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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 23d - The Ladies of Llangollen

Saturday, June 23, 2018 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 59 (previously 23d) - The Ladies of Llangollen - transcript

(Originally aired 2018/06/23 - listen here)

I have to start this episode off with a funny set of coincidences. There is this wonderful podcast called Stuff you Missed in History Class which does in-depth shows either on overlooked figures in history, or events that show a different angle on our world than you get from the standard texts. And although they don’t have a specific focus on queer history, they have intersected with a number of topics that I’ve covered on this podcast. Sometimes we’ve intersected very closely and entirely by coincidence.

For example, I did a show on Aphra Behn back in February 2017...and they did a show on Aphra Behn the next month. (I know it’s complete coincidence because I’m sure they don’t even know my podcast exists.) And then in July of 2017, we both did shows on Catalina de Erauso. So when I listened to their show in May 2017 on the Ladies of Llangollen, I figured I needed to avoid scheduling that topic for a while just, you know, to avoid looking like too much of a copycat. But any podcast about lesbian history will eventually get around to The Ladies, and for reasons that I’m just about to explain, eventually became now.

There are a number of running themes within my historic interests. Queer women are an obvious one for listeners of this podcast. But another one of my deep interests is the history of Wales and the Welsh language. It’s an interest rooted in family history, although not particularly recent history. In 1711, Francis Jones and his family left their home in Pembrokeshire to sail to the new world and settle in Pennsylvania as part of the growing Quaker immigrant presence there. Francis Jones is my direct ancestor, and though the history of the family raises some questions about whether they were Welsh in origin, rather than simply living there for a few years before emigrating, the connection was directly responsible for my historic interest. That interest led to studying the Welsh language, both modern and historic, and to choosing Welsh history as the lens for my activities in historic re-creation, and eventually it led to me pursuing a PhD in historic linguistics, specializing in the medieval Welsh language.

So any connection between queer women and Welsh history is naturally going to spark my interest. When I was scheduling articles for this summer’s blog entries for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, I stumbled across an article by Mihangel Morgan looking at queer themes in Welsh literature from the medieval period up through the present. And because I have a thing about celebrating round numbers, I decided to schedule that article as publication 200 in the blog, which posted just this last Monday. That was the best excuse I needed to tackle Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, known as The Ladies of Llangollen for the village in Wales where the settled after they eloped together from Ireland in 1778. That makes the parallel with my own Welsh family heritage even more parallel, because Francis Jones was recorded as living in Ireland before he appears in Pembrokeshire. When I made a trip to Wales in 1981 after finishing college, two of the places where I made a personal pilgrimage were the vanished village of Redstone where the Jones family had lived before emigrating, and Plas Newydd in Llangollen, where Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby lived together for nearly 50 years, celebrated by all who knew them as the epitome of a devoted romantic couple.

There are many excellent sources that relate the overall story of Butler and Ponsonby. Wikipedia can give you the bare bones. Elizabeth Mavor’s biography The Ladies of Llangollen written in 1971 provides an excellent social and historical background to their lives, though she spends one bare page considering and dismissing the possibility that they might fall into the category of lesbian. Lillian Faderman’s study of the phenomenon of Romantic Friendship, Surpassing the Love of Men, discusses them extensively but fixes on her belief that their relationship was non-sexual and therefore not classifiable as lesbian. Other scholars have provided a more nuanced view of the inherent queerness of Ponsonby and Butler’s relationship, including Emma Donoghue in Passions Between Women, Martha Vicinus in Intimate Friends, and Fiona Brideoake’s online article “‘Extraordinary Female Affection’: The Ladies of Llangollen and the Endurance of Queer Community” in Romanticism on the Net. And of course, if you want to get your information from podcsats, you can always check out the episode from Stuff you Missed in History Class that I’ve linked in the show notes. For that reason, I will give only the basic background interspersed with primary source material, especially that written by their contemporaries and the people who met them.

Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were both members of the Anglo-Irish gentry. That is, descended from English families who had long ago been part of the English conquest of Ireland and who maintained something of a foot in both social worlds. Their families were close neighbors. When they met in 1768, Eleanor was 29 and considered something of a bluestocking. Sarah was much the younger when they met, at age 13, and they became close friends over the next decade, with Eleanor first serving as a mentor when Sarah was away at school, and then when Sarah returned home around age 18, deepening into romantic dreams of eloping together due to family difficulties. Eleanor was being pressured to enter a convent since she clearly had no plans of marrying. And the orphaned Sarah was being importuned by her guardian, Sir William Fownes, who evidently was not quite content to wait for the death of his wife before attempting to secure her replacement.

So one night in March 1778, Eleanor and Sarah each snuck out of their homes dressed in men’s clothing, met at a prearranged location having obtained horses, and set out for Waterford. This initial elopement suffered a setback due to weather and Sarah’s consequent illness. A relative of Sarah’s wrote in a letter:

The runaways are caught, and we shall soon see our amiable friend again [that is, Sarah] whose conduct, though it has an appearance of imprudence, is I am sure void of serious impropriety. There were no gentlemen concerned, nor does it appear to be anything more than a scheme of Romantic Friendship. My mother is gone to Waterford for Miss Butler and her, and we expect to see them tonight.

This did not dissuade the two, despite the efforts of their families. A month later, when Eleanor was allowed to visit Sarah once more, the same relative wrote in her journal:

I talked again to Miss Ponsonby, not to dissuade her from her purpose, but to discharge my conscience of the duty I owed her as a friend by letting her know my opinion of Miss Butler and the certainty I had they never would agree living together. I spoke of her with harshness and freedom, said she had a debauched mind, no ingredients for friendship that ought to be founded on virtue, whereas hers every day more and more showed me was acting in direct opposition to it, as well as to the interest, happiness, and reputation of the one she professed to love. Sir W. joined us, kneeled, implored, swore twice on the Bible how much he loved her, would never more offend, was sorry for his past folly that was not meant as she understood it, offered to double her allowance of £30 a year, or add what more she pleased to it even though she did go. She thanked him for his past kindness but nothing could hurt her more, or would she ever be under other obligation to him. Said if the whole world was kneeling at her feet it should not make her forsake her purpose, she would live and die with Miss Butler, was her own mistress, and if any force was used to detain her she knew her own temper so well it would provoke her to an act that would give her friends more trouble than anything she had yet done. She, however, haughtily, and as it were to get rid of him, made Sir W. happy by telling him if ever she was in distress for money he should be the first she would apply to. They dined with us and I never saw anything so confident as their behavior.

But the Butler family, after much consideration, had relented and now supported Eleanor in her plans to live somewhere in retirement with Sarah. Eleanor would have an allowance and something resembling her family’s blessing. Sarah’s guardians capitulated and two days later, this time dressed in ordinary feminine traveling clothes and accompanied by the housemaid Mary Carryll who would be their companion until her death, they left in the Butler family carriage and set out on their adventure. To the extent that sir William was a villain in their story, fate seems to have punished him, for before another month was out he was dead of a sudden and painful ailment.

Eleanor and Sarah were steeped in the culture of Romanticism, which looked to an idyllic rural seclusion, away from the bustle of society, where they could improve themselves with literature and contemplation. And in the popular imagination of the day there was no more ideal location for romantic retirement than northern Wales, as described in Thomas Pennant’s travelogue A Tour in Wales, published around the same time as their elopement. Pennant wrote of Llangollen Vale: “I know no scene in North Wales, where the refined lover of picturesque scenes, the sentimental, or the romantic, can give a fuller indulgence to his inclination.

After deciding to settle permanently in Llangollen, Eleanor and Sarah moved into a cottage--though by cottage we mean a two story building with a parlor and library and room for servants--a place they named Plas Newydd, that is “the new mansion,” which they eventually remodeled into a confection of neo-Gothic ornamentation and filled with all manner of souvenirs and curiosities brought to them by their visitors and admirers.

Although the allowances they received from their families--eventually supplemented by a civil pension--could not be considered to make them wealthy, we mustn’t imagine them living in poverty. Mary Carryll, who had stepped into the role of household manager, ensured that they found a balance between comfort and living within their income, in part by forgoing any personal salary of her own.

A great many details of their lives come from the detailed journals they kept jointly--the sort of journals that record everyday events such as the weather, what they ate, and their various ailments. Eleanor suffered regularly from what appear to be migraines, and she recorded a typical experience in 1785:

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.

As recorded in their journals, their lives were quiet, congenial, busy with the everyday details of life, and involving nothing of any particular consequence. Their journals also emphasize their continuing resolution never to spend a day apart and to try to avoid spending a single night away from their beloved Plas Newydd. But though they obviously did not travel much, the world soon traveled to join them. And one of the reasons they have become icons is because of how those visitors reflected them to the wider world.

Eleanor and Sarah’s elopement and retirement so perfectly fit the prevailing visions and fantasies of the Romantic imagination that they became something of a pilgrimage site for notables and literati of the day in the following decades, although by the end of their lives they were considered quaintly antiquated both in personal style and in their sentimental approach to life. Their visitors included writers such as poet Anna Seward (whose own romantic friendship was balked by her commitment to caring for her elderly father). Seward encapsulated the effusive romantic ideal with this long poem titled “Llangollen Vale” dedicated to Ponsonby and Butler:

LUXURIANT Vale, thy Country's early boast,
What time great GLENDOUR gave thy scenes to Fame;
Taught the proud numbers of the English Host,
How vain their vaunted force, when Freedom's flame
Fir'd him to brave the Myriads he abhorr'd,
Wing'd his unerring shaft, and edg'd his victor sword.

Here first those orbs unclosing drank the light,
Cambria's bright stars, the meteors of her Foes;
What dread and dubious omens* mark'd the night,
That lour'd, ere yet his natal morn arose!
The Steeds paternal, on their cavern'd floor,
Foaming, and horror-struck, "fret fetlock-deep in gore."

PLAGUE, in her livid hand, o'er all the Isle,
Shook her dark flag, impure with fetid stains;
While "DEATH*, on his pale Horse, "with baleful smile,
Smote with its blaring hoof the frighted plains.
Soon thro' the grass-grown streets, in silence led,
Slow moves the midnight Cart, heapt with the naked Dead.

Yet in the festal dawn of Richard's reign,
Thy gallant GLENDOUR'S sunny prime arose;
Virtuous, tho' gay, in that Circean fane,
Bright Science twin'd here circlet round his brows;
Nor cou'd the youthful, rash, luxurious King
Dissolve the Hero's worth on his Icarian wing.

Sudden it drops on its meridian flight! —
Ah! hapless Richard! never didst thou aim
To crush primeval Britons with thy might,
And their brave Glendour's tears embalm thy name.
Back from thy victor-Rival's vaunting Throng,
Sorrowing, and stern, he sinks LLANGOLLEN'S shades among.

Soon, in imperious Henry's* dazzled eyes,
The guardian bounds of just Dominion melt;
His scarce-hop'd crown imperfect bliss supplies,
Till Cambria's vassalage be deeply felt.
Now up her craggy steeps, in long array,
Swarm his exulting Bands, impatient for the fray.

Lo! thro' the gloomy night, with angry blaze,
Trails the fierce Comet, and alarms the Stars;
Each waning Orb withdraws its glancing rays,
Save the red Planet, that delights in wars.
Then, with broad eyes upturn'd, and starting hair,
Gaze the astonish'd Crowd upon its vengeful glare.

Gleams the wan Morn, and thro' LLANGOLLEN'S Vale
Sees the proud Armies streaming o'er her meads.
Her frighted Echos warning sounds assail,
Loud, in the rattling cars, the neighing steeds;
The doubling drums, the trumpet's piercing breath,
And all the ensigns dread of havoc, wounds, and death.

High on a hill as shrinking CAMBRIA stood,
And watch'd the onset of th' unequal fray,
She saw her Deva, stain'd with warrior-blood,
Lave the pale rocks, and wind its fateful way
Thro' meads, and glens, and wild woods, echoing far
The din of clashing arms, and furious shout of war.

From rock to rock, with loud acclaim, she sprung,
While from her CHIEF the routed Legions fled;
Saw Deva roll their slaughter'd heaps among,
The check'd waves eddying round the ghastly dead;
Saw, in that hour, her own LLANGOLLEN claim
Thermopylæ's bright wreath, and aye-enduring fame.

Thus, consecrate to GLORY. — Then arose
A milder lustre in its blooming maze;
Thro' the green glens, where lucid Deva flows,
Rapt Cambria listens with enthusiast gaze,
While more inchanting sounds her ear assail,
Than thrill'd on Sorga's bank, the Love-devoted Vale. *

Mid the gay towers on steep Din's* Branna's cone,
Her HOEL'S breast the fair MIFANWY fires. —
O! Harp of Cambria, never hast thou known
Notes more mellifluent floating o'er the wires,
Than when thy Bard this brighter Laura sung,
And with his ill-starr'd love LLANGOLLEN'S echos rung.

Tho' Genius, Love, and Truth inspire the strains,
Thro' Hoel's veins, tho' blood illustrious flows,
Hard as th' Eglwyseg rocks her heart remains,
Her smile a sun-beam playing on their snows;
And nought avails the Poet's warbled claim,
But, by his well-sung woes, to purchase deathless fame,

Thus consecrate to LOVE, in ages flown, —
Long ages fled Din's-Branna's ruins show,
Bleak as they stand upon their steepy cone,
The crown and contrast of the VALE below,
That, screen'd by mural rocks, with pride displays
Beauty's romantic pomp in every sylvan maze.

Now with a Vestal lustre glows the VALE,
Thine, sacred FRIENDSHIP, permanent as pure;
In vain the stern Authorities assail,
In vain Persuasion spreads her silken lure,
High-born, and high-endow'd, the peerless Twain,
Pant for coy Nature's charms 'mid silent dale, and plain.

Thro' ELEANORA, and her ZARA'S mind,
Early tho' genius, taste, and fancy flow'd,
Tho' all the graceful Arts their powers combin'd,
And her last polish brilliant Life bestow'd,
The lavish Promiser, in Youth's soft morn,
Pride, Pomp, and Love, her friends, the sweet Enthusiasts scorn.

Then rose the Fairy Palace of the Vale,
Then bloom'd around it the Arcadian bowers;
Screen'd from the storms of Winter, cold and pale,
Screen'd from the fervors of the sultry hours,
Circling the lawny crescent, soon they rose,
To letter'd ease devote, and Friendship's blest repose.

Smiling they rose beneath the plastic hand
Of Energy, and Taste; — nor only they,
Obedient Science hears the mild command,
Brings every gift that speeds the tardy day,
Whate'er the pencil sheds in vivid hues,
Th' historic tome reveals, or sings the raptur'd Muse.

How sweet to enter, at the twilight grey,
The dear, minute Lyceum* of the Dome,
When, thro' the colour'd crystal, glares the ray,
Sanguine and solemn 'mid the gathering gloom,
While glow-worm lamps diffuse a pale, green light,
Such as in mossy lanes illume the starless night.

Then the coy Scene, by deep'ning veils o'erdrawn,
In shadowy elegance seems lovelier still;
Tall shrubs, that skirt the semi-lunar lawn,
Dark woods, that curtain the opposing hill;
While o'er their brows the bare cliff faintly gleams,
And, from its paly edge, the evening-diamond streams.

What strains Æolian thrill the dusk expanse,
As rising gales with gentle murmurs play,
Wake the loud chords, or every sense intrance,
While in subsiding winds they sink away!
Like distant choirs, "when pealing organs blow,"
And melting voices blend, majestically flow.

"*But, ah! what hand can touch the strings so fine,
"Who up the lofty diapason roll
“Such sweet, such sad, such solemn airs divine,
"Then let them down again into the soul!"
The prouder sex as soon, with virtue calm,
Might win from this bright Pair pure Friendship's spotless palm.

What boasts Tradition, what th' historic Theme,
Stands it in all their chronicles confest
Where the soul's glory shines with clearer beam,
Than in our sea-zon'd bulwark of the West,
When, in this Cambrian Valley, Virtue shows
Where, in her own soft sex, its steadiest lustre glows?

Say ivied VALLE CRUCIS*, time decay'd,
Dim on the brink of Deva's wandering floods,
Your riv'd arch glimmering thro' the tangled glade,
Your grey hills towering o'er your night of woods,
Deep in the Vale's recesses as you stand,
And, desolately great, the rising sigh command,

Say, lonely, ruin'd Pile, when former years
Saw your pale Train at midnight altars bow;
Saw SUPERSTITION frown upon the tears
That mourn'd the rash irrevocable vow,
Wore one young lip gay ELEANORA'S smile?
Did ZARA'S look serene one tedious hour beguile?

For your sad Sons, nor Science wak'd her powers;
Nor e'er did Art her lively spells display;
But the grim IDOL vainly lash'd the hours
That dragg'd the mute, and melancholy day;
Dropt her dark cowl on each devoted head,
That o'er the breathing Corse a pall eternal spread.

This gentle Pair no glooms of thought infest,
Nor Bigotry, nor Envy's sullen gleam
Shed withering influence on the effort blest,
Which most shou'd win the other's dear esteem,
By added knowledge, by endowment high,
By Charity's warm boon, and Pity's soothing sigh.

Then how shou'd Summer-day or Winter-night,
Seem long to them who thus can wing their hours!
O! ne'er may Pain, or Sorrow's cruel blight,
Breathe the dark mildew thro' these lovely bowers,
But lengthen'd Life subside in soft decay,
Illum'd by rising Hope, and Faith's pervading ray.

May one kind ice-bolt, from the mortal stores,
Arrest each vital current as it flows,
That no sad course of desolated hours
Here vainly nurse the unsubsiding woes!
While all who honor Virtue, gently mourn
LLANGOLLEN'S VANISH'D PAIR, and wreath their sacred urn.

Wow. That’s kind of over the top, isn’t it?

Other visitors were novelist Lady Caroline Lamb, who was a Ponsonby by birth, as well as her lover, poet Lord Byron. Visiting writers included Percy Shelley, Sir Walter Scott, and William Wordsworth who wrote the following sonnet in their garden:

A stream, to mingle with your favorite Dee,
Along the Vale of Meditation flows;
So styled by those fierce Britons, pleased to see
In Nature’s face the expression of repose;
Or haply there some pious hermit chose
To live and die, the peace of heaven his aim;
To whom the wild, sequestered region owes,
At this late day, its sanctifying name,
Glyn Cafaillgaroch, in the Cambrian tongue,
In ours, the Vale of Friendship, let this spot
Be named; where, faithful to a low-roofed cot,
On Deva’s banks ye have abode so long;
Sisters in love, a love allowed to climb,
Even on this earth, above the reach of time!

Their visitors were not confined to the world of literature. The Duke of Wellington visited, as well as industrialist Josiah Wedgwood of Wedgwood china fame. Queen Charlotte wanted to visit them to see their cottage and was sent a plan of their garden, and although that august visit never took place, the queen was instrumental in granting them a pension to supplement the funds they received from their families.

But not all their guests were celebrities. Eleanor’s journal records visits from and to local neighbors among the gentry with the sorts of entertainments common in such households. Here’s an excerpt:

My beloved and I went to Hardwick.... Mr. Kynaston met us at the hall door. In the hall we found Mrs. Kynaston, our Barretts, Miss Davies, the three Miss Piggotts of Undervale, Miss Vaughan of Oteley Park, Miss Charlotte Istoyede, Miss Webb, a little Pigott girl, Dr. Boyd, Mr. Blakeway of Shrewsbury. ... Drank tea in the cottage. Miss Webb spoke two prologues, a scene between Alicia and Jane Shore, the first scene in Lady Randolph, I mean Douglas. Most divinely she looked and spoke, and I pronounce that for beauty and manner I seldom behold her equal.

It also seems that the fame of Plas Newydd did not always mean that Ponsonby and Butler cared to be available to entertain personally. There are many diary entries of the following type.

Compliments from Mr. and Mrs. Pope and Miss Saville desiring to see the Cottage and the Shrubbery. They came. Saw them from the State bedchamber window whither we retired till they were gone.

The ladies enjoyed visitors but they also enjoyed their privacy, and not only that but the social customs of the time meant that a visit generally required a personal reference from someone the ladies already knew and trusted. Thus we come to the first of an intriguing set of entries in 1822 in the diaries of Yorkshire gentlewoman Anne Lister. If you’re listening to this podcast, I expect I don’t need to explain who Anne Lister was.

Tuesday June 11, Halifax - Wrote three pages of my letter to Isabel Dalton...mentioned also my aunt and I taking a fortnight’s tour in Wales and wished they knew anyone acquainted with Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby.

Friday June 28, Halifax - Looking over Marianne’s letters of 1820 fancying it was then she and Lou took their two little tours in Wales. Found, however, that it was in June 1817. Took out her two letters descriptive and mean to take these with us when we go. ... Marianne and...asked several questions what she gave the gardener for shewing Lady Eleanor Butler’s and Miss Ponsonby’s grounds at Llangollen, etc.

The Marianne referred to here is Anne’s long-time, and married, lover. The woman she hoped and still at that point hopes to spend her life with.

Monday July 1, Halifax - Letter from Isabella Dalton. Her father says no introduction to Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby will be necessary. “Any literary person especially calling on them would be taken as a compliment.”

Anne, accompanied by her aunt, left on their trip on July 11, had a brief assignation in Chester with Marianne, and then arrived in Llangollen two days later.

Saturday July 13, Llangollen - Got here, the King’s Head, New Hotel, Llangollen, patronized by Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby, in four and a half hours. Beautiful drive from Chester to Wrexham. It was market day and the town seemed very busy. Beautiful drive, also, from Wrexham here but I was perhaps disappointed with the first couple of miles of the vale of Llangollen. The hills naked of wood and the white limestone quarries on our left certainly not picturesque. About three miles from Llangollen, when Castle Dinas Bran came in sight, we were satisfied of the beauties of the valley but the sun was setting on the castle and so dazzled our eyes we could scarce look that way.

The inn, kept by Elizabeth Davies, is close to the bridge and washed by the river Dee. We are much taken with our hostess and with the place. Have had an excellent roast leg of mutton, and trout, and very fine port wine, with every possible attention. ... We sat down to dinner at 8:30, having previously strolled through the town to Lady Eleanor Butler’s and Miss Ponsonby’s place. There is a public road close to the house, through the grounds, and along this we passed and re-passed standing to look at the house, cottage, which is really very pretty. A great many of the people touched their hats to us on passing and we are much struck with their universal civility. A little girl, seeing us apparently standing to consider our way, shewed us the road to Plas Newys (Lady Eleanor Butler’s and Miss Ponsonby’s), followed and answered our several questions very civilly. A little boy then came and we gave each of them all our halfpence, 2 pence each.

After dinner...wrote the following note, ‘To the Right Honourable Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby, Plasnewyd. Mrs and Miss Lister take the liberty of presenting their compliments to Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby, and of asking permission to see their grounds at Plas Newyd in the course of tomorrow morning. Miss Lister, at the suggestion of Mr. Banks, had intended herself the honour of calling on her ladyship and Miss Ponsonby, and hopes she may be allowed to express her very great regret at hearing of her ladyship’s indisposition.’ ... The message returned was that we should see the grounds at 12 tomorrow. This will prevent our going to church, which begins at 11 and will not be over till after 1. The service is principally in Welsh except the lesson and sermon every 2nd Sunday, and tomorrow is the English day. Lady Eleanor Butler has been couched. She ventured out too soon and caught cold. Her medical man Mr Lloyd Jones positively refuses her seeing anyone. Her cousin, Lady Mary Ponsonby, passed through not long ago and did not see her.

They did indeed visit the gardens that next day and then traveled some more in the vicinity, seeing Conway castle and Mount Snowdon, had dinner and listened to a Welsh harper in Caernarvon, among other sights, before returning to Llangollen.

Tuesday July 23, Llangollen - A drop or two of rain just after setting off and a shower for about the third mile from Llangollen. Heavy rain just after we got in. Mrs. Davies received us at the door and came into our rooms to answer our inquiries after Lady Eleanor Butler. Mrs Davies was called up at one last night and they thought her ladyship would have died. She was, however, rather better this morning. The physician does not seem to apprehend danger but Mrs Davies is alarmed and spoke of it in tears. Miss Ponsonby, too, is alarmed and ill herself, on this account. Pain in her side. ‘She is a lady,’ said Mrs Davies, ‘of very strong ideas; but this would grieve her too.’ Mrs Davis had only known them 13 or 14 years, during which time she had lived at this house but she had always seen them ‘so attached, so amiable together,’ no two people ever lived more happily. They like all the people about them, are beloved by all and do a great deal of good. Lady Eleanor has the remains of beauty. Miss Ponsonby was a very fine woman. Lady Eleanor Butler about 80. Miss Ponsonby 10 or 12 years younger. The damp this bad account cast upon my spirits I cannot describe. I am interested about these two ladies very much. There is a something in their story and in all I have heard about them here that, added to other circumstances, makes a deep impression.

...Mrs Davis just returned. Brought a good account of her ladyship and a message of thanks for our inquiries from Miss Ponsonby, who will be glad to see me this evening to thank me in person. Shall go about six or seven, just after dinner. This is more than I expected. ... At seven, went to Plasnewydd and got back at eight. Just an hour away and surely the walking there and back did not take more than 20 minutes. Shewn into the room next the library, the breakfast room, waiting a minute or two and then came Miss Ponsonby.

A large woman so as to waddle in walking but though not taller than myself. In a blue, shortish-waisted cloth habit, the jacket unbuttoned shewing a plain plaited frilled habit shirt--a thick white cravat, rather loosely put on--hair powdered, parted, I think, down the middle in front, cut a moderate length all round and hanging straight, tolerably thick. The remains of a very fine face. Coarsish white cotton stockings. Ladies slipper shoes cut low down, the foot hanging a little over. Altogether a very odd figure. Yet she had no sooner entered into conversation than I forgot all this and my attention was wholly taken by her manners and conversation. The former, perfectly easy, peculiarly attentive and well, and bespeaking a person accustomed to a great deal of good society. Mild and gentle, certainly not masculine, and yet there was a je-ne-sais-quoi striking. Her conversation shewing a personal acquaintance with most of the literary characters of the day and their works.

She seemed sanguine about Lady Eleanor’s recovery. Poor soul! My heart aches to think how small the chance. ... Mentioned the beauty of the place--the books I had noticed in the rustic library. She said Lady Eleanor read French, Spanish, and Italian--had great knowledge of ancient manners and customs, understood the obsolete manners and phrases of Tasso remarkably well. Had written elucidatory notes on the 1st 2 or 4, I think, books of Tasso, but had given away the only copy she ever had. Contrived to ask if they were classical. ‘No,’ said she. ‘Thank God from Latin and Greek I am free.’ [Anne records their further discussion of classical literature in great detail for another couple of paragraphs, which I shall skip.]

She asked if I would walk out. Shewed me the kitchen garden. Walked round the shrubbery with me. She said she owned to their having been 42 years there. They landed first in South Wales, but it did not answer the accounts they had heard of it. They then travelled in North Wales and, taken with the beauty of this place, took the cottage for 31 years, but it was a false lease and they had had a great deal of trouble and expense. It was only 4 years since they had bought the place. Dared say I had a much nicer place at home. Mentioned its situation, great age, long time in the family, etc. She wished to know where to find an account of it. Said it had been their humble endeavour to make the place as old as they could. Spoke like a woman of the world about my liking the place where I was born, etc. Said I was not born there. My father was a younger brother but that I had the expectation of succeeding my uncle. ‘Ah yes,’ said she, ‘you will soon be the master and there will be an end of romance.’ ‘Never! Never!’ said I. I envied their place and the happiness they had had there. Asked if, dared say, they had never quarreled. ‘No!’ They had never had a quarrel. Little differences of opinion sometimes. Life could not go on without it, but only about the planting of a tree, and when they differed in opinion, they took care to let no one see it.

At parting, shook hands with her and she gave me a rose. I said I should keep it for the sake of the place where it grew. She had before said she should be happy to introduce me some time to Lady Eleanor. I had given my aunt’s compliments and inquiries. Said she would have called with me but feared to intrude and was not quite well this evening. She, Miss Ponsonby, gave me a sprig of geranium for my aunt with her compliments and thanks for her inquiries. Lady Eleanor was asleep while I was there. Miss Ponsonby had been reading to her, Adam Blair, the little book recommended to me by Marianne at Chester. I had told Miss Ponsonby I had first seen an account of them in La Belle Assemblie a dozen years ago and had longed to see the place ever since. ... I came away much pleased with Miss Ponsonby and sincerely hoping Lady Eleanor will recover to enjoy a few more years in this world.

I know not how it is, I felt low after coming away. A thousand moody reflections occurred, but again, writing has done me good ... I mean to dry and keep the rose Miss Ponsonby gave me.

Anne and her aunt left Llangollen the next day and were back in Halifax three days later. But her visit lingered in her thoughts.

Monday July 29, Halifax - Crossed the first page of the first sheet written to Marianne yesterday. Determined to send it this morning, that she may have an account of our arrival at home. ... The ends of my paper contain the following, ‘Charmed as I am with the landscape and loveliness of the country, I do not envy it for home. I should not like to live in Wales--but, if it must be so and I could choose the spot, it should be Plasnewydd at Llangollen, which is already endeared even to me by the association of ideas....’

And then several days later, Anne recounts Marianne’s response:

She seems much interested about Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby and I am agreeably surprised (never dreaming of such a thing) at her observation, ‘The account of your visit is the prettiest narrative I have read. You have at once excited and gratified my curiosity. Tell me if you think their regard has always been platonic and if you ever believed pure friendship could be so exalted. If you do, I shall think there are brighter amongst mortals than I ever believed there were.’ [Anne then adds her own thoughts in conclusion.] I cannot help thinking that surely it was not platonic. Heaven forgive me, but I look within myself and doubt. I feel the infirmity of our nature and hesitate to pronounce such attachments uncemented by something more tender still than friendship. But much, or all, depends upon the story of their former lives, the period passed before they lived together, that feverish dream called youth.

Anne Lister had experienced regard for and from women that was definitely other than platonic. And given her failure to secure a life together with Marianne, one can understand her fascination with the life that Butler and Ponsonby had succeeded in building for themselves.

Did Anne Lister have an accurate insight into Butler and Ponsonby’s relationship? Or were her observations wishful thinking--the “association of ideas” that she mentions? There is nothing in Butler and Ponsonby’s own journals that comes close to the frank sexuality of Lister’s diaries. There is a great deal of physical affection and they constantly used the language of marriage to describe their relationship, which was a common characteristic of romantic friendships. In that case, does it matter what the nature of their physical relationship was? In Lillian Faderman’s study of romantic friendship, she puts a great deal of weight on the question of sexual activity--that is, sexual activity of the sort that Lister clearly was enjoying. And from the other side, a great many people have invested in the notion that to suggest that Butler and Ponsonby were lesbians would be to besmirch their memory. Their contemporary and eventual neighbor, Hester Thrale-Piozzi had rather harsh things to say about any lady “suspected for liking her own sex in a criminal way” and considered herself expert at identifying and calling out women of that sort. She enjoyed a long comfortable friendship with the Ladies that would appear to contradict any suspicion in that direction, and yet later in life, in an obscure diary entry, Hester referred to the two as “damned Sapphists.” A curious contradition.

Ponsonby and Butler were aware of the possibility that their relationship might be interpreted in scandalous terms. In 1790, an article about them in the General Evening Post described the pair in terms that evoked stereotypes of a butch-like “mannish” partner and her more conventionally feminine companion.

Miss Butler is tall and masculine, she wears always a riding habit, hangs her hat with the air of a sportsman in the hall, and appears in all respects as a young man, if we except the petticoats which she still retains. Miss Ponsonby, on the contrary, is polite and effeminate, fair and beautiful. They live in neatness, elegance and taste. Two females are their only servants. Miss Ponsonby does the duties and honours of the house, while Miss Butler superintends the gardens and the rest of the grounds.

The description is particularly curious given that sketches and descriptions of them by those who knew the pair show them as both dressing almost identically in riding habits, with somewhat antiquated powdered hair and tall hats. But Eleanor was disturbed enough by the implications of this description that she sought legal advice from a friend regarding the advisability of bringing suit. The friend’s advice suggested that it was better to ignore the matter rather than to call more attention to it. But one can’t necessarily take Eleanor’s response as evidence of “innocence” of the implication. Legal action with regard to one’s reputation was a matter of what one allowed to be said, not about truth and falsehood. If Butler and Ponsonby knew that the private details of their life would not bear public scrutiny, that would be all the more reason to take action against those who suggested it.

Since I chose this topic, in part, because of my own personal engagement with the Ladies of Llangollen, I’ll offer my position that the question of the precise nature of their relationship is unimportant. The shape of their lives is a lesbian-like shape: they eloped together, swearing to spend their lives together--an oath that they were lucky enough to carry out. They called each other beloved and spouse. Their friends accepted and celebrated their union as being the equivalent of marriage. To suggest that an absence of sex from their lives makes their union less of a marriage is a slap in the face to many couples today for whom sex is not the defining characteristic of their lives. To suggest that the presence of sex in their lives somehow besmirches and degrades their memory is a slap in the face to all the people who have fought for the legal and social right to enjoy the sexual relationships they choose.

The Ladies of Llangollen are lesbian icons, not because of how they would or would not identify themselves, but because of that “association of ideas” that Anne Lister so eloquently identified. Because of what they represent for us and for our place in history.

Show Notes

Most people interested in lesbian history know the basic story of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, known as the Ladies of Llangollen. I take on their story by presenting it through extended quotations from their own writings, from accounts of people who met them, and from poetry written in their honor.

In this episode we talk about:

  • Why it took me so long to get to this topic, and why The Ladies hold a special place in my heart
  • Letters from Sarah Ponsonby’s relatives on the occasion of her elopement
  • Excerpts from Eleanor Butler’s journal
  • “Llangollen Vale” by Anna Seward
  • A sonnet dedicated to Butler and Ponsonby by William Wordsworth
  • Description of visits, from Eleanor Butler’s journal
  • Entries from Anne Lister’s diaries relating to her trip to Wales and her visit with Sarah Ponsonby
  • A newspaper article about Butler and Ponsonby that inspired them to consider a lawsuit
  • Why I consider The Ladies of Llangollen to be lesbian icons

Some resources

Sources for the texts

This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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