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literature

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Butler, Lady Eleanor, (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831)  

An enduring emblem of female romantic friendship, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby eloped to Wales where they lived together for over fifty years and entertained several important writers.

Best known as the Ladies of Llangollen, after the Welsh village where they lived in "delicious Retirement," Butler and Ponsonby were daughters of the Anglo-Irish Ascendency who eloped together in 1778. Ponsonby, sixteen years Butler's junior, lost both parents in early childhood and her stepmother when she was thirteen. Given into the care of her father's cousin Lady Betty Fownes, she was sent to Miss Parke's boarding school in Kilkenny.

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There, in 1768, she met Butler, youngest daughter in a Catholic branch of an ancient and noble family of Kilkenny. Educated in an English Benedictine convent in France, Butler became Ponsonby's intellectual mentor and intimate friend. After Ponsonby left Miss Parke's in 1773, the two women entered upon a secret correspondence and determined to live together.

Butler and Ponsonby's first elopement failed; they were discovered, returned, and separated by their two families. Eleanor was urged to a convent, whereas Sarah, it was hoped, would be married. When both women resisted these pressures and Sarah threatened to make public the attentions of her guardian's husband, the families relented and the women fled to Wales. They took a cottage, which they named Plas Newydd, and there settled for the rest of their long lives.

The Ladies' pastoral retreat drew many prominent visitors, including Edmund Burke, William Wordsworth, Anna Seward, and Stéphanie de Genlis. Their mutual attachment, and their life of shared reading, writing, walking, and gardening, were celebrated and mythologized in such contemporary writings as Seward's "Llangollen Vale" and Wordsworth's "Sonnet Composed at Plas Newydd."

The women shared bed, board, books, income, and daily walks; dressed similarly in men's waistcoats and women's skirts; signed their correspondence jointly; named one of their dogs Sappho; and refused to spend even one night away from home. Butler's journals refer to Ponsonby as "my Beloved" and "my sweet love," describe physical attentions bestowed for headaches and illnesses, and express the couple's longings, when visitors were too plentiful, to be alone again.

There has been considerable debate about whether Butler and Ponsonby's union should be labeled "lesbian." During their lifetime, implications of homosexuality circulated occasionally in the press and among visitors, although their upperclass status and connections undoubtedly protected them.

Their neighbor Hester Thrale Piozzi suspected them of ; Genlis considered them imprudent victims of an excessive sensibility. Anne Lister, the Yorkshire woman who recorded her own homosexual activities in coded diaries, wrote after visiting Llangollen in 1822, "I cannot help thinking that surely it was not Platonic. Heaven forgive me, but I look within myself & doubt."

Whether the Ladies of Llangollen have been regarded as celibate or sexual, their relationship has emblematized "romantic friendship" for over two centuries. Deeply immersed in the literary culture of their day as readers, conversationalists, and occasional writers, they have also remained literary subjects.

Colette speculates about them in The Pure and the Impure (1928), Constance Stallard dramatizes their relationship in "The Ladies of Llangollen" (1955), and novels by Doris Grumbach (The Ladies, 1984) and Morgan Graham (These Lovers Fled Away, 1988) imagine their life. Elizabeth Mavor's 1971 biography remains the major resource for scholars; Mavor's selections from Butler's and Ponsonby's private writings is also a valuable textual source.

Susan S. Lanser

     

 
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A portrait of the Ladies of Llangollen painted by Lady Leighton in 1813.
  
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    Bibliography
   

Bell, Eva Mary Hamilton, ed. The Hammwood Papers of the Ladies of Llangollen and Caroline Hamilton. London: Macmillan, 1930.

Butler, Eleanor. Life with the Ladies of Llangollen [rpt. as A Year with the Ladies of Llangollen]. Elizabeth Mavor, ed. Harmondsworth: Viking, 1984.

Colette. The Pure and the Impure. Trans. Herma Briffault. New York: Farrar Straus, 1967.

Gordon, Mary Louisa. Chase of the Wild Goose: The Story of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, Known as the Ladies of Llangollen. London: Hogarth Press, 1936; rpt. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Mavor, Elizabeth. The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship. London: Michael Joseph 1971; Penguin, 1973.

Prichard, John. An Account of the Ladies of Llangollen. Llangollen: Hugh Jones, 1887.

Seward, Anna. Llangollen Vale. 1796; rpt. Oxford: Woodstock Books, 1994.

Stallard, C. L. Seven Plays. London: Mitre Press, 1955.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Lanser, Susan S.  
    Entry Title: Butler, Lady Eleanor, and Sarah Ponsonby  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 8, 2007  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/butler_ponsonby.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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