Literature, History, Heritage

Some thoughts on Margaret Ellen James: The Fishguard Invasion by the French in 1797 (1892)

Another research article, another revision — another moment to applying the scissors and cutting out segments that veer off the main path. The section below is taken from an article I am working up about historical novels about the Battle of Fishguard. In one of the sections, I discuss M. E. James’s The Fishguard Invasion by the French in 1797 (1892), which is a wonderful and wonderfully comical retelling of the events.

The usual disclaimers apply: the below extract is taken from an article and therefore does not contain a discussion of method or theoretical underpinning. I hope you enjoy it anyway.

Meme showing Women in Welsh national dress
If this caught your fancy, you may also would like to have a look at a previous post in which I looked at historical images produced about the Battle of Fishguard.

After the landing of the French soldiers and the establishment of their headquarters at Trehowel Farm, the novel follows closely the events laid out in H. L. ap Gwilym’s 1842-collection of eye-witness accounts.[i] Similar to T. J. Llewelyn Prichard’s historical novel The Adventures and Vagaries of Twm Shôn Catti (1828), which the author assembled from numerous pamphlets and folk stories, James combines several disjointed historical anecdotes and vignettes into a single, comprehensive narrative, padded out with comic dialogue and characters.[ii] Like Prichard before her, James’s principal figures are an earthy collection of historically verified locals and fictional characters who are swept up in in the unfolding events. Two of the historical personages in the novel are Jemima Nicholas (1750-1832), a local cobbler, and the Trehowel maidservant, Ann George (17??-18??). Although Jemima plays only a minor role in the novel, her attempt at charging towards the surrendering French troops on Goodwick Sands delivers the only martial display of the Welsh in the novel. Ironically, this charge is stopped short by Lord Cawdor and his yeomanry.[iii] In contrast to Jemima, Ann (addressed by the narrator in the familiar as ‘Nans’) is a major character. However, whereas Jemima’s name has only gained traction since the centenary celebrations that saw the erection of a memorial stone for her in St Mary’s churchyard, Ann George has fallen out of popular memory. Despite the disparity in their respective prominence inside and outside the novel, the two characters represent the two common Victorian stereotypes about Welsh women as overly emotional, prone to physical violence and sexual licentiousness:

Jemima, an immensely powerful woman, seemed only sorry that they had not come to close quarters with the enemy: she was truly a Celtic Amazon who took a pleasure in fighting for fighting’s sake. Nancy [Ann George], to my surprise, seemed to have been indulging in the luxury of tears. […]
‘Why, don’t you know,’ interposed Jemima, ‘that her young man was wounded in the fight up there just now?’[iv]

M. E. James, The Fishguard Invasion by the French in 1797

Particularly in the wake of the Reports of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the State of Education in Wales (1847), anti-Welsh sentiment would accentuate these traits and frame Welshwomen particularly from the labouring classes as morally deviant and physically and mentally degenerate.[v] Similar to other nineteenth-century Welsh writers in English, such as Louisa Matilda Spooner and Amy Dillwyn before and Allen Raine after her, James would reverse this value canon.[vi] It is precisely because the female population around Fishguard is passionate and physically strong, that the community is able to push back against an enemy much larger and better armed than the small local militia. As such, in connoting Ann’s worldliness and Jemima’s strength and boldness positively, James marks Welsh femininity as a positive contribution to British society in the defence against foreign agents.

[i] H. L. ap Gwilym, Fishguard, South Wales : An Authentic Account of the Invasion by the French Troops, (under the Command of General Tate) on Carrig Gwasted Point, near Fishguard, on Wednesday, the 22nd Day of February, 1797, and Their Surrender to the Forces of His Britannic Majesty, on Goodwick Sands, on Friday, the 24th of February; Likewise, Some Occurrences Connected Therewith. (Haverfordwest, 1842).

[ii] R. Singer, ‘Introduction’ in T. J. Llewelyn Prichard, The Adventures and Vagaries of Twm Shôn Catti, Descriptive of Life in Wales: Interspersed with Poems (Aberystwyth, 2017), vii-xxxvi, p. XXX

[iii] James, The Fishguard Invasion by the French in 1797, pp. 174-75.

[iv] James, The Fishguard Invasion by the French in 1797, p. 141.

[v] Aaron, J., ‘Hoydens of Wild Wales: Representations of Welsh Women in Victorian and Edwardian Fiction’, Welsh Writing in English: A Yearbook of Critical Essays 1 (1995), 23-39, p. 29.

[vi] For a study of nineteenth-century women’s writing from Wales and an in-depth analysis of the lasting influence of the publication of the Reports of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the State of Education in Wales (1847) on discourses surrounding Welsh womanhood and moral deviance, see: J. Aaron, Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing in Wales: Nation, Gender and Identity (Cardiff, 2010).

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Some thoughts on Margaret Ellen James: The Fishguard Invasion by the French in 1797 (1892) by Rita Singer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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