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Eleanor Butler & Sarah Ponsonby (The Ladies of Llangollen)

18th century Irish women who eloped together and set up house in Llangollen, Wales, where they became an iconic symbol of romantic friendship.

LHMP entry

Anne is depressed after Marianne leaves in January. During a visit from Tib Anne tells her that she is no longer as interested in "sleeping with" other women. (Presumably based on the explicit pledges she exchanged with Marianne.) It's unclear whether this is meant to be euphemism or literal but the context suggests the former. Tib teases her about this and continues in the mistaken belief that she will be Anne's life partner at some point. But Anne continues to be less than honest with Tib about her commitment to Marianne, of whom Tib continues to be jealous.

Rictor Norton has assembled an on-line sourcebook of primary documents relating to homosexuality in 18th century England. (He also has several other pages on related historic topics.) He notes: “All the documents faithfully reproduce the spelling, punctuation, capitalization and italicization of the original sources." As is typical for sites covering homosexuality in general, male-related material vastly overwhelms female-related material (which represents less than 10%).

The increasing divide between the derided image of erotic sapphic relations and the praiseworthy image of female domesticity, epitomized by non-erotic woman+woman couples, is played out in attitudes toward certain couples. The “Ladies of Llangollen” (Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby) were firmly established in the popular imagination as the model of non-sexual romantic friendship.

There was a theatrical counterpart to the real life cross-dressing women discussed in the previous chapter. It had become the fashion for women to play certain types of male roles on stage, under the cover term “breeches parts”. This was part of the contradictory acceptance/rejection of women in male disguise. Acceptability was not related to how well the disguise was pulled off: “masculine” clothing among fashionable women (such as riding habits) might be mocked while women discovered after passing completely as soldiers might be lauded.

In this chapter, Donoghue addresses the concept of “romantic friendship”, both as the term was use in the 18th century, and as applied by modern historians in situations when no irrefutable evidence of genital sexual activity is available. In both cases, the use of the term “friendship” tends to dismiss the strength of the bond (which frequently involved a lifelong partnership) and set up a false dichotomy between these relationships and more overtly sexual ones identified as “lesbian”.

Lanser opens with a letter from the intellectual Elizabeth Montagu in 1750 deploring the plan of two female friends to live together as it will "hurt us all" if women "make such a parade of their affection" leading to suspicion regarding all female friendships. Lanser argues that Montagu's objection is unlikely to be to romantic friendships as such. The sister to whom the letter was addressed would later pen Millenium Hall, a celebration of separatist female friendship.

Male-centric views of sexuality frame singlewomen either as lonely and frustrated (spinsters) or as dangerously promiscuous (whores), but this dichotomy ignores the possibility of the sexual desires of singlewomen being satisfied by other women. There is an idealized image of pre-modern lesbian that finds its epitome in the Ladies of Llangollen type from the late 18th century.

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