Victorian author Amy Dillwyn came from a remarkable family. Her father, Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn, was an industrialist and a member of parliament. Her uncle, John Dillwyn-Llewelyn, was an early proponent of photography. Her grandfather, Sir Henry Thomas de la Beche, was a geologist. And she was an even more remarkable woman.
After the death of her brother and father she took over her father’s business on the brink of bankrupcy, gave up the family home to run that business and – as a hands-on manager – turned it right around and became a prominent figure in her local community.
I’m sorry that she isn’t better known, but I’m pleased that Honno has been bringing her novels back into print.
Jill, published in 1884, was the fourth of Amy Dillwyn’s six novels. Its a coming of age story, it clearly has elements that are autobiographical, and it’s a novel without a hero that’s much more fun than that much better novel with the same sobriquet.
The credit for that must go to Jill, who tells her own story. She’s a wonderful character; an utterly believable, strong-minded, independent woman, who is willing to do whatever she has to do to get where she wants to go. She was far from perfect – she could be manipulative, she could be selfish, she could be horribly insensitive to the feelings of others – but I couldn’t help liking her and wanting the best for her.
I loved her voice and I was always intrigued to see what she would do, what would happen to her next.
Jill was the much loved daughter of a prosperous squire, but her life changed when her mother died and when a gold-digger succeeding in luring her father to the altar. She hated her step-mother’s new regime, especially when she realised she wouldn’t be allowed to come out until her two step-sisters had been found husbands. That was why she decided to run away and to earn her own living in London.
The scheme that Jill thought up to get away undetected and unfollowed was very clever. And her plan for the future was sensible: she would draw on her education to work as a day governess while she learned the things she needed to become a travelling-maid.
She succeeded, and she had a very eventful time, but, because her references were false, things fell apart. She became a maid-cum-kennel maid – a job that nobody else wanted – and her charges made that eventful too. An accident sent her to hospital, her friendship with the head sister makes her start to think about a new direction in life, but then she learns that her father has died and she has inherited the family estate.
The story ends with Jill returning home, to take on the role of a lady squire.
It’s a wonderful story, a great entertainment that makes some very firm points about the divisions of sexes and classes in Victorian Britain. It has things to say about poverty, about housing, about healthcare. And most of all it speaks about just what women can do!
There were coincidences, there were places where the story would have been tightened-up a little, but the positive things about this book more than outweighed the few negatives.
The story of Jill’s relationship with Kitty Merryn underpins everything. They meet on holiday with their families and become friends; Jill is disappointed when Kitty doesn’t recognise her on the train to London, and when Kitty drops her purse she picks it up and keep it; Jill become Kitty’s travelling maid, she watches her suitors and wonders about Kitty’s feelings, and they escape from bandits together; the story ends with Jill wondering about what life will hold for Kitty, who she knows has married.
The story of unrequited love for another woman echoes Amy Dillwyn’s life; it’s well done, and it balances the more eventful side of the story. And I must and that it’s more subtly done than the cover image might suggest. Unless I blinked that didn’t happen; nothing like it happened.
But plenty did happen, and it made a great story!