It’s easy to think that ideas about tolerance and acceptance are the purview of our supposedly progressive modern age, despite aberrations like the Taliban or ISIS. So it comes as something of a shock to realize that in the Georgian era there were people who were not only accepted for being different but outright celebrated.
The Ladies of Llangollen were certainly celebrated, both for their personal choices, the drama of their story and their picturesque home. Llangollen in northern Wales is a beautiful town in the Vale of Llangollen, an area home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the Llangollen Canal and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct). It’s a small (under 4,000), incredibly beautiful and quaint town and even in the 18th century, it was a tourist spot, and yet still removed enough from the larger world to provide the ladies a sanctuary.
They needed that sanctuary because in 1778 they had eloped—Lady Eleanor Butler to escape being sent to a convent because she refused to marry and Sarah Ponsonby to escape the unwanted advances of her guardian, Sir William Fownes. The Irish women had met in 1768 and became fast friends despite their age difference (29 and 13).
To prevent being discovered when they eloped (apparently at the time it didn’t necessarily mean a furtive wedding), they disguised themselves as men and carried a pistol, but were found and returned to their families. Lady Eleanor, however, ran away again but this time both families relented and the two women, aided by a maid, Mary Carryl, who later became their housekeeper, left for Wales. (I think they first arrived in Wale disguised as domestics.) They first rented and later bought a house and grounds they named Plas Newydd (New Hall) and remained there until their deaths.
The exact nature of their relationship was never explicitly delineated by “the ladies,” as they were known in Llangollen, and it was the speculation about their relationship that led to their renown. I am charmed by this account of the ladies:
Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby were young ladies of beauty and rank who loved each other with so true an affection that they could never bear the afflicting idea of a separation which the marriage of either might occasion. They therefore resolved on lives of celibacy and refusing many handsome offers and remaining deaf to the persuasions of their friends they retired to the beautiful Vale of Llangollen to enjoy the happiness of each other’s company that as their friendship began in infancy it might be perpetuated through life.
From Steward’s Collections and Recollections by way of The History of North Wales, written and compiled by William Cathrall in 1828.
The ladies were often described as wearing mannish clothing:
Imagine two women, one apparently seventy, the other sixty-five, dressed in heavy blue riding habits, enormous shoes, and men’s hats [beaver hats], with their petticoats so tucked up, that at the first glance of them, fussing and tottering about their porch in the agony of expectation, we took them for a couple of hazy or crazy old sailors. On nearer inspection they both wear a world of brooches, rings, &c., and Lady Eleanor positively orders—several stars and crosses, and a red ribbon, exactly like a K.C.B. To crown all, they have crop heads, shaggy, rough, bushy, and as white as snow, the one with age alone, the other assisted by a sprinkling of powder.
The print at the beginning of this article, from the National Portrait Gallery, does show Lady Eleanor wearing some sort of medal around her neck, just like a Knight or Dame Commander of the Order of the Bath. I supposed their clothing could be described as mannish, but others have remarked that they simply wore what made sense for country life.
Their devotion to each other was evident in their referring to each other as “my better half” and they signed letters together. They slept in bed together, but remember at that time that did not necessarily imply sex (the whole Lincoln was gay controversy). The also referred to each other in terms that nowadays would imply a romantic relationship, but again, that was then.
They were so popular that visitors had to queue up to visit them, their social calendar busy day and night. Visitors included Sir Walter Scott, the Duke of Wellington and Josiah Wedgwood and their correspondents included Queen Charlotte (wife of George III), Lord Byron and Shelley.
And yet most accounts make their lives sound rather pleasant, worthwhile and pedestrian. According to An Account of the Ladies of Llangollen:
The ladies were according to their means charitable to the aged sick and infirm and had been taught by wisdom and experience that the best way to help the poor labourer was by giving him employment.
I’ve found further encomiums of their grace and charity, but I have yet to read Elizabeth Mavor’s The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship. The description on Amazon hints of “tempestuous relations with family, friends, servants, neighbours and the polite society that they rejected,” but that may be the work of an over zealous copywriter. I’m reluctant to read further because I’m quite happy not to know the exact nature of their relationship. Their tale reminds me of something Marianne Dashwood would have found utterly romantic and picturesque, even if the reality of their lives might have been no more interesting than that of most any long-married couple.
Their home is decidedly quirky, with lots of follies and quaint nooks, like Lady Eleanor’s Bower, which overlooks the Cyflymen, a tributary of the River Dee. The women were mad about wood carvings and their numerous visitors were sure to present them such. There’s also a font on the grounds from the nearby ruined Valle Crucis Abbey. I don’t know if the elaborate topiary is from their time but the grounds were remarked upon. The black and white look of the house is the product of a Victorian makeover by a subsequent owner. The original home is far more charming.
Despite Lady Eleanor being the daughter of (and later sister of) the Earl of Ormonde, the couple didn’t have a lot of money because of the separation from their families. In fact it’s hard to say how they survived, although I have found mention that they eventually received a royal pension. The women were continually in debt, apparently.
Their story sounds like such a product of the Georgian age, fitting in nicely with the age of eccentrics. Their tale ends appropriately enough about the time of the death of George IV in 1830. Lady Eleanor died first in 1829 and Sarah two years later.
I had the opportunity to visit Plas Newydd when I was in Llangollen in September, but sadly I was not able to tour the house. We got a frantic call telling us that our narrowboat had broken free and was adrift in the canal and that we should return to the boat. I do have pictures of the exterior, however, and have since learned you can’t take photographs inside.
I don’t really know what to make of the ladies. I have no problem with people finding love no matter their race, sexual preference or religion, but I am a little disturbed by the difference in their ages. It worked for Brandon and Marianne and Knightley and Emma, however, so as a Janeite I guess I can’t quibble. This Telegraph article supposes that Lady Eleanor was a lesbian and that Sarah Ponsonby, had she never met Lady Eleanor, would have happily settled down with a husband. Regardless, they seemed a devoted couple and Sarah had plenty of time and occasion to change her mind. In some ways the thought they might have been celibate is incredibly romantic, but somewhat unrealistic. As I said earlier, I don’t really want to know. I like the idea that they remain “the two most celebrated virgins in Europe.”