

    1. hi Jean, thanks for your comment, nice to find a common love of these tales.

  2. I have the Jones and Jones translation, which I bought for university, but as you say, without her translation there would have been a lot missing. Thanks for this, I really hadn't known anything about her life before. Interesting to hear that she gave her workers some respect and help; the Victorian era was a nasty one for industrial relations!

  3. She must have had such energy - not to mention determination, to learn all those languages, bring up 10 children, and run an empire. Though I have to say, servants were involved as was common in that era.

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  5. Interesting how it started from the wish to be away from home! How lucky for the rest of us Charlotte's step dad was uncongenial! lol Fascinating life, thanks for posting!

    1. Thanks Anne.She must have been quite determined to learn Welsh and settle herself in her new country. They sometimes claim that she was helped by two men in her translations, but the evidence in her papers in the National Library of Wales proves that she was the intellectual driving force.

    2. Lady Charlotte records a lovely moment on 8 October 1839 when she and Sir John Josiah (in her diaries, she calls him 'Merthyr') attended the opening of Lord Bute's canal in Cardiff. She writes, in excitement, of noticing her 'own steamer' her 'namesake, the Lady Charlotte, was just going to enter the inner dock.' It was, she says 'too tempting to resist. With Merthyr's arm, I sprung upon her. They [ie, the spectators] gave me a round of cheers and the gates opened and we proceeded into the inner harbour...' Lord Bute at this time was not Lady Charlotte's favourite gentleman and in her journal she accused him of 'dishonestly and oppressively' seeking to deprive her of some commercial property, in full view of the harbour entrance. Nevertheless, she kept her cool, confiding in her Journal 'nothing shall ever overthrow my equanimity. All the aggressions shall come from one way....'

    3. Thanks for this anecdote Victoria, it's fascinating.

  6. It's a beautiful window into an amazing woman's life!

    1. Thanks for reading Lizzy, I like your avatar/icon.

  7. Informative post. Having lived in Wales, I was inspired to buy a translation or two of the Mabinogion, including Lady Charlotte's. What an amazing lady - one that I feel my Quaker ancestors would have admired.

    1. Yes, without her the Mabinogion might never have been so well-known!

  8. Great post, I'll be reading her books and journal. Thank you!

  9. Thanks Anne and Danielle, I enjoyed researching and writing about her!


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