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So, not so brave after all

For 50 years, Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler shared a home – and a bed – in Wales. It was a fantastically brave choice in the 18th century, offering a roadmap for the women who followed them


On the night of 30 March 1778, in County Kilkenny, Ireland, a beautiful aristocratic orphan, Sarah Ponsonby, 23, put on men’s clothing, picked up a pistol and her little dog, Frisk, and climbed out of the window. She was living in the house of a relative, Sir William Fownes, and had repelled his unwelcome advances. That night, she met up with the woman she knew as her “beloved”, Lady Eleanor Butler, 39 (also dressed in men’s clothes), with a plan to catch the boat to England. They were caught by Sir William’s men, but two months later they persuaded their reluctant families to let them leave with Sarah’s faithful maidservant, Mary Carryl, to start a new life together in the wilds of north Wales, building a domestic idyll in a farmhouse they renamed Plâs Newydd: new hall.

It sounds like the opening of a historical romance, but it is true, and it marks the start of something more profound than a sapphic bodice-ripper: this is the origin story of the Ladies of Llangollen. The irresistible tale of their passionate, 50-year “romantic friendship” and the elaborate, beautiful home and garden they constructed made them famous in their own lifetimes, and they have remained a symbol of enduring same-sex happiness ever since. They are “queer foremothers”, as a newly rereleased book about the Ladies, Chase of the Wild Goose, puts it.

So brave that the surrounding society shrugged its shoulders, made them famous and rather left them alone.

As was, actually, rather common at the time. Streets, horses and all that, who you did the bourgeois respectability with was very much less important than the bourgeois respectability.

5 thoughts on “So, not so brave after all”

  1. Just stating the facts:
    After the archbishop’s death, (Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury 1883-1896) his widow set up household with Lucy Tait, daughter of the previous Archbishop of Canterbury.

  2. “start a new life together in the wilds of north Wales, building a domestic idyll…”

    Come over here and lick Myfanwy.

  3. A close relative was a knight (was living with him after all)? Not exactly bourgeois.

    The rich were and are different.

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