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Charlotte Guest

* Linguist * Publisher * Translator * Politician * Educator * Ironmaster *
* Philanthropist * Mother of 10 children * Famous Victorian collector *

(19 May 1812 – 15 Jan. 1895)
Born Charlotte Bertie until her first marriage in 1833 at 21.
Charlotte Guest 1833 - 55 (21 -43).
Charlotte Schreiber on her second marriage in 1855 (43 -84).
aka Lady Charlotte Guest.

Charlotte Guest is a giant in the world of the Mabinogi.

She is the pioneering modern publisher of the complete The Mabinogion,1) in the mid-19thC, and its translator into English. Her bilingual project first appeared in 1838-49 as a series of seven volumes, under the title The Mabinogion. This and a second edition 1849, gave the tales in both Welsh and English, in elaborately designed volumes, with facsimile source pages, and her own extensive scholarly notes.
Her third edition 1877 was the translated English text only. This is the edition that has become so well known. Guest successfully promoted The Mabinogion tales in Britain, Europe and America, as origin texts of European literature. She was strongly supported by the leading Welsh scholars of her day, such as 'Carnhuanawc', and 'Tegid'.2) ‘Charlotte Guest Landscape’, Hsiao-Ron Cheng, 2012. From an NLW portrait

Guest famously wrote in her journal:
I cannot endure anything in a second grade. I am happy to see we are at the head of the iron trade. Otherwise I could not take pride in my house in the City and my Works at Dowlais, and glory (playfully) in being (in some sort) a tradeswoman. Then again, my blood is of the noblest and most princely in the Kingdom, and if I go into Society, it must be the very best and first. I can brook no other. If I occupy myself in writing, my book must be splendidly got up and must be, as far at least as decoration and typography are concerned, at the head of literature …3)

It is William Owen Pughe who holds the honour of first publishing Mabinogi text in 1795, with more sections until 1835. he died just as he had a complete manuscript ready to print. So Guest was the first to publish the complete work of The Mabinogion, in both Welsh and English; and to gain international recognition for it.
In Guest’s series of seven volumes, the Mabinogi were not her favoured tales. The Welsh text of 'Pwyll Pendeuic Dyfed' arrives only in Vol. 5 (1843). Its English translation, and the other three Branches follow in Vol. 6 (1845). In the 1849 3 vols. edition the Mabinogi was in volume 3. A single volume edition followed in 1877, with English translation only, and Guest's extensive notes. This is the version which became well known.

Her wide ranging research, her elegant publications, and her promotion of them in international literary circles, brought these first British prose tales into the modern age as no small contributor to the modern Welsh cultural renaissance. Guest’s The Mabinogion remained the foremost translation for a century.

The Books

The Mabinogion
1. 1838-1845: series of 7 volumes, bilingual. The first complete edition of The Mabinogion. Welsh and English texts, elaborately presented, facsimile pages, 145 pages of notes. The Mabinogi were in vol. 6, 1845, except for the Welsh text 'Pwyll Pendevig Dyuet' in vol. 5. 4))
2. 1849: 3 volumes set, bilingual. Reduced by omitting the extensive source and facsimile texts, but otherwise similar lavish presentation. The Mabinogi is in vol. 3. 5)
3. 1877: single volume, English translation only.* Reduced from the 1849 version, with all Welsh text omitted, elegant presentation.6)
4. 1906: single volume, English translation only, by the Everyman series in its first year.7) Reprinted the 1877 single volume English edition.8) This made it a budget book, remaining the leading English Mabinogi text until the 1949 Jones & Jones version.9) It continues to be easily available today worldwide, both book form and online.


The daughter of an English Earl, Charlotte Bertie kept a journal from the age of 10, from which we know much of her life and thoughts. (Of course she was aware the journal would one day be read by others.) She considered her childhood as unhappy after her father died and her mother remarried. She studied Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Persian with her two younger brothers’ tutor, and taught herself French and Italian.10)
She became desperate to escape her family's arrangements for her marriage. At 21, just as soon as she could legally choose for herself, she married the wealthy Welsh ironmaster, John Josiah Guest, MP. On arrival at his enormous ironworks at Dowlais she was inspired by the drama of its industrial power. She appears to have had a passionate and happy partnership of 22 years with John Josiah as a supportive husband, although Guest does also indicate inevitable frustrations in her role as a wife.
On arrival in Wales as a bride, already a linguist in five languages, she promptly began learning Welsh.
In 1838 only five years later, Charlotte Guest at 26 years old, published the first volume in her pioneering The Mabinogion
No matter how wealthy and internationally dominant the enterprise, the loss of status by marrying into 'trade' was considerable. Guest worked assiduously as a salon hostess to network and rebuild her elite position, at least in part for her children. She was an active partner in the Guest ironworks, a vigorous political campaigner, a philanthropist who established the best schools of the day for her workers and (vitally) overhauled their sanitation. She travelled widely across Europe as Dowlais ironworks laid the rail tracks that were reshaping society. During her first husband's long final illness and for some years after he died, she ran the international Dowlais ironworks, one of the greatest industrial enterprises of the century.11)
While working on The Mabinogion series, and all the rest of her immense workload, she gave birth to and brought up ten children, albeit she was supported by a large Victorian servant class. She prided herself on working on a daybed the same day she gave birth, but she did also suffer times of ill-health. She educated all her daughters herself.
In 1855 after several years widowhood, she remarried, scandalously, to her sons ex-tutor, a much younger man. She waited to do so until her eldest son could take over the ironworks with capable managers to help him. She then moved to England, and traveled extensively as a collector of fine ceramics. In her 80s she became blind and stopped writing her journal of 70 years. She died surrounded by a large family of descendants.
Publication of excerpts from Guest's journal have been supported by four of her descendants. Her son Montague John Guest published on the ceramic collecting period (1911). Her youngest daughter Blanche typed up relevant passages to the Mabinogion period for David Rhys Phillips of the 'Swansea Mabinogion Society'. He published in 1921. Vere Ponsonby, son of Blanche, published a two volume edition 1950, 1952; the first is the Mabinogion period. A substantial biography was produced by Revel Guest, her great grand daughter via Ivor Guest, in collaboration with Angela John the historian (1989, repr. 2007). 12)
There is also a substantial article by Sioned Davies (2004), which draws upon Davies' independent research in the Guest journals at NLW, Aberystwyth, where they are kept.13)

The Controversies

Guest's huge achievement was acclaimed by the critics of her day, and continued to be admired into the early 20thC by scholars as well as the reading public. However a giant will always be attacked, and anyway, no one is perfect. The critique list follows:
1) Lack of due credit to Welsh scholars.
2) Plagiarism of Welsh scholars.
3) Profiling the Mabinogi as children's literature.
4) Bowdlerisaton (censoring sex scenes) due to (3).
5) Femininity constructed as inferior 'charm'.
6) Inaccuracies of translation.
7) The Mabinogion error.
8) Dilettantism; an English visitor.
9) Colonial cooption of Welsh culture.
10) Economic exploitation of Welsh resources and labour.
The chief sources for assessment of these issues are (chronologially) Donna Rae White, 'The Crimes of Lady Charlotte Guest' (1997)and 'Further Crimes' (1998); Sioned Davies' article already cited above; and my 'Othering a Guest' (2014) available online at 14)

1) Lack of due credit to Welsh scholars.
W. J. Gruffydd believed ‘the main credit for this work should go to the two scholars who “devilled” for her, (Tegid) . . . and (Carnhuanawc)'.15) Rachel Bromwich says more moderately ‘she was more indebted to the assistance of others than she was always quite ready to acknowledge.’16) Guest does acknowledge Tegid in her Introduction, but Carnhuanawc only in her journal. Context matters however, and Guest was not writing as a 20thC professional academic. However much she aspired to excellence, the strict codes of accreditation her accusers use, did not operate in her day.
2) Colonial exploitation of Welsh scholars.
There is an obvious sensitivity that Guest was English, an incomer to Welsh society, and she profited from a key element of Welsh culture which built fame and prestige for her. On April 21 1921 the Western Mail printed a pseudonymous letter from 'Ap Dowlais' claiming Thomas Stephens was the true author of The Mabinogion. Stephens was a brilliant young Welsh scholar, a protegé of the Guests. David Phillips of the Swansea Mabinogion Society published excerpts from Guest's journal provided by her daugher Blanche, showing detailed accounts of Guest's working life with The Mabinogion. He remarked that Stephens was only 16 years of age when the first volume was published, an extremely precocious triumph.17) Apart from the lack of academic custom to require her to credit her colleagues, it is likely she sidelined them not as an ethnic arrogance, but as a class attitude. In the quote in the first part of this page she makes her extreme arrogance clear as the daughter of an earl. To those of her class, lower classes were all servants who existed to serve. Money would not be mentioned in her journal as a vulgarity, but it is almost certain that she recompensed the Welsh scholars who aided her.
3) Profiling the Mabinogi as children's literature.
Guest dedicated her books to her first two sons who were infants when she first published. However a dedication does not define a book, or dedications to spouses would define a huge romantic literature. She never uses the 'Juvenile' title tag Pughe used (and he only used it in his early publications). She read aloud to her children: 'I have finished the story of Pwyll to the children this evening after tea. They delight in these Mabinogion readings.'18) Viewing this as her target audience disregards she and many educated people until incursions of 20thC TV, read aloud to each other as standard. White comments dryly ‘Nobody has ever published for children a massive bilingual multi-volume collection of tales accompanied by scholarly notes and appendices.’ Guest’s preface to her second edition significantly cites ‘demand for a new and more popular edition’.19) 4) Bowdlerisaton (censoring sex scenes) due to (3).
'The intention of Lady Charlotte Guest appears to have been to produce a version which could be used for the instruction and amusement of her own children, with the result that parts of her translation are either inaccurate or bowdlerised.'20) Guest omits a few brief passages about sexuality such as Arawn's homecoming embraces with his queen. However so did Pughe, who was not a ladylike mama. The scenes are also present in her Welsh text, perhaps indicating she thought English readers were more shockable. Guest herself was not, as her favourite tale in Chaucer is the most bawdy one which she delighted in reciting in full.
5) Femininity constructed as inferior 'charm'.
Her womanhood is stressed by her critics to derogate her. Great play is made of Guest’s ‘charm.’ Sioned Davies declares ‘Indeed, this is the word most often associated with her work,’21) observing it is a gendered tag not used for male scholars, which defines its object as ‘merely a woman.’22) Charm is a tool of glamour, a cosmetic pretence, so such compliments undercut by implying a shallow deceit rather than true skill.
6) Inaccuracies of translation.

7) The Mabinogion error.

8) Dilettantism; an English visitor.

9) Colonial cooption of Welsh culture.

10) Economic exploitation of Welsh resources and labour.

The first publication of all was one tale by William Owen Pughe in 1795, but although he prepared a complete book he died just before he could publish it.
A 'bardic name' in Wales , Cornwall and Brittany is an ancient custom marking a claim to elite status by a bard (poet). With only a small stock of native names it also helps to distinguish those having the same name. 'Carnhuanawc' was the bardic name of Thomas Price (2 Oct. 1787 – 7 Nov. 1848) the senior Welsh historian and poet of the time. 'Tegid' or 'Ioan Tegid' was John Jones (10 Feb. 1792 – 2 May 1852) another Welsh clergyman, Oxford graduate and notable Welsh scholar.
Sioned Davies, ‘A Charming Guest: Translating the Mabinogion’’, Studia Celtica, (2004) pp. 157–78 @ p.170. Also to be found elsewhere. This famous quote is dated 27 April 1839 as Guest was working on her second volume of The Mabinogion series.
Charlotte Guest, The Mabinogion; from the Llyfr Coch o Llergest and Other Ancient Welsh Manuscripts; with an English Translation and Notes, 7 vols (Tonn Press, Llandovery, Wales; and Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, London; simultaneously, 1838
Guest, Charlotte, The Mabinogion, 3 vols (Llandovery, Wales; and London; simultaneously: Tonn Press, Llandovery; and Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1849), 3 vols.
Lady Charlotte Guest, The Mabinogion, From the Welsh of the Llyfr Coch o Hergest (The Red Book of , Hergest) in the Library of Jesus College, Oxford Translated, with Notes, 1 vol. (London, 15 Piccadilly: Bernard Quaritch, 1877) <>
J. M. Dent and Company began to publish the series in 1906.
Guest, Charlotte, The Mabinogion, Everyman’s Library (London and NY.: J. M. Dent & Sons, and E. P. Dutton, 1906).
Gwyn and Thomas Jones, The Mabinogion: A New Translation from the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest. Illust. Dorothea Braby. (London: Golden Cockerel Press, 1948).
Davies, ‘A Charming Guest’, (2004) p. 159.
At its peak the South Wales industrial zone had more immigrants than America.
JOURNALS: Charlotte Guest, Lady Charlotte Schreiber’s Journals: Confidences of a Collector of Ceramics and Antiques …, (ed.) Montague John Guest ((London & NY: John Lane, 1911). David Rhys Phillips, Lady Charlotte Guest and the Mabinogion; Some Notes on the Work and Its Translator, with Extracts from Her Journals (Carmarthen: W. Spurrell & Son., 1921). Charlotte Guest, Lady Charlotte Guest: Extracts from Her Journal 1833-1852, (ed.) Vere Ponsonby (London: John Murray, 1950). Vol. 2: 1853-1891, (1952). Revel Guest & Angela V. John, Lady Charlotte: A Biography of the Nineteenth Century (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989) repr. as Lady Charlotte Guest: An Extraordinary Life (The History Press, 2007).
NLW = National Library of Wales, or Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru.
Sioned Davies, ‘A Charming Guest: Translating the Mabinogion’’, Studia Celtica (2004) pp. 157–78.
Donna Rae White, ‘The Crimes of Lady Charlotte Guest’, Proc. Harvard Celtic Colloquium, vol. 15 (1995), pp. 242–49; and 'The Further Crimes of Lady Charlotte Guest', vol. 16-17 (1997) pp. 157-66. Sioned Davies, 'A Charming Guest' (2004) see footnote above JOURNALS. Shan Morgain, ‘Othering a Guest: Ethnic, Economic and Gendered Complexities of a Giant Lady’ (presented at the The Self and the Other (RIAH), Swansea, 2014) <>
WJG, Rhiannon, footnote p. 1.
Bromwich, ‘Charlotte Guest’, p. 15.
Phillips, Extracts (1921) p. 9.)
In my view, Guest showed much respect for her Welsh colleagues and their culture. For example her first two editions were bilingual (something often overlooked), doubly published in both London and Wales. She asserted Welsh prose tales as the ‘cradle’ of the European Romance tradition, asking ‘Why should we disregard our own traditions . . . because they have not been handed down in Greek or Latin?’ Notably in that ‘we’ she identifies herself with the Welsh.((Guest. The Mabinogion, Everyman (1906) p. xxiii. Undated Journal entry, possibly 1834, from R. Guest, and John, An Extraordinary Life (2007), p. 103.
Journal February 3 1844. S. Davies, ‘A Charming Guest’, (2004), p. 171.
White, ‘Crimes’, (1995), p. 245. Charlotte Guest, The Mabinogion, (1 Vol.), (London: Quaritch., 1877) p. vii.
Ellis and Lloyd, The Mabinogion, (1929), p. vii.
S. Davies, ‘A Charming Guest’, (2004), p. 166. Matthew Arnold, On the Study of Celtic Literature and Other Essays (1867) refers to her ‘charming collection’ in his Introduction. Ellis and Lloyd refer to her translation’s ‘charm and literary qualities.’ The Mabinogion (1929), p. viii. Jones & Jones speak of ‘a charming and felicitous piece of English prose’. The Mabinogion (1949), p. xxxi.
S. Davies, ‘A Charming Guest’, (2004), p. 167.
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