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THE OLD LADIES OF LLANGOLLEN

Posted on: June 30, 2014

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Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were two remarkable women who defied the restrictions imposed on them by their time, and ran away together to set up their own haven. During their lifetimes they became unlikely celebrities, whose chosen way of life became a source of fascination and inspiration.

They were aristocratic Irish ladies by birth, both hailing from the county of Kilkenny, Ireland.
The eldest, Eleanor, was born in 1739. Her family resided at Kilkenny Castle. She was considered to be something of a bluestocking, who preferred reading books to looking for a husband. When she was 29, she was asked to keep an eye on Sarah Ponsonby, then only 13. The two formed a close friendship, and both formulated the idea of setting up their own rural retreat one day. Ten years on, at the age of 39 Eleanor found herself faced with the dismal prospect of being packed away to a convent. By now her friend Sarah was 23, and the two women decided to stage a daring flight. Dressing up in men’s clothing, and packing pistols, they fled from their overbearing families, and ran away to Waterford, where they intended to catch the ferry to England. Things didn’t go as planned though. The ferry didn’t sail, and they women took to hiding in a barn. It was all to no avail, as their families caught up with them and dragged them home.

If the Butlers thought Eleanor was still going to meekly accept being sent to a convent though, they were mistaken. She ran away to Sarah’s house and hid in her bedroom, where Sarah’s loyal maid, Mary Carryll, smuggled food into her. The families finally saw sense, and let the women free to pursue their own lives. Originally, they intended to live in England, but instead they wound up in North Wales, and set up home at Plas Newydd, which sits on a hill very near the town of Llangollen.

Plas Newydd was only a humble dwelling when the ladies first found it, described as “a mean cottage”. The women renovated it, adding little gothic touches, putting in archways, stained glass windows, and a riot of carved wood everywhere. They kept livestock in their garden, and must have relied heavily on the generosity of friends to help them through. Like many aristocrats, the ladies weren’t terribly sensible when it came to living on a small income. They kept a full fleet of servants, including the faithful Mary, who was nicknamed Molly the Bruiser, and who must have been invaluable when it came to sorting out any rogue tradesmen. They created their own library, and drank only the finest wines. They became popular in the area because of their charitable donations, and in return the townsfolk would often donate little gifts to them. They usually referred to them simply as “the ladies”.

At Plas Newydd, they successfully established the quiet retreat they had both planned for so long. Although they lived a peaceful, unexciting life dedicated to study and running their estate, they became a source of fascination to the outside world. Perhaps this was due to the times they were living in. The late 18th/early 19th century was an era of intense upheaval. The horrors of the French Revolution, the American War of Independence, the Napoleonic Wars, the insanity of King George III, even the weather was giving cause for concern (1816 was famously the Year Without A Summer). Perhaps it isn’t so surprising that these two peace-loving ladies with their idyllic country retreat should attract the admiration of the outside world. They were visited by the Duke of Wellington, they became pen-friends with Lord Byron, and Queen Charlotte arranged for them to receive a royal pension.

Of course, the 64,000 dollar question is, were they really lesbians? They were utterly devoted to each other, they shared a bed, both cropped their hair (to be honest, not unusual in the wake of the French Revolution, as people in Britain copied the practice of victims of the Terror having their hair cropped just prior to visiting guillotine, a macabre fashion statement to say the least), and dressed alike in masculine clothing. But it is very difficult to judge any past era by our current one. We live in a highly sexual age, here in the 21st century. We tend to see the past by the way we live now. At Plas Newydd they posit the idea that the ladies enjoyed a “romantic friendship”, not a full blown sexual relationship. They may have lived in an unorthodox way, but the women seem to have been quite conservative at heart. They sacked a maid for getting pregnant, which suggests to me (possibly anyway) that they may have been celibate. Eleanor expressed shock on one occasion when someone described them as having “an unnatural relationship”. Of course, it is hopeless any of us trying to work it out from this vantage point.

But “romantic friendships” weren’t unusual back then. In Victorian times for instance, men often wrote to each other using flowery endearments, which would probably seem quite softly homoerotic now. The sexes were much more rigorously segregated back then. Boys would be packed off to boarding-school at the tender age of 7, universities were single sex, and male careers would have been almost exclusively male-dominated. No wonder the opposite sex was often seen as an exotic alien species! It also wasn’t unusual back then for two people of the same sex to share a bed. Often this was down to sheer practicality, due to lack of space or simply keeping warm, such as the practice of “bundling”. For centuries, in royal circles, it was deemed a great honour if the king asked one of his men to sleep (literally) with him. It was taken as a sign of great trust. Both King Edward IV and King Henry VIII (neither exactly the “gayest” of monarchs) were known to extend this privilege on occasion.

Trying to work out the exact nature of Eleanor and Sarah’s relationship is like trying to decide if Holmes and Watson were really gay. The ladies were undoubtedly soul-mates who were perfectly in tune with each other mentally. Whether this also translated physically it is impossible to say. What we do know is that the ladies lived together devotedly for 50 years. Eleanor died in 1829. Sarah lived on for another two years, but she must have cut a lonely figure, lost without her dear friend. Both ladies are buried in Llangollen churchyard, along with their devoted maid, Molly the Bruiser.

Plas Newydd is a delightful place to visit. Away from the bustle of the town, it feels peaceful and tranquil even now. I was lucky enough to visit it on a quiet day, with the soft summer rain falling down. The house is reputed to be haunted. If it is, I hope it’s their gentle ghosts still enjoying their rural retreat.

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