Ladies of Llangollen: Life on Their Terms

Despite living in a time where the fate of women was to find a husband and marry, Eleanor Charlotte Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, known as the “Ladies of Llangollen,” decided to live a life based on their terms. Their story begins with Butler and Ponsonby living about 15 miles from each other and meeting for the first time in 1768. They quickly developed a close friendship.

Ladies of Llangollen

Ladies of Llangollen. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Butler was a member of the Butler family, the Earls of Ormond, and was also a superbly cultivated woman, who spoke French fluently and was educated there too. Attempts had been made to have her marry and when she refused, it was decided she should become a nun. However, she was completely uninterested in pursuing such a life. Ponsonby lived with relatives in Woodstock, Ireland. She was a second cousin to Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough, and thus a second cousin once removed to his daughter Lady Caroline Lamb, who had an affair with British poet Lord Byron. She was busy avoiding the unwanted advances of her guardian, Sir William Fownes.

Because the women were unhappy in their lives, they decided the best thing to do was to escape their families and create a life together. Thus, 17-year-old Butler and 34-year-old Ponsonby formulated a plan. They decided to establish a rural retreat and live together forever. They also committed to never separate from one another, and accordingly:

“[They] mutually engaged never to sacrifice their liberty, or to part from each other. From that moment they formed the design of withdrawing form the world, and of settling for good in some sequestered retreat. Having heard of the charming scenery of Wales, they secretly absconded from their friends of the purpose of fixing upon their future residence. They visited Llangollen, and there, on the summit of a hill, they found a little detached cottage, with the situation of which they were delighted. Here they resolved to form their establishment.”[1]

Their first elopement resulted in their families considering them fugitives. They were hunted down and brought home. Relatives then tried to convince them to give up their plan, but the women refused. The next escape took effect in April of 1778 when they left County Kilkenny in Ireland. This time they took their servant, Mary Caryll, who would live and work for them the rest of her life without pay. Furthermore, to ensure their escape went undetected, Ponsonby disguised herself as a footman with “top boots” and “buskin breeches,” while Butler appeared as a peasant girl.

Their second attempt for freedom proved successful and this time the women undertook a tour of the Welsh countryside. They then settled together in a rented house in North Wales in Llangollen, described in the following manner:

“This place has not the rich appearance of the English villages in general, but nothing can equal the cleanliness of the houses, and among the lower classes of any country this is an infallible proof of abundance. Llangollen, surrounded with woods and meadows, clothed with the freshest verdure, … [is] covered with trees and flowers.”[2]

Ladies of Llangollen and image of Llangollen

Image of Llangollen. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After Butler and Ponsonby settled in Llangollen, local gossip provided a description of the two women, whom people referred to as “The Ladies” or the “Ladies of Llangollen”:

“Lady Eleanor is of middle height, and somewhat beyond the embonpoint as to plumpness; her face round and fair, with the glow of luxuriant health. She has not fine features, but they are agreeable; enthusiasm in her eye, hilarity and benevolence in her smile. Exhaustless in her fund of historic and traditionary knowledge, and of everything passing in the present eventful period. She expresses all she feels with an ingenuous ardour … Miss Ponsonby, somewhat taller than her friend, is neither slender nor otherwise, but very graceful. Easy, elegant, yet pensive, is her address and manner. … A face rather long than round, a complexion clear but without bloom, with a countenance which, from its soft melancholy, has a peculiar interest. If her features are not beautiful, they are very sweet and feminine. Though the pensive spirit within permits not her lovely dimples to give mirth to her smile, they increase its sweetness, and, consequently, her power of engaging the affections.”[3]

The women found themselves in constant debt and to survive on their own they relied on their self-devised plan of establishing a retreat and acquired a small income from intolerant relatives, who eventually came to tolerate their unorthodox relationship. They also relied on monetary gifts from generous friends. Eventually Queen Charlotte learned of them, wanted to see their cottage, and persuaded King George III to grant them a modest pension.

In 1780, the Ladies of Llangollen moved from their rented house into what they named Plas Newydd (new hall), a five-roomed stone cottage that included a modest 13 acres, 4 for themselves and 9 for their tenants. The women also ensured that every inch of their farm became productive and to help maintain it, they hired several locals, including a gardener, a footman, and two maids, which resulted in significant debt, but also allowed them to “improve” Plas Newydd.

Improvements included adding Gothic features to the house among which was Welsh oak paneling, pointed arches, and stained glass windows. It was also claimed that the women were intrigued with old, richly carved oak, “so that their doors, windows, wainscotings, staircases, and all other constructive wood-work in the house was of a kind to make Horace Walpole’s mouth water.”[4] Over time, they also enlarged the house and created an extensive library. Other additions eventually included a circular stone dairy and a sumptuous garden described as follows:

“The gardens, in which nature and art are judiciously united, are extensive, and display much taste. The thick and umbrageous foliage of the lofty forest trees, that occupy a part of the lawn and gardens, is the safe asylum of numerous birds … The confidence of the birds is shown by some of them every year building their nests in this recess: indeed, these airy inhabitants appear to be quite tame and familiarized by the kindness of their amiable protectors. … Through the lower part of the shrubbery, a brook, called Cyflymen, i.e. Speedy, murmurs o’er its pebbly bed, and is crossed by a rustic bridge, which leads to a bank covered with lichens, and furnished with appropriate seats, near which rises a pure fountain, whose waters are as clear as the crystal glasses.”[5]

House of the Ladies of Llangollen

Plas Newydd cottage in 1840 where the Ladies of Llangollen lived. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When not improving their land and enlarging their cottage, the Ladies of Llangollen devoted the remainder of their time to receiving and hosting a wide range of friends, corresponding extensively, and studying literature and languages. The women wanted to keep a low profile and were reclusive in nature, but it was also reported:

“They are not unsociable; they sometimes pay visits to the neighbouring gentry, and receive with greatest politeness, travellers on their way to or from Ireland, who are recommended to them by any of their old friends.”[6]

Furthermore, their unorthodox lifestyle soon attracted the outside world. Curious visitors wanted to meet the two intriguing women who were living on their own. Their home thus became a haven to tourists traveling between Dublin and London, which included continental visitors. Among those who visited the Ladies of Llangollen was the famous British soldier known as the Duke of Wellington, the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, the German nobleman and landscape designer Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, Lord Byron, the Scottish historical novelist Sir Walter Scott, the English industrialist Josiah Wedgwood, and, of course, Byron’s lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, who became well-known because of her Gothic novel, Glenarvon.

Besides these visitors, there was also Madame de Genlis. She was a French writer, harpist, educator, and Governess of the Children of France to the Duke and Duchess of Orléans, who were in-laws to the unfortunate Princesse de Lamballe. While staying in Bury with one of her young Orléans charges, Madame de Genlis heard about Llangollen and learned there were two female residents who supposedly had a “model” friendship and referred to each other as “my better half.” Madame de Genlis and her charge’s curiosity were so great about the Ladies of Llangollen they decided to visit them. The Lancaster Gazette wrote of their visit:

“They were received with grace and cordiality. She [Madame de Genlis] saw nothing in them of that vanity which is gratified by awakening the astonishment of others; they loved each other, and lived in that spot with so much simplicity, that wonder soon subsided into a touching interest; every thing was genuine and natural in their manners and conversation. … you were delighted to find, in that peaceful retreat so much merit, sheltered from the attacks of satire and of envy, and talent’s that, free from ostentation and pride, never desired, in that spot, other stuff ages than those friendship.”[7]

Madame de Genlis by Jacques-Antoine-Marie Lemoine, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another interesting visitor was Anne Lister from Yorkshire. She was a lesbian and informally married her own lover supposedly after seeing the living arrangements embraced by the Ladies of Llangollen. Lister also kept diaries that included information about her romantic and sexual relationships with women. About one sixth of her entries contained intimate details of her affairs. It was written in code (a combination of algebra and Ancient Greek), which was not deciphered until the 1930s. One 1812 passage below is typical of what she wrote in her diary:

“Meant to have gone to bed very early but, after 9, M— asked me to go to see Madame Tussaud‘s waxwork figures … We were there some time. Did not go upstairs till a little past 10 & were not in bed till 12. Sat up talking. Delighted to see each other, yet somehow I felt very low … Two kisses last night, one almost immediately after the other, before we went to sleep … Felt better, but was so shockingly low last night I cried bitterly but smothered is so that M— scarcely knew of it. At any rate, she took no notice wisely enough.”[8]

Anne Lister. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Like Lister, Butler also kept a diary of her and Ponsonby’s activities, but their lives were rather “unexciting” in comparison to Lister’s. There was also nothing in Butler’s diary or in the women’s letters to indicate they were lesbians, although this point is still debated today. Butler’s diaries seem to indicate they were nothing more than close and devoted friends. Nonetheless, this did not stop rumors from circulating that they were lesbians, and, in 1791, the gossip eventually resulted in a magazine implying it in print. The women were appalled by the suggestion. They thought about suing the magazine for libel and even talked to Edmund Burke, a statesman born in Dublin who was also as an author, orator, political theorist, and philosopher.

The Ladies of Llangollen lived together for 50 years, during which time many items, like books and glassware, were noted to carry both their initials. The women were also known to sign their correspondence jointly. In addition, as they aged, they began to dress in a manly style that people outside the area thought was eccentric and outdated, although locals considered it appropriate: The women could be regularly found with powdered hair wearing black riding hats and men’s top hats and were described by comedian Charles Mathews who once met them:

“As they are seated, there is not one point to distinguish them from men; the dresses and powdering of the hair, their well-starched neckcloths, the upper part of their habits (which they always wear, even at a dinner party) made precisely like men’s coats, with regular black beaver hats, everything contributing to this semblance. To crown all, the had crop heads, which were rough, bush, and white as snow.”[9]

Ladies of Llangollen

The Ladies of Llangollen. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Butler and Ponsonby’s ever faithful and loyal maid Carryl was the first to die. She was buried in the same plot that would eventually hold the Ladies of Llangollen. The women would also share the same grave marker with Carryl that memorialized her life with the following inscription.

  • “In MEMORY OF
  • MRS. MARY CARRYL
  • Deceased 22nd November 1809.
  • Released from earth and all its transient woes.
  • She whose remains beneath this Stone repose.
  • Steadfast in faith resigned her parting breath,
  • Looked up with Christian joy and smiled in death.
  • Patient, industrious, faithful, generous kind,
  • Her conduct left the proudest far behind;
  • Her virtues dignified her humble birth,
  • And raised her mind above this sordid earth.
  • Attachment (sacred bonds of grateful breasts)
  • Extinguished but with life, this Tomb attests,
  • Reared by two friend who will her loss bemoan,
  • Till with her ashes, here, shall rest their own.[10]

Twenty years later Butler died at the age of ninety. Less than two years later, Ponsonby died. Inscriptions honoring both women were added to the marker that had honored Carryl. The two added inscriptions stated:

  • “Sacred to the Memory of
  • The Right Honourable
  • LADY ELEANOR CHARLOTTE BUTLER,
  • Deceased 2nd June, 1829
  • Endeared to her friends by an almost unequalled excellence of heart, and by manners worthy of her illustrious birth, the admiration and delight of a very numerous acquaintance from a brilliant vivacity of mind undiminished to the latest period of a prolonged existence. Her amiable condescension and benevolence secured the grateful attachment of those by whom they had been so long and so extensively experienced. Her various perfections, crowned by the most pious and cheerful submission to the Divine will, can only be appreciated where it is humbly believed they are now enjoying their Eternal Reward, and by her, of whom for more than fifty years they constituted that happiness which, through our blessed Redeemer, she trusts will be renewed when THIS TOMB shall have closed ever its latest tenant.
  • SARAH PONSONBY
  • Depart this Life
  • On the 9th December 1831,
  • Aged 76.
  • She did not long survive her beloved companion, LADY ELEANOR BUTLER, with whom she had lived in this valley for more than half a century of uninterrupted friend. “But they shall no more return to their house, neither shall their place know them any more.[11]
Ladies of Llangollen

The Ladies of Llangollen. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

After the Ladies of Llangollen died, they were not forgotten. Stories about them continued to be printed and years later in 1885 the Pall Mall Gazette wrote:

“The story of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby, two Irish ladies of rank … who settled down in Llangollen … and lived there in solitude for the rest of their lives, is, or should be, known to every one who visits the upper waters of the Dec. Plas Newydd, their quaint and picturesque old house, now converted into a kind of museum, is to be seen; photographs of them and pamphlets narrating their history are to be got in Llangollen, where, although they have been dead for about sixty years, the memory of their good works is still green. These are the real ‘maids of Llangollen,’ and a novelist in search of plot might do worse than take their history for the substance and the beautiful scenery around Llangollen for the background of his story.”[12]

References:

  • [1] J. Prichard, An Account of the Ladies of Llangollen (H Jones, 1880), p. 8.
  • [2] J. Prichard. 1880, p. 9.
  • [3] J. Prichard. 1880, p. 6.
  • [4] Our Own Country, Descriptive, Historical, Pictorial v. 1-2 (London: Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co., 1878), p. 191.
  • [5] W. T. Simpson, Some Account of Llangollen and Its Vicinity (London: G.B. Whittaker, 1827), p. 190–92.
  • [6] J. Prichard. 1880, p. 9.
  • [7] Lancaster Gazette, “The Ladies of Llangollen,” August 22, 1829, p. 4.
  • [8] H. Whitbread, I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister, 1791-1840 (New York: NYU Press, 1992), p. 194.
  • [9] J. Prichard. 1880, p. 3.
  • [10] J. Prichard. 1880, p. 13.
  • [11] J. Prichard. 1880, p. 12–13.
  • [12] The Pall Mall Gazette v. 33 (London: Pall Mall Gazette, 1885), p. 27.

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