“Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby who have resided there 42 years, ever since 1778 in the course of the time having slept out of it but very few nights, they are now old women, the former being near 80 and the latter about ten years younger.”
– The Goslings of Roehampton
This week, we find ourselves again surrounded by political turmoil. In moments like these, we always have to consider if our voice is needed in the dialogue. If we could say anything that hasn’t already been said. This week we found there is nothing we need to add, so instead we will take this time we have with our dearest readers and tell you all a love story. The story of the Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler, and Sarah Ponsonby, two Irish women who fell in love, and lived happily ever after. A type of story that is all too uncommon in our history, but we are happy to share with you now.
We begin our story with an adventure because no interesting story is without one. It starts with Eleanor Butler, the daughter of an earl born on May 11, 1739, meeting Sarah Ponsonby who was sixteen years younger in 1768, and the two quickly become friends. Where Eleanor Butler was a member of a wealthy family and was allowed to remain in a relatively quiet life enjoying reading and satire as her siblings were married off, Sarah was an orphan under the care of a guardian and close friends with his wife. So the two came from very different places, but both were women, so one thing was expected of them both, marriage.
Eleanor had managed to avoid this fate most of her life and had been perfectly pleased to stay in her family’s home and explore the library. Her older brother did not approve of that plan and, unable to marry her off, set to work to send her to become a nun for the Protestant church, which he had just recently become a member of. Only three kilometers away, Sarah was facing her trouble. With her guardian’s wife dying, Sarah was being groomed to be his new bride. Neither woman was about to allow these things to happen to themselves, or each other.
While it most likely would have been easier for both of them to have left separately, escaping in opposite directions and leaving at least one of them with less chance of being caught, they were not willing to abandon each other. So they hatched up a plan.
It was, unfortunately, not a very good plan, both of them running off in the middle of the night dressed as men with only their dog and a pistol. They ran to a ferry that wasn’t due to leave until the next day and hit from their families in a barn. With little protection from the elements, Sarah, who was twenty-three at the time, fell ill. Soon after, the two were discovered and brought back to their respective houses.
So they hatched a second plan. Though Sarah was too sick to run away and had a brief reprieve of the looming marriage to recuperate, Eleanor was being readied for her time at the nunnery. Again, it would have been much simpler for Eleanor to leave Sarah behind, and run as far as she could as fast as she could. But when she ran, she ran to Sarah.
Her plan was to hide in Sarah’s bedroom until she got well again so they could attempt their daring escape again, together. Unfortunately, that plan did not work either. Though they had the cooperation of a maid who would bring Eleanor food and water when she could, she was eventually discovered. Sarah’s guardian sent out for her family to pick Eleanor up, but they never did, deciding that she was too much trouble and cutting their losses. Soon after, Sarah’s guardian too, allowed the two to leave, deciding that it was easier.
Sarah, Eleanor, and Mary, the maid who had helped the two, went to Wales, buying a gothic home there where they spent the rest of their lives.
Now, is where the “happily-ever-after” portion of our story begins. In their five bedroom home, Sarah and Eleanor shared a room, sleeping in the same bed and over their lifetimes worked to perfect their home in relative solitude. They renovated the home, adding a library, and collecting many odds and ends, including a lock of Mary Queen of Scots hair.
While the two were happy, their lives were not perfect. They often spent beyond their means, but never seemed to take that into account when working on a budget.
Luckily for them, a support system grew. People around Europe fascinated by the way the two lived their lives visited, including Sir Walter Scott, the Duke of Wellington, and Josiah Wedgwood, and many others who often brought donations to help the two manage. They also corresponded with Queen Charlotte, Lord Byron, and Shelley, and with the support of the Queen had a royal allowance granted to them.
But this additional income was mostly spent on their home, as otherwise, they were almost self-sufficient, growing their own vegetables and fruit and building a dairy. They were also generous people, giving 10% of their money to charity and treating their servants extremely well. When Mary died, they built a large stone monument, one they joined her in when they died.
When Eleanor died in 1829, Sarah followed only two years later. Now would often be the time when we would try to convince people that these two were in love, to prove to the historians who dismiss the massive piles of evidence demanding more that they are wrong, to say though there may have been no evidence of a sexual relationship, they did not need one to be in love.
But those people are not the people we are writing to today.
Today, we write to the queer children who are wondering if they will have a happy ending. We are not writing to those who would deny us even the smallest bit of connection with our history, but to those who are looking to grasp that connection. To tell them we have existed for all of the time, and we have always found ways to be happy. Throughout history, we see over and over queer people faced with the worst the world has to offer, and we come back with love stories. We come back with passion, with connections, with friendships, with love, with a sense of belonging, with homes, with communities. We have endlessly fought for the right to exist loving others, and embracing our identities, and this project fights for the right to be recognized. To be seen. And with this article, we take all that this world has thrown at us for the past week, and we come back with a love story, we come back with hope.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Telegraph Travel. (2002, May 4.) Wales: A tale of two ladies ahead of their time.
Retrieved November 14 2016 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/uk/wales/724170/Wales-A-tale-of-two-ladies-ahead-of-their-time.html
Carradice, P. (2019, July 10.) The Ladies of Llanglollen. BBC. Retrieved November 14 2016 from
Una. (2012, June 22.) Autostraddle. The Ladies Of Llangollen: Runaway Romantics In 18th
Century Ireland. Retrieved November 14 2016 from http://www.autostraddle.com/the-ladies-of-llangollen-runaway-lesbians-in-18th-century-ireland-140085/