Ladies of Llangollen
The "Ladies of Llangollen", Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, were two upper-class Irish women whose relationship scandalised and fascinated their contemporaries during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The pair moved to a Gothic mansion in Llangollen, North Wales, in 1780 after leaving Ireland to escape the social pressures of conventional marriages. Over the years, numerous distinguished visitors called upon them. Guests included Shelley, Byron, Wellington and Wordsworth, who wrote a sonnet about them.
Eleanor Charlotte Butler (11 May 1739 – 2 June 1829) was a member of the Butler family, the Earls (and later Dukes) of Ormond. Butler was considered an over-educated bookworm by her family, whose family seat was Kilkenny Castle. She was educated in a convent in France and so spoke French.
Sarah Ponsonby (1755 – 9 December 1831) lived with relatives in Woodstock, County Kilkenny. She was a second cousin of Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough, and thus a second cousin once removed of his daughter Lady Caroline Lamb.[note 1] She was the daughter of Chambré Brabazon Ponsonby and Louisa Lyons.
Their families lived 15 miles (25 km) from each other. The two women met in 1768, and quickly became close. Over the years they formulated a plan for a private rural retreat. It was their dream to live an unconventional life together.
Rather than face the possibility of being forced into unwanted marriages, they left County Kilkenny together in April 1778. Their families hunted them down and forcefully tried to make them give up their plans—but in vain. They moved to Wales and then sent for Sarah's servant, Mary Caryll, who lived with and worked for them for the rest of her life. Mary died first and they were buried in the same plot and share the same grave marker.
Putting their plan into motion, they undertook a picturesque tour of the Welsh countryside, eventually settling in North Wales. Living first in a rented home in the village of Llangollen, they moved in 1780 to a small cottage just outside the village they called Plas Newydd or "new mansion". They proceeded to live according to their self-devised system, though they could rely on only a modest income from intolerant relatives, and eventually a civil list pension. They "improved" Plas Newydd in the Gothic style with Welsh oak panelling, pointed arches, stained glass windows, and an extensive library, in which they received their many guests. They hired a gardener, a footman and two maids. This led to significant debt, and they had to rely on the generosity of friends.
Recognition and popularity
They devoted their time to hosting a range of friends and curious visitors, extensive correspondence, private studies of literature and languages, and improving their estate. Over the years they added a circular stone dairy and created a sumptuous garden. Eleanor kept a diary of their activities. Llangollen people simply referred to them as "the ladies".
After a couple of years, their life attracted the interest of the outside world. Their house became a haven for visitors travelling between Dublin and London, including writers such as Anna Seward, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott, but also the military leader the Duke of Wellington and the industrialist Josiah Wedgwood; aristocratic novelist Caroline Lamb, who was born a Ponsonby, came to visit too. Anne Lister from Yorkshire visited the couple, and was possibly inspired by their relationship to informally marry her own lover. Even travellers from continental Europe had heard of the couple and came to visit them, for instance Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, the German nobleman and landscape designer, wrote admiringly about them.
The ladies were known throughout Britain, but have been said to have led "a rather unexciting life". Queen Charlotte wanted to see their cottage and persuaded King George III to grant them a pension. Eventually their families came to tolerate them.
Butler and Ponsonby lived together for 50 years. Their books and glassware carried both sets of initials and their letters were jointly signed. Towards the end of their lives, they both dressed in black riding habits and men's top hats; some visitors thought it was eccentric and outdated – especially the hair powder – but neighbours thought the clothes were practical for living outdoors.
Rumours that they were in a sexual relationship floated around during and after their lives. In 1791, a magazine described them and implied that they were in a sexual relationship. According to Patricia Hampl, they were appalled by this idea, and objected to the magazine's characterisation to the point of consulting Edmund Burke over the possibility of suing the magazine for libel.
In sharp contrast to the writings of their contemporary Anne Lister, there is nothing in their extensive correspondence or diaries that indicates a sexual relationship. Some consider Butler's and Ponsonby's relationship to be a Boston marriage, or a romantic relationship between two women who chose to live together and have "marriage-like relationships". Others conclude that the two had a non-sexual romantic friendship. Norena Shopland says that modern attitudes designed to distinguish same-sex relationships from a romantic friendship indicate they had a sexual relationship. According to Fiona Brideoake, the description of queer is more appropriate than the anachronistic and specific label of lesbian, particularly as queerness is a broad concept and significantly defined by its difference from typicality. Brideoake writes that their relationship was celebrated by other people as a form of mourning the relationships that they could not form.
Deaths and legacy
Mary Caryll died on 22 November 1809. Eleanor Butler died on 2 June 1829 at the age of 90. Sarah Ponsonby died two years later on 9 December 1831, age 76. They are all buried together at St Collen's Church in Llangollen. Plas Newydd is now a museum run by Denbighshire County Council.
Butler's Hill, near Plas Newydd, is named in honour of Eleanor Butler. The Ponsonby Arms public house, a Grade II listed building on Mill Street in Llangollen, claims to take its name from Sarah Ponsonby.
In popular culture
- Wordsworth wrote a sonnet about them, "To the Lady E.B and the Hon. Miss P".
- Anna Seward wrote about them in her 1796 poem, “Llangollen Vale”, in which she associates them with "chaste provinciality".
- The ladies appeared in a "thinly-veiled biographical novel", Chase of the Wild Goose by pioneering female physician and author, Mary Gordon, originally published in 1936 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press. The book was reprinted and retitled The Llangollen Ladies: The Story of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, Known as the Ladies of Llangollen. Gordon claims to have seen the ladies' apparitions at Plas Newydd during a visit in 1934, which inspired her to learn about their lives. As Gordon recounts in the final section of the book, "The Ladies Meet Me," she believed herself to be Butler and Ponsonby's "spiritual descendant," and hailed them as the feminist progenitors of the modernist female scholars, professionals, and "friends who prefer to live together."
- The ladies' story (along with their ghost story) is told in a chapter of the 2009 book, Queer Hauntings: True Tales of Gay and Lesbian Ghosts by Ken Summers.
- In April 2011, the same month in which the first Irish civil partnerships took place under the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010, Irish state broadcaster RTÉ broadcast a 45-minute radio documentary about the lives of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby entitled An Extraordinary Affair. It asked whether they were Ireland's first openly lesbian couple, but offered no evidence that their relationship was sexual.
- In 2014, Llangollen, the Ladies and Plas Newydd were featured in the introductory sequence of the BBC property buying series Escape to the Country, series 22, episode 21, North Wales (available for online viewing in the U.S. via Netflix).
- In February 2016, the Ladies of Llangollen were featured in a series 3 episode of Mysteries at the Castle broadcast in the United States on the Travel Channel.
- In February 2020, the burial place and memorial of the Ladies were blessed at a special service for LGBT History Month at St Collen's Church, Llangollen. A tribute to the legacy of the Ladies was given in music by Ian Shaw (singer).
- Mavor, Elizabeth (1971). The Ladies of Llangollen. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.
- "Miss Sarah Ponsonby". The Ladies of Llangollen.
- Dixon, Anne Campbell (4 May 2002). "Wales: A tale of two ladies ahead of their time". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 9 April 2016.
- Hampl, Patricia (April 2018). "The Ladies Who Were Famous for Wanting to Be Left Alone". Longreads (Excerpt adapted from The Art of the Wasted Day). Retrieved 20 April 2018.
- Brideoake, Fiona (2004). ""Extraordinary Female Affection": The Ladies of Llangollen and the Endurance of Queer Community". Romanticism on the Net (36–37). doi:10.7202/011141ar. ISSN 1467-1255.
- "Llangollen". Google Maps. Retrieved 29 July 2017.
- Mavor, Elizabeth (1971). The Ladies of Llangollen. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.
- Taylor, Verta; Whittier, Nancy; Rupp, Leila J. (2008). Feminist Frontiers (8th ed.). Boston, USA: McGraw Hill. p. 391. ISBN 978-0-07340-430-1.
- O'Donnell, Leeanne (30 April 2011). "Documentary on One: An Extraordinary Affair". RTÉ Radio 1.
- Coyle, Eugene (2015). "LIFESTYLES: THE IRISH LADIES OF LLANGOLLEN: 'the two most celebrated virgins in Europe'". History Ireland. 23 (6): 18–20. ISSN 0791-8224.
- Shopland, Norena (2017). "Extraordinary Female Affection". Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales. Seren Books.
- "The Ponsonby Arms PH, Llangollen, Denbighshire". britishlistedbuildings.co.uk. Retrieved 29 July 2017.
- "The Ponsonby Arms". ponsonbyarmsllangollen.co.uk. Archived from the original on 28 April 2012.
- Gordon, Mary (29 July 2017). "The Llangollen Ladies: The Story of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, Known as the Ladies of Llangollen". John Jones. Retrieved 29 July 2017 – via Google Books.
- Summers, Ken (18 September 2009). "Queer Hauntings: True Tales of Gay & Lesbian Ghosts". Lethe Press. Retrieved 29 July 2017 – via Amazon.
- "Escape to the Country Collection". Netflix. Retrieved 26 June 2017.
- "Mysteries at the Castle - Prince's Plight, Mad King Ludwig, Falling for Love". Travel Channel. Retrieved 29 July 2017.
- "Celebration of Diversity". newsfromwales.co.uk. 1 February 2020. Retrieved 2 July 2020.
- Fiona Brideoake, The Ladies of Llangollen: Desire, Indeterminacy, and the Legacies of Criticism, Bucknell University Press, 2017.
- The Ladies of Llangollen
- The Ladies info from Gathering the Jewels, a website from the museums of Wales
- Works by or about Eleanor Butler in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- "Archival material relating to Eleanor Butler". UK National Archives.
- Guide to the Ladies of Llangollen Collection, 1774-1991. Rubenstein Library, Duke University.
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