The Queens of the Rushes
The Honno staff recently teamed up to ensure that one of their Welsh Women’s Classic titles: Queen of the Rushes by Allen Raine is brought back into print.
Queen of the Rushes sold over 300,000 copies at the beginning of the 20th century, when it was first published. It was made into one of the first British silent movies and was the first title in Honno’s Welsh Women’s Classics series. It is hugely deserving of remaining in print and the Honno staff swam, cycled and ran in the DYFI DASH triathlon on April 7th to raise money for a new edition to ensure it continues to be read. It is a tale that maps out a distinctly Welsh literary landscape and demonstrates Raine’s powers as storyteller, delineator of character and social historian.
Thank you to all who have supported our fundraising so far. There is still time to support us at: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/honno
Jane Aaron, editor of the Welsh Women’s Classics explains why they are so important, below.
ps. we all completed the event successfully and had fun doing so!
Lost Voices: Welsh Women’s Classics
The aim of the Honno Welsh women’s classics series is to bring back into print the lost voices of Welsh women’s writing, and what they have to tell us of Welsh women’s history, for the benefit of new generations.
It’s over thirty years since Honno Press was founded, and one of the first books the Press produced was the autobiography of the Welsh nurse and traveller Betsy Cadwaladyr, originally published in 1857 but out of print for over a century, during which time Betsy’s story was virtually forgotten. Born and raised near Bala, Betsy told the tale of her global adventures, which included nursing with Florence Nightingale in Balaclava, to the then eminent but also subsequently forgotten historian and poet Jane Williams, who set it down in print. Before 1987 Betsy and her story were virtually unknown in Wales, and it is unlikely that she would be enjoying her current fame without that Honno Press publication. Deirdre Beddoe, who wrote the introduction, gave a copy of the book to a professor in the Department of Nursing at the then University of Glamorgan; that professor subsequently named a student’s training hospital ward at the University the Betsy Cadwaldr Ward. Thus remembrance of Betsy’s name and her story was revived in medical circles, and ‘Betsy Cadwaladr’ was finally established as the name of the Health Trust in north Wales.
Honno’s Welsh Women’s Classics series has also had an impact on the teaching of Welsh writing in English at Higher Education levels. In the 1980s, though what was then called ‘Anglo-Welsh Literature’ was being taught at Aberystwyth, Swansea, Bangor and Lampeter universities, very few women authors were included in the syllabus. In 1990 only one woman writer was included in the Welsh writing in English modules at Aberystwyth University – the Welsh-language novelist Kate Roberts, taught in translation. Since then the ratio of women authors to men on these syllabuses has been transformed, and Honno can take a large part of the credit for this change. 33 women writers, compared to 44 men, featured on Welsh university syllabuses in 2013, and 21 of those 33 women appeared in the Welsh Women’s Classics.
The question then arises: why were these women’s books ever allowed to fall out of print in the first place? The publishing career of Menna Gallie helps to explain that process. A mid-twentieth-century author from Ystradgynlais in the south Wales valleys, Gallie is today an important figure within the Welsh canon because not only was she an excellent novelist, witty and empathic, but also because she was one of the few writers recording in detail the experience of working-class women in the coalfields during the heyday of King Coal. But Gallie’s reputation was affected by the double disadvantage which all Welsh women writers pre Honno suffered, that is, she was Welsh and she was a woman.
Before the 1970s, and the development of English-language publishing in Wales, most Welsh writers in English, including Gallie, were published in London, where their work tended to be categorised as ‘provincial’. Secondly, and this is true for all women writers, of course, publishers, like critics, reviewers and university lecturers, tended until quite recently to be predominantly male.
But with her re-emergence in the Welsh Women’s Classics series, Gallie’s voice was rediscovered, along with that of many another writer, some of whom experienced a yet further disadvantage, being not only Welsh and female but also of another ethnic minority. It is particularly important in these post-Brexit days that we value the contribution to Welsh culture of such writers, Lily Tobias, who was raised in Ystalyfera in the 1880s and 1890s, was the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland. When her novel on conscientious objectors during the First World War, Eunice Fleet, which first appeared in 1933, was republished by Honno a reviewer in the journal Mslexia remarked
This is an important book to be made available and I found myself wondering why it had ever been lost.
Traditionally it was supposed that women, by and large, had little to say about political issues apart from feminist ones. But that supposition is only arrived at by those who neglect the actual evidence of women’s voices often raised in political protest. In order to give Welsh women’s political voices a hearing once more, the historian Ursula Masson and I brought out an anthology of Welsh women’s political writings, The Very Salt of Life.
Until quite recently it was thought that Welsh women had not made much of a contribution to the pre First World War suffragette movement. That misinformation is now being corrected, in part because of Honno’s resurrection of voices like that of Rachel Barrett, whose ‘Autobiography’ written in 1924 only existed in manuscript form in the Museum of London’s archives before Honno republished it in The Very Salf of Life. Rachel Barrett writes:
I was born in Carmarthen of Welsh, Welsh-speaking parents. In 1905 I became science mistress at Penarth County School…and it was during this time that I became interested in the new movement for woman suffrage…Adela Pankhurst came to Cardiff as WSPU organiser [the militant branch of the suffragette movement] and I helped her in her work
Christabel Pankhurst asked me to give my whole time to the movement…. I was sorry to give up my work at the School and all that it meant [she was by then studying for doctorate in science – it meant giving up on a career] but this was a definite call and I obeyed…I became organiser for Wales…
In the autumn [of 1912] I was asked to take charge of the new paper The Suffragette…In April 1913 when we were making up the paper a group of CID men appeared and the staff of the paper were arrested…At the Old Bailey trial I was sentenced [to 2 months in prison]… …I was released on licence after a 5 days’ hunger strike…. In about 3 weeks time, I was re-arrested. This time I was in for 4 days…. When I had recovered I was re-arrested. This time I did the thirst strike as well as the hunger strike and was released after, I think, 5 days feeling very ill…I was smuggled into Kingsway House under the eyes of the detectives. I lived there bringing out The Suffragette as before, never leaving the office and taking my exercise on the roof.
She carried on editing The Suffragette till it came to an end with the suffrage movement’s cessation of activities at the outbreak of the First World War, by the close of which, of course, women had won the vote. Her contribution to the Women’s Cause went unnoticed for years, but it was an essential one, and it is now being recognised – there’s a detailed entry on Rachel Barrett in Wikipedia, for example. Another lost voice restored, thanks to the Welsh Women’s Classics series.
Jane Aaron: Emeritus Professor of Literature at the University of South Wales, is the editor of the Honno Classics English-language series (known as the Welsh Women’s Classics). Born in Aberystwyth, she has now returned to the town and taken up her old place on the Honno Committee once again. Her publications include Pur fel y Dur: Y Gymraes yn Llên Menywod y Bedwaredd Ganrif ar Bymtheg (1998), which won the Ellis Griffith prize in 1999, and Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing in Wales (2007), winner of the Roland Mathias Award in 2009. She also co-edited the essay collections Our Sisters’ Land: The Changing Identities of Women in Wales (1994), Postcolonial Wales (2005) and Gendering Border Studies (2010).
 Rachel Barrett, ‘Autobiography’, mss c. 1924, in Museum of London, ref. 57.116/47, in The Very Salt of Life, pp. 298-302