Review: The "Ladies of Llangollen" as Sketched by Many Hands; with Notices of Other Objects of Interest in "That Sweetest of Vales"
First, the title is ridiculously long, isn't it? It helps to know that it was published in 1847 when those sorts of titles were a bit more common.
I read about the "scandal" of the Ladies of Llangollen in another book (a biography or women's history book I forget the title of), and after the usual googling and rooting about on the internet I bumped into this book by John Hicklin at Gutenberg. So I downloaded it and promptly forgot about it. (This is pretty much life as usual for me and Gutenberg.) When doing a little ereader cleaning I re-discovered the book, and decided that since it's only 60 pages it was really something I should have read by now.
Second, here are a few links for the impatient:
Wikipedia page, for the quick history of the Ladies (and a picture of them in their hats and coats).
Gutenberg link for those wanting a look at this ebook.
Google Map link for the Ladies' house in Wales, Plas Newydd (sadly street view only gives you a peek down the driveway - oh wait, you can peek over the fence here! The nearby ruin of Castell Dinas Bran is worth looking up too.)
An Extraordinary Affair, RTE audio documentary: "Were these two women the first openly Irish lesbian couple ever? Long before the recent Irish civil partnership bill, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby's relationship scandalised Ireland." (This documentary is excellent, especially in explaining their lives in context of their times, and what a "romantic friendship" meant. Fun details about the oak carvings. I loved it so much I downloaded a copy to keep - there's a link for an mp3.) From the article on that page:
"...After a couple of years, their life attracted the interest of the outside world. Their house became a haven for all manner of visitors, mostly writers such as Robert Southey, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and Scott, but also the military leader Duke of Wellington and industrialist Josiah Wedgwood; aristocratic novelist Caroline Lamb, who was born a Ponsonby, came to visit too. Even travellers from continental Europe had heard of the couple and came to visit them, for instance Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, the German nobleman and landscape designer who wrote admiringly about them.
The Ladies were known throughout Britain, but in fact led a rather unexciting life. Queen Charlotte wanted to see their cottage and persuaded the King to grant them a pension. Eventually their families came to tolerate them."
Ladies of Llangollen poems at auction - BBC story from 8 May 2013 about two signed poems (short text article, 4min audio) - the audio notes that both women wrote a great deal of letters and Eleanor kept diary. Which makes me really want to know what (if any) writing has survived besides these poems. (These two books are supposed to have material from Eleanor's writing, among other primary sources: A Year with the Ladies of Llangollen and The Ladies of Llangollen: A study in Romantic Friendship)
Short version review: This is more of a scrapbook than what would normally be considered a biography. The author never met the Ladies himself and uses the stories and references to them he was able to find. There's a long section detailing the house and items they owned, and then quotes from letters and memoirs. If you know that before reading, then this book won't be disappointing and instead just a curiosity. And it will make you want to know more about the Ladies.
Warning, at this point I will nitter on and quote so much that you really don't even need to read the book itself unless very motivated. You've been warned! My excuse is that I've wanted to have more details about the Ladies for some time. And also that I'll refer back to this post later, when I'm researching. (Not that that's likely to be soon.)
The Ladies are important as examples of women who wanted a life for themselves outside of what society had decided was adequate for women - and they were brave enough, and cared for each other enough, to make their own lives outside of that society. (Having the money to manage this is part of the story too.) It's hard to state for certain whether it was a love match between them as we think of it in our century. Many women had strong romantic friendships that weren't physical (as our time assumes), and in fact the Ladies' relationship may have been something of both (meaning it wasn't necessarily physical yet still a love match and marriage, rather than just close friends). But, as I think they would have preferred, the specific details of that will be their secret. For me, this is very simply a love story with a happy ending that lasted 50 years - it's enough for me to know that they managed to have the life together that they wanted, and no one tried to separate them again. Also it's something that no matter what society thought of them we still have documents that give us some glimpses of what interesting, well-read people the Ladies must have been.
So that you know what you'd be getting into - here's an example of Hicklin's florid writing (second paragraph of the book):
p. 7-8: "About the year 1778, these ladies, impelled by a desire to lead a secluded life of celibacy, forsook the gay and fashionable circles in which they had moved; and in their search for a fitting spot, on which to pass their days together in devoted friendship to each other, and in acts of benevolence and charity to their neighbours, they visited Llangollen. Rambling along this charming locality one balmy evening, when the tranquil beauty of the lovely valley was lighted up by the mild splendour of the moon, their eyes rested upon a cottage that stood on a gentle eminence near the village; and there they resolved to fix their abode. They accordingly purchased the estate; built a new cottage on the site of the old one, in a remarkably unique and somewhat grotesque style of architecture; and laid out gardens, pleasure grounds, and rural walks with grottoes, temples, conservatories, rustic bridges, and other accessories for enjoying, in the undisturbed quiet of their own domain, the natural charms of their picturesque retreat. Their mode of life being singular, and their costume still more so (for they assumed a style of head-dress resembling that of men, and always wore long cloth coats, rather like ladies’ riding habits), they soon attracted the attention of the many travellers who passed through North Wales; and as they kept up an extensive and active correspondence with several eminent authors page 3 and persons of distinction, the “Ladies of Llangollen,” for so they were always designated, made a much greater sensation in their seclusion, than many less remarkable persons who are constantly living in the business and bustle of society. Hence many literary pilgrimages were made to the recluses of Plas Newydd; and the “even tenor” of their way was often diversified by the calls of the illustrious, the learned, and the curious; from whom they were as willing to learn what was passing in politics, literature, and general gossip, as were their visitors desirous of having a peep within the charmed circle of this mountain solitude."
I've left the phrase "page 3" in there to remind me to alert you to there being some errors in the text, but in the version on Amazon and not the Gutenberg. I think. It's actually something that I'm now so used to it doesn't bother me - in old books only, I should add. If this was something newly published I'd probably rant about it more, but I'm willing to give a text from the 1800s a break.
I do love the whole story of the Ladies, and the fact that they eloped - and not only once.
p 9: "The two ladies, however, found means to elope together, but being soon overtaken, were brought back to their respective relations. Many attempts were again made to draw Miss Butler into marriage, though in vain; not many weeks after, the ladies eloped again, each having a small sum with her. The place of their retreat was confided to a female servant of the house. Here they lived many years, unknown to any of the neighbouring villagers, otherwise than by the appellation of the 'Ladies of the Vale.'"
In case you were wondering the ages of the women when they eloped: Eleanor was 39 and Sarah was 23.
After the trauma of escaping their families the ladies managed to live in peace for 50 years, living quietly in a very nice cottage, reading, gardening and having the occasional famous visitor. The book then tells us all about their tombstone - Eleanor died in 1929 at age 90, and in two years Sarah died at age 76. (The book gives the full inscription on the stone, which I appreciated since I couldn't tell what it said from the photo on the wikipedia page. I get curious about such things.)
The Ladies paid for the inscription (apparently part of the gravestone the three of them share) for their servant, Mary Carryl, who died in 1809. Somehow that I found this fact very touching, because I'm assuming Carryl left her family behind in Ireland when she went with the two women to Wales, and then stayed with them until her death. Servants didn't have retirement plans, but it's not impossible that Carryl might have still had family in Ireland to visit or live with - but instead she stayed with the Ladies. I don't know more than that, but I'd like to think that she stayed because she enjoyed the life she had with them. And it's not every servant who had an employer pay for their burial and tombstone, especially when the Ladies weren't infinitely wealthy and according to some accounts had to accept gifts from friends in order to keep up their standard of living. (Granted that was a standard that required that they have servants: a gardener, footman, and two maids according to the wikipedia page.) (If you want to learn a few more facts about Mary Carryl be sure to listen to the RTE documentary. At her death she gave all her money she'd saved to the Ladies.)
Here's a random bit of info I found on the Britain Express website (and so I can't vouch for whether it's factual) on it's Plas Newydd page:
"The Ladies of Llangollen are buried in Llangollen churchyard, where a curious three-sided monument to them and Mary Caryll stands outside the south west corner of the church. Incidentally, it is commonly reported that Mary Caryll bought Plas Newydd with her life savings and bequeathed it to the Ladies. According to the informative guidebook on sale at the house, this is not strictly accurate; Mary saved enough to buy the adjoining fields, which she left to Sarah Ponsonby on her death."
Note that we hopped right from the elopement to the tombstones pretty quickly. That's as the book covers the story - and from there we go right into the 1832 auction of their home with a quote of the exact words of the auction advertisement. The author then quotes the auctioneer, George Robins' description of the Ladies house, though it's sort of hard to tell what information is via the Ladies or produced by Robins, or perhaps the author. (On pg 17 the author says this "ornate announcement" isn't his writing, but I'm not sure I believe him.) For instance, the library called "The Saloon of the Minervas" - but no clue as to which writer gave it that name. Here, let me just give you an example:
p. 14: "A Library, 13 feet by 14 feet 6 inches, with Three Gothic Windows of carved Oak and splendid stained Glass, exhibiting old Armorial Bearings, and forming a Bow Window, handsome Chimney Piece of yellow and white marble, and Recesses fitted up with Gothic Book Cases, and the Doors and Architrave of old carved Oak.
An admirably constructed Kitchen, carved Oak Doors and Window Facia, a very handsome carved Oak Screen and Seat, Grate Ovens, Hearths, Stew Holes, &c. A Housekeeper’s Room, beautifully fitted up with carved Oak Presses, Oak Doors and Window Frames. A large Larder with fixed Tables, Hooks, &c. together with an ample Cellar, both so situated as to be perfectly cool in the hottest weather.
...Wash-house, Scullery, Coal-house, &c., a Staircase of carved Oak, Walls and Ceilings of the same beautifully ornamented Gothic Architecture. This is one of the most beautiful things that can be conceived."
I'm still trying to figure out what in that last sentence is referring to as "this" as the most beautiful. Anyway I suppose it's kind of fun to realize that even in the 1800s real estate agents were describing houses in a writing style that sounds fairly close to the way they're still writing. The phrase "carved Oak" and the word "Gothic" are used quite a bit. This part goes on for multiple pages.
Hicklin suggests later (p. 48) that some of those pieces of carved wood might have been salvaged from convents and churches that were gutted and destroyed in the "continental wars" (by which I think he means Dissolution of the Monastaries). I haven't found many good close-ups of these carvings, but the photos that I have seen do look fascinating, and old.
The estate firm also auctioned off all the furniture, household and personal items - with lots of fun details, and random capitalization thrown in here and there for emphasis:
p 20: "JEWELLERY AND ELEGANCIES, Presenting many pleasing and valuable Ornaments for the person, in necklaces, car-rings, crosses and brooches, most of them inclosing the hair of the donors, particularly one of great interest, possessing A LOCK OF “MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS” HAIR. interesting miscellanies, curiosities and relics, viz.
Very fine missals, beautifully illuminated; autographs of numerous renowned personages, particularly a letter by “Charles the First” to Lady Fisher, from Whitehall, during his confinement; presentation snuff boxes, many of value, and most with lines of dedication; relics of great antiquity, and many of modern date, presented by travellers, forming altogether a Museum of great interest and amusement.
...a large Æolian harp, telescopes, microscopes, &c.
...A SERIES OF ETCHINGS. THE POWER AND PROGRESS OF GENIUS, executed by THE PRINCESS ELIZABETH, and presented by her TO THE PRINCESS AMELIA; an autograph letter from THE PRESENT KING OF FRANCE, Accompanying the Memoirs du Duc de Montressor, in scarlet and morocco, a present from His Majesty to Lady Butler and Miss Ponsonby."
Happily the rest of the book isn't all just lists - we move on to memoirs and letters either to the Ladies or about them. If you've ever read a lot of period letters you know this can always be a hit or miss sort of history. If you only have an outgoing letter and not the letter that the one you're reading is commenting on - well, you only end up with half the story. Sadly this book doesn't have any letters from the Ladies, which is disappointing as what you want most from this story is their perspective.
Authors of letters/memoirs the book quotes:
Miss Anna Seward (from Volume VI of published letters),
Prince Herman, Furst Puckler-Muskau of Prussia,
author Miss Catherine Sinclair,
Miss Costello (also visited after the deaths, unimpressed by the house and grounds, thought the engraving of the Ladies showed them as "frightfully ugly"),
"the celebrated" Madame Stephanie Felicite (Comtesse) de Genlis (in Souvenirs de Felicie L---).
Then Hicklin and his publisher visit the Ladies' house, then being inhabited by Miss Lolly and Miss Andrew, who wished to live as the Ladies had and keep the cottage and interior as it had been in the Ladies' time.
As if there weren't enough reasons to eyeroll at author Hicklin, this particular passage from page 49 should do the trick:
...readers "may gratify their curiosity still more in this matter, by purchasing from our Publisher a well-executed engraving representing, with all due fidelity, excellent likenesses of the "Ladies of Llangollen;" each, as Hamlet would say, "in her habit as she lived." "
Yes, he did just pop some product advertising into the text. Along with a throw away quote of Hamlet just to show off.
The weirdest part is at the end, after the famous folk have been quoted, Hicklin and his publisher visit the Ladies' house and then wander off to Valle Crucis Abbey, the ruins of it anyway, and then spends pages describing it. Not only that, but he bursts into poetry, which I did not enjoy, which again pops up on the last page so he can regale us with "Llangollen Ale," a poem about the local brew (which you can purchase at The Hand or King's Head Hotel). My advise is that once you get to this point just skip it. Unless you want to make it to the last page where the printer advertises that illustration of the Ladies again, plus other books.
A few quotes of others describing the Ladies and their story:
From Charles Matthews' memoirs:
p 24-26: "Oswestry, Sept. 4th. 1820. The dear inseparable inimitables, Lady Butler and Miss Ponsonby, were in the boxes here on Friday. They came twelve miles from Llangollen, and returned, as they never sleep from home. 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; one the picture of Boruwlaski. I was highly flattered, as they never were in the theatre before.
...I have to-day received an invitation to call, if I have time as I pass, at Llangollen, to receive in due form, from the dear old gentlemen called Lady Butler and Miss Ponsonby, their thanks for the entertainment I afforded them at the theatre."
Porkington, Oct. 24th. “Well, I have seen them, heard them, touched them. The pets, “the ladies,” as they are called, dined here yesterday - Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby, the curiosities of Llangollen mentioned by Miss Seward in her letters, about the year 1760. I mentioned to you in a former letter the effect they produced upon me in public, but never shall I forget the first burst yesterday upon entering the drawing-room: to find the dear antediluvian darlings, attired for dinner in the same manified dress, with the Croix de St. Louis, and other orders, and myriads of large brooches, with stones large enough for snuff-boxes, stuck in their starched neckcloths! I have not room to describe their most fascinating persons. I have an invitation from them, which I much fear I cannot accept. They returned home last night, fourteen miles, after twelve o’clock. They have not slept one night from home for above forty years. I longed to put Lady Eleanor under a bell-glass, and bring her to Highgate for you to look at."
Letter from Walter Scott's memoirs (not entire sure who was writing this, I assume Mrs. Scott?):
p 26-28: Elleray, August 24.
...At Llangollen your papa was waylaid by the celebrated ‘Ladies’—viz. Lady Eleanor Butler and the Honourable Miss Ponsonby, who having been one or both crossed in love, forswore all dreams of matrimony in the heyday of youth, beauty, and fashion, and selected this charming spot for the repose of their now time-honoured virginity. It was many a day, however, before they could get implicit credit for being the innocent friends they really were, among the people of the neighbourhood; for their elopement from Ireland had been performed under suspicious circumstances; and as Lady Eleanor arrived here in her natural aspect of a pretty girl, while Miss Ponsonby had condescended to accompany her in the garb of a smart footman in buckskin breeches, years and years elapsed ere full justice was done to the character of their romance.* We proceeded up the hill, and found everything about them and their habitation odd and extravagant beyond report. Imagine two women, one apparently seventy, the other sixty-five, dressed in heavy blue riding habits, enormous shoes, and men’s hats, with their petticoats so tucked up, that at the first glance of them, fussing and tottering about their porch in the agony of expectation, we took them for a couple of hazy or crazy old sailors. On nearer inspection they both wear a world of brooches, rings, &c., and Lady Eleanor positively orders—several stars and crosses, and a red ribbon, exactly like a K.C.B. To crown all, they have crop heads, shaggy, rough, bushy, and as white as snow, the one with age alone, the other assisted by a sprinkling of powder. The elder lady is almost blind, and every way much decayed; the other, the ci-devant groom, in good preservation. But who could paint the prints, the dogs, the cats, the miniatures, the cram of cabinets, clocks, glass-cases, books, bijouterie, dragon-china, nodding mandarins, and whirligigs of every shape and hue—the whole house outside and in (for we must see everything to the dressing-closets), with carved oak, very rich and fine some of it—and the illustrated copies of Sir W.’s poems, and the joking simpering compliments about Waverley, and the anxiety to know who McIvor really was...
Great romance (i.e. absurd innocence of character) one must have looked for; but it was confounding to find this mixed up with such eager curiosity, and enormous knowledge of the tattle and scandal of the world they had so long left. Their tables were piled with newspapers from every corner of the kingdom, and they seemed to have the deaths and marriages of the antipodes at their fingers’ ends. Their albums and autographs, from Louis XVIII. and George IV., down to magazine poets and quack-doctors, are a museum. I shall never see the spirit of blue-stockingism again in such perfect incarnation. Peveril won’t get over their final kissing match for a week. Yet it is too bad to laugh at these good old girls; they have long been the guardian angels of the village, and are worshipped by man, woman, and child about them."
* author Hicklin's footnote: "It is, I suppose, needless to say, that the editor is far from vouching for the accuracy of these details. The letter in the text gives the gossip as it was heard at the time."
Madame de Genlis, who visits the Ladies, but first has their history related to her by Mr. Stewart (later Lord Castlereagh), and at this point it sounds like a fairy tale:
p 39-40: "Lady Eleanor Butler, was born in Dublin. She was left an orphan while in her cradle; and possessing an ample fortune, together with an amiable disposition and a beautiful person, her hand was solicited by persons belonging to the first families in Ireland. At an early age she manifested great repugnance to the idea of giving herself a master. This love of independence, which she never dissembled, did no injury to her reputation; her conduct has always been irreproachable, and no female is more highly distinguished for sweetness of temper, modesty, and all the virtues which adorn her sex. In tender infancy a mutual attachment took place between her and Miss Ponsonby, by an accident which made a deep impression on their imagination. They had no difficulty to persuade themselves that heaven had formed them for each other; that is, that it had designed each of them to devote her existence to the other, so that they might glide together down the stream of life, in the bosom of peace, the most intimate friendship, and delicious independence. This idea their sensibility was destined to realize. Their friendship gradually grew stronger with their years, so that at seventeen they mutually engaged never to sacrifice their liberty, or to part from each other. From that moment they formed the design of withdrawing from the world, and of settling for good in some sequestered retreat.
Meanwhile the guardians of the young fugitives sent people after them, and they were conveyed back to Dublin. They declared that they would return to their mountain as soon as they were of age. Accordingly, at twenty-one, in spite of the entreaties and remonstrances of their relatives and friends, they quitted Ireland for ever, and flew to Llangollen. Miss Ponsonby is not rich, but Lady Eleanor possesses a considerable fortune. She purchased the little hut and the property of the mountain, where she built a cottage, very simple in external appearance, but the interior of which displays the greatest elegance. On the top of the mountain she has formed about the house a court and flower-garden; a hedge of rosebushes is the only enclosure that surrounds this rural habitation."
Madame meets them:
p 42-43: "...Their mutual attachment, and their whole conduct evince such simplicity, that astonishment soon gives way to softer emotions; all they do and say breathes the utmost frankness and sincerity. One circumstance which I cannot help remarking is, that after living so many years in this sequestered retreat, they speak French with equal fluency and purity. I was likewise much struck with the little resemblance there is between them. Lady Eleanor has a charming face, embellished with the glow of health; her whole appearance and manner announce vivacity and the most unaffected gaiety. Miss Ponsonby has a fine countenance, but pale and melancholy. One seems to have been born in this solitude, so perfectly is she at her ease in it; for her easy carriage shews that she has not retained the slightest recollection of the world and its vain pleasures. The other, silent and pensive, has too much candour and innocence for you to suppose that repentance has conducted her into solitude, but you would suppose that she still cherishes some painful regrets. Both have the most engaging politeness, and highly-cultivated minds. An excellent library, composed of the best English, French, and Italian authors, affords them an inexhaustible source of diversified amusement and solid occupation; for reading is not truly profitable except when a person has time to read again.
...the drawing-room is adorned with charming landscapes, drawn and coloured from nature, by Miss Ponsonby. Lady Eleanor is a great proficient in music; and their solitary habitation is filled with embroidery by them both, of wonderful execution. Miss Ponsonby, who writes the finest hand I ever saw, has copied a number of select pieces in verse and prose, which she has ornamented with vignettes and arabesques, in the best taste, and which form a most valuable collection."