ESSAY Kirsti Bohata

NWR Issue 101

Rough Tumbles & Cracked Crowns

When, in 1872, Amy Dillwyn began to describe Olive Talbot as her 'wife' in her diaries it was a secret designation. Not because it was necessary to hide a lesbian relationship at this time; there were other female couples who were widely regarded as spouses. The celebrated Welsh sculptor Mary Lloyd and Frances Power Cobbe, the feminist journalist and campaigner, had lived together since 1860 and eventually retired to Hengwrt, near Dolgellau, in 1884, where they were finally buried in a shared gave. But intimate friends though Amy and Olive were, Olive did not apparently return Amy’s passion and so the term ‘wife’ was a recognition of how Amy felt rather than a public statement of their relationship. These feelings came to dominate Amy Dillwyn’s private life and so – unsurprisingly – hidden, unrequited love is a major theme in Amy Dillwyn’s fiction.

Amy Dillwyn (1845–1935) is most famous as the author of The Rebecca Rioter and as a cigar-smoking ‘man of business’ who saved a bankrupt spelter works from ruin. A successful industrialist, a popular author and a feminist campaigner, Dillwyn’s private life has been quietly ignored, as has been the case with so much lesbian history, yet her love for another woman inspired much of her best writing.

The object of her affections, Olive Talbot (1843–1894), was daughter to one of the wealthiest men in Wales, CLR Talbot of Margam and Penrice. A distant relation by marriage, Amy had fallen in love with her at about 15 years of age (the same age at which leading characters in her novels are first smitten). Amy struggled to keep the nature and power of her feelings hidden, but the two women nevertheless exchanged regular letters, visits, gifts and tokens of friendship and sat into the early hours in each other’s bedrooms holding long and intimate conversations. They shared a love of music; Amy was an amateur composer and the photograph reproduced here shows Amy proffering to Olive a sheet of music. It is an intensely suggestive picture for which they posed during a trip to Buxton where Olive was taking the waters. The two women were also brought together by religion, and Amy often adopted well-established nineteenth-century imagery of love as a union in the spiritual, immaterial world, wondering if the strength of her thoughts and feelings might reach out to Olive, that their souls might be joined either through simultaneous prayer or in the hereafter...

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