The Tale of JaneWilliams, a Determined Author Who Broke the 1800s' Mould; Jane Williams Was a Prolific Writer with Welsh and English Heritage Who Wrote under the Pen Name 'Ysgafell'and Deserves Far Greater Recognition, Argues Dr Gwyneth Roberts

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), January 12, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Tale of JaneWilliams, a Determined Author Who Broke the 1800s' Mould; Jane Williams Was a Prolific Writer with Welsh and English Heritage Who Wrote under the Pen Name 'Ysgafell'and Deserves Far Greater Recognition, Argues Dr Gwyneth Roberts


TODAY, Betsi Cadwaladr is increasingly well known in Wales. She has an entry in Wikipedia, she appears on the GCSE history syllabus, she's an "adopted nurse heroine" of the Royal College of Nursing (Wales), a university health board is named after her, and there's a Betsi Cadwaladr Trail around her home area of Bala.

Everything interesting that we know today about Betsi Cadwaladr - her upbringing in Bala, her worldwide travels, and her time as one of Florence Nightingale's nurses during the Crimean War - comes from her autobiography, a gripping and lively account of her life and experiences.

But she didn't write it; Jane Williams did.

Jane Williams (1806-85) also wrote one of the most effective (and funniest) responses to the infamous "Blue Books" of 1847.

She's the author of the official biography of the Welsh historian and Celtic scholar the Rev Thomas Price (Carnhuanawc), and of a History of Wales, which remained the standard work on the subject in English for 40 years; she also wrote a history of women's writing in English.

She wrote poetry, short stories, literary criticism, essays on contemporary religious issues, and a memoir of childhood.

She had a writing career of more than 50 years - an achievement which would be impressive for any author, even more so for a woman in the second and third quarters of the 19th century who wrote on serious subjects at a time when the relatively few female authors produced mainly poetry and fiction.

She's an important, interesting, varied - and unjustly neglected - writer, and the question to be asked about her is not "Is she worth knowing about?" but "Why isn't she better known today?" The sheer variety of her work provides part of the answer.

For a long time in the 20th century much of the writing by 19th-century women authors was seriously neglected, and when people became more interested in it they tended to concentrate on poets and novelists; Jane Williams, whose work was mainly prose non-fiction, didn't fit tidily into the picture.

Another reason was that seven of her nine books, and many of her essays and articles, relate to Wales and to Welsh history, literature and legends, which meant that for a long time they were put into a category labelled "Minor And Not Very Interesting".

Recently, however, increasing attention has been given to writing in English on Welsh subjects - including writing by women in the 19th century whose work doesn't fit tidily into boxes marked "Poetry" and "Fiction".

Today there's every reason for renewed interest in Jane Williams' writing, and in her life.

She was the second child of eight, and was born in Chelsea to an English mother and a Welsh father. Her mother was the daughter of a rich London banker, her father a low-level civil servant in the Navy Office who'd been born and brought up in the village of Evenjobb, in Radnorshire.

Previous generations of his family had owned Ysgafell, an estate near Newtown, in Montgomeryshire, and one of her ancestors, a famous Baptist preacher, had lived there in the 17th century.

But her grandfather had sold the estate (and spent the money) to the great disgust of his children - especially her father, who would have inherited it if it had still belonged to the family.

Against this background, Jane Williams' choice of "Ysgafell" as her writing name became a way of reclaiming by her pen the piece of the land of Wales, and of Welsh history, which her family had lost.

During her childhood her family lived in London and southern England; they were members of the affluent middle class, and could afford to give her a very good education.

It must have seemed that she could look forward to a comfortable and financially secure adulthood, but when she was in her mid-teens her family lost most of their money and moved to rural Breconshire.

Their changed financial situation meant that she had to become selfsupporting, and for more than 20 years she worked for employers in Glasbury, Powys, first as the equivalent of an au pair and later as a lady's companion. …

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