Eleanor and Sarah’s first attempt at elopement failed, but a second attempt was allowed to succeed, so worn down was everyone by trying to keep the two women apart. The ladies settled in the Vale of Llangollen. There they found a simple stone cottage with windows like a symmetrical child’s drawing.
“I kept my bed all day with one of My dreadful Headaches. My Sally, My Tender, My Sweet Love lay beside me holding and supporting My Head till one o’clock…”
– Eleanor Butler’s journal, 2 December 1785
Plas Newydd came complete with a sublime peak hanging over it and a thrilling ravine for melancholy and ‘improving’ walks. The cottage was soon to be improved too, its plain windows gothicked beyond recognition. The postcard below shows its interior, intensely decorated with wooden paneling and carving, some of this presented as gifts by guests, some collected from abandoned grand mansions and churches (‘found objects’), perhaps representing the life the Ladies had to leave behind.
Their lifestyle – the cottage with its wild setting, simple dairy, forty varieties of rose, ornate kitchen gardens, peach trees and vines, wonderful library of finely-bound books (their initials embossed in gold: E.B. on the front, S.P on the back) – attracted the intellectuals and socialites of the day. Visitors included Anna Seward, Lady Caroline Lamb, Arthur Wellesley, Thomas De Quincey and Robert Southey; Wordsworth composed a sonnet in their garden. They were able to live as they wanted without being the subject of salacious gossip.
“This saloon of the Minervas contains the finest editions, superbly bound, of the best authors, in prose and verse … The fruit-trees are of the rarest and finest sort, and luxuriant in their produce; the garden-house, and its implements, arranged in the exactest order….
Nor is the dairy-house, for one cow, the least curiously elegant object of this magic domain”
– Anna Seward
The Ladies’ lifestyle didn’t just appeal to the fashionable though, as this touching account from a nineteenth century vicar makes plain.
“I well remember when I first visited this place, many summers ago, what were my feelings when their (Ladies of Llangollen) story was told me, It was in that era of life when one ‘listens to the whispers of fancy and pursues with eagerness the phantoms of hope’, when one takes the world to be what it seems and sees not the impress of the Fall.
I well remember how deeply I was interested, and how strongly I desired ‘to go and do likewise’.”
– James Johnson, Diary of a Journey into North Wales with Major Evans in September and October 1841
Some newspaper accounts from a slightly later period offer a similar view of them, albeit more sugary and sentimental.