Lady Charlotte Guest’s Translation of The Mabinogion

by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

Our Collections at the Central Library are, as we saw last week, wide-ranging. While we endeavor to know those Collections in as much detail as possible, we – you may be surprised to hear! – can’t and don’t know about every item we hold.

That’s why we occasionally rely on our users to bring unique or interesting items to our attention: one such occasion was during our recent Pop-Up residency at the Leeds Bus Station as part of our Library Fest celebrations. There, a gentleman approached us to talk about a book he had spent many hours looking through in our Information and Research department – the Mabinogion, eleven stories compiled by medieval Welsh authors from oral traditions, which include fragments of tales relating to King Arthur. Commonly said to be the earliest prose literature of Britain, a translation of the full collection was first published in 1838, with six further parts appearing at various points to 1845. A three-volume edition followed in 1846, before the eventual publication of the revised one-volume edition in 1877.

Title page of Lady Charlotte Guest's 1877 translation of the Mabinogion

Title page of Lady Charlotte Guest’s 1877 translation of the Mabinogion

That 1877 publication is the one that proved to be the most widely-read and is the edition we hold today. Translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, this edition remained the standard version of the Mabinogion until the 1948 translation by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones – a copy of which we also hold here at the Central Library, along with further translations and complementary works of criticism and analysis.

Image showing the first part of Culhwch and Olwen's story, about a hero connected to King Arthur

Image showing the first part of Culhwch and Olwen’s story, about a hero connected to King Arthur

Lady Guest was a fascinating figure in her own right: a leading figure in the study of literature and the Welsh Renaissance of the 19th-century, Guest was also known as a leading collector of Victorian porcelain and and international industrialist who pioneered liberal education for the working-classes. You can read even more about Lady Guest through our editions of her journals and a comprehensive biography.

All the books mentioned here are available from our Information and Research department; contact them if you wish to view or loan any titles. And if you know of any books held in our collections that we should bring to a wider audience, please get in touch!

Highlights from our Special Collections: Helvetius’ De l’esprit

by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

The stacks in the Central Library hold around 250,000 items, a dizzying array of materials covering a vast multitude of fields. This ‘stack stock’ is split into a few main sections: around 40,000 books available for loan; our archived journal holdings; and our Special Collections. While the majority of these items are available to find on our library catalogue, we are aiming to make our collections more accessible by publishing guides highlighting some of the most interesting titles across particular subjects and themes.

One recently-completed collection guide focuses on holdings in the social sciences, sociology and anthropology. An especially interesting title in that guide can be found in our Special Collections: a first-edition of Claude-Adrien Helvetius’ De l’esprit (translated as “On Mind”). Published in 1759, this was a startlingly radical work in its time, in which its author argued that all human faculties could be reduced to physical sensation and that individuals are governed by self-interest – the love of pleasure and the fear of pain. Helvetius developed those ideas to claim that humans are born with an innate equality of intelligence; that the quality of education is the only agent of difference between peoples; and that standards of justice and injustice were determined by custom rather than absolute right. That aspect of Helvetius’ work was deemed so dangerously atheistic that the book was declared heretical and, in some case, burnt. An influence on later thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, D l’esprit remains somewhat undeservedly unknown today.


Other titles in our Special Collections for the social sciences include a 1767 edition of Thomas Short’s A Comparative History of the Increase and Decrease of Mankind in England; a charming volume from 1837 entitled “Look Before You Leap”: Being a Plain Consideration of What the Peerage is and Why it Should Continue What it Is; and two contrasting views of women – William Alexander’s The History of Women: From the Earliest Antiquity to the Present Time (1779: 2 Volumes) and Alexander Walker’s Woman: Physiologically Considered as to Mind, Morals, Marriage, Matrimonial Slavery, Infidelity and Divorce (1839). While Alexander’s book has been criticised for being no more than a “history of politeness to women” it can be praised for not containing lines such as Walker’s “As to works of genius, they exceed the capacity of woman”!

Items in our Special Collections are only available on a reference basis. We still hold those aforementioned 40, 000 items for loan, however – the majority of which are classic or key texts in their fields and not available elsewhere in our service. Particularly well-represented across the social sciences are titles by major thinkers of the post-war era: Michel Foucalt’s Madness and Civilisation: Insanity in the Age of Reason; Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964); The Open Society and its Enemies (1966: Volumes 1 & 2) by Karl Popper and Claude Levi-Strauss’ The Savage Mind (1966). Possibly the most famous of all, however, would be Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 The Medium is the Massage (sic) and Shere Hite’s reports on female and male sexuality (1977 and 1981 respectively).

A further selection from our stack stock relating to the social sciences. All these books are available to loan

A further selection from our stack stock relating to the social sciences. All these books are available to loan

You can see the full collection guide – which broadly spans the Dewey Decimal Classification series from 300-307 – including a list of relevant journal holdings, by clicking here and see all titles in the collection guide series by clicking here. Alternatively, contact our Information and Research department to find out more about accessing any of the titles mentioned in our blog.

Festival of the Body: Exploring Women Explorers

by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

Throughout March our multi-use arts space – Room 700 – will be playing host to Festival of the Body, a wide-ranging celebration of International Women’s Day organised by F=, an interdisciplinary research group based at Leeds Beckett University.

Part of that eclectic programme of events will be “Women, Visibility and Playful Acts 3”, a series of talks and performances by Yorkshire-based artists, researchers and cultural workers. Taking place on the 15th of March, from 10am-4pm, the event takes the form of an unconference: an attempt to challenge the conventions of the academic conference by breaking down the barrier between speaker and listener.

One strand will be a talk by Rachel Chapman on women and their journeys, entitled “Ladies on the Loose: Women, Travel and Exploration”. At that talk we will be displaying a selection of books from our Collections that focus on women explorers, adventurers and travel writers. Here are a few highlights.

The oldest item in our Collection is an account by the Austrian Ida Pfeiffer of her travels in Egypt, Italy and the Levant. Beautifully illustrated, the success of this volume allowed Pfeiffer to fund further travels, including two round-the-world trips in the 1840s and 1850s.


The most well-represented explorer in our Collections is Freya Stark, the British traveler who found the long-fabled Valley of the Assassins after venturing to parts of Iraq no Westerner had previously encountered. You can read about Stark’s phenomenal achievements in accounts like The Valley of the Assassins (1934) and her three volumes of autobiography (1951, 1953 and 1961).

One woman whose life in travel and exploration is represented by just a single-volume in our Collections is Edith Durham. An anthropologist focusing on the Balkan peninsula – especially Albania – Durham was also a trained artist, whose accounts of her journeys were richly illustrated by her own hand. The volume held at this library – The Burden of the Balkans (1905) is no exception.


Our Collections also feature woman connected to the local area. While the achievements of Amy Johnson are justifiably well-known, those of Isabella Bird are perhaps less familiar today. Born in Boroughbridge near Harrogate, Bird was a household-name in the late 19th-century and the first woman elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Her exploratory travels took in Australia, Hawaii, the USA, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Turkey and Asia – including Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia. It is those Asian journeys that are represented in our Collections, including her final exploration of China in 1897 – as told in The Yangtze Valley & Beyond (1899).

You can find out more about our holdings in this subject by browsing this Collection Guide. Our colleagues in the Art Library have also put together an excellent guide to their Collections focusing on Women and Feminism in Art.


To view any of the books mentioned here, contact the Information and Research department or visit Room 700 on the 15th of March. Happy exploring!