“Ro­man­ti­cally, pas­sion­ately, fool­ishly”

Diva (UK) - - Feature -

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


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.

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