by Jamie Castell and Alison Harvey
Cambrian CRECS: Nation, Region, Place in the Long 18th Century was the second event hosted by the Cardiff Romanticism and Eighteenth Century Seminar, and as Six Nations fever gripped the country, we sought to consider the position of Wales within Romantic Studies. After a hugely successful launch event with Fight Club, the CRECS organisers were keen to maintain the momentum of the series. How better than to showcase the literature and history of Wales and the amazing resources available in our very own library at Cardiff University’s Special Collections and Archives (SCOLAR)? We were tightly packed once more into a venue with standing room only: several members of academic staff were forced to balance themselves between bottles of wine and bowls of pretzels! So, the atmosphere was appropriately warm as four speakers offered four fresh perspectives on constructions of Welsh identity, landscape and art in the period.
Damian Walford Davies delivered the first of the talks on the topic, positing the Wye Valley as the cradle of Welsh Romanticism, and the role that tourist narratives played in defining the area as a liminal space. Both familiar and unknown, the Wye Valley formed a meeting place of two nations and four counties, an uncanny and unstable border territory shifting with the river’s movements, a touristic hotspot in the 18th and 19th centuries, a place of exile for political radicals, and a subject for many of the period’s most celebrated writers. Damian demonstrated not only the Valley’s significance to the period but also the Wye’s centrality to how we continue to think critically about it. Many of these travel narratives can be found in SCOLAR, such as Charles Heath’s Excursion down the Wye (WG30, 1796), George Sael’s Tour of the River Wye (WG30, 1798) and William Gilpin’s Observations on the River Wye (WG30, 1782).
Next up was Katie Gramich, who focused on that enduring figure of Welsh cultural identity, the Bard, by considering a broader history and highlighting the differences between the idealisations and constructions of Anglo-Welsh writing and the differing concerns of writing in Welsh in the period. Katie argued that the image of the tragic bard was very much an English flight of fancy, which the Welsh would have found puzzling. Indeed, Iolo Morganwg set out to correct English distortions by forging his own pseudohistorical constructions of bardic traditions. Most memorably, Katie contrasted the restrained, didactic Y Bardd (WG16.71.J) by Ellis Jones (1830) with the lurid and inaccurate representation of Wales in Evan Jones’s 1809 gothic novel, The Bard (WG16.9.J): thousands of slimy creatures in gothic castles and the ravishing of misnamed Welsh maidens abounded!
Katie was followed by Jane Moore, a self-confessed ‘interloper’, as the only speaker who was not born in Wales. But Jane used this to her advantage to show the openness of Welsh literary culture to a variety of different sources and especially to a writer as cosmopolitan as Felica Hemans, herself an Englishwoman who spent much of her life in Wales and came to adopt it as her country of residence. Jane proposed Hemans, despite her English provenance, as the real Welsh ‘bard’ of the Romantic period. Though now overlooked, she was the bestselling female poet of the 19th century, who put great emphasis on the power of bardic voice. As well as a fine copy of Hemans’ 1822 Selection of Welsh Melodies (Folio WG14.P), SCOLAR holds microfilm copies of her letters, poems and literary manuscripts, gathering collections held in Liverpool City Library, Trinity College Dublin, National Library of Wales, the Harry Ransom Center and the British Library.
Finally, Rob Gossedge compared Romantic Welsh and English medievalism. While the latter sought to ameliorate dislocations of past trauma, Rob argued that Welsh Romanticism focuses on continuities instead of dislocations, a powerful counter-current to the traditional tragic view. Rob’s contribution was more concerned with the co-option of the Welsh-inflected myth of King Arthur—that ‘most medieval’ of mythic figures, who forms the centre of Celtic nationalism in Cornwall and Wales—in order to make broader points about the construction of Wales by literary outsiders (like Thomas Love Peacock), Welsh literary self-identity and larger historiographical narratives about Wales. His presentation ended with a moving reading of Arthurian poetry by Rob in English and then by Katie in Welsh. Key Romantic texts on the Arthur myth include Thomas Heywood’s 1816 Life of Merlin (WG16.9.M), Thomas Malory’s 1816 History of the Renowned Prince Arthur: King of Britain; and La Mort d’Arthur: The Most Ancient and Famous History of the Renowned Prince Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (WG16.9.M), and Joseph Ritson’s 1825 Life of King Arthur: From Ancient Historians and Authentic Documents (W9.1.R).
Once more, the evening concluded with excellent questions from the floor and dynamic conversation between the speakers before we turned to consume the aforementioned wine and the now traditional CRECS-pretzels.
For a very useful survey of Wales-related Romantic fiction at Cardiff University, take a look at this article by Andrew Davies.