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Pride month DIB entry: the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’

19 June 2019

To mark Pride 2019 the DIB is publishing its entries on celebrated diarist Sarah Ponsonby (1755–1831) and her life partner Lady Eleanor Butler (c.1739–1829), known as the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’.

Sarah (‘Sally’) Ponsonby 

by Noreen Giffney

Sarah (‘Sally’) Ponsonby (1755–1831), diarist, was born in Dublin in 1755, the only and orphaned daughter of Chambré Brabazon Ponsonby (d. 1762), a landowner, of Ashgrove, Co. Kilkenny, and the second of his three wives, Louisa Ponsonby (née Lyons), the daughter of a clerk of the Irish privy council. She was the paternal granddaughter of Henry Ponsonby (d. 1745), commander of troops in Flanders and later at Dettingen (1743), who was killed at Fontenoy. After the death of her remarried stepmother, Mary Staples (née Barker), she was sent to live with her father's cousin, Lady Betty Fownes, and her husband, Sir William, at Woodstock, Co. Kilkenny. She attended Miss Parke's boarding school in Kilkenny city, where she endeavoured ‘to learn all she could’.

In 1768, at the age of thirteen, Sarah met the person, sixteen years older than herself, who was to become her life partner and fellow diarist. Referring to Lady Eleanor Butler, youngest daughter of Walter Butler and his wife, Ellen Butler (née Morres), she proclaimed in 1778 that she intended ‘to live and die with Miss Butler’. In March of that year, during their initial foiled attempt to elope, Sarah reputedly leapt out of a window, in male attire, armed with a pistol and her small dog, Frisk. A more successful venture followed in May, when they travelled via Waterford to Wales, where they embarked upon a grand tour. Thus Sarah also escaped the unwelcome advances of her uncle, Sir William, who was casting amorous glances her way.

In 1780 the two women took up residence in a small cottage, Pen-y-mart, which they renovated in a Gothic fashion and renamed Plas Newydd. There they spent their lives and became famous as the cultured and refined, yet financially insecure, ‘Ladies of Llangollen’. Their lesbianism was not widely recognised. Instead they were described as ‘romantic friends’, and Prince Puckler-Mukau applauded them as ‘certainly the most celebrated [virgins] in Europe’. However, Hester Thrale, the friend of Dr Johnson, savaged them as ‘damned Sapphists’, and some female visitors were reportedly reluctant to spend the night alone in their company without a male escort.

Incorrectly cited as one of a pair of ‘female hermits’ in 1790 by the General Evening Post, Sarah was a prolific writer of letters, often together with Eleanor, and took a keen interest in the 1798 rebellion, corresponding with a friend in Ireland, Caroline Tighe. Her home was a site of pilgrimage for many famous figures, including William Wordsworth, Charles Darwin, Robert Southey, Edmund Burke, Anna Seward, Arthur Wellesley, later duke of Wellington, and Lady Caroline Lamb. Indeed the traffic of callers was so great that Eleanor lamented in her journal: ‘when shall we ever be alone together?’ News of, and visits to, their home inspired colourful entries in visitors’ diaries, poems by Wordsworth and Seward, cottage paintings, posthumous portraits, and representations in novels.

Eleanor died 2 June 1829 at the cottage. Her ‘beloved’ and ‘sweet love’ Sarah joined her on 9 December 1831 in the grave in Llangollen, where they remain buried alongside their faithful friend and maid, Mary Carryll (d. 1809).

Lady Eleanor Butler

by Frances Clarke

Lady (Charlotte) Eleanor Butler (c. 1739–1829), recluse of Llangollen, was born in Cambrai, France, the youngest daughter of Walter Butler of Garryricken, Co. Tipperary, and his wife, Ellen (née Morres), of Latargh, Co. Tipperary. Her family were members of the old catholic gentry, and her father was the sole lineal representative of James Butler, 2nd duke of Ormond. In 1740 her family returned to the Garryricken estate, where she spent part of her childhood. She was educated by the English Benedictine nuns of the convent of Our Lady of Consolation in Cambrai, where her Jacobite grand-aunt was a pensioner. Reared in the liberal and anti-clerical environment at Cambrai, she was open about her opposition to Irish catholicism. She was also well read in literature.

By the time she returned to Ireland, her brother John (1740–95) had claimed the family titles and was recognised as 16th earl of Ormond. Though he never used the title, his sisters were recognised as the daughters of an earl. As the family was impoverished, and she was not disposed to marriage, a decade was passed in unhappiness. Then in 1768 the thirteen-year-old Sarah Ponsonby arrived in Kilkenny to attend a local school. Following her visit to the Butler home at Kilkenny castle, and despite the difference in age, the two formed an immediate friendship and corresponded secretly, having discovered their mutual interest in the arts and Rousseau's ideal of pastoral retirement.

Ponsonby, on finishing school, was sent to live with relatives at nearby Woodstock, and there was subject to the uninvited attention of a middle-aged guardian. Butler was discontented with her life and the prospects of her family's wish to send her back to Cambrai, so the two planned to leave their difficulties behind and settle in England. In their first attempt to flee in March 1778, they left for Waterford disguised as men and wielding pistols, but their families managed to catch up with them. Butler was then sent to the home of her brother-in-law Thomas ‘Monarch’ Kavanagh of Borris, Co. Carlow, but made a second, successful attempt and ran away to find Ponsonby in Woodstock. Her persistence won out when both families finally capitulated and accepted their plans to live together.

The two set out for Wales in May 1778 and, after an extensive tour of Wales and Shropshire, eventually settled in Llangollen Vale, where they rented a cottage which was renamed Plas Newydd. They were accompanied by Mary Carryll, a former servant of the Woodstock household, who remained in their service until her death in 1809. Having made a deliberate decision to retire from the world, they spent the greater part of their days corresponding with friends, reading, building up a large library and making alterations to Plas Newydd, which took on a fashionable Gothic look. Their garden, landscaped under their direction, became a popular attraction for visitors. Butler meticulously recorded their daily routine in a series of journals, some of which are now lost.

Their seclusion, eccentricities, semi-masculine dress and short-cropped powdered hair gained them notoriety, and it became fashionable to call on them. Their numerous and illustrious visitors included Hester Lynch Piozzi, Charles and Erasmus Darwin, Sir Walter Scott, Sir Arthur Wellesley, the duke of Gloucester and Josiah Wedgwood. In 1792 they had entertained Pamela Sims, later that year to become the wife of Lord Edward FitzGerald, and her mother Madame de Genlis (who recorded her impressions in Souvenirs de Félicie). Following the arrest of Edward FitzGerald in 1798, Pamela and her suite fled to London and on 27 May passed through Llangollen, where the events in Dublin were already known. On hearing that Pamela FitzGerald was staying in the local inn, Butler and Ponsonby invited her to call in. However, when Pamela wished to stay for the day, their apprehension of jacobinism led them to persuade her ‘principally for her own sake and a little for [our] own to proceed as fast and as incognito as possible for London’ (cited in Tillyard, 279).

Both Anna Seward and William Wordsworth, who stayed at Plas Newydd, wrote poems celebrating their friendship, and Byron sent them a copy of The corsair. Owing to her support of the Bourbons, Butler was sent the Croix St Louis, which she wore about her neck. Though generally considered a hospitable couple, Seward, who was a good friend, admitted that the ‘incessant homage’ they received could make Butler ‘haughty and imperious’, while Lady Lonsdale thought her ‘very clever, very odd’. Their celebrity did have its drawbacks: an article in the General Evening Post of 24 July 1790, entitled ‘Extraordinary female affection’, suggested indirectly that their relationship was unnatural. Butler was particularly angered by this publicity and appealed to Edmund Burke for legal advice. Their retirement was also continually dogged by financial difficulties. They lived mainly off their respective allowances and Butler's royal pension (granted through the influence of Lady Frances Douglas), but spent beyond their means and were often in debt. To add to their problems, Butler received no mention in her father's will. However, the Gothic eccentricities of their cottage (which they succeeded over time in purchasing) and garden attracted even the interest of Queen Charlotte.

Though it was claimed that neither woman spent a night away from Plas Newydd, in January 1786 they stayed with their friends the Barretts of Oswestry, and that September they visited Sir Henry Bridgeman of Weston, near Staffordshire. In June 1797 they took their only holiday, at the coastal resort of Barmouth. Despite their isolation they were well informed about international events and society gossip. The Irish serjeant-at-law Charles Kendal Bushe recalled how they gave him all the news of Dublin, London, Cheltenham and Paris. In later years Butler's eyesight deteriorated, preventing her from keeping her journal. She was secretly painted as an old woman with Ponsonby by Lady Mary Leighton and sketched by Lady Henrietta Delamere. A distinctive, anonymous silhouette shows the two generously proportioned women in traditional riding habits (National Portrait Gallery, London). Butler died on 2 June 1829, and is buried alongside Carryll at Llangollen church; Sarah Ponsonby was subsequently buried with them.

Sources for Sarah Ponsonby: Wicklow papers, NLI MS 4814; Anon., ‘Extraordinary female affection’, General Evening Post, 24 July 1790; Anna Seward, The poetical works, ed. Walter Scott (1810), iii, 70–80; G. H. Bell (ed.), The Hamwood papers of the ladies of Llangollen and Caroline Hamilton (1930); Elizabeth Mavor, The ladies of Llangollen: a study of romantic friendship (1971); Elizabeth Mavor (ed.), A year with the ladies of Llangollen (1973); Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the love of men: romantic friendship and love between women from the renaissance to the present(1981); Wayne R. Dynes (ed.), Encyclopedia of homosexuality (1990); Emma Donoghue, Passions between women: British lesbian culture, 1668–1801 (1993); Darryl Jones, ‘Frekes, monsters and the ladies: attitudes to female sexuality in the 1790s’, Literature and history, 3rd series, iv, no. 2 (1995), 1–24; National Library of Wales, Ladies of Llangollen: letters and journals of Lady Eleanor Butler (1739–1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1751–1831) (microfilm, 1997); M. J. Tyrkus (ed.), Gay and lesbian biography (1997); Mary Gordon, The Llangollen ladies: the story of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, known as the ladies of Llangollen (1999)

Sources for Eleanor Butler: NLI, MSS 4789, 4811; National Library of Wales, Hamwood MSS; E. V. Lucas, A swan and her friends (1907); Eva Mary Bell, The Hamwood papers of the ladies of Llangollen and Caroline Hamilton (1930); Elizabeth Mavor, The ladies of Llangollen, a study in romantic friendship (1971); Sara Pugh Jones, ‘Plas Newydd and the ladies of Llangollen’, Butler Society Journal, vii (1977), 530–34; Stella Tillyard, Citizen lord: Edward Fitzgerald 1763–1798 (1997); ODNB

Image: Image: 'The Rt. Hon. Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby "The Ladies of Llangollen"' by James Henry Lynch

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