The Ladies of Llangollen

15 February 2017

As we continue to celebrate LGBT History Month, Sarah Bentley explores the relationship between the two 18th century women known as the Ladies of Llangollen. 

“My dear Mrs Goddard I cannot paint our distress.
My dear Sally lept out of a Window last Night and is gone.
We learn Miss Butler of the castle is with her. I can say no more….
We are in the utmost distress and I am sure you pity us…”
– Lady Betty Fownes (from Elizabeth Mavor’s The Ladies of Llangollen)

“Sally” mentioned above was Sarah Ponsonby, an orphan, charge of her late father’s cousins, Sir William and Lady Betty Fownes. Miss Butler “of the castle” was Eleanor Butler: intellectual and passionate, with biting wit. At 29 she was asked to keep a friendly eye on Sarah who’d been placed at Miss Parke’s School near Kilkenny castle in 1768.

Eleanor made a big impact on teenage Sally.

 V0007358 Sarah Ponsonby (left)and Lady Eleanor Butler, recluses known
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Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, known as the Ladies of Llangollen, seated in their library.

The two women were drawn together by a love of French philosophy, long walks and novels like Clarissa and Millenium Hall. They planned to live together in romantic retirement, à la Rousseau. Retirement, 18th century-style, meant a retreat from fashionable society to a picturesque setting where one could concentrate on ‘improving’ activities: reading, learning languages, gardening, sketching, charitable works.

“The runaways are caught, and we shall soon see our amiable friend (Sarah Ponsonby) again, whose conduct, though it has an appearance of imprudence, is, I am sure, devoid of serious impropriety.
There were no gentlemen concerned, nor does it appear to be anything more than a scheme of romantic friendship.”
Mrs Tighe, Lady Betty’s daughter

Sarah’s dramatic leap from a window, complete with pistol and lapdog Frisk, had got them nowhere. The two women were caught and separated: “Sally” feverish after sleeping in a barn; Eleanor distraught, desperate, under pressure.

 V0007359 Sarah Ponsonby (left) and Lady Eleanor Butler, known as the
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Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler outside with a dog.

The 18th century concept of Romantic Friendship that Mrs Tighe refers to might once have been helpful to lesbian couples hoping to avoid scandal. It appeals in the 21st century (and may be making a comeback in the guise of Queerplatonic) because it offers a more fluid idea of love and passion, suggesting that such intense feelings aren’t restricted to sexual relationships.

There is a less appealing side to the concept, however. Lillian Faderman has described the lifestyle of these Ladies of Llangollen as ‘conservative’: they were not quite the social rebels they might seem. The context of their rural retirement was understood by fashionable intellectuals; they were still women of their background and class in many ways.

If 18th century women lived within particular boundaries, had wealth or status, and were sexual beings only in relation to men, they were invisible. Once a woman stepped outside this boundary her cloak was removed and she could be seen. This happened to a contemporary of the Ladies, Anne Seymour Damer, who chose to live an independent life as a sculptor and became the subject of gossip as a result. “Mrs. Damor a lady much suspected for liking her own Sex in a criminal Way…” writes Hester Piozzi (a nearby friend to Sarah and Eleanor) in a 1790 diary entry. The Ladies were never viewed in such a way.

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Dinas Bran Castle, Alphonse Dousseau, 1830. (Image credit: Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru)

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.

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Plas Newydd interior.

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.

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St Collen’s church, Llangollen.

There was another Lady of Llangollen. Her name appears on one side of the three-sided memorial outside Llangollen church; the names of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby are on the other two sides. This third lady is Mary Carryll. As a servant she was almost invisible to society then, but has a compelling life now in Eleanor’s journal. Mary had been with them from the beginning, helping Sarah to leap from the window all those years ago, and she remained with them until she died in 1809. Eleanor and Sarah died within a few years of each other with Sarah the last to go in 1831.

The house is now open to public, but it isn’t quite as it was. Later owners of Plas Newydd, in misguided tribute to the Ladies, further ‘improved’ the house into the strange black and white confection it is today.

“The moon steadfast over the centre of our Field attended by stars. What stillness in the air! Her planet glittering in the deep blue expanse. The smoke from our Dressing-room Chimney spinning up in a thick Column. The whole Country covered with the purest most sparkling snow. The silence of the night interrupted by the village clock tolling nine, a dog barking at a great distance, the owl complaining. I could have staid in the field lost in admiration…”
– Eleanor Butler’s Journal, Saturday January 10th 1789

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Twentieth century Plas Newydd.

Many thanks to Eleanor Osmond, whose postcard artwork inspired my illustrations for this blog.

Sarah is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.