Monday, 27 May 2013

The Enigmatic Ladies of Llangollen


Once upon a time, in 1778 to be exact, two aristocratic single ladies named Lady Eleanor Butler and her friend, Sarah Ponsonby, did the unthinkable. 

They eloped.

Or did they? They certainly escaped together from lives which had become intolerable for them. An earlier attempt, during which they had dressed as men, carried a pistol and a pet dog named Frisk had failed. On that occasion they had been discovered and taken back home again before they had chance to sail to England. But they were determined to share their lives. Eventually, their families relented and allowed them to go, whereupon, with a maid called Mary, they sailed to England but then toured Wales in search of a home. They eventually found one, the enchanting and fascinating Plas Newydd (New Hall) on a hill above the busy tourist town of Llangollen.

But their longed-for quiet life of peace and 'delightful retirement' - where they would spend their days reading, writing, drawing and gardening would not last for long as their fame spread. They became known as 'the two most celebrated virgins in Europe' and, more simply, 'the Ladies of Llangollen. Celebrity vistors beat a path to their door - among them, Lord Byron, Lady Caroline Lamb, Josiah Wedgwood, William Wordsworth, the Dukes of Wellington and Gloucester, and they exchanged frequent letters with Queen Charlotte and Emperor Louis XVI's aunt. There were days when visitors numbered in double figures and Mary was rushed off her feet.

So who were these extraordinary ladies and what was the precise nature of their relationship?

Lady Caroline Lamb
Lady Eleanor Butler was the youngest daughter of the Earl of Ormonde, of Kilkenny Castle in Ireland - a title that had been withdrawn from him by the controlling British government, owing to his persistent Catholicism. The title was restored when Eleanor's brother, Robert, converted to Protestantism. While her brother and sisters made high profile marriages, highly intelligent Eleanor showed no such inclination, preferring to read and, possessed of a quick wit, she was always ready with a satirical comment when such was not expected of ladies in her position. She was already 39 and it seemed likely that, before long, she would be put away in a nunnery for the rest of her days. As a woman of that time, she would have no choice in the matter.

Twelve miles away, her much younger close friend, the orphaned Sarah Ponsonby was facing an unbearable fate of a different kind. Her middle-aged guardian, Sir William Fownes was making unwanted advances towards the pretty young woman - attentions which outraged her . After all, his wife, Betty, was still alive and Sarah was very attached to her. She was also disgusted by the way Sir William relished his wife's failing health and looked forward to the day when he would make Sarah the second Lady Fownes.

Eleanor and Sarah exchanged a rapid series of letters and hatched a plot to escape their lot and set up home together. With such similar tastes, they felt they could be perfectly happy in their blissful seclusion.
Lord Byron

Once they had achieved their goal and settled in at Plas Newydd, speculation as to the true nature of their relationship began. Nothing should be read into the word 'elope' though because, in this era, the word simply meant 'escape'. What did set tongues wagging was that unmarried ladies simply didn't go off and set up home independently of any male support. Then, they compounded their notoriety by cutting their hair, wearing it in short curls, sleeping in the same bed and developing a habit of referring to each other as 'My Beloved' (or 'My B') and later as, 'My Better Half'. They frequently wore riding habits and masculine beaver hats.

So were they or weren't they? Did they or didn't they?

Visitors generally thought no (on both counts) and it should be remembered that the sort of tender endearments they shared was not considered odd in the 18th century, nor was their habit of sharing a bed. As far as their eccentric dress was concerned, similar styles were known of in France and, anyway, they had no interest in the fashions of the day and preferred to spend their money on books and home improvements. 

It has been speculated that Lesbianism, as such, was never spoken about in society until around 1789 (and then only because of some incidents at the French court). It is highly possible that one of the ladies - Lady Eleanor - may have had such feelings towards Sarah but, lacking knowledge of such physical love, would not have exercised any demonstration of them. Some sources also believe that Sarah would quite possibly have been happy with a suitable male. The truth is, we'll never know.

What is most likely is that these two ladies found each other when in desperate straits. They discovered in each other what they had failed to find elsewhere - companionship, shared tastes, conversation and intellectual fulfilment.

For fifty years, they lived in their five roomed stone cottage which underwent considerable remodelling to instal stained glass windows and create their preferred Gothic style, with dark timbers and old Elizabethan and Jacobean furniture. Their library was crammed with finely bound books and all manner of curios and the garden was also eccentric, with a ruined Gothic arch, Lady Eleanor's Bower, a model dairy, ravine and rushing streams.

They remained devoted to their somewhat uncouth maid, Mary (nicknamed 'Molly the Bruiser') until her death, and their loyalty was rewarded with the acquisition of a field, purchased with Mary's life savings which she had bequeathed to them. She is buried in Llangollen Churchyard, where stands an unusual three sided stone monument. The ladies were to join her- Lady Eleanor in June 1829 (aged 90) and Sarah two years later, at the age of  76.

The house had a number of owners until it was acquired by Llangollen Urban District Council in 1932. Today, it is owned by Denbighshire County Council.
Plas Newydd is open to the public and is well worth a visit.
As for the Ladies, they took their secrets to the grave.Maybe that is why they continue to fascinate us to this day.


  1. I'm just so glad they found the happiness they craved. This is a lovely story, Catherine - worth fictionalising it?

  2. Thanks Sue. If Hollywood got hold of it, goodness knows what they'd do with it. I have visions of Kristen Stewart and Scarlett Johansson thrashing around on a bed, while Lord Byron (aka Robert Pattinson) beds Lady Caroline Lamb (aka Ashley Benson) and a harem of other women in another room. The only question is, who would play the maid? Ah, of course! Sarah Jessica Parker, in a cloud of 'Begorrahs' and 'Eejits'.

    Correction - that isn't a vision, it's a nightmare!

  3. great post again Cat. What a story and it would make a great film or book.

    1. Thanks, Shehanne. It's a lovely, intimate place to visit - at least it was when I went there a few years ago. The gardens were interesting and worth a ramble too.