‘I will, Lord, while I can’: Lady Charlotte Guest’s Mabinogion

  • Marion Wynne-Davies


Although this chapter concentrates mainly upon Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of The Mabinogion (1838–45), before pursuing this central quest I should like to return for a moment to the Kenilworth Festivities, which were discussed at the beginning of the previous chapter.1 The following account will, no doubt, seem familiar in terms of the events it covers, but it will simultaneously appear strange because of the manner in which they are recorded:


Sexual Material Form Alone Romantic Ideal Mythic Hero Medieval Romance 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Welsh tales, rightly termed ‘Mabinogi’, first appeared in seven parts during 1838–45; they were issued in a three volume edition in 1849, and in a single volume which included only the English translation in 1877. I have used the last edition because it includes references to Tennyson’s poetry, which would have been impossible in the earlier workings; Lady Charlotte Guest (ed. and trans.), The Mabinogion from the Welsh of the Llyfr Coch o Hergest (The Red Book of Hergest) in the Library of Jesus College, Oxford (London, 1877). I shall also refer to a more recent, and more accurate, translation of the tales, Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones (trans.), The Mabinogion (London, 1949). Partly because of these inaccuracies and partly because of the underlying colonialist nature of her translation of Welsh tales into the language of domination for the benefit of those who were in power (rather than the disempowered Welsh) I must confess to a certain sense of guilt for including her in such a prominent fashion in this book. However, I am also committed to the expansion of the canon to include women writers and as such. Guest is an important addition to our understanding of Arthurian literature. Moreover, Rachel Bromwich in ‘“The Mabinogion” and Lady Charlotte Guest’, Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (1986), pp. 127–41, a detailed and scholarly account of Guest’s translations, comments that: ‘Whatever may have been the extent of the help which Lady Charlotte received from others ... it cannot detract from the magnitude of her achievement and her deep interest and involvement in her work’ (p. 140).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Sir Walter Scott, Kenilworth, (ed.) Andrew Long, Border Edition 22–3 (London, 1893), Vol. II, pp. 179–80.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The sources for Kenilworth are the ballad ‘Cumnor Hall’ which Scott cites in his introduction to the novel, Scott, Kenilworth, Vol. I, pp. xxvii-xxxv, and John Nichols’ Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth (London, 1788) which was sent to Scott by Henry Constable in order to supply him with background for the novel. Scott mentions Nichols in a letter to Constable on 10 September 1820, ‘The Progresses are doing me yeoman’s service, for I am in progress myself’ (in Vol. VI of H.J.C. Grierson (ed.) The Letters of Sir Walter Scott (London, 1934), pp. 265–6). For a discussion of Scott’s antiquarianism see Arthur Johnston, Enchanted Ground: The Study of Medieval Romance in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1965), pp. 177–94; James Douglas Merriman, The Flower of Kings: A Study of the Arthurian Legend in England Between 1485 and 1835 (Lawrence, Kansas, 1973), pp. 117–21 and 149–58; and Beverly Taylor and Elizabeth Brewer, The Return of King Arthur: British and American Arthurian Literature since 1900 (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 18–19 and 44–9.Google Scholar
  4. Scott has two texts which are more obviously ‘Arthurian’ than Kenilworth; they are his edition of the thirteenth-century metrical romance Sir Tristrem (Edinburgh, 1804) and his poem ‘The Bridal of Triermain’ (Edinburgh, 1813). My reason for choosing to focus upon the small passage in Kenilworth is Lady Charlotte Guest’s interest in the novel: see below, pp. 110–11. See also Margaret J.C. Reid, The Arthurian Legend: A Comparison of Treatment in Modern and Medieval Literature (London, 1938), pp. 42–58.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Edward D. Snyder, The Celtic Revival in English Literature 1760–1800 (Cambridge, Mass., 1923).Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Scott, Kenilworth, Vol. II, p. 181.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Taylor and Brewer, The Return of King Arthur, p. 47. It is also useful to look at Georg Lukács discussion of Scott’s novels in The Historical Novel, trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (London, 1962), pp. 30–63. Lukács discusses the ‘necessary anachronism’ Scott faces when employing history as a source of narrative while at the same time making the novel’s characters answer present-day requirements.Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    Thomas Love Peacock, The Misfortunes of Elphin (London, 1829), and Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (New York, 1889).Google Scholar
  9. 8.
    Revel Guest and Angela V. John, Lady Charlotte: A Biography of the Nineteenth Century (London, 1989), p. 101 and for a description of Kenilworth as one of her favourite novels, pp. 94–5.Google Scholar
  10. Scott also displays an interest in the Mabinogion in a letter to William Owen-Pughe: Grierson, The Letters, Vol. I, pp. 147–8.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    Granville’s letter is quoted in James T. Hillhouse, The Waverley Novels and Their Critics (Minneapolis, 1936), p. 110; for other comments on the text see, pp. 250–5 and 495. For a discussion of the book’s immediate popularity see Edgar Johnson, Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown (London, 1970), Vol. I, pp. 723–4 and 755–9.Google Scholar
  12. It is interesting to note the popularity of the novel with female readers, an explanation for which might be the strength of Elizabeth’s character, although at the time she was considered to be too manly. For some examples see John O. Hayden (ed.) Scott: The Critical Heritage (London, 1970), pp. 250 (‘Elizabeth owes almost all her interest, to our early associations, and to her marvellous combination of male and female dispositions’) and 495 (‘He can always paint women in their more masculine roles. Where he frequently fails is in the attempt to indicate the finer shades of women’s natures’). Guest does not follow Scott in this respect, her female characters certainly display ‘the finer shades of women’s natures’.Google Scholar
  13. 10.
    Scott’s Gaelic nationalism is apparent in his response to the character of Elizabeth I in the Introduction to Kenilworth, Vol. I, p. xxvii; see also Grierson, The Letters, Vol. VI, p. 311.Google Scholar
  14. 11.
    For a discussion of why women adapted more readily to the job of translation, rather than originating their own texts, see Margaret Patterson Hannay, Silent But For The Word (Kent, Ohio, 1985), pp. 1–14.Google Scholar
  15. 12.
    Guest and John, Lady Charlotte, pp. 117–19.Google Scholar
  16. 13.
    This marriage was considered quite scandalous since Schreiber was fourteen years younger than Lady Charlotte and was the tutor of the Guest family rather than a social equal; see Guest and John, Lady Charlotte, pp. 183–91.Google Scholar
  17. 14.
    William Owen-Pughe, an accomplished translator and lexicographer, planned to translate the Mabinogi but he only managed to produce versions of ‘Pwyll’, ‘Math’ and ‘Taliesin’ (1821–9); see Glenda Carr, William Owen-Pughe (Cardiff, 1983).Google Scholar
  18. 15.
    Lady Charlotte’s complete journals remain in private hands although extracts are published in Earl of Bessborough (ed.) The Diaries of Lady Charlotte Guest (London, 1950) and Lady Charlotte Schreiber (London, 1952) and in Montague Guest (ed.) Lady Charlotte Schreiber’s Journals, Confidences of a Collector of Ceramics and Antiques (London, 1911). Selected extracts may also be found in Guest and John, Lady Charlotte and Dr. Phillips, Lady Charlotte Guest and the Mabinogion (Carmarthen, 1921).Google Scholar
  19. 16.
    Guest and John, Lady Charlotte, p. 101; see also an extract from her journal reproduced in Phillips, Lady Charlotte Guest, p. 15.Google Scholar
  20. 17.
    Guest, The Mabinogion, p. b1. All future quotations from this edition will be made parenthetically. Although Guest translated the word ‘mabinogion’ (probably deriving from a scribal error for ‘mabinogi’) as children, which explains the dedicatory letter, it has since been more accurately translated as ‘descendants’; see Jones and Jones, Mabinogion, pp. ix-xiii.Google Scholar
  21. 18.
    Guest and John, Lady Charlotte, pp. 46–74.Google Scholar
  22. 19.
    The importance of Southey’s edition of Caxton’s Malory is exhaustively traced in Taylor and Brewer, The Return of King Arthur, pp. 15–33. This is not the same version of the Morte D’Arthur which is used in Chapter 3 since that is taken from Vinaver’s edition of the Winchester Manuscript which was not discovered until 1934.Google Scholar
  23. 20.
    For Guest’s reading of Romantic authors see Guest and John, Lady Charlotte, pp. 94–5; and for her early passionate, but wholly unsuitable, attachment to the Latin tutor, Frederick Martin, and subsequent dismal acceptance of Sir John Guest as husband see ibid, pp. 12–21.Google Scholar
  24. 21.
    Ibid, p. 100. One of the reasons for her interest in Welsh culture was undoubtedly her competitiveness with Augusta Hall of Llanover who had set up, with Rev. Thomas Price (who was later to help Guest with her translations), a society for Welsh scholars (see ibid., p. 103).Google Scholar
  25. 22.
    On the propensity of Welsh writers towards nostalgia, see Gwyn A Williams, When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh (London, 1985), pp. 304–5.Google Scholar
  26. 23.
    Walter Scott, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders, (ed.) T.F. Henderson (Edinburgh, 1932). Guest’s own scholarly researches began as a girl (see Guest and John, Lady Charlotte, pp. 94–5) and she continued to demonstrate considerable concern for authenticity and scholarship in her dealings with Tegid (Rev. John Jones) and Carnhuanawc (Rev. Thomas Price) who helped her with The Mabinogion, the former providing the Welsh transcription and the latter correcting her translations (see ibid., pp. 99–100).Google Scholar
  27. 24.
    Johnson, Sir Walter Scott, p. 759.Google Scholar
  28. 25.
    Stephen Knight, Arthurian Literature and Society (London, 1983), p. 165. Feminist criticism has uncovered the ambiguous nature of Victorian womanhood, which was caught within the confines of a strict domesticity and denied a sexually independent identity. A selection of criticisms useful in explaining this role are Martha Vicinus, Suffer and Be Still (London, 1972) and A Widening Sphere (London, 1977); Sara Delamont and Lorna Duffin, The Nineteenth-Century Woman (London, 1978); Ellen Carol Dubois and Linda Gordon, ‘Seeking Ecstasy on the Battlefield’: Danger and Pleasure in Nineteenth-century Feminist Sexual Thought (London, 1984); and Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes (London, 1987). These criticisms and histories have been used throughout Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of this book.Google Scholar
  29. 26.
    Jones and Jones, Mabinogion, p. 7. A modernised Welsh version may be found in Dafydd and Rhiannon Ifans (eds), Y Mabinogion (Llandysul, 1980): ‘Cyrchodd ei wely ac aeth ei wraig ato. Y peth cyntaf a wnaeth ef oedd ymddiddan â’i wraig ac ymroi i bleser serch a chariad ati’ (p. 5).Google Scholar
  30. 27.
    Jones and Jones, Mabinogion, pp. 59–61. The modern Welsh version of the episode reads:Google Scholar
  31. A’r nos honno, fe ddychwelodd Gwydion fab Dôn a Gilfaethwy ei frawd i Gaer Dathl. A rhoddwyd Gilfaethwy fab Dôn a Goewin ferch Pebin yng ngwely Math fab Mathonwy i gysgu ynghyd, a gyrrwyd y morynion allan yn amarchus, a chysgu gyda hi o’i hanfodd y nos honno ...Google Scholar
  32. ‘Arglwydd,’ ebe Goewin, ‘cais forwyn i fod o dan dy dread bellach. Gwraig wyf fi.’Google Scholar
  33. ‘Pa fodd y mae hynny?’ ‘Fe ddaeth cyrch am fy mhen, a hynny’n agored, ac ni fûm innau’n dawel. Nid oedd neb yn y llys ne wyddai amdano. Dyma a dddaeth, dy neiant feibion dy chwaer, arglwydd, Gwydion fab Dôn a Gilfaethwy fab Dôn, a gwnaethant drais arnaf a chywilydd arnat tithau a chysgwyd gyda mi, a hynny yn dy ystafell ac yn dy wely.’Google Scholar
  34. (Ifans, and Ifans, Y Mabinogion, pp. 51 and 53.)Google Scholar
  35. 28.
    For a discussion of the way in which respectable women avoided the topic of rape during this period see Anna Clark, Women’s Silence, Men’s Violence: Sexual Assault in England 1770–1845 (London, 1987), and Roy Porter, ‘Rape — Does it have a Historical Meaning?’, in Sylvana Tomaselli and Roy Porter (eds.). Rape: An Historical and Social Enquiry (Oxford, 1989), pp. 216–36. Also, see above, note 26.Google Scholar
  36. 29.
    The quotation may be found in II xv of Triermain; and for a critical comment upon the sexual material in the poem see Taylor and Brewer, The Return of King Arthur, pp. 47–8 and Merriman, The Flower of Kings, pp. 156–7.Google Scholar
  37. 30.
    Guest and John, Lady Charlotte, p. 117.Google Scholar
  38. 31.
    Ibid, p. 117.Google Scholar
  39. 32.
    See also p. 190, A. Strutt, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England first pub. 1801 (Bath, 1969).Google Scholar
  40. 33.
    See above pp. 26, 30, 43.Google Scholar
  41. 34.
    Phillips, Lady Charlotte Guest, p. 15.Google Scholar
  42. 35.
    It is tempting to suggest that her translations were more important to her than anything else, and she did record that, ‘perhaps, hardly any portion of my life has passed more agreeably than the days which I have spent working hard with them [the translations]’ (Phillips, ibid, p. 30).Google Scholar
  43. 36.
    For example, her journal for 1838 records that five days after having her fourth child she was back at work on The Mabinogion; see Bessborough, The Diaries of Lady Charlotte Guest.Google Scholar
  44. 37.
    Phillips, Lady Charlotte Guest, p. 37.Google Scholar
  45. 38.
    Ibid, p. 23.Google Scholar
  46. 39.
    Jeanie Watson, ‘Enid the Disobedient: The Mabinogion’s Gereint and Enid’, in Carole Levin and Jeanie Watson (eds.). Ambiguous Realities: Women in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Detroit, 1987), pp. 114–32; p. 116. See also Dafydd Jenkins and Morfydd E. Owen, The Welsh Law of Women (Cardiff, 1980); Nancy C. Zak, The Portrayal of the Heroine in Chretien de Troyes’s ‘Erec et Enide’, Gottfried von Strasburg’s ‘Tristan’, and ‘Flamenica’ (Stuttgart, 1983); Jean Markale, Women of the Celts (Rochester, Vermont, 1986); and Moyra Caldecott, Women in Celtic Myth (London, 1988).Google Scholar
  47. 40.
    J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon (eds.). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Oxford, 1967); for an analysis of this poem see above. Chapter 2. The story of Sir Gareth is found in Eugene Vinaver (ed.) Malory: Works (Oxford, 1971); for a more detailed discussion of Malory Arthurian tales see above. Chapter 3.Google Scholar
  48. 41.
    Guest refers to Enid being a ‘bride’ rather than including the sexual reference in the Welsh; Jones and Jones have: ‘And that night for the first time they slept together’ (Mabinogion, p. 245). She also removes Geraint’s suspicions that Enid wishes to have sex with another man when he awakes to see her crying; compare with Jones and Jones, Mabinogion, p. 251.Google Scholar
  49. 42.
    Bessborough, Lady Charlotte Schreiber, p. 147.Google Scholar
  50. 43.
    Ibid, p. 107. For this period in Guest’s life see Guest and John, Lady Charlotte, pp. 195–225.Google Scholar
  51. 44.
    Bessborough, Lady Charlotte Schreiber, p. 68.Google Scholar
  52. 45.
    Ibid, pp. 72 and 109.Google Scholar
  53. 46.
    Ibid, p. 110. Guest’s son, Montague, recorded how Tennyson had altered a line of his poetry after consulting with her on the correct way in which to pronounce ‘Enid’ (M. Guest, Lady Charlotte Schreiber’s Journals, pp. viii-ix); it should be said with a short ‘e’.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Marion Wynne-Davies 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marion Wynne-Davies

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations