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The Ladies of Llangollen

The Ladies of Llangollen

The celebrated women of Llangollen who lived together for 50 years in rural Wales in an age when romantic friendship between women and retirement to the countryside were fashionable. Name variations: Ladies of the Vale.

Eleanor Butler (c. 1738–1829). Name variations: became Lady Eleanor when her brother John recovered the earldom of Ormonde (1791). Born in Cambrai, France, in 1738 or 1739; died in Llangollen, Wales, on June 2, 1829; youngest daughter of Eleanor (Morris) Butler and Walter Butler, de jure earl of Ormonde; educated at the English Benedictine Convent of Our Blessed Lady of Consolation in Cambrai by liberal, well-educated and often aristocratic nuns; continued reading and studying on her own when she returned to live in the family's ancestral castle in Kilkenny, Ireland, in 1768.

Sarah Ponsonby (1755–1831). Born in Ireland in 1755; died in Llangollen, Wales, on December 8, 1831; daughter of Chambre Barbazon Ponsonby and Louise (Lyons) Ponsonby (both of whom died when Sarah was a child); in 1768 adopted by her father's first cousin Lady Betty Fownes and her husband Sir William Fownes, who lived in a mansion at Wood-stock, near Kilkenny; attended Miss Parke's School for Young Ladies in Kilkenny, 1768–73, where Eleanor Butler acted as Sarah's guardian during the Fownes' frequent absences from Wood-stock.

The close friendship between Eleanor and Sarah continued after Sarah left Miss Parke's school (1773); they left Ireland forever (early May 1778), Eleanor to avoid being sent back to the nunnery in Cambrai and Sarah to avoid the unwanted sexual advances of her supposed guardian Sir William; after six weeks of wandering in Wales and England, they settled in rural Llangollen in northern Wales, residing in a cottage they called Plas Newydd (New Place) for the rest of their lives; read and studied the classics as well as contemporary literature in English, French, Italian and Spanish; tended a large garden; took frequent walks around Llangollen; kept up a voluminous correspondence with the greatest minds of their day; frequently entertained their genteel neighbors as well as distinguished persons who went out of their way to visit them in Llangollen, "the vale of friendship"; tourists still stream to Llangollen to visit Plas Newydd.

Selected publications:

Butler and Ponsonby kept journals and day books and wrote many letters, some of which were published in The Hamwood Papers of the Ladies of Llangollen and Caroline Hamilton (ed. by Mrs. G.H. Bell, London: Macmillan, 1930) and in Life with the Ladies of Llangollen (comp. and ed. by Elizabeth Mavor, NY: Viking Penguin, 1984).

The story of Lady Eleanor Butler and the Honorable Sarah Ponsonby, known as the "Ladies of Llangollen," reads like a fairy tale. In 1768, the two Irish women met in Kilkenny, where they both lived, fell in love, eloped in 1778, and, retiring to the pleasant vale of Llangollen in northern Wales, lived happily forever after. "Aha," exclaims a contemporary world obsessed with sexuality, "a pair of lesbians." Such a characterization of their romantic friendship would have shocked and dismayed the ladies, their literary friends, and the many distinguished visitors who, over a period of 50 years, came to Llangollen to visit the learned exiles. These included such leaders as the duke of Wellington, Edmund Burke, and Lord Castlereagh, and such writers and poets as William Wordsworth, Anna Seward and Sir Walter Scott, to name but a few. For in the 18th and well into the 19th century, when romantic friendship between women flourished, "women of the world knew perfectly well what lesbianism was," writes Claire Tomalin , "but regarded it as a dirty little vice of servant girls, boarding schools, and actresses, and did not think of applying it to cultivated women of decent upbringing."

However their relationship has been characterized, for the last 200 years the Ladies of Llangollen have fascinated many men and women, a fascination that continues. One central question is why Butler and Ponsonby were sought out by clerics, diplomats, inventors, reformers, philanthropists, actors, scientists, men and women of letters as well as by many now obscure members of the upper classes. Why have they also continued to interest biographers, travel writers, literary historians, novelists, tourists in Wales, and many other people since their deaths over 165 years ago? To answer these two related questions one must first examine the origins of the two women, their upbringing, and the dilemmas they faced as women in 18th-century society which led them to flee their respective homes. Next, one must study why they settled in northern Wales and how for 50 years they lived their lives in rural Llangollen. For it is how Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby lived their lives and used their time and talents that helps to explain why they were so celebrated in their day and so interesting to succeeding generations. Lastly, one must return to the issues of romantic friendship vs. lesbianism which have so preoccupied mostly, but not exclusively, women writers since Colette wrote about the ladies in Ces Plaisirs (1932).

Eleanor Butler was born into the Irish aristocracy, but because her parents refused to abjure Catholicism, they spent years in exile in France to avoid religious persecution and economic discrimination. As a result, Butler and her two older sisters were educated in prestigious English convents in France. Eleanor demonstrated a great love of learning from her childhood, a love which was fostered by the English and Irish nuns of the Benedictine convent in Cambrai. She studied with the nuns from 1748 to 1756 and possibly from 1763 to 1768. In the latter year, Butler was back in Kilkenny to attend her only brother John's wedding. Eleanor was 29 at the time and showed no interest in marrying, perhaps because in her class "marriage was a commercial affair that replenished family fortunes and united family names." Some relatives and family friends complained that Butler was too sardonic and too masculine to attract men, but a young girl of 13, Sarah Ponsonby, who became acquainted with Butler while enrolled at Miss Parke's School for Young Ladies in Kilkenny, found Eleanor "uncommonly handsome."

Sarah Ponsonby was three when her mother Louise died, and, at the age of seven, she lost her father. For six years, her stepmother raised her, but when Lady Staples died in 1768 Sarah was left orphaned and penniless. Lady Betty Fownes , a first cousin of Sarah's father, who was wealthy and whose only daughter was married, adopted the melancholy but bright young orphan. After her arrival at the Fownes' mansion at Wood-stock, Sarah was almost immediately placed in Miss Parke's School, as Lady Betty and her husband Sir William Fownes, a member of the Irish Parliament, were frequently away in Dublin.

After Sarah was placed at Miss Parke's School, Lady Betty wrote to her friend, Mrs. Eleanor Morris Butler , at the Castle of Kilkenny, asking her to keep a "watchful eye" on Sarah, who was among strangers at the school. Mrs. Butler delegated this task to her daughter Eleanor, and within months Eleanor, who was 16 years older than Sarah, became Sarah's mentor, confidante, and friend. Drawn to each other by their love of books and learning, the friendship continued after Ponsonby left Miss Parke's school in 1773 at the age of 18.

By 1776, the Butlers were alarmed at their daughter's passionate attachment to Sarah and insisted that Eleanor, who was now close to 35, enter the nunnery in France where she had studied in her youth. Meanwhile, Ponsonby, who dearly loved her ailing guardian Lady Betty and did not wish to hurt her in any way, was fending off the unwanted sexual advances of Sir William. Confined to Kilkenny Castle and forbidden to see her friend, Eleanor maintained a secret correspondence with the anguished Sarah between 1776 and early 1778. They were helped by Lady Betty's house maid, Mary Caryll .

By early 1778, Ponsonby and Butler had made up their minds: the only way to end their intolerable situation was to flee Ireland. As they made elaborate plans for their escape, they may have recalled what Miss Howe wrote to Miss Clarissa Harlowe in Eleanor and Sarah's favorite novel by Samuel Richardson, Clarissa: "How charmingly might you and I live together and despise them all." At the end of March, aided and abetted by their champion, Mary Caryll, and attired in men's clothing, Eleanor and Sarah made for Waterford to take a ship across St. George's Channel to northern Wales. They were intercepted by their respective families and persuaded to return to their homes because Sarah was very ill and feverish after a night spent in a damp barn.

Neither Butler nor Ponsonby could be dissuaded from their plan to leave Ireland and live together, hopefully in England. In late April 1778, the Butlers reluctantly agreed to provide Eleanor with an annual income of £200, far less than she was entitled to. Lady Betty's daughter, Sarah Tighe , agreed to provide Sarah with a yearly pension of £80. The two bade farewell to their families, their friends, and their country. Eleanor's unforgiving parents treated her with hatred and hostility while Lady Betty, a remorseful Sir William, and their daughter Sarah Tighe all wept profusely when a sorrowful but determined Ponsonby bid them goodbye. The two Sarahs wrote to each other for the rest of their lives, but within two months of Sarah's departure, first Sir William, and then Lady Betty, passed away.

After landing in northern Wales on May 10, 1778, Butler and Ponsonby traveled there and in Northern England for six weeks, finally settling near the Welsh village of Llangollen, not far from the English border. Sarah kept a journal of their travels, "An Account of a Journey in Wales by Two Fugitive Ladies," which she dedicated to "her most tenderly beloved companion." In the journal, she described Llangollen as "a pretty village on the river Dee … in the Beautifullest [sic] Country in the World." With a very small income (for women of their class), they also chose to live in Wales because it was less expensive than England. For example, the lovely cottage they rented and which they named Plas Newydd (New Place) cost them under £23 a year, and this included over two acres of land.

Mary Caryll, who had been Eleanor and Sarah's ally through thick and thin, joined them in Llangollen after the death of Lady Betty. She was loyal, intelligent, strong, fearless, and taller than most men. Mary was a great comfort to the fugitives, especially to Ponsonby, who deeply mourned the deaths of the ever-kind Lady Betty and the remorseful Sir William. It was probably Mary who informed Sarah that as Sir William lay dying he told his daughter Sarah Tighe that "his illness … was his own fault that he was punished for."

At Plas Newydd, Butler and Ponsonby immediately began cultivating their garden as well as their minds. It is known how they spent each hour, each day, and each month of every year, for Butler kept journals and day books from 1779 until 1823, when failing vision brought an end to her writing. Outside their pleasant cottage they spent many hours converting their two acres into one of the most celebrated gardens of their time. They, with the help of a full-time gardener, planted wild and cultivated flowers, including nearly 50 varieties of roses and 80 varieties of geraniums. They also grew many kinds of berries, at least six different varieties of fruit trees and laburnum and many other species of trees and shrubs. The most celebrated botanist of their day, Mr. Sneyde, journeyed from Staffordshire, England, to advise the women on the best ways to preserve their trees and shrubbery. And just about every important book on gardening could be found in their impressive library.

By the late 1790s, Sarah and Eleanor, with the help of hired hands, added farming and dairying to their outdoor activities. Food prices skyrocketed as the war between France and Great Britain, which lasted from 1793 to 1815, intensified, and the ladies rented an additional nine acres to grow potatoes, turnips, wheat, and other comestibles. They had acquired a cow, their beloved Margaret, in the 1780s; ten years later, they had a total of four cows to provide them with milk, butter and cheese. The cows were also valuable for another reason. On July 30, 1801, Ponsonby wrote to her cousin and benefactor, Sarah Tighe, that "our cows are vastly obliging in doing all in their power to increase our heaps of manure." Farming and dairying brought them much-needed income, for they were constantly in debt, as was most of the aristocracy of their time.

Those who have loved longest love best.

—Sarah Ponsonby

The women were also great walkers and hikers, walking at least two hours each day, weather permitting. On October 27, 1785, Butler wrote in her journal that "My Love and I spent from five 'till seven in the shrubbery and in the Field endeavoring to talk and walk away our little Sorrows." Their little sorrows were caused by their mounting debts (e.g., they were usually six months behind in their rent) and by Eleanor's severe migraine headaches. On their daily walks and frequent hikes, they relished the changing seasons, were enraptured by the singing of the birds, gazed at the moon and stars (and read the works of the royal astronomer William Herschel, brother of Caroline Herschel ). They also collected unusual rocks and fossils, a passion they shared with Josiah Wedgwood, the famed potter and reformer. During the summer months, the women spent up to eight hours out of doors each day; only severe snowstorms kept them indoors during the winter.

Indoors and usually from noon until three and from nine to midnight, Ponsonby cross-stitched and made purses and letter cases for friends and family while Butler read aloud. They very much enjoyed the works of such contemporary British writers, playwrights, and poets as Richardson, Sheridan, Sterne, Johnson, Fielding, Seward, Southey, Hester Lynch Piozzi , and many others. They were both fluent in French before they settled in Llangollen and read the works of Rousseau, Marie de Sévigné, Germaine de Staël , Moliere, Corneille, and Racine, in the original. Once settled at Plas Newydd, the ladies learned first Italian and then Spanish so as to read in the original such classic authors as Dante and Petrarch of Italy and Cervantes of Spain. They always meant to study Latin, but were "too busy" to master that classic tongue.

In addition to works in literature and languages, Butler read aloud from books on astronomy, botany, gardening, geography, and religion while Ponsonby sewed or made drawings and maps. Though they had retired from the world and never visited a city of any size for 50 years, Eleanor and Sarah were keenly interested in and well-informed about events in Great Britain and the rest of Europe. They subscribed to at least one newspaper and several journals, and were kept well-informed about politics and government by the numerous letters they received from friends living in Dublin or Bath or London or Paris. Both women were socially and politically conservative and, being staunch royalists, were saddened by the madness of King George III and the execution of Louis XVI.

Ponsonby and Butler enjoyed receiving letters and hearing about the many revolutions, uprisings and counter-revolutions that occurred between the 1770s and 1820. As a result of their large correspondence, it was not unusual for Sarah, especially, but also Eleanor, to devote up to six hours a day writing letters to close friends, such as Hester Piozzi, famed for her travel works and her association with Samuel Johnson. Helen Bowdler and Anna Seward, well-known writers and poets in their day, were also frequent correspondents of the "recluses," as Butler and Ponsonby have been incorrectly dubbed for over 200 years.

There was nothing reclusive about the ladies of Llangollen, for they often invited friends to breakfast or lunch or supper, delighting in conversation but eschewing gossip. One day they entertained over 30 visitors, and it was not unusual for at least 10 persons to call on them on any given day. They gladly accepted invitations from the gentry in a radius of some 12 miles around Llangollen, and enjoyed dinner parties, theatricals, and playing whist and backgammon.

As their fame grew, British and foreign travelers on their way to Ireland via Wales stopped to visit Lady Eleanor (her title after 1791) and the Honorable Miss Sarah, but only distinguished persons who bore letters of recommendation from friends of the women gained admittance to Plas Newydd. Others of merit and high social class were permitted to visit their extraordinary garden and some were given a tour of the house by Mary Caryll, who collected such handsome fees from the visitors that at her death in 1808 she left Sarah and Eleanor her life savings of £500.

Through the efforts of such friends in high places as their fellow Irishmen the duke of Wellington, Viscount Castlereagh, George Canning, and Edmund Burke, the ladies were granted government and other pensions that made it possible for them to extensively renovate the cottage, both inside and out, buy the house (but not until 1819) and pay off many of their debts. They were the recipients of occasional gifts from well-off friends and Ponsonby's relatives. The ladies kept records of every pence that went out, spending over £30 a year on each of the following: books, fine writing paper, postage, clothing and shoes, and the wages of their gardener and their three housemaids. By the mid-1820s, their money worries were over, for the ladies enjoyed an income of about £600 a year, which was considered adequate for women of their class.

With respect to class, Sarah, especially, was on good terms with the "mobility" as Eleanor jokingly referred to the lower classes. While Butler discharged gardeners "like cannonballs," both of them enjoyed the respect and loyalty of their household staff and anyone else who was an honest worker. They developed a strong sense of community, sharing the ordinary joys and sorrows of their impoverished neighbors. They were viewed as royalty by the people of Llangollen, and when their chimney caught fire in June 1788 dozens of neighbors came and put out the blaze. The grateful women ordered them "plentiful potations of beer," Butler recorded in her diary. "They drank our Health, wished us long life." Similarly, when one of their cows was calving, all their near neighbors came to help. The cow was delivered of a dead calf, and Ponsonby wrote that "all the village came kindly to inquire about our dear cow."

Butler and Ponsonby were highly respected and admired by every strata of society because they were witty, perceptive, intelligent, compassionate, kindly and gracious. Sarah was invariably sweet-tempered, but when provoked Eleanor could be irritable and arrogant. Their close friend, Anna Seward, remarked to a cleric whom Eleanor had offended that "Lady Eleanor, who when pleased is one of the most gracious of God's creatures, under a contrary impression is extremely haughty and imperious." Yet this same Lady Eleanor always referred to Sarah in the most endearing terms, loved birds and animals tenderly, and did what she could to alleviate the sufferings of the poor.

On June 2, 1829, a year after the ladies celebrated their 50th year together, Butler, who had been blind for over five years, passed away. The entire village put on their mourning clothes and attended her funeral and interment. The same thing happened when Ponsonby, her grieving companion, passed away 18 months later. Save for the duke of Wellington and the poet William Wordsworth, the ladies of Llangollen had outlived most of their friends and contemporaries. It was Wordsworth who best memorialized them in a sonnet he wrote at Plas Newydd in 1824 which he entitled "To Lady Eleanor and the Honorable Miss Ponsonby, composed in the grounds of Plas-Newydd, Llangollen." The last six lines read:

Glyn Cafaillgaroch, in the Cambrian tongue,
In ours the Vale of Friendship, let this spot
Be nam'd where faithful to a low roof'd Cot
On Deva's banks, ye have abode so long,
Sisters in love, a love allowed to climb
Ev'n on this earth, above the reach of time.

In July 1828, when the Prussian prince Puckler-Muskau met Butler and Ponsonby for the first and only time (his father had visited them many years before), he referred to them as the "two most celebrated virgins in Europe." During the rest of the 19th century, they were considered "Victorian models for ideal love and devotion." But in the 20th century, they have been regarded as the two most celebrated lesbians of their time, not only because they shared the same bed but also because they wore semi-masculine attire (i.e. a riding habit and beaver hats). The French writers Colette and Simone de Beauvoir took it for granted that they were lesbians, and the women are included in Paul Russell's The Gay 100: a ranking of the most influential gay men and lesbians, past and present (1994). Mary Gordon 's 1936 novel about the ladies, Chase of the Wild Goose, did not suggest that the ladies were sapphists, yet the work was reprinted in 1975 by Arno Press in its series on homosexuality. In more recent works of fiction, Butler and Ponsonby have been depicted as lesbians by Doris Grumbach in The Ladies (1984) and Morgan Graham in These Lovers Fled Away (1988).

On the other hand, Elizabeth Mavor , who read every word the ladies wrote in preparing her masterful biography, The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship (1971), and who has compiled and edited excerpts from their writing, believes that their relationship was platonic. Lillian Faderman , the author of Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (1981) agrees with Mavor. For Faderman, theirs is the great success story of romantic friendship. While writers of fiction are rooted in their times and can distort the past at will, the biographer and historian try to understand the past on its own terms and by a careful study of the evidence. But whether regarded as lesbians by some or as romantic friends by others, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby live on in many hearts, "above the reach of time."

sources:

Bell, Mrs. G.H., ed. The Hamwood Papers of the Ladies of Llangollen and Caroline Hamilton. London: Macmillan, 1930.

Bradbrook, M.C. "The Elegant Eccentrics," in The Modern Language Review. Vol. XLIV. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1949, pp. 184–198.

Colette. The Pure and the Impure. Trans. by Herma Briffault. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. NY: William Morrow, 1981.

Mavor, Elizabeth. The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship. London: Michael Joseph, 1971.

suggested reading:

Gordon, Mary. Chase of the Wild Goose. London: Hogarth Press, 1936.

Mavor, Elizabeth, comp. and ed. Life with the Ladies of Llangollen. NY: Viking Penguin, 1984.

Anna Macías , Professor Emerita of History, Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio

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