Review: Cranogwen is a very timely children’s book about ‘the most outstanding Welsh woman of the 19th century’
Ifan Morgan Jones
Last week the first-ever statue of a named woman in Wales, the black headteacher Betty Campbell, was unveiled in Cardiff.
But hopefully, it will not be the last – even this decade – as campaigners have already raised tens of thousands of pounds for a statue for Sarah Jane Rees, or Cranogwen, in Llangrannog.
She deserves one. Referred to by Professor Deirdre Beddoe as “the most outstanding Welsh woman of the nineteenth century”, she was at various times a mariner, poet, teacher, journalist, preacher and political campaigner.
This new book by publishers Broga, which includes words by Anni Llŷn and pictures by Rhiannon Parnis, is therefore certainly a timely one.
The book focuses on Cranogwen’s determination to break beyond the bounds of what was expected of women during the 19th century, when in Wales men and women largely existed in two separate worlds – work and home.
Sarah Jane Rees becomes a sailor, goes to study at a navigation school in London, and then becomes the first woman to win a major poetry competition at the National Eisteddfod.
She also became the editor of the first Welsh language magazine for the women of Wales and by the women of Wales, Y Frythones.
Of course, at barely 450 words of text this children’s book can only skim over much of this.
There are some aspects of Sarah Jane Rees’ life, such as her relationships with other women, which aren’t featured at all. Perhaps that’s for understandable reasons, although it does raise the question – when is it too early to normalise same-sex relationships?
But the author ensures that the central message is broadcasted loud and clear: “Sarah didn’t listen to those who said she couldn’t do something because she was a girl.”
And not only did she do that, the book says, but in doing so she handed the next generations of Welsh women the tools to strike out independently in the same way.
With little room for text, it’s up to the images to tell the story here and Rhiannon Parnis who is already known for her portfolio of seaside images suits the story very well.
The image of Cranogwen as an old lady, looking out from Llangrannog with her spyglass for the next adventure, is a particularly poignant one.
Perhaps if the sculptor of Cranogwen’s statue is looking for ideas, she could do much worse than take that one on board.
Cranogwen can be bought here. An English version will be published in 2022.