Lady Charlotte Guest
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The Mabinogion is a collection of mediaeval Welsh tales, which notably differ from the Irish Cuchulain of Muirthemne stories (see their translation by Lady Gregory here at the Dunyazad Library). While Cuchulain reads like a precursor to modern fantasy heroes like Robert E. Howard’s Conan (and Howard’s poem The Bride of Cuchulain proves that he had been aware of the Irish hero), The Mabinogion is much more reminiscent of our fairy tales, or tales from the 1001 Nights.
Be warned that these stories are not always easily accessible, and that occasionally you may find your patience taxed — for instance, when a list of names in Kilhwch and Olwen goes on for seven pages — but don’t let this keep you from being fascinated by these earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain.
This edition does not include Charlotte Guest’s extensive notes.
About the Author
The four stories called the “Four Branches of the Mabinogi” have to be distinguished from the larger collection of the Mabinogion. They were compiled from oral tradition in the 11th or 12th century, and probably form one coherent text. Specific authors have been suggested, among them Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, Princess consort of Deheubarth in southern Wales, who was born ca. 1100 and died in battle in 1136, but nothing about the authorship of these tales is known with any certainty. About the origins of the other stories that form the Mabinogion collection even less is known. The texts, which are the earliest prose literature of Britain, have come down to us via later manuscripts, the Red Book of Hergest from the late 14th century being the most important source.
Lady Charlotte Guest was the first to publish the full collection of the Mabinogion, 1838–45, in a heavily annotated bilingual edition that contained the Welsh originals and her English translations.
Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Guest, neé Bertie, was born 1812 in Lincolnshire into an English aristocratic family. From a young age on she was interested in languages and literature, teaching herself Arabic, Hebrew and Persian, and studying Latin, Greek, French and Italian with her brothers’ tutor, and was involved in public education. After a brief flirtation with Benjamin Disraeli she moved to London to escape an unhappy home, where she met Sir John Josiah Guest, a Welsh engineer and entrepreneur, owner of the Dowlais Ironworks, one of the largest steel producers in the UK, whom she married in 1833. Notwithstanding their difference in age (he was 49, she was 21) and social status (even being extremely wealthy, he ranked far below his aristocratic wife) they enjoyed a happy marriage that lasted until his death, with ten children being born to them, all of whom lived. Charlotte took part in her husband’s philantropic activities, and was also involved in running the company, which she took over for some time following his death in 1852.
Living in Wales after the wedding, Charlotte Guest added Welsh to her languages, associating with leading literary scholars of the Abergavenny Welsh Society. She translated several mediaeval songs and poems, and in 1837 began with the translation of the Mabinogion, publishing the first parts in 1838 and completing the work in 1845.
Charlotte married again in 1855, Charles Schreiber, an English academic, fine arts collector and Conservative Party politician, who had been a tutor of one of the Guests’s children at Trinity College in Cambridge; that he was 14 years her junior caused a major social scandal. For years they travelled through Europe, putting together a major collection of ceramics which she bequeathed to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and collecting fans, board games and playing cards which she donated to the British Museum. Eleven years after the death of her second husband, Lady Charlotte Schreiber died in 1895 at the age of 82, surrounded by her children and grandchildren.