‘This is the story of an exceptional woman’.
So begins David Painting’s biography Amy Dillwyn, which charts the life of a Victorian lady, author, industrialist, teacher and early feminist. This book, along with the work of Dr. Kirsti Bohata and The Life and Fiction of Amy Dillwyn Project, remains the most authoratitive source on the life of a fascinating and unconventional woman. Amy lived in Hendrefoelan House for a large portion of her life – the building which once housed the Miners’ Library – and we now occupy their coach house. This connection between the Dillwyn family and the Library remains strong and International Women’s Day presents a timely opportunity to celebrate the life of an ‘exceptional’ woman and her legacy.
Amy was born on May 16th 1845 to parents Lewis Llewelyn and Elizabeth Dillwyn. She had three siblings, sisters Mary and Sarah and brother Henry. Her father was Liberal MP for Swansea from 1855-1892 and owned the Dillwyn Spelter Works. It was this Works that Amy saved upon the death of her father. Forced out of her home by hereditary laws, she managed to turn the failing business around and save 300 jobs. Such an exceptional act of leadership and discernment would make Amy a local hero for several generations.
Amy’s career as a novellist saw her engage with the class system, social unrest, unrequited love and early feminist concerns. The Rebecca Rioter (1880) explores an iconic moment in Welsh history and the social unrest which provoked it. A Burglary; or Unconscious Influence depicts an upper class woman with a love of nature struggling against her ‘coming out’ into aristocratic society. The backdrop of a robbery and wrongly accused suspect complements the wider issues of societal expectation and class assumptions that underlie the text. Honno’s reissuing of these novels has allowed them to circulate among a wider readership.
Amy never married, having tragically lost her fiance shortly before their wedding. This, along with other ‘unconventional’ aspects of Amy’s personality, habits and attire, has led to speculation about her personal life. ‘The Life and Fiction of Amy Dillwyn’ project has the following to say on Amy’s identity:
‘When in 1872 Amy Dillwyn began to refer to her friend, Olive Talbot, as her ‘wife’ in her private diaries, the term ‘lesbian’ was not available. In later life Dillwyn would come to relish what she called her ‘difference’ which she accentuated by her unconventional dress, her habit of smoking a cigar in public and her outspoken independence.’
As this quotation implies, attaching modern terms for gendered and sexual identity onto Amy Dillwyn risks appropriating her into a category that bears little relevance to the historical context in which she lived. However, it is undeniable that Amy Dillwyn pushed against the conventions of her time, making her an inspirational figure for the feminist and gay/lesbian movements of the twentieth century.
Efforts continue to highlight the achievement of Amy’s life and place her within a context of emerging feminist tradition. As well as her blog (https://amydillwyn.wordpress.com/), Amy also tweets from beyond the grave – @DilwynAmy. Her support for both the Miners’ Library and numerous political causes is proof that death has not curbed her passions for education, women’s rights and social justice! ‘The Life and Fiction of Amy Dillwyn’ project will culminate in a book written by Dr. Bohata which ‘presents an in-depth study of an important lesbian figure and uses personal papers to revise the suppressed biography of Amy Dillwyn’.
The Miners’ Library holds copies of Painting’s biography, several of Amy’s novels and a DVD documentary about her family.