Lady Charlotte Guest: an English aristocrat and her role in Welsh literature

Lady Charlotte Guest: author, business woman and translator of the Welsh medieval Mabinogion.

When we think of Wales a lot might quickly come to mind. It is a region that distinguishes itself; through its Celtic heritage, its specific customs and history, but especially through an abundant literary tradition. Words have their importance in Welsh culture, known after all as the land of bards and poets. Many stories have travelled outside its frontiers. Throughout history its literary production has been prosperous, although not always accessible to non-Welsh speakers as the United-Kingdom progressively anglicized itself.

But in the 19th century, just as the Romantic movement grew in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, many took an interest in traditions and Celticism. Gazes turned and focused on Scotland, Ireland or Wales. Among them was a British woman whom both Welsh and English know as Lady Charlotte Guest. She was a figure in 19th century Great-Britain, an incredibly active person and a scholar – amongst other things. She has a place as one of the most important personalities in Welsh literature; best known as the author of a modern print and translation of the famous Mabinogion.


A scholar

Lady Charlotte Guest was born Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Bertie, in Lincolnshire, England. Although being raised in an aristocratic family she enjoyed no conventional education, and was instead taught at home. Her father, Earl of Lindsey, died when she was only a child. Her mother eventually remarried but soon became ill and isolated. Progressively, Lady Charlotte had to take more responsibilities for her family and home, which she ended up running herself.

Despite this, Lady Charlotte was undoubtedly a gifted child. She was interested in politics, languages, literature, anything and everything medieval. She mostly taught herself throughout her life, whilst being tutored on the activities fit for a noblewoman of her time. She could speak French, Latin, Greek and Italian; she learnt Arabic, Hebrew and Persian… She grew to be incredibly knowledgeable and her interests rapidly multiplied.

As a young adult she moved to London where she met her soon-to-be husband, John Josiah Guest. He was a Welsh engineer and entrepreneur, owner of an ironwork in Merthyr Tydfil. Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Bertie became Lady Charlotte Guest and moved to Wales with her husband – where she saw mountains for the first time. This new environment did not disorient her: she immediately dived into her partner’s business and its community. In the following years of their marriage Lady Charlotte was deeply involved in Dowlais Ironworks. After her husband’s death in 1852 she even assisted in the management of the company.

Lady Charlotte fell in love with Welsh culture. She taught herself the language and became invested with the Abergavenny Welsh Society; she associated with many other intellectuals – such as Welsh historian Thomas Price, or writer T.H. de La Villemarqué, author of the Barzaz Breiz from Brittany. Through her passion for medieval literature, she naturally became devoted to her new-found passion.

«But the dear Welsh, with their ready smile and never failing welcome, make me feel amongst them as another being, exalted myself, yet not equal to them, in courtesy and love …» [1]

Lady Charlotte Guest journals can be accessed through the archives of the National Library of Wales.

The Mabinogion

Already an accomplished and active woman, Lady Charlotte Guest is mostly famous for her translation of the Mabinogion.

The Mabinogion is an important piece of medieval literature, which can be found in manuscripts dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. It is believed to have been compiled from an older oral tradition, and has been written in Middle Welsh (to which we can add other sources). It is considered as one of the oldest prose of Britain. The stories told in the Mabinogion are numerous and vary in genres. “The Four Branches of the Mabinogi” [2] is a complex series of tales, which is still studied today.

Interestingly, the name and title of “Mabinogion” is a mystery as well as a mistake. It was used in the 18th century to describe this series of stories, although it is believed to have been an error made by a copyist: he might have mistaken some plural Welsh forms. The signification of the word itself is unclear and indefinitely discussed.

Lady Charlotte was among the first scholars who started working on the Mabinogion in the 19th century, firstly by transcribing the manuscripts available. It was an arduous and long project. She then translated the stories from Middle-Welsh to English, producing a complete and noted body of work. The first volume was published in 1838, followed by seven more parts in the following years. It is considered one of the core works in Celtic literature.

She was not the first intellectual to try and translate the Mabinogion, neither was she alone, but her translation was the one that stood out as a reference for years to come. Her version was barely modified for almost a century.

A social life

Lady Charlotte Guest had an unfathomably full life; she was a scholar and a polyglot, as well as a pillar of her adopted community in Dowlais and a woman of her world. As an English aristocrat living in industrial Wales, she did not loose focus of her own social class. While married to John Josiah Guest and living amongst the “working world”, she encouraged him to assert his place in society. And indeed, John Guest was soon made a baronet and the couple bought Canford Manor in Dorset.

More than being the translator and publisher of her own print of the Mabinogion, she also was greatly involved in welfare and education. Her husband had set up an initiative for his workers, and Lady Charlotte Guest worked at improving it. She immersed herself in the role; often visiting schools, teaching or even giving rewards to children during contests... The couple also played a part in workers’ living conditions, trying to organize cultural events or establish pleasure accommodations.

Her involvement in her husband’s work did not stop there. She used to study the ironwork as well, sometimes providing guidance and help – in managing, bookkeeping and even in relations with employees. Her husband died in 1852 and Lady Charlotte remained an executor of the ironworks. She continued to help manage the company after his death and eventually remarried to Charles Schreiber in 1855.

During this second marriage and until the end of her life she travelled a lot. This time she focused her intellect on ceramics. She collected an impressive number of objects, which were later donated to the British Museum [3]. Her second husband died before she did: Lady Charlotte Guest-Schreiber died of old age, in 1895, in her propriety in Dorset.

Portrait of Lady Charlotte Guest
Portrait of Lady Charlotte Guest
The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester.

Lady Charlotte Guest is certainly one of the most impressive woman in British history. Her mind seems to always have been engaged at something, the numerous facets of her life showing a strong will to excel at whatever she did. She was a mother of ten, a businesswoman, an author, a collector… And she certainly shaped Celtic studies and Welsh literature for years to come.

Notes

[1Lady Charlotte Guest - Extracts from her journal, 1833-1852

[2Scans of The White Book of Rhydderch are available online; the Welsh manuscript in which you can find “The Four Branches of the Mabinogi”.

[3All the objected collected by Lady Charlotte can be viewed here

Published 30 April 2021
  • by Étudiante de la branche moderniste du master LCCC, après une licence en Langues, littératures et Civilisations Étrangères Anglais. Je travaille (...)
(Edited 8 May 2021)

Bibliography

German, Glyn E. 2015. Welsh history: a chronological outline. Talybont, Ceredigion: Y Lolfa.

Guest, Revel, et Angela V. John. 2007. Lady Charlotte Guest: An Extraordinary Life. Stroud: Tempus.

Online Bibliography

“Lady Charlotte Guest (1812-1895)”, BBC Wales, 2014
https://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/history/sites/themes/figures/lady_charlotte_guest.shtml