Forbidden Lives

Norena Shopland
Publication Date: 
Friday, November 17, 2017
No votes yet

‘Norena Shopland has lovingly trawled the Welsh archives for evidence of past lives lived in society’s shadows; the stories herein are both inspiring and heartbreaking in equal measure.’
Buzz Magazine

Forbidden Lives is a fascinating collection of portraits and discussions that aims to populate LGBT gaps in the history of Wales, a much neglected part of Welsh heritage. In it Norena Shopland reviews the reasons for this neglect while outlining the activity behind the recent growth of the LGBT profile here. She also surveys LGBT people and their activity as far back as Giraldus Cambrensis’ Journey Through Wales in the twelfth century where he reports on ‘bearded women’ and other hermaphrodites. Other subjects include Edward II and Hugh DeSpenser, seventeenth century poet Katherine Philips, the Ladies of Llangollen, Henry Paget, artists Gwen John and Cedric Morris, and actor Cliff Gordon.

Shopland also identifies the strong Welsh connections to the exploration of homosexuality and transgender during the twentieth century, highlighting the contributions of John Randell, AE Dyson and Griff Vaughan Williams, and MPs Desmond Donnelly and Leo Abse. They helped to transform social and legal attitudes towards LGBT people across the whole of Britain, particularly in the post-war period, which created the more accepting culture present today. There is still plenty of work to do, as chapters on the responses to Pride in Wales and the first gay play, We All Fall Down, clearly show. But the stories of the people portrayed in this book are less likely to be repeated: the LGBT community has moved from living forbidden lives to a place largely less forbidding. Norena Shopland helps us understand the struggle which achieved these changes.




Review by Rhian E. Jones, Planet

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Deirdre Beddoe criticised the male-centric nature of Welsh history in 1986, claiming that 'Welsh history, like English history, has been about chaps'. More than this, it has tended to concentrate on the male, industrial and heteronormative subject at the expense of other experiences. Since the 1980s, Welsh historians have focused on integrating aspects of gender, ethnicity and sexuality, in works including Angela John's Our Mothers' Land and Jane Aaron and Chris Williams' anthology Postcolonial Wales. Norena Shopland's Forbidden Lives: LGBT Stories from Wales is a welcome step forwards into a still largely unexplored historical arena.

The book's first chapter features socially unconventional Welsh women from the 1700s and 1800s, whose strength, aggression or sporting prowess, as well as their lack of submission to men, often led them to be described as 'masculine'. In contemporary reports, such individuals could be admired and celebrated as well as looked at curiously for their lack of conformity to feminine standards of looks and behavior. Shopland explains that her use of these accounts is to examine how gender presentation can defy heteronormativity, rather than relating it to sexual orientation or gender identity specifically. Given that sexuality and gender presentation are regularly confused or conflated- and that perceptions of both can be tied up with essentialist understandings of how a 'real' woman or man should look and act- as a way into the book this occasionally raises more questions than it answers. Although an interesting and valuable discussion, this area is perhaps worthy of a study in itself.

From here, we move onto frequently fascinating case-studies of Welsh or Welsh-interest figures whose lives are interwoven with LGBT history. Some are relatively well-known, like the Ladies of Llangollen, the artist Gwen John and the writer Jan Morris, as well as Katherine Phillips, 'the Welsh Sappho', an Englishwoman living in Cardigan at the time of the English Civil War, whose poetry was some of the earliest to express romantic love between women. Shopland also sheds light on more marginal figures, like fifteen-year-old Edith Phillips, who in 1901 left her Merthyr home to live and work as a boy. Her story leads into a discussion of the Welsh women throughout history who dressed as soldiers or sailors for freedom and adventure, 'for a lark', or to follow their conscripted lovers, as well as for more complex reasons of gender expression.

After exploring nineteenth-century bohemia and early twentieth-century stars of stage and screen, Forbidden Lives finds its strongest ground as it emerges into the modern era. The book's latter half takes us smoothly and assuredly through the 1950s and '60s struggles over the treatment of homosexuality in politics, over the treatment of homosexuality in politics, law and psychoanalysis, followed by the popular activism and liberation campaigns of the '70s and '80s and the consequent upsurge in LGBT consciousness and visibility. The long journey towards social change and acceptance, the many figures who contributed, often at great personal cost, and the various flashpoints that occurred in Wales along the way- from Swansea and Cardiff to Llandudno and Bangor- are all well-researched and described, with Shopland drawing on individuals' own accounts of their experiences and letting the genuine drama and excitement inherent to social struggle infuse her narrative.

Shopland's breadth of reading and research is evident, even if its selection sometimes seems curious. A venture into the 'bearded women' described in the annals of Gerald of Wales feels tangential, while conversely, a riff on 'the blurring of gender' in Welsh history and mythology makes no mention of the folk cultural cross-dressing which distinguished the Rebecca Riots. The rapport developed between Welsh miners and the UK's LGBT community during the Miners' strike is also absent from the book's discussion of '80s political solidarity. Overall, though, Shopland's style brings accessibility and clarity, to an often weighty subject. She also does well to highlight the historical erasure or dismissal of bisexuality involved in defining well-known individuals by their heteronormative relationships at the expense of the more fluid variety of their lives.

On its journey through nine hundred years of Welsh history, Forbidden Lives ranges across the idea of Wales as utopian oasis for artists and Romantic pastoralists to the grittier industrial reality. Shopland is attentive to how gender and sexuality can interact with class, and how this can broaden or restrict the freedom with which an individual may defy social convention. The Ladies of Llangollen, after escaping their repressive families, were able to use their connections to enter local high society and gain international celebrity, while Edith Philips' attempts to escape her allotted gender role saw her end up in a workhouse infirmary before dying in obscurity.

Forbidden Lives, despite its occasional stumbles, is an engaging, intriguing and nicely illustrated step on a road that will hopefully see both Wales and the world acquire many more books of this nature.

Review by Jim Nawrocki, The Gay and Lesbian Review

Monday, July 2, 2018

Wales has always been a nation fiercely protective of it's national identity. Much of that energy has focused on preserving the country's unique and exotic language (think of all those gargantuan, consonant-heavy Welsh placed names). Welsh nationalist's resistance to the British has been strident and even violent. In 1936, three nationalists set fire to a newly built Royal Air Force base in the Welsh heart-land. The men became folk heroes, dubbed "The Three", and photographed for a postcard that circulated widely for many years after.

In Forbidden Lives, Norena Shopland cites this spirit of rebellion as an animating force in the lives of many Welsh LGBT pioneers whose stories she has collected in her book. These 25 tales cover a broad swath of Welsh history. They include famous eccentrics, well-known cultural figures, military personnel, political leaders, and even a few early examples of what we would today call intersex individuals. Although most chapters are biographical accounts of particular people, later chapters are mini-histories of political, legislative, and cultural events. Taken as a whole, Forbidden Lives is a combination of biography and cultural history.

The book abounds with curiosities and surprises. There's Peggy Evans (b.1696), who was large and masculine, sported facial hair, smoked a pipe, and was famous for winning contests of physical strength against any man who challenged her. There's Katherine Philips (b.1632), the "Welsh Sappho", who published some of the earliest same-sex poetry in the British Isles. What is surprising, based on Shopland's version of their lives, is how openly these people transgressed the bounds of "heteronormativity". (This example notwithstanding, Shopland mostly avoids the abstruse academic jargon so prevalent in queer studies).

If there's a hall of fame of Welsh queers, then the "Ladies of Llangollen" are it's stars. They were Lady Eleanor Butler (b.1739) and Sarah Ponsonby (b.1755), who shared a Welsh cottage for fifty years, living as if married. The became international celebrities after Anna Seward, a leading poet, published a ballad about them that became wildly popular. For years, their small home was visited by luminaries such as Williams Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, Prime Minister Gladstone, and the Duke of Wellington. Shopland's profile includes a famous 19th-century portrait of the Ladies.

Although most of Shopland's stories are about women and the transgendered, she profiles some men. Among them is Hugh Despenser who, along with Piers Gaveston, took part in the sordid events that led to the downfall and death of King Edward II. Shopland has researched the racy tale well, and she dispels certain myths in the well-known story, including that detail about the red hot poker. In all of her accounts of pre-20th-century events, Shopland reminds us that the historical record can be murky, and that LGBT concepts such as "gay" and "transgender" simply can't be retroactively applied to such long-ago lives.

Among her latter-day subjects is travel writer Jan Morris, one of the most famous and eloquent of contemporary transsexuals. As an active Welsh nationalist who has written histories of Wales and chronicled her life in the Welsh countryside (A Writer's House in Wales in 2002), Morris is a worthy addition to Shopland's roster of gender pioneers. The profile of Morris includes ample quotations from her wonderful memoirs, Conundrum (1974) and The Pleasures of a Tangled Life (1989).

The second half of the book is focused on historical essays about significant queer-related events in Wales and Great Britain. She devotes a chapter to the infighting within psychoanalytical circles over how to classify and treat LGBT patients. Two chapters cover the legal and legislative efforts around the struggle for LGBT rights. Also included are chapters recounting the AIDS crisis in Wales, as well as a brief history of the Welsh Gay Pride movement. Forbidden Lives offers an expansive overview of Welsh LGBT history, and the book provides a good reading list for those interested in exploring that history more closely. 

Review by Cerith D. Rhys Jones, Welsh Agenda

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

As a young, gay Welshman, I am embarrassed that before reading this book I had never heard of any of the people whose stories it tells. Perhaps that is my own fault; more likely though it’s a result of the fact that society has effectively all but erased these people from history.


In his foreword, Jeffrey Weeks says that the only LGBT stories he heard while growing up in Rhondda in the 1950s and 1960s were ones of guilt and shame. What this book shows is that that was nothing new. Our stories have been tarred with shame for centuries because society has refused to accept us for who we are.


It is important at this stage to put on record my sincere thanks to Norena Shopland for her years of work researching the lives and stories of LGBT people in and from Wales. Forbidden Lives is not simply a book but a significant contribution to the LGBT community, and indeed the whole, of Wales.


In Forbidden Lives, Shopland charts the history of people who might today fit into what we call LGBT. In their time no equivalent terms existed and such phrases as ‘romantic friendships’ were used to describe their lives. Shopland expertly explores their lives without categorising them with one label or another. Rather, she looks at each person – each story – and finds what was so different about them that society decided their history should be forgotten.


Forbidden Lives is a sensitive piece of work. Shopland has avoided making assumptions about people where definitive answers would simply be impossible. Indeed, the impression I get is that Shopland does not believe it her place to make such assumptions. But where the subjects’ lives, relationships, and behaviour differed from the norm – that is, straight and cis-gendered – she tells their stories with great care and compassion.


I am relieved that Forbidden Lives doesn’t hide its subjects’ failings. It is a book of celebration, but it would have been a disservice to have forgotten that these people were exactly that: people. They weren’t perfect and they weren’t saints. But where characters were flawed – sometimes extremely so, such as Hugh Despenser – their story is told all the same. This book isn’t an effort to suggest that all these people did good, it simply says that they existed and that this part of their being should not be erased.


I was pleased by the number of LGBT women whose stories this book tells. From Marged ferch Ifan, whose supposedly masculine traits gave her great renown during her time to the wonderful story of the Ladies of Llangollen, who have, in some ways, become icons.


A number of the women whose stories are told in Forbidden Lives are rather steelier, more determined, than the men. When society expected women to be dainty ornaments, to dress in a certain way, and talk in a certain way, these women showed immense courage and defiance.


The men too were undeniably brave, but Forbidden Lives paints a picture of the men being somewhat quieter in their defiance, perhaps wanting to get on with life without drawing too much attention. But the women wanted to make a point. Good on them, I say.


Of course this is a generalisation, and this book only tells the stories of a very small number of LGBT people throughout the history of Wales, but it was a gentle reminder – if only to me – that I should more often look to the women in my life and in the world for strength and inspiration.


The first half of Forbidden Lives is somewhat beyond the realm of my imagination. Perhaps that’s because the stories told are long before my time. Perhaps it’s because the people it discusses weren’t of our time and so didn’t identify in ways with which I am familiar. But then the book moves into the twentieth century and I start to see the Wales that I know. I start to see the same kind of attitudes and prejudices that I experienced growing up, and sometimes still experience. I start to see the kind of modern discussion of sexuality and gender identity to which I am used.


As Forbidden Lives draws to a close there is a marked change in the kind of stories it tells. The reader starts to hear about LGBT people (and non-LGBT people) who have made substantial contributions to the LGBT community in their own right. We hear of people who put on plays, arranged conferences, and introduced legislation. This is the story of a more strategic and purposeful defiance. These acts weren’t about the self but about something bigger.


The book’s final chapter – ‘Pride in Wales’ – is, for me, the most difficult; its story is the most recent, and the one most familiar to me. It is not happy reading, but it is nevertheless important. The book’s closing words remind me that I would need to have been born a decade later to have been in a Wales free of legal persecution of people like me.


It took me until the very end of Forbidden Lives to realise that this was never meant to be a book that made one happy. Instead, it tells the stories, for better or worse, of people like me who have been erased from the history books. They were not perfect people, nor are these perfect stories, but my goodness, they are worth telling. And I am grateful to Norena Shopland for telling them so carefully and defiantly. Shopland makes her own view known throughout this book, so let me say this: today’s Wales is still far from perfect. LGBT people here are still suffering, and facing discrimination.


This book serves as a call to action to make our stories known and our voices heard, and to keep up the fight.


Review by Chris Andrews, Buzz Magazine

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

An important and largely untold part of LGBT history is captured perfectly in Forbidden Lives: LGBT Stories From Wales.

In a time where LGBT people are accepted more than ever (though there is still work to be done), it’s important that the stories of those who paved the way are remembered.

Author Norena Shopland has lovingly trawled the Welsh archives for evidence of past lives lived in society’s shadows; the stories herein are both inspiring and heartbreaking in equal measure. One of the more famous stories within the book is that of the Ladies Of Llangollen, two aristocratic ladies who fell in love in the late 1700s and had to escape to Wales to be together.

Elsewhere, the question of heteronormativity is raised and examined in the case of Peggy Evans, who was known to be the greatest hunter and fisher of her time as well as being a blacksmith, boatbuilder, and maker of harps. Her like was virtually unheard of for women of the era.

In more recent times, anyone living in Cardiff will already be aware of the annual Pride March, but were you aware that after the inaugural marches in the 1980s, it actually was outlawed for a number of years?

Going beyond the well-publicised stories of Gareth Thomas, Ivor Novello, and more recent gay icons, Forbidden Lives digs deep into Welsh history and finds some truly inspirational characters. There are lessons to be learned from our past and Shopland has done a fantastic job of bringing them together in this book.

User Reviews

Sarah Johnson's picture

Sarah Johnson

No votes yet

‘This is an outstanding piece of work which provides a detailed insight into the queer past of Welsh people. With an engaging style and a concrete historical foundation, this book illuminates some of the stories we might already have heard of, and many more we didn't know, about people in Wales who can be classified as LGBT+. Thoroughly entertaining and very thought-provoking, a real page-turner of a book that brings hidden history to light. A must-read for anyone interested in Welsh history, LGBT+ identities and stories, and life in general.’ – WriterAl (Amazon review)

18/04/2018 - 10:10


Sarah Johnson's picture

Sarah Johnson

No votes yet

‘This is an outstanding piece of work which provides a detailed insight into the queer past of Welsh people. With an engaging style and a concrete historical foundation, this book illuminates some of the stories we might already have heard of, and many more we didn't know, about people in Wales who can be classified as LGBT+. Thoroughly entertaining and very thought-provoking, a real page-turner of a book that brings hidden history to light. A must-read for anyone interested in Welsh history, LGBT+ identities and stories, and life in general.’ – WriterAl (Amazon review)

18/04/2018 - 10:10
Please Login or register to post a comment or review