In the summer of 2008 I made my second trip to the UK – two weeks in Wales. We began in the southern part of the country then moved north. On our next-to-last day in the country, we spent a couple of nights in Llangollen, a beautiful little town in northeast Wales on the river Dee.
One of the attractions there, not far from town, was Plas Newydd, a house now kept as a museum to its two most famous occupants – the Ladies of Llangollen. I didn’t get much of the story on that trip as we were running out of time, but determined that I’d learn more some day.
Last week I finally got around to doing that! The book is titled The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship, by Elizabeth Mavor, published in 1971. There have been several books written about the Ladies, but this is the definitive one, as it is the best-researched and taken from the Ladies’ own letters and diaries.
Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were born in Ireland in the mid-1700s, both in less-than-auspicious circumstances. Eleanor was the third daughter of a family with a title but little money, and a younger brother that would inherit everything; Sarah was orphaned at a young age and raised by various family members. They met when Sarah was still a teenager and Eleanor was nearly thirty – they were 13 years apart in age. They became close friends almost immediately and, over time, created a plan to “retire” from society. Both of them were educated and forward-thinking for the time, and neither cared to live the restricted lives available to women at the time. So they decided to run away.
The first time they left, they were caught and returned to their respective homes. Sarah took to her bed and refused to eat, becoming nearly delirious; Eleanor’s family made arrangements to send her to a convent, but Sarah’s family begged Eleanor’s to reconsider. Making a long story short, finally the two were allowed to leave together. They moved to Wales and rented a small cottage outside of Llangollen, then a very small town, and developed a “system” by which they would live, consisting of gardening, improving their home, and reading to each other in the evenings.They became celebrities of a sort, mostly because of their unusual living arrangements. At the time there were rumors that they were lesbians, of course, but no one dared confront them directly about it. There was a concept in the early 1800s known as “romantic friendship,” where it was considered acceptable for two women to be very close friends and refer to each other in terms usually reserved for romantic partners. Sarah and Eleanor referred to each other as “my love,” “the beloved of my soul,” “the delight of my heart,” “the joy of my life,” “my tender, sweet love.” Mavor, the author, suggests that their words were either “the only permissible expression of a yet more intimate relationship; or as the unconscious expression of the desire for such a relationship.” (p. 105)
Were they lesbians? As Jamie Brodie said in Stoned to Death, “It seems likely, doesn’t it? But there’s no proof.” The Ladies shared a bed for nearly fifty years. But naturally they never wrote about anything “improper.” All we have is the language that they used to refer to each other.
It’s a fascinating story. I had to get the book through interlibrary loan, but there may be used copies of it out there that you could find. I definitely recommend it.