“Thus was I at once basking in an intense sun, regaling myself with luxurious fruit, reading my favourite Disraeli,” Lady Charlotte Bertie wrote in her journal, sixteen years of age. “Or immersing myself in a thousand wayward fancies and meditations (for I was away from the noisy din and bustle of life and merriment, in solitude, which I love) listening to distant melancholy bells.” Journals, the precocious teen then observed, are “a future clue to past events.” She was right: while Lady Charlotte would write in her journal every day over 69 years and 10,000 pages, stopping only when her eyesight failed, that early entry is an adumbration to the extraordinary life that would follow. Her circumstances would transform as her surname changed from Bertie to Guest to Schreiber, but she would continue to be happiest with the world kept at a remove, lost in her own thoughts, with nothing for company except her own quicksilver mind.
Unless you’re particularly well-versed in medieval Welsh literature or 18th-century English ceramics, it’s likely that the preceding paragraph is the first time you’ve heard of Lady Charlotte. Despite being one of the most brilliant individuals of her age, her reputation languishes in relative obscurity, in part because of her gender, in part because of the specificity of her pursuits. Within the scope afforded to her as a woman living in Victorian Wales, Lady Charlotte made significant contributions to a range of fields, but as none of her interests are remotely glamorous to us today, her legacy has unfairly dimmed.
Born to the aristocracy in 1812, Lady Charlotte had the opportunity to become educated to a degree then unavailable to women whose fathers weren’t the ninth Earl of Lindsey. To credit her undoubted privilege entirely for her accomplishments, however, is to dismiss her preternatural intelligence and curiosity. A lonely, unhappy, restless child, the young Lady Charlotte indulged her “mania” for the arts by penning reams of theatrical criticism, while learning Italian, French, Latin, Greek, Persian, Arabic and Hebrew (teaching herself the latter three). “I have been brought up alone, and never have associated with children or young persons of my own age, nor had I anyone to share my early joys and griefs,” the sixteen-year-old also wrote in her journal. “When anything annoys or delights me I am accustomed to brood over it in the inmost escapes of my own bosom.”
Desperate to get away from her hated step-father—a drunkard Reverend prone to violence and ecclesiastical sabotage—but dismayed by the prospect of marrying the 67-year-old politician her family had arranged for her, Lady Charlotte first made the acquaintance of Benjamin Disraeli, whose writing she’d long been enamoured with. Callously, he would write to his sister to ask, “By the bye, would you like Lady for a sister-in-law, very clever, £25000 and domestic?” before stating, “While I may commit many follies in life, I never intend to marry for ‘love’.” Dodging a bullet shaped like a future prime minister, she put aside her initial ambivalence and married Welsh industrialist John Guest, a wealthy middle-aged ironmonger eyeing a career in politics.
It was while raising their ten children, born over thirteen years, and working as the Dowlais Iron Company’s translator and accountant that Lady Charlotte completed what would become the defining achievement of her life: the first translation of The Mabinogion into English and modern Welsh. A collection of eleven prose stories written in the 14th century, some dating in oral tradition as far back as the Iron Age, The Mabinogion is one of the true masterpieces of medieval literature. It is a mythological, subversive version of pre-Christian history, filled with rousing tales of misfortune, love, transmogrification, magic and betrayal; kings are turned into boars and women turned into owls; chatty severed heads make for good travelling companions and enchanted cauldrons revive the dead at terrible cost. Created without the assistance of spellbound objects, Lady Charlotte’s translation was a more prosaic act of resurrection. As an Englishwoman madly in love with Wales, her painstaking eight-year endeavour was undertaken with the desire to see the country properly recognised as the cradle of European Romance. Then largely unknown outside of antiquarians, the work’s publication at the height of the Romantic revival established the significance of Welsh mythology within European literature.
Beyond popularising the Mabinogion for an international audience, Lady Charlotte’s translation also affected Welsh notions about identity, coinciding with a period of self-reflection within the country. In her introduction, she elucidates how the legends recorded in the stories influenced the early settlement of Wales, pointing out the number of mountains, lakes, fords, crags and other topographical features named in commemoration of its events and characters.
She notes with regret how the connections between topography and myth were often lost as the relevant words dropped from colloquial language: “Proceeding backwards in time, we find these romances, their ornaments falling away at each step.” In bringing ancient ties back to public attention, Lady Charlotte contributed to a national sense of shared cultural heritage that still endures.
Almost as striking as the Mabinogion itself—with its warring dragons, golden bowls that rob people of speech and mice sentenced to death, not to mention the plague of men who can’t be killed due to their superhuman hearing—is how many other activities Lady Charlotte pursued while producing the multi-volume work. In one journal entry, she writes, “Today I worked hard at the translation of Peredur. I had the pleasure of giving birth to my fifth child and third boy today.” Beyond the raising of her ten children, she founded schools in Dowlais to educate working-class boys and girls, created a range of programmes for the company’s workforce, promoted the sale of embroidery on behalf of Turkish refugees, helped her husband become Merthyr Tydfil’s first MP, and saw her responsibilities at the ironworks increase as his health declined. When John Guest finally died, she took over the running of the business entirely—then the largest ironworks or manufacturing company in the world.
Lady Charlotte, for all her advantages of birth and ability, was still a woman in Victorian Britain: unable to vote, usually pregnant, her life defined in relation to her husband and children. After completing her translation of the Mabinogion, she renounced scholarship entirely. “And now that my dear seven babies are growing up and require so much of my time and attention, it is quite right that I should have done with authorship… I am sure, if a woman is to do her duty as a wife and mother, that the less she meddles with pen and ink the better.” While she also noted in her journal her desire to become eminent at anything she turned her hand to (“I cannot endure anything in a second grade”), her sense of social obligation and devotion to her family restricted what those things could be.
Lady Charlotte sought ways to be productive within the limits of her circumstances. When she married for a second time to an academic called Charles Schreiber, she gave up her successful stewardship of the ironworks and spent most of her remaining years travelling Europe with him, collecting china, board games, playing cards and fans. Inevitably, she excelled at this too: her collection of 18th-century English china was considered one of the world’s best.
Lady Charlotte’s self-definition as a wife, mother and member of the nobility makes it possible to undervalue her contributions to the arts and the people of South Wales. While it could be argued that her breadth of pursuits reflects the aimlessness of privilege, her struggle to reconcile her exceptional intelligence with her aristocratic 19th-century outlook lends her both complexity and a certain melancholy. In some respects, her aristocratic upbringing has denied her due credit, the apparent ease of her endeavours belying her voracious mind and industrious attitude; nearly blind, approaching death, she spent her remaining days knitting woollen comforters for cabmen just so she could have something useful to do.
Consequently, Lady Charlotte’s memory has diminished. Her translation of the Mabinogion was eventually superseded, while her journals, edited by family members and published under their names, were bowdlerised and are little read today. Even the 1,800 pieces of china she gave to the V&A Museum were donated under her husband’s name rather than her own. From our contemporary vantage point we can see how she was inhibited by her status, but it is worth reflecting upon the ways she shone within it, wholeheartedly embracing whatever turns her life took. Writing in her journal shortly after taking charge of the Dowlais ironworks, she declared: “I am iron now.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-One. Illustrations by Hsiao-Ron Cheng.