Literature, History, Heritage

English Liberties and Fairy Castles

In other research news, I am working on an introduction for a special issue on minority languages and cultures and travel writing. Naturally, I overshot on content and cannot fit everything in. So instead of consigning a good part of my thoughts on travelling Germans offering their opinions, they are getting a new home here (after an earlier outing in slightly different form in the Llafur Spring Series 2022). Same disclaimers as usual: the below are two cut extracts, not stand-alone pieces. They have not been polished, refined, or sufficiently sourced and footnoted. Despite the ‘work in progress’ character of the below, I hope the segments still give evidence of the German visitors’ individual character and also show how they arrived at their radically different opinions about their travel destinations in north and south Wales.

The perhaps most withering description of Penrhyn Castle by a nineteenth-century visitor was produced by the German writer and immigrant Heinrich Geehl (or Dorgeel; 1844-1908) in 1875. His account ‘Im “freien” England’ published in the Berliner Tageblatt (8 July 1890) of a short holiday to the Bangor area, contains only a brief throw-away appraisal of Welsh landscapes. He jokingly suggests that surely it must be possible to whisper sweet nothings in the inscrutable Welsh language, or else the Welsh would have died out many ages ago. Mostly, however, Geehl focuses in his account on his falling out of love with ‘English liberties’.

Portrait of Edward Gordon Douglas Pennant; Source: National Library of Wales, Wikimedia

Just having left the politically oppressive atmosphere of Imperial Germany, his starry-eyed first impressions of liberal England quickly disappeared following an encounter with his ‘first aristocrat’ in Bangor, namely Edward Douglas-Pennant, 1st Baron Penrhyn. Following an quick exploration of the small city on the Menai, Geehl decides to visit the castle grounds a few miles down the road like many other tourists. However, on his arrival at the gates, he found his entrance barred by a porter asking for the obligatory entrance ticket. Geehl quickly bribes his way onto the premises by presenting the porter with his visiting card and half a crown – and soon walks directly into the arms of the grim-looking baron. Feigning ignorance, Geehl again confidently presents his card and instead of being shown the exit, Douglas-Pennant recognises the unexpected visitor as a gentleman and takes him on a personal tour through the castle and then guides him back to the main gates. Just as Geehl is about to take his leave, the favourable impression he gained of Douglas-Pennant receives and unexpected correction. Another intruder had been spotted sleeping under a tree. The unidentified man, wearing shabby clothes, had been on his way to Liverpool where he wanted to look for work, but instead of sending him back on his way or enquiring about his well-being, Douglas-Pennant, who also happened to perform the duty of the local JP, punished the vagrant on the spot with three days in jail.

Penrhyn Castle, Carnarvonshire – Morris’s County Seats, 1869; Source: British Library, Wikimedia

With the knowledge of hindsight, an irate Geehl declares, he would have suspected such displays of despotism in Russia (or in his own home country, as is insinuated by an earlier remark on the harsh treatment of critical journalists in Germany), but not ‘towards a citizen of free England’. By conflating Wales with England and Britain, it becomes apparent that, for Geehl, Wales is first and foremost a landmass populated by a disappearing ancient people with a funny language. England/Britain, by contrast, is a political entity that dispenses its institutional control over Wales unilaterally. Like ancient Rome, English rule is idealised as a dispensary of shared liberties. Like Roman citizens, everyone should attain equal rights and protections under English law. However, as Geehl has witnessed at first hand, the strict social stratification encourages the miscarriage of justice by concentrating the law among an Anglicised Welsh elite who can use it as a control mechanism to maintain their status quo in addition to controlling the physical movements of an otherwise idealistically presumed free people.

Adelina Patti; exhibited 1886; James Sant (1820–1916); Source: National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the internationally famed opera singer Adelina Patti (1843-1919) established her court near Swansea. In 1878, she was looking for a permanent home and found it in Craig-y-Nos Castle, near Ystradgynlais, which had been put up for sale by the previous owners. She commissioned an extensive renovation of the castle, which saw the installation of electricity, the addition of a small, private opera theatre and an adjoining luxurious winter garden complete with tropical plants and birds. Like the Salis Schwabes earlier on Anglesey, Patti, too, held court. But instead of drawing intellectuals and politicians to her estate, she was a patron of the performing arts. In contrast to Glyn Garth, which was the Schwabes’ occasional country retreat from their main home in Manchester, Craig-y-Nos was Patti’s permanent home to which she returned following local concerts or longer tours. For this reason, her household was run by a permanent staff that also employed locals and her philanthropic activities linked Patti much closer with her neighbourhood.

Historical postcard of Craig-y-nos Castle; Source: Oldsparky, People’s Collection Wales

One of her longstanding friends of the classical music scene was the German musician, composer and conductor Wilhelm Ganz (1833-1914) who, following his immigration in 1851, became one of the leading conductors in Britain.

Wilhelm Ganz; Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his autobiography, written in English, he recounts frequent visits to Craig-y-Nos since Patti’s early days there. Ganz’s memories of his first visit are emblematic for her involvement with the local people, establishing the estate not as a small English enclave, but as part of the community:

She first invited me to her beautiful castle in South Wales, called Craig-y-nos […], to assist at a charity concert, which she gave for the Swansea Hospital in the eighties. The distance from her home was about twenty miles by rail, and all along the embankments crowds of miners stood with their wives and children, watching the train go by, and cheering her and waving their caps and handkerchiefs as she passed along. On her arrival at Swansea she was received by the Mayor and some members of the corporation, and a company of the local volunteers with their bands playing. She drove in an open carriage […] through the streets to the Albert Hall. The ships in the harbour were decked with flags, and on each side of the way, bunting with such mottoes as “God bless the Queen of Song,” “Welcome,” “Long live Adelina Patti,” etc., decorated the route. From the house windows the inhabitants cheered, and likewise the crowds of people in the streets.

Ganz, p. 197-8

Ganz’s account further establishes that Patti’s popularity does not singularly originate from her international fame as opera singer, but also derives from her poor relief activities in the neighbourhood, thus turning her into the benevolent matriarch of her bro:

In the afternoon she, with her husband and guests, takes long drives, and it is a sight to see how the villagers turn out of their cottages with their little children to salute and bow to her as she passes along. In the winter time she provides the poor of the neighbourhood with coals and blankets, and gives them winter clothes.

Ganz, p. 200

Considering the much greater involvement of the Schwabes in social and political reform movements, Malwida von Meysenbug’s account indicates that they only had a limited foothold in the Welsh neighbourhood of Glyn Garth. For the Schwabes, their estate on Anglesey was a country retreat from their regular Manchester life, where they concentrated their philanthropic activities. Similarly, Patti concentrated her series of large-scale benefit concerts and neighbourly support around her main home in the upper Swansea valley.

In light of his own profession, Ganz’s account also relates Patti’s unbroken patronage of the performing arts, especially musical performances, which draws many performers to her Welsh court. In addition, she is a well-educated and highly-cultured woman:

[S]he plays the piano perfectly, as well as the harmonium, the guitar, the mandoline, and the zither. She speaks and writes Italian, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, German, French, and English perfectly. She does the finest embroidery, and has painted some charming little sketches in water-colour. She is a courageous horsewoman, and drives splendidly, and delights in playing croquet. She has had a pretty little bijou theatre built in the castle, which seats over three hundred persons, and where she often performs little plays and pantomimes. On one occasion she asked me to arrange a performance of La Traviata, as her husband, Baron Rolf Cederstrom, had never seen her on the stage. I had engaged some singers from London, and a small orchestra from Swansea, which I conducted.

[…] She is adored by her servants, Welsh, English, German, and Italian, and her sympathetic kindness to her old retainers is the admiration of every one.

Ganz, p. 200-1

Wilhelm Ganz would want us to believe that Patti turned Craig-y-Nos into a small-scale Victorian version of Eleanor of Aquitane’s Court of Love at Poitiers. However, we must keep in mind that he shared a long and emotionally deeply-involved friendship with Patti which inevitably coloured his account.

Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904), an influential music critic from Bohemia, received an invitation to Craig-y-Nos in 1886, shortly after Patti’s somewhat scandalous wedding to the French tenor Ernesto Nicolini, for whom she had divorced her first husband earlier that same year. In contrast to Wilhelm Ganz’s friendly account, Hanslick’s perception of Patti’s household betrays his professional distance as a critic who made a living from his pen.

Eduard Hanslick, Source: Wikimedia Commons

His and his wife Sofie’s (b. 1856) journey to Craig-y-Nos marks them as outsiders who have to go certain lengths to reach their destination somewhere at the edge of civilisation, although the train journey from London to Brecon via Gloucester and Hereford could not be more straight-forward. In Brecon, the Hanslicks changed trains for a small local railway connection to Cray where they were picked up by Patti’s personal coach. Speaking from a post-Beeching perspective, I wish travelling by rail would be that simple today. Hanslick’s initially positive impression of the increasingly verdant and rural character of rural Wales comes almost abruptly to a halt once he enters the upper Swansea valley where “the landscape turns more gloomy, monotonous” (transl.; 42).

Not even Patti’s transformation of the formerly “solid, rectangular residential house” into an irregular, lavishly decorated fairy castle can lift his spirits. Where Wilhelm Ganz saw benevolent paternalism, Hanslick finds Craig-y-Nos unexpectedly feudal:

The lady and lord of the house rushed towards us from the dining hall and obliged us to join the already begun dinner, not allowing us to change our apparel.

Hanslick, p. 43 (transl.)

And while he is impressed by all the latest mod-cons installed at the freshly renovated castle, praising the electrical lighting in the dining room, Hanslick does not share Ganz’s enthusiasm for his hosts’ obsession with their orchestion, which is a highly complex music automaton that can imitate an entire orchestra. So much so that after a few days he “was overcome by a truly ravenous hunger for a morsel of living music” (transl.; 44), but since Patti never performed before her friends at home, Hanslick had to take matters into his own hands, and with the help of Ganz who also happened to visit at the same time, found a Mozart tune set for the piano and took himself out of his misery.

Even when the Hanslicks attempt to escape the stifling and artificial atmosphere of the fairy-castle and flee into the Welsh countryside, they find their plans foiled by uncooperative landscaping:

My wife and I woke up quite early, in the hope of going on a fine walk. The surroundings had been praised to heaven in word and print. But we found nothing but a dusty country lane leading right towards Brecon and left towards Swansea. Would it be possible to walk up any of the hills that surround the valley? No, there were no trails and barely a path suitable for experienced mountaineering goat herds. […] Despite Mr Ganz’s informed company, it is entirely impossible for us; we are stuck on the road that has been fenced in with hedges.

Hanslick, p. 44 (transl.)

In contrast to Wilhelm Ganz or any of the previously mentioned German travellers, Hanslick, the professional critic, acknowledges that neither Craig-y-Nos nor its surroundings matched his expectations because they had simply been too high. And whilst he failed to understand why someone as favoured with riches and offers as Adelina Patti would choose to live here in such an unprepossessing corner of Wales and with such a rigidly ordered household, he admits this was not her, but his own fault. After all, “there’s no accounting for taste, not even in matters of landscape” (transl., 45) and the Hanslicks use Wilhelm Ganz’s own return to his London-job as a handy excuse to escape from Craig-y-Nos.

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English Liberties and Fairy Castles by Rita Singer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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