The Ladies of Llangollen were two upper-class women who left their families in Ireland at the end of the eighteenth century to settle together for fifty years in Llangollen, Wales. The couple gained renown for their hospitality, charm, and their eccentricities, which included wearing elements of men’s clothing with an abundance of large brooches, and refusing to ever spend the night away from home.
The Ladies (Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby) are of particular interest to scholars of Gay folklife because of the ways in which they have been portrayed. Their contemporaries describe them as amusing oddities, virgin recluses, and steadfast friends. Almost 200 years later, LGBTQ writers would reinterpret those same records and transform the Ladies into Lesbian icons in a lifelong same-sex marriage.
Eleanor Butler was of Irish Catholic nobility in Ireland (the Butlers of Ormonde, a lineage that came over with the Norman Invasion in 1171). Her branch of the family remained Roman Catholic, and had resided in Castle Kilkenny for 500 years. Sarah Ponsonby was an orphan who was related to the Earl of Bessborough. Butler had been sent to France for a Catholic education. Ponsonby lived with her wealthier relatives and sent to a girls’ boarding school. Butler (age 29) visited the school and met Ponsonby (13). The two became friends. When Ponsonby was 23, they ran away together. Although they disguised themselves as men, they were discovered, brought back to their respective homes, and forbidden to see each other. Nevertheless, they managed to reunite. They confronted their families and left for Wales with their maid, Mary Caryll, never to return to Ireland.
They moved to Llangollen around 1780, and built a house they called Plas Newydd (“New Place”). For the next fifty years, they entertained guests in their home, earning a reputation as eccentrics and excellent hostesses. Butler died in 1829, and Ponsonby died two years later.
For the most part, Butler and Ponsonby were seen by their contemporaries as women who rejected men rather than women who chose each other. They were called “virgins,” “child-like,” and “spinsters.” Their refusal to marry men was framed as the result of unfortunate attempts by their parents to set them up with men they did not like. Though literature on them sometimes described their story as romantic and their flight from Ireland as eloping, the language is most often playful, as if such notions implying erotic desire were preposterous and therefore humorous.
In terms of their dress, their repudiation of society’s norms was considered comical, as in the following account of Charles Matthews written in 1820 for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine:
Oh, such curiosities! I was nearly convulsed. I could scarcely get on for the first ten minutes after my eye caught them. Though I had never seen them, I instantaneously knew them. As they are seated, there is not one point to distinguish them from men: the dressing 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; and regular black beaver men’s hats. They looked exactly like two respectable superannuated old clergymen.
A similarly humorous account in “Travels of a German Prince” by Prince Puckler-Muskau of Prussia, written in 1828:
Imagine two ladies, the eldest of whom, Lady Eleanor, a short robust woman, begins to feel her years a little, being now eighty-three; the other, a tall and imposing person, esteems herself still youthful, being only seventy-four. Both wore their still abundant hair combed straight back and powdered, a round man’s hat, a man’s cravat and waistcoat, but in the place of “inexpressibles,” a short petticoat and boots: the whole covered by a coat of blue cloth, of a cut quite peculiar,–a sort of middle term between a man’s coat and a lady’s riding-habit. Over this, Lady Eleanor wore, first, the grand cordon of the order of St. Louis across her shoulder; secondly, the same order around her neck; thirdly, the small cross of the same in her button-hole, and “pour comble de gloire,” a golden lily of nearly the natural size, as a star,–all, as she said, presents of the Bourbon family. So far the whole effect was somewhat ludicrous.
The Ladies were not simply seen as clowns. Their guests commented on their fluency in French and, despite their seclusion, they had an avid interest in the world around them, especially concerning news of the scandalous. In addition to being humorous and eccentric, the Ladies were given mythic status as examples of “romantic friendship,” platonic love so divine and so elevated as to be above sexual intimacy. The proof that the love was non-sexual was the absence of men. Butler and Ponsonby continued to be portrayed this way well into the twentieth century.
Not all their peers saw them as “man-hating” virgins. Anne Lister (1791-1840), who wrote diaries of her own same-sex romantic feelings and relationships, says about them in 1822: “I cannot help thinking that surely it is not platonic. Heaven forgive me, but I look within myself and doubt. I fear the infirmity of our nature and hesitate to pronounce such attachments uncemented by something more tender still than friendship.”
Iconic Status as Lesbians
LGBTQ scholars tend to see Butler and Ponsonby as women who succeeded in using their rank, wits, and unrelenting affection for each other in ways that allowed them to live together as lovers. This understanding is not limited to post-Stonewall scholarship. The English writer Virginia Woolf used the term “Ladies of Llangollen” to refer to women in same-sex romantic relationships.
Although the Ladies kept meticulous notes on their daily routine, they did not discuss their more intimate moments (although Butler refers to sleeping in the same bed with her “Beloved”), displaying modesty in print that was in keeping with the times in which they lived. If their goal were to be together, such information would not be conducive in keeping them safe from public censure, possible arrest, and separation. The Ladies’ relationship was used by their contemporaries as a rebuttal to so-called Sapphic love (named after the classical Greek poet Sappho, who wrote of loving other women), which in turn protected Butler and Ponsonby from trouble. A similar dynamic would arise about a century later in New England for women who lived together in “Boston marriages” (permanent living arrangements between two unmarried women).
The newfound notoriety of the Ladies of Llangollen in feminist and LGBTQ circles has transformed Butler and Ponsonby into a mythic eighteenth century Lesbian married couple. Their home-turned-museum at Plas Newydd and their tomb where Butler, Ponsonby, and Caryll are all interred together in the graveyard of Llangollen Church are important sites in Gay geography as pilgrimage destinations. Stonewall Cymru (Wales), a Welsh LGBTQ organization, has promoted Plas Newydd as an ideal place for legally-recognized commitment ceremonies.
Butler and Ponsonby have also been celebrated in song. The Frank Chickens, a Japanese performance collective fronted by Hohki Kazuko, recorded a song about them in 1990 called “Two Little Ladies.”
Castle, Terry. “The Diaries of Anne Lister.” The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall. New York: Columbia University, 2003. pp. 92–106.
Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Quill, 1998.
Hicklin, John. The “Ladies of Llangollen” as Sketched by Many Hands, with Notices of Other Objects of Interest in “That Sweetest of Vales.” Chester, England: Thomas Catherall, 1847.
Mathews, Mrs. “Memoirs of Charles Mathews, Comedian.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, vol. XLVI, July-December, 1839. pp. 781-798.
Puckler-Muskau, “Travels of a German Prince.” American Quarterly Review, vol. XII, September and December, 1832. pp. 315-354.