‘In early life they formed a romantic attachment, as deep as it proved to be lasting, and determined to enjoy their friendship in perfect seclusion.’ The ladies of Llangollen, or Lady Eleanor Charlotte Butler (1739-1829) and the Hon Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1832) were two Anglo-Irish elite women, who determined that they would forego heterosexual marriage for female friendship at the end of the eighteenth-century, thrusting them into the limelight of nineteenth-century press and into the history books of twentieth century historians tracing lesbianism in bygone days. As June is ’Pride Month’ [well, it is in the United States], where the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender/sexual community celebrate their identity, it seems an appropriate point to give some thought to these lesbians (if such they were).
According to the Freemans Journal in 1830, the women by ‘singular coincidence’ were both born in Dublin, on the same day, in the same year, and lost their parents at the same time, so it seemed ‘they were intended by the hands of Providence for mutual sympathy’. The orphans were raised together and as they grew in years, talked over the similarity of their fates and persuaded themselves ‘they were designed by Heaven to pass through life together’. Even in youth, living at Castle Kilkenny (Butler’s family home), they were observed to ‘shun the society of others and to seek retirement with themselves’ (an ideal behaviour from a wife, but perhaps less than desirable for marriageable women waiting to go on the market!). When they turned 18, their families desired them to mix with other company and ideally find suitable husbands. However, one morning, they went missing and, after considerable enquiry, were found in disguise on board a merchant vessel about to sail from the harbour of Waterford.
The ladies were brought back and separated, and every means taken to ‘wean them from this extraordinary, and as it appeared to their friends, most injurious attachment for each other’. But, in time, they returned to each other’s company. They again proceeded to a seaport, embarked in a Welsh trader, and landed among the romantic mountains of North Wales. From here they proceeded into the valleys, ‘all but closed from human intrusion and nearly impassable except by goats and mountain ponies’. Eventually, after much searching, they found a ‘mean hovel’ in a picturesque valley in Llangollen, where they settled and began to make improvements. Back at home, their nurse, Mary Carryl, was inconsolable and set out in search of them. She eventually found them in their ‘comfortless cabin’, staying with them for the rest of her life and providing them with necessaries (so they didn’t have to leave their rural seclusion). At one time, when they were threatened with eviction, the faithful Carryl even went to London and used her own savings to purchase the land and save the women’s home. ‘The fame of these elegant but eccentric girls now expanded, and several persons of high rank sought an introduction, but they persevered in their determination and for twenty years, I believe, never slept out of their own cottage, nor admitted a stranger into it.’ The newspaper concluded that Carryl and Butler had died and were buried under a pyramid- each side taking the inscription of one of the ladies. The final face of the pyramid in 1830 was waiting for the lone survivor- Miss Ponsonby.
This was a rather romanticised version of the life of the Ladies of Llangollen. They were neither orphaned in youth, nor born on the same day, but met when Eleanor was 29 and Sarah was 13. They had an intense friendship and after 10 years eloped to Wales in 1778 to the disapproval of both their families. While they made numerous improvements to the house in which they lived, it was a stretch of the imagination to see their abode as ever having been a hovel! And, while they lived a life of rural retreat, their relative celebrity and social status meant their home was a place of frequent visitors, including poets such as Wordsworth and Byron, and even such luminaries as Queen Charlotte.
The life of the Ladies of Llangollen, and of other women who formed similar relationships, has raised many questions for historians of lesbian relationships. What was the nature of this intense friendship? How common was it and how was it viewed by outsiders? The ladies of Llangollen appeared to have understood their relationship as a marriage, referring to each other as husband and wife and using phrases such as ‘my better half’, ‘my sweet love’ and ‘my beloved’. Their friends often referred to the more outspoken Butler as ‘my old man’ and ‘him’, while both women were known for wearing masculine clothing- such as riding habits- and dressing alike. They were also part of a culture of ‘romantic friendship’ where other cohabiting women behaved in similar ways and, it could be argued, created a distinct ‘lesbian culture’.
Yet, at the same time, the lines between ‘lesbian’ friendships and the friendships of ‘non-lesbian’ women aren’t that clear cut. Other women used this same language of loved and beloved, husband and wife, with close female friends, while also participating in heterosexual marriage. And, this then raises the knotty question of sex- did the ladies of Llangollen, and others like them, have sex, or was their marriage conceived of in terms of friendship alone. For some women, like Anne Lister, romantic friendships involved sexual encounters (including those with a married woman). For others, it is only a matter of speculation of whether ‘lesbian marriage’ incorporated sex. The question of sex is also tied into the question of social acceptability. The article in the Freeman’s Journal suggests that the behaviour of the ladies of Llangollen was eccentric, but also romantic and it was not overtly condemning of their actions. Did this suggest that early nineteenth century society was tolerant (if not welcoming) of lesbian women? Or was it because ‘romantic friendship’ was seen as non-sexual that it could be seen as innocent?
Certainly, the situating of Llangollen in the seclusion of the very rural countryside by the press tied into early-nineteenth century notions of nature as free from the sexual corruption of the city and public life. This was reinforced by the reported youth of the ladies, who were described as eloping in their late-teens, without ever having been part of mixed society. Like nuns in a convent, the rural retreat of the Ladies of Llangollen could imply chastity to the (perhaps wilfully unimaginative) nineteenth-century public, rather than transgression. In practice, this veil of innocence may well have hidden the lusty body of lesbian desire.
Freeman’s Journal, 12 January 1830.
Martha Vicinus, Intimate Friends: Women who Loved Women, 1778-1928 (Chicago, University of Chicago, 2004).
Katie Barclay thinks that the history of lesbianism, if same-sex relationships can be labelled as such before the late-nineteenth century, raises interesting questions about the centrality of sex to understanding sexuality and desire. Did it matter if the Ladies of Llangollen had sex for them to be understood as transgressing heterosexuality, and could they be lesbians without it? She is off to ponder this some more as she mows her lawn.