Lady Charlotte Guest (1812-1895) was a nineteenth century English aristocrat with a wide range of skills and interests whose name is now tied up with the group of Medieval Welsh stories commonly referred to as the Mabinogion.
She was born in Lincolnshire as Charlotte Elizabeth Bertie, the daughter of Albemarle Bertie, 9th Earl of Lindsey, who had wealth to match his grand title.
Her father was to die when Charlotte was six but her background ensured she had a rich education and in particular showed aptitude for languages, studying Greek, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew and Italian as a child.
By the time she was an adult she was fluent in seven languages, which even for the time and the class was fairly outstanding.
She took the surname “Guest” when she married her first husband – John Josiah Guest, at the age of twenty one.
He was a Welsh MP and industrialist, owner of the Dowlais Ironworks, near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. This was a huge operation employing many thousands of people, and at a point in the 19th century was the largest steel producer in the UK.
While considerable her elder (at 48) and of lower class than her despite his wealth, so the marraige was something of a minor scandal. It seems to have been a successful union and she somehow found the time to have ten children over the course of their 19 years marriage, which ended with his death..
On her marriage Guest left Lincolnshire and moved to Merthyr Tydfil. And it was this event that precipitated the work she would be remembered for. She threw herself into learning Welsh with great gusto. Having an impressive background in other languages clearly helped her in this and she made good progress.
She also became involved with a group of Welsh scholars, who had interests in both Welsh identity and how this related to a wider Celtic identity and this led her to an interest in Welsh Medieval manuscripts.
Podcast episodes featuring Guest
A storytelling and folklore podcast.
Telling some of the famous and not so famous British and Irish myths, legends and folktales, in no particular order.
Coming direct from South Yorkshire it is currently regularish, and will feature all of the above and whatever other miscellaneous snippets take my fancy.
Presented by Graeme. Website at http://www.TalesofBritainandIreland.com
Translation of tales and creation of The Mabinogion
She clearly developed a considerable interest in Welsh mythology at this time and through her good connections had obtained copies of the medieval Welsh manuscript, the so-called Red Book of Hergest, which contained many of the tales that would later make their way into what would be called the Mabinogion.
Five years after moving to Wales she published her first English translation of a tale – Owain. Over the next seven years she went on to publish eleven more prose stories all but one taken from two medieval welsh manuscripts: The aforementioned Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch.
Now Guest wasn’t the first to publish English translations of these particular tales, William Pughe had published a number of versions, but he had published his translation as journal articles, not as a collection, and he hadn’t translated all of them.
Guest’s work received a great deal more attention than these earlier translations. This was the case when she published them in three volumes in 1846 but most of all when, much later in her life, the tales were published as a single volume collection in 1877. It was this version that was really to make the stories famous.
To emphasis this a little – it was Guest who brought together these particular tales into one volume for the first time and called them the Mabinogion.
Four of them – the so-called “branches of the Mabinogi” are clearly grouped together in the original manuscripts. But the rest, though with some similar elements, are simply related by being medieval tales concerning Wales from the same two manuscripts.
They are also not, it should be noted, the only contents of these manuscripts, for those contain a great many different poems, stories, histories and more. There’s even a Welsh version of Geoffery of Monmouth’s Kings of Britain, a book which directly ties in with, and likely influenced, some of the tales found in the Mabinogion.
So without Guest not only would the tales not have their fame but these particular stories wouldn’t necessarily be collected together in this particular form, and they certainly wouldn’t be called the Mabinogion. In that way she really is the creator of the Mabinogion.
(Side note: Guest actually included a story about Taliesin from another source in her Mabinogion that’s typically left out in later versions which stick to the Red Book and White Book tales).
I’m not going to go in too much detail about the original manuscript and history of the tales themselves here, rather focusing this article on Charlotte Guest’s translations. There’s some details in the individual episodes but you might be best of checking out this episode of excellent podcast In Our Time for a full introduction: In Our Time – The Mabinogion.
Thanks to her aristocratic background and her influence with the scholcarly Welsh community Guest was a well connected figure and her translation was widely read, with her English translations rapidly translated in turn into French and German. These early versions were also extremely high quality with the tales included in both Welsh and English, with copious scholarly notes. This made them very popular with academics and other scholars in the field
However it would be the 1877 edition, in English only that was far more widely circulated amongst the public at large and which really cemented her reputation, by bringing it to a wider audience.
The Mabinogion had a great appeal to a European literary audience and reading public who already had a significant interest in the Medieval aesthetic, and particularly in the legends of King Arthur who appears in a number of the tales.
The Romantic movement (See page on Walter Scott for more about it) had produced a particular hunger for such works that continued throughout the nineteenth century.
In addition the Mabinogion was to become a key text in a more general scholarly enthusiasm for the culture and literature of the Celtic nations which was emerging at this time, and which would lead to an intense interest in particularly Irish literature by the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth.
In the introduction to her translation Guest makes clear that she believes much of later Medieval romance across all of Europe can be traced back to Celtic sources in general, and many to these Welsh legends in particular, and the interest in such an idea amongst scholars is another reason for the intense interest in the work at the time.
As there are not many Welsh Medieval texts surviving, particularly compared to the rich Irish tradition, the Mabinogion has remained an absolutely essential work for understanding Welsh medieval legends.
But perhaps more importantly to many interested in it, is tis place as the key Welsh text that many believe gives some insight into pre-Christian Celtic mythology.
The exact degree of that insight, and even if it’s possible at all, has been hotly debated ever since but is clearly a lasting reason for its appeal.
Guest herself doesn’t put in quite those terms but does refer to the:
“great, though indefinite, antiquity of these tales, and of an origin, which, if not indigenous, is certainly derived from no European nation.”
There is no doubt that the overwhelming reaction to Guest’s translation work was a very positive one.
She had a critical role in popularising the stories of the Mabinogion and in establishing it as the preeminent text of Medieval Welsh literature.
Nevertheless since its inception Guest’s work has come in for some criticism.
Accusations of plagiarism were first and foremost, as there had been earlier translations of the tales, and she was accused by French folklorist Villemarqué of stealing from him.
However it seems that these accusations are pretty much entirely baseless, Vllemarqué actually stole from her! and while there are earlier translations she doesn’t appear to have used them.
She also suffered from various other criticisms about the quality of the work and dumbing down the tales, all of which also seems to be largely baseless and in the opinion of Professor Donna R. White are more likely due to dismissal of her based on her class and more particularly her gender, by male scholars resentful at the success of her translation.
She was also been accused of coming up with the name “Mabinogion”, which is an incorrect pluralisation. It would seem reasonable to throw doubt on an incorrectly named translation project, however this name in actuality predates her as a reference to the four Branches of the Mabinogi tales, and she was merely continuing an established tradition.
A criticism that carries more weight is similar to that of many other folklorists that are mentioned on this website – that Guest omitted sections of the work that were not in keeping with the morals of the day. The clearest explanation I have found of that is the one written by Dr Lisa L. Spangenerg here: Why Don’t you Like Lady Charlotte Guest’s Mabinogion? In short the accusation levelled is a tendency throughout the text to play down the numerous sexual and some violent elements, replacing more casual sex with “marriages” and other euphemisms, and omitting some bits entirely.
One thing to note is that where this does happen it’s only in the English translations: within Guest’s published Welsh versions this remains, so we can assume this wasn’t her own moral delicay.
As a criticism this seems to hold up to some degree, but my own opinionson this are much as they are for all the many, many nineteenth and twentieth century folklorists presented with such material who did the same. For in this Lady Guest was far from being alone.
Namely that the social atmosphere of their time would have made publishing such a work without sanitising it so, if not impossible, then at least assured not to be widely read, and perhaps even have caused a scandal.
In that case then surely the ‘fault’ for omissions lies with the society she was writing in, and not with her.
Indeed it may even have been directly the influence of those who published the work. Professor White even says that “it is astonishing what she managed to get away with in 1849” – clearly the problem here lies not with Lady Charlotte but with the society she was publishing in.
Despite this the omissions are certainly not large and by and large Guest’s translation is considered fairly accurate. Certainly for myself comparing Guest’s and the latest translation the overwhelming bulk of the stories are the same, though to get the proper gist of the more sexual elements it’s still necessary to read a modern translation as well.
While it is largely what she is remembered for, the translation of the Mabinogion was an almost vanishingly small part of Charlotte Guest’s incredibly active life.
In keeping with my focus on the parts of the folklorists lives most relevant to the podcast I’m only going to give a brief summary here but there’s quite a lot to it:
Firstly following her marriage to John Guest, who was over double her age, at twenty seven years her senior she had ten children over just thirteen years, fairly impressive by itself.
She was active on the London social scene as well as in Wales and helped, possibly totally engineered, her husband being awarded the title of Baronet in 1838. Throughout the 1840s she was hosting balls, concerts and parties so was clearly a bit of a social phenomenon.
In Merthyr Tydfil She was involved in setting up local schools and libraries, and was active in improving education and health for the workers at the Iron works.
Perhaps more unusually she became involved with the Iron works itself – translating documents, writing pamphlets on technical processes, representing the company and providing ‘assistance’ to her husband (a term I have to admit leaves a lot of particulars unclear). She also wrote a history of the iron trade in the UK.
Her involvement was significant enough that on her husband’s death in 1852 she took up joint running of the Dowlais Ironworks, one of the largest in the world, which was clearly a massive endeavour. It appears that she was very hands-on in the running of the works during this period.
This period did not last long though and in 1855 she was to give this up to her eldest son, and the manager of the works.
This giving up of the ironworks was occasioned by her marriage to the much younger Charles Schreiber, a classical scholar fourteen years her junior. On this event she took his name and became Lady Charlotte Schreiber.
Much of her interest following her marriage to Schreiber was in the collection of china and other ceramics, fans and playing cards from throughout Europe. She amassed a huge amount, much of which was eventually donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum. She also wrote extensively about them, some for publication and some in private journals which were published by one of her sons after her death.
One source describes her as having “ransacked Europe to form her famous collection of China.”
Her second husband died in 1884 but she kept collecting and took up campaigns for various causes including for Turkish refugees and for better treatment for Hansom cab drivers.
She herself died in 1895 at the age of 82 having lived a rather full life.
The Mabinogion would continue to be the most influential text of Welsh Medieval legend, establishing the central importance of Welsh literature to wider European Romance and legend.
Its bizarre, epic, funny and evocative stories, its hints at earlier Celtic mythology and its strong links to the landscape of Wales all contribute to its continued popularity: attracting new readers, tellers and reimaginations of the stories right up until this day, and surely far beyond.
Episode pages featuring Guest
- Extracts from Lady Charlotte Guest’s Journals
- The Mabinogion, a new translation by Sioned Davis
- The Crimes of Lady Charlotte Guest – Donna R. White
- The Further Crimes of Lady Charlotte Guest – Donna R. White
- Why Don’t you Like Lady Charlotte Guest’s Mabinogion? – Lisa Spangenberg