Amy Dillwyn: biography and The Rebecca Rioter

I’m going to blog this week about my third cousin once removed, Amy Dillwyn, who lived from 1845 to 1935 in Wales, and wrote seven novels in the 1880s, six of which I have been able to obtain and read. She has been reclaimed in recent years as a Welsh lesbian feminist writer, who inherited a failing metal foundry from her father and turned it around; she was a suffragist who stood unsuccessfully for election; she famously wore men’s clothes and smoked cigars. Her father was a Liberal MP. Her grandmother was born a Whyte, but died before Amy was born, after a scandalous life. I am in touch with a couple of collateral relatives on her side of the family.

The only book-length publication about her dates from 1987, updated in 2013, by David Painting of Swansea University (who died in 2021). The second paragraph of its third chapter is:

That she saw so much was more of a tribute to her acute intelligence than her eyesight, because she was not wearing her glasses which she felt would have detracted from the dignity of the occasion until she noticed that another woman from Wales, the famous bluestocking Lady Charlotte Schreiber, ‘wore her spectacles all through everything at the drawing-room which struck me as being rather an idea for there were heaps of short-sighted people there’. The day after letting Minnie have all her news of the presentation there was yet more famous jewellery to be seen, this time at Garrards where they were displaying the Prince of Wales’s wedding presents to Princess Alexandra, and again Amy’s critical faculty came into its own. ‘It is a magnificent diamond and pearl necklace and two handsome brooches of diamonds in the form of the Prince of Wales plume. But I was not much struck by the guard ring – beryl, emeralds, ruby, turquoise and jacinth, nor yet by the lockets for the bridesmaids – pink coral and diamonds.’

It’s pretty short – only 120 pages – and basically takes us through the events of Dillwyn’s life, drawing largely on her own accounts. Painting soft-pedals the subversive parts of the story – Dillwyn’s love for Olive Talbot and her firm Welshness – but he allows her voice to ring out, and doesn’t get in the way of the story that his subject wants to tell us from a century or so ago. I hope that Dillwyn’s next biographer will look a bit more into the stories she didn’t tell through her correspondence and diaries. It’s a good start, though, and you can get it here.

Dillwyn’s first novel, The Rebecca Rioter, was published in 1880 – the same year as The Trumpet-Major by Thomas Hardy, Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi and Heidi by Johanna Spyri. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Then the stories Miss Gwenllian read me were wonderful too. They were not all about good children who get rich and become lords and ladies, and bad children who come to a bad end; but they were stories of people who travelled about, and had adventures, and fought with lions, and bears, and wolves, and snakes; or else they were stories about fairies who could do whatever they liked with wands that they always carried in their hands – something like Moses’s rod, I used to think.

The Rebecca Rioter is the only one of her books not set in the present day (ie the 1880s); instead it tells the story of an episode of revolutionary unrest in her part of Wales in 1843, two years before she was born, in which agricultural workers and small farmers joined together to destroy the toll-booths which controlled access to the roads. Crucially, the insurgents became known as the Rebecca Rioters because they disguised themselves by dressing up in women’s clothes before mounting their attacks on state property.

Her account is told in the first person by Evan Williams, one of the rioters, and is totally sympathetic to them and their cause, though a bit tainted by the charming condescension of the local squire’s daughter (and stand-in for the author), Gwenllian, who takes our hero on as a special project and then (implausibly) successfully pleads for his life after he unintentionally shoots her father dead. He gets transported to Australia, and the narrative is presented as a dying account to the local doctor there, who sends it home to Wales.

I must say that I found it refreshingly robust in its defence of uprising against the tyranny of London, and it’s interesting that it was translated into Russian almost as soon as it had been published in English. Dillwyn’s sources included her own father’s diary account of managing the authorities’ violent suppression of the rioters, so the fact that she takes the other side is even more interesting. The 2001 Honno Welsh Women’s Classics edition has a thoughtful and analytical introduction by Katie Gramich; you can get it here.

Tomorrow I will look at two more of Dillwyn’s novels.