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Lost Voices: Welsh Women’s Classics

Queens of the Rushes team are: Helena Earnshaw: Cycle/Marketing, Tricia Chapman: Swim/Production, Caroline Oakley/Editorial. Alison Greeley/Finance did the whole thing!

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.[1]

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).

 

[1] Rachel Barrett, ‘Autobiography’, mss c. 1924, in Museum of London, ref. 57.116/47, in The Very Salt of Life, pp. 298-302

Book covers, and letting go.

‘Don’t go to Belchite at night,’ Manolo our neighbour says, ‘there are voices.’

It’s easy to believe there might be. Belchite is a monument to the Spanish Civil War, a village left in ruins after it was taken first by the Republicans in 1937 and then by Franco’s troops in 1938. By the end, in a deadly game of cat and mouse, any building still standing was pulverised as the Nationalists troops moved from house to house hunting down the last Republicans.

For a long time after the war the impoverished villagers went on living among the ruins, which Franco declared should be left as a monument ‘de victoria nacional’ and ‘Red barbarousness’. A new village was built alongside the old, but some residents refused to leave their old homes.

I didn’t know about Belchite except as a name in the history of the Civil War.  It was only when my third novel, Albi, was published that somebody told me the haunting cover photo had been taken there. I’d asked, of course, but that’s the thing about book covers – the publisher rarely knows much about how they were put together.

It turns out Belchite is only a few hours away from the remote village where we have a house. So a month after Albi was published my husband Nick and I set off to see for ourselves.

Spain is a wonderfully earthy place and so are its guided tours. We march round the ruins with our guide Nati and a group of Spanish, most of them young. One of the girls mentions that her great grandfather came from here and Nati breaks off her spiel to discuss whereabouts he might have lived. We move off again, past the group of men tossing a section of mud-brick wall (fibreglass, it turns out – they are making a film), under a stormy sky that threatens rain.

The sun is fitfully hot, poppies bob their scarlet heads in the meadows beyond the perimeter fence, and it’s hard to take in the enormity of what happened in this place: in less than two years nearly 5,000 people lost their lives here. It was late August and extremely hot when the Republicans drove out the Nationalists in 1937. The bodies had to be hurriedly buried in a mass grave. A year later when the Nationalists took it back more than 2,400 people were taken prisoner, many of them dying later in the labour camps.

Nati barks this information through her microphone and leads the way towards a church which looks as if it might be the one on my book cover. Nick tells her why we are here and gives her a bookmark. She holds it up in front of her – is it here? Yes, it’s here. Off we go in pursuit but no, when we get up close the shell of the church is similar but the house wall in the foreground doesn’t fit with the photo.

No problem, Nati declares, there are still two churches to go, and a convent.

The photo, of course, might be from many years ago, before the ruins subsided quite so much. It might even be a digital reconstruction of different photos. By now I am handing out bookmarks with gay abandon and everyone is joining in the debate in lively Spanish, all reverence gone. We go round the village sizing up the ruins and arguing until we get to the last church, and there it is: wall and window in the foreground with an old iron bracket that might have been for a sign, and in the background the blind façade of the church.

So that’s all right then, we’ve found it, and Nati can go back to her spiel. We become reverential again, because high on a ledge of the ruined tower of the church an un-exploded shell is visible, still lodged in the stone. History is shockingly real at moments like this and for me it is a doubly profound moment. I have borrowed these people’s history. Have I done it justice?

As for my book cover, the buildings of Belchite are only half of it. I will never know the identity of the ghostly child whose face hovers in the background and that is as it should be. We write our stories and someone else’s history becomes our own, but once out in the public arena our stories no longer belong to us. They belong to the reader.


Hilary Shepherd has lived most of her adult life in Wales, farming and making oak windows and kitchens, but during the 70s and 80s she and her family lived in Ghana and in the Sudan, which provided the material for her first two novels (Animated Baggage and In A Foreign Country)

In 2001, with her second husband Nick, she started spending time in Spain, in a remote village in southern Aragon. This is an area where the resistance fighters known as the maquis hid out in the mountains after the Civil War, until well into the 50s, and there are many stories in the village about living caught between the maquis and the hated Guardia Civil. Thinking about what it must have been like was the starting point for her third novel, ‘Albi’ (published April 2018).

 

Feminism and Women’s Presses

I first began to identify as a feminist at the age of twenty. As a teenager I came into contact with feminist ideas from reading novels like Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and plays such as Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, but I didn’t yet realise that I could be a feminist or that I could contribute to this dialogue in some way. My relationship with feminism changed in 2001 when I stumbled across the Silver Moon Bookshop on Charing Cross Road and encountered my first literary, feminist space.

I think Silver Moon and the extensive selection of books it stocked altered my understanding of feminism, as it enabled me to connect what had been an abstract philosophy to a living movement which could potentially be a force for change. During this summer I visited the Silver Moon a number of times to buy novels and browse large art books, discovering the works of Judy Chicago and Georgia O’Keeffe in the process. Running my fingers along the spines I came across names of publishers I’d never heard of before such as The Feminist Press, Pandora Press, The Women’s Press and Virago. It was here I bought my first Virago title: The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler. I think as a newly identifying feminist I was drawn to the provocative title and plus it was the perfect reading material for the train to accompany my newly shaved head and pink Doc Martens!

Now, sixteen years later, my feminism is more often expressed in the petitions I share on social media than in my appearance, but reading feminist and women’s literature published by the presses I discovered at Silver Moon has remained a constant. I have also discovered a few more along the way including Honno Welsh Women’s Press when I moved to Wales. During a recent discussion hosted by The Women’s Equality Network Wales in partnership with Honno I began to think more about these different labels such as ‘feminist’ and ‘women’s’ and what they have come to represent in publishing.

At the end of the 1980s, not long after Honno was founded, Nicci Gerrard questioned feminist publishing’s narrow commitment to ‘books about feminism’ and suggested an increase in the publication of ‘books influenced by feminism.’[1] Fifteen years on Simone Murray asked: ‘[W]hen is a women’s press a Feminist Press?’ and ‘does a press’s feminism reside in its means or its ends?’[2] In 2014 Catherine Riley concluded that Virago’s takeover in 1995 by Little, Brown (now owned by the mainstream conglomerate Hachette Livre) means that they now ‘reach a wide audience’. She concludes that ‘Virago has certainly adapted its way of conveying feminist messages, but retains its quiet influence. This has kept it relevant, continuing the attempt to convey feminist politics through publishing’.[3]

Therefore, is a press only a feminist press if all aspects of its operations are feminist-minded? And can this only be achieved if a press remains independent? Or is it the case that the ‘feminism’ resides in the output? But then should the output be solely about feminism or can it be more broadly influenced by feminism? Should feminist presses only be run by and publish women or is feminism actually a mind-set, an approach to be actioned by individuals of any gender? If a press is subsumed by a mainstream publisher is it a compromise or a progression? Although these questions are too vast to answer here they do reveal a complexity of purpose and thought which needs to be engaged with when discussing the future of women’s and feminist presses. Since the period of second-wave feminism – when many of these independent presses were first established – the publishing industry has changed dramatically and, as a result, presses like Honno are navigating a constantly shifting landscape whilst still trying to fulfil their key founding principles.

Here We Stand book coverHonno can be labelled a women’s press because it publishes only women and even though not every title is explicitly about feminism Honno is certainly motivated by a feminist agenda. For example its commitment to publishing reprints of titles by women long out of print reintroduces the writings of our ‘literary foremothers’ to the reading community. This series highlights a distinct women’s canon and provides further evidence of a history of feminist consciousness pre-1970.[4] Alongside its fiction list, Honno publishes biographies of women such as the Jewish writer from Wales Lily Tobias. Books like The Greatest Need reveal a history of female activism and creativity in Wales often hidden from view. As well as bringing to light Wales’ feminist history Honno also strives to document contemporary women campaigners. A good example is Honno’s recent anthology Here We Stand: a collection of interviews and articles which give an insight into modern issues, highlighting why the feminist movement is still relevant today.     

Although not a physical bookshop like Silver Moon was, Honno has also created a feminist, literary space which can potentially be a force for a change. It puts forward an alternative historical narrative which reveals a rich seam of feminist thought and action in Wales. This strategy continues to raise the profile of female writings whilst curating a historical foundation on which Honno’s contemporary writers can build. In her article on Virago press, Catherine Riley decries ‘the relative lack of published work on the important phenomenon of feminist publishing.’[5] Therefore, as Honno celebrates its thirtieth birthday is it now time for their contribution to feminism in Wales to be fully evaluated?

Biography

Calista Williams recently completed her PhD on ‘The National Library of Wales and National Identity c.1840-1916’ which was assisted by an innovative collaboration between the Open University and the National Library of Wales. She is currently researching the lives of the women who used the National Library when it first opened in 1909. Calista is now a Lifelong Learning Humanities teacher at Aberystwyth University.

caw52@aber.ac.uk

@Ca7ista

 

HONNO ARE CELEBRATING FEMINIST BOOK FORTNIGHT ON THE 20TH JUNE 2018, 6.30PM, AT THE BOOKSHOP, ABERYSTWYTH ARTS CENTRE.

 

[1] Nicci Gerrard, Into the Mainstream. How Feminism Has Changed Women’s Writing (London: Pandora Press, 1989), p.25.

[2] Simone Murray, ‘The Cuala Press: Women, publishing, and the conflicted genealogies of ‘feminist publishing’’, Women’s Studies International Forum, No.27 (2004), pp.489-506, pp.492-493.

[3] Catherine Riley, ‘‘The Message is in the Book’: What Virago’s Sale in 1995 Means for Feminist Publishing’, Women: A Cultural Review, Vol.25, No.3 (2014), pp.235-255, p.253.

[4] Cherie Kramarae and Dale Spender ‘Exploding Knowledge’ in Kramarae and Spender (eds.), The Knowledge Explosion. Generations of Feminst Scholarship (New York: Teachers College Press, 1992), pp.1-26, p.18.

[5] Riley, ‘‘The Message is in the Book’, p.236.

 

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