“Romantically, passionately, foolishly”
Aged 15, Amy Dillwyn fell in love, “romantically, passionately, foolishly”, with Olive Talbot, the daughter of a Victorian millionaire. Twelve years later, in 1872, Amy began to refer to Olive as her “wife” and in the 1880s she would transcribe her passionate devotion in a series of successful novels. The truth about Amy Dillwyn’s sexuality has been quietly suppressed, but now her diaries are being edited for publication and her lesbian novels reissued. Her unusually frank private diaries are an important addition to the ongoing recovery of lesbian history, and her unconventional fiction invites a reassessment of Victorian women’s writing and the literary coding of same-sex desire.
Until recently, Amy Dillwyn was best known for her extraordinary success as an industrialist and businesswoman. Aged nearly 50, she was forced into frugal lodgings when her father died (he was a well-respected and longstanding Liberal MP for Swansea but not a very good businessman). This catastrophic change in fortune was the making of her. No longer a semi-invalid, Dillwyn transformed her father’s near-bankrupt spelter works into a lucrative company with herself as sole director. As head of Dillwyn & Co she travelled to Europe and North Africa. Aged 60 she travelled by donkey high into the snow- covered Atlas mountains and went down into underground mines in Algeria looking for high-grade zinc ore for her works.
Dressed in her trilby hat, stout boots and a practical short skirt, Amy
KIRSTI BOHATA UNCOVERS THE LIFE OF AMY DILLWYN, VICTORIAN WRITER, INDUSTRIALIST AND CELEBRITY CIGAR-SMOKER
Dillwyn became a celebrity. In 1902 she was described by the Pall Mall Gazette as “one of the most extraordinary women in Great Britain”, and she went on to stand for local elections, campaign for women’s suffrage and to support the rights of women workers – sharing a stage with female Workers’ Union and Labour campaigners.
A female industrialist was unusual enough in the 1890s, but what really caught the attention of the press on both sides of the Atlantic and as far away as Australia, was the fact that she was, as one headline put it, “A woman who smokes cigars”. And large cigars at that – the size seemed to matter to journalists. Dillwyn was amused and gratified by the attention, comfortable with what she called her “difference”. She would, of course, have been well aware of the sexual and gender ambiguity suggested by her cigars. Cigars were favoured by the cross- dressing French novelist George Sand, whose relationships with men and women brought her notoriety in the early 19th century. Emily Faithful – the founder of the Victoria Press, staffed exclusively by women – whom Dillwyn knew, also smoked cigars and was publicly linked to sexual scandal. (Faithful’s friendship with Helen Codrington and her part in the infamous Codrington divorce scandal was recently retold in Emma Donoghue’s novel The Sealed Letter.)
But before Dillwyn took to industry, she was already an accomplished novelist and a regular reviewer for The Spectator. She wrote about social injustice and class conflict, about Welsh riots and popular uprisings, about the irritations of women’s clothing and the wider restrictions imposed on women, and repeatedly about love between women. The lesbian plots of Dillwyn’s novels are coded, but they describe a passionate, undying devotion of one woman for another. They also examine the pain yet simultaneously the spiritual value of unrequited love. Her interest in unrequited desire is based on her own experiences. Intimate friends though they were – taking trips together and exchanging tokens of affection (including music, as shown in the picture, taken on one of their trips to Buxton 1871) – Amy wrote regretfully of Olive that “I can’t make her love me as I love her”. Calling Olive her “wife” later seems to have been an acknowledgement Olive’s importance to Amy, rather than a description of their developing relationship. It is no wonder, then, that one of Dillwyn’s favourite models was that of chivalric, courtly love. Writing in her diary she says: “I should like to have been a knight in the old days of chivalry and whether she cared for me or not I would never have deserted my ladye love while I lived.” Another idea she returns to time and again in her diaries and fiction, is the idea of a spiritual union: “Does my spirit, which is constantly seeking for Olive and yearning for her, exercise any influence over hers or ever meet hers …?” she wondered on one lonely evening in June 1872.
Dillwyn’s love for Olive is the theme of all her most important novels. She began by creating male characters in love with an unobtainable woman. These men are lower class or criminal, like the Welsh-speaking nationalist involved in an uprising against an exploitative ruling class in The Rebecca Rioter (1880). In this story, the hero is separated from his beloved lady by his class and ultimately by transportation for his part in the riots. The use of male characters as lesbian “stand-ins” is not unusual in 19th- and 20thcentury writing, but Dillwyn quickly stepped out from this disguise and wrote openly about the infatuation of one woman for another.
In her fourth novel, Jill (1884), Dillwyn created a surprisingly modern feminist heroine – a feisty young woman who calmly commits fraud, petty theft and deception. Disguising herself as a maid she runs off to London to seek her fortune, falls in love with her mistress and travels with her across Europe. The mistress-maid relationship as a vehicle for representing same-sex desire is a powerful one. In her cross- class disguise as maid Jill has special access to Kitty even while class barriers prevent intimacy, while her masquerade generates an erotic frisson because Jill could come out to Kitty at any time. In the lesbian climax of the novel, the two women are imprisoned together by brigands. In their mutual calamity all class barriers melt away and there is a moment of sublimated union, a moment of spiritual affinity in which “our identities were well nigh merged into one”.
In Jill, and other novels, Amy Dillwyn wrote suggestively of a “strange fascination” between two women. Writing against the patriarchal assumption that two women could only set up home together as a last resort, her novels validate lesbian love as a desirable alternative to marriage and family duties. In her novels, she turned to literary codes which emphasised a challenge the social order – her characters cross boundaries of gender, class and the law – in order to depict a same-sex desire that she wanted to be paramount, not a last resort.
Three of Amy Dillwyn’s novels are published in the Honno Classics series, including Jill with a new introduction by Kirsti Bohata. honno.co.uk Kirsti Bohata works at Swansea University. She is editing the diaries and completing a book on Amy Dillwyn’s life and literature.
Dillwyn’s unusually frank diaries are an important addition to lesbian history
ational Coming Out Day is celebrated in the UK on 12 October (US: 11 October) and commemorates the anniversary of an American national LGBT march on Washington in 1987. But do we actually need a Coming Out Day? Does it not put pressure on people who, for instance, are not ready to come out or who might be in a situation where it would actually be unsafe?
“A specific coming out day will certainly be helpful to some, in terms of being more open about their experiences with family, friends or colleagues,” says psychologist Meg John Barker. “But on the downside, a day like that can put pressure on people because they can easily take it to mean that it is somehow better to be out, or that they should come out.”
Coming out is obviously made easier (or otherwise), depending on your age-group, home locality, whether one is gay, bi or trans, or perhaps part of a conservative religious community. “It’s vital to remember that we don’t have a level playing field here and that it’s a lot more difficult – and even dangerous – in different situations. In some communities and workplaces it’s far more risky than it is in others,” states Meg John. COMING OUT IS ONE OF THE RITUALS OF LGBT LIFE. BUT SHOULD WE FEEL WE HAVE TO, ASKS KATRINA ALLEN
Of course, coming out is rarely a one-off event but rather something most people do many times over during their lives, whether it be to new people or as different things, eg as bi and then as gay or vice versa, or as gay and then as trans. We all first come out to ourselves, accepting our own orientation before disclosing it to others, and there is frequently a long gap, often years, between the two experiences.
It can also often be far harder coming out as bi than as gay since, as Meg John explains: “[ Bi people] know that they will be discriminated against by both straight and LG communities, and that there will be very few role models. They are also likely to be re- closeted by friends and family who assume their sexuality on the basis of the gender of their current partner”.
An important factor in helping people to come out are celebrity role models. “Celebrities can be the people we look to most, be it for inspiration or similarities. And the way in which the media and public responds to a celebrity’s action can really resonate with individuals,” says Matt Horwood at Stonewall. He adds: “LGBT celebrities with multiple identities can effect an even bigger change. When Laverne Cox first rose to stardom, many black trans women saw someone in the media they could relate to. This was a pivotal moment for many trans women who felt ostracised by the often transphobic media and general public.”
As for Coming Out Day, Horwood belives the day exists to celebrate the ability to live openly and freely as an LGBT person. “Rather than pressuring people to come out,” he explains, “it’s a great opportunity for LGBT people and their allies to send a message to those who either aren’t yet out or are still struggling with being so. It also allows allies to celebrate their LGBT friends, families and colleagues.”
Finally, on the subject of whether coming out can help change the political landscape for LGBT people in Britain, he notes that, “passion, determination and resilience are just some of the attributes that have helped LGBT people effect legal change over the last 25 years. By no means would everyone involved in that struggle have identified as LGBT themselves”.
So as we celebrate ourselves, let’s not forget the huge part those LGBT allies have played in helping us.