A talented American and a Welsh patriot
One day in the mid-1970s, a young American woman walked into Plaid Cymru’s headquarters in Cardiff. Charlotte Aull had set her mind on finding out everything she could about Wales and its national movement. The plan was to return over the Atlantic once her PhD was complete, but – fortunately for Wales – things turned out otherwise.
Charlotte was born in Lexington, Kentucky, one of three children. She took a degree in mathematics and then an MSc in Mississippi University before switching to social anthropology, the study of communities and their culture. And for her PhD in North Carolina, she chose Wales as the focus of her study.
Charlotte had a quiet demeanour and a pleasant personality, but she was no shrinking violet. Hours after landing in the UK, she was in the House of Commons interviewing Gwynfor Evans, Plaid Cymru’s leader and first MP. Later on, while in a bookshop, she spotted a gentleman browsing a row of Welsh-related books – it turned out to be the well-known poet Harri Webb, who was interviewed on the spot!
It was probably Gwynfor who suggested a visit to the Plaid Cymru office to find out more and obtain a list of other people to interview. But little did I foresee the happy outcome – that Charlotte would marry my friend Hywel Davies, a journalist, nationalist and author of a classic study of Plaid Cymru’s first twenty years. So Charlotte came to live in Wales, mastering the Welsh language during the course of her PhD field work in Bangor and Cardiff.
The couple moved to the United States in 1985 when Charlotte took up the post of lecturer in the University of South Carolina. By then they had a two-year old daughter – Elen Gwenllian, who they had adopted in 1983. The family moved back to Wales in 1988, living in a number of places before settling in Morriston – Hywel to pursue his career in television and Charlotte in Swansea University.
Many will be familiar with her classic work Welsh Nationalism in the Twentieth Century (1989). Although the work was published at a difficult time for Wales and Welsh nationality, Charlotte’s book broke new ground in tracing the relationship between nationalism and institutional factors, such as the growth of functions devolved to the Welsh Office.
In 1992, Charlotte was appointed as a lecturer in Swansea University, and in 2000 as senior lecturer in sociology and anthropology. She became a prolific author, her book Reflexive Ethnography (1998) proving a key reference for those studying peoples and their cultures. Her colleagues recall her kindness, her spirit of cooperation and her dedication to social justice. She became a recognised authority in her subject, approachable and popular among her students.
Charlotte contributed a large number of academic papers, as well as writing for the magazine Planet and the Welsh language periodical Barn. Between 2007 and 2012 Hywel and she produced the Papur Gwyrdd, an environmental publication that presented the struggle for the future of the planet to a Welsh-speaking readership. She was an active member of Plaid Cymru, serving as Secretary and as Treasurer of the party’s Swansea East branch, and contested the Morriston ward as Plaid candidate for a seat on Swansea Council.
Charlotte remained a patriotic American, keeping her American citizenship, making frequent visits to her family in the United States and celebrating Independence Day and Thanksgiving in style. She was keenly interested in her homeland’s politics – it is fair to say she was no fan of Donald Trump! As well as a love of jazz, she had a lifelong interest in horses and riding, a passion she passed on to Hywel and Elen – to such an extent that Hekla, an Icelandic pony gifted to Elen crossed the Atlantic to take up residence in Wales!
Charlotte was a committed supporter of the cause of Wales and the Welsh language, of social justice and of peace. She served as governor of Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Tan-y-Lan, Morriston. She loved mountain walking, cycling and gardening, an interest commemorated in verse by a friend and neighbour, the chaired Eisteddfod bard Robat Powell:
Ein Charlotte ddoeth, Charlotte dda – a gofiwn
drwy nos gyfyng gaeaf,
ac o’r ardd daw atgo’r ha’
i ddyn, a bydd hi yna!
Our Charlotte, wise and good – we will remember
in the winter night
and from the garden will come an echo of summer
and she will be there!
We extend our sympathy to Hywel and Elen, and to Elen’s husband Adam.
Charlotte Aull Davies was born on 8 October, 1942. She died on 18 February, 2023.
This tribute is an extended version of an article that appeared in the June 2023 issue of the Welsh-language magazine Barn, and translated by the author. We are grateful to the editor of Barn Menna Baines for her kind co-operation.