BLOG Linda Rhinehart

NWR Issue 113

‘Breaking the Rules: Betsi Cadwaladr and her ‘autobiography’

I attended a lecture given by Gwyneth Tyson Roberts at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth on March 8th entitled ‘Breaking the rules: Betsi Cadwaladr and her ‘autobiography’’. This event coincided with International Women’s Day 2017, for which there were many other events taking place at the university. In her lecture, Tyson Roberts made the case for the book detailing the life of Betsi Cadwaladr (Besty Cadwaladyr: A Balaclava Nurse). Written in 1857, this nonfiction title is about a Welsh nurse who served under Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, a female historical figure who has become far more well-known in recent years.

Betsi Cadwaladr was born in 1789 in Llanycil (near Bala), North Wales, the daughter of Dafydd Cadwaladr, as one of 16 siblings. At age 19 she ran away to Liverpool, where she worked as a maid, and later to London. After her first fiancé drowned at sea, a few days before they were to get married, she received (according to her) over twenty more proposals of marriage, yet remained single all of her life. She was described as stubborn and independent-minded by those around her. Cadwaladr’s ‘autobiography’ attracted a lot of controversy at the time of publication, since it criticised Florence Nightingale on several occasions, and accused her of keeping charitable donations for herself. Nightingale’s friends and acquaintances therefore disparaged the author as malevolent and a liar. Cadwaladr likewise was not truthful about her age in her retelling, making herself five years younger than she actually was, and giving herself a new name (Elizabeth Davis) in order to be more accepted by English society. These facts led to a discussion of accuracy and truth-telling in autobiographical writing more generally.

The focus on the role of the editor was especially interesting, as Tyson Roberts described in some detail how Jane Williams (also known by the bardic name of Ysgafell) controlled the narrative of the autobiography. The term ‘autobiography’ was given in quotation marks for the title of the lecture, since the book was not actually written by Cadwaladr herself, but instead related verbally to Williams.

The session also questioned the notion of the author itself, seeing as how Cadwaladr’s tale had to be mediated by someone of a very different background and social class (as Williams was from an upper-class background) in order to be published in a literary format. Tyson Roberts argued that Cadwaladr ‘broke the rules’ by being a woman, by being a working-class woman (and also Welsh) and by refusing to submit to authority on many occasions. Unlike many other similar authors of autobiographies, she does not demonstrate a strong religious faith, and therefore must have struck many of her middle-class readers as greedy (for wanting money for her book) and lacking in humility.

This lecture differed from many others that I have been to because the introductory remarks were given in both English and Welsh as opposed to solely in English. Most of the audience was made up of relatively elderly people, who proved to be very enthusiastic listeners. Although it was good to see such a responsive audience, it would have been nice to see a greater number of younger people engaging with this subject matter, since this is a historical figure many of them may not have heard of before. The main criticism I had of the talk was that Tyson Roberts did not spend enough time discussing more details of Betsi Cadwaladr’s life. Her travels around the world, for example, such as to South America, Africa and Australia, were not mentioned at all except for in a few passing sentences. One of the best moments, however, was when Tyson Roberts read an excerpt of the autobiography describing a mysterious animal Cadwaladr had glimpsed on her travels, a kind of snake with many feet and wings. It was this kind of humour, as well as the novelty of the subject, which made the lecture most certainly worth listening to.

Linda:Rhinehart is a PhD student at Aberystwyth University’s Department of English & Creative Writing


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