Éire-Ireland 39.3&4 (2004) 202-227
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Ghosting the Llangollen Ladies:
Female Intimacies, Ascendancy Exiles, and the Anglo-Irish Novel
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| Figure 1 |
The Ladies of Llangollen (Lady Eleanor Charlotte Butler and Sarah Ponsonby) by James Henry Lynch. Lithograph, 1887 (courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London).
My dear Mrs. Goddard, I am in the utmost distress. My dear Sally has leapt out of the window and has gone off. We hear that Miss Butler of the Castle is with her, and Mr. Butler has been here to enquire for his daughter.
On 27 January 2004, the online magazine Queer Travel ran a story enticing lesbian vacationers to consider Llangollen, Wales, as their next tourist destination. "A Most Extraordinary Affair" first reassures readers that they would "be forgiven" if the phrase "Ladies of Llangollen" conjured up only visions of elderly women "dressed in traditional Welsh costume" and "immersed in the national culture of Wales." The truth is more provocative: the Llangollen Ladies (Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby) were in fact unmarried members of the eighteenth-century Irish Protestant aristocracy who, in 1778, "to the horror of their families," dressed in male attire to avoid capture and eloped across the Irish Sea, where they settled together in the North Wales town of Llangollen. There, "amid some scandal and innuendo," they formed a two-woman cloister founded on the principles of romantic friendship, within the confines of which "their civilized and romantic life became legendary." "Nobody knows for certain," Queer Travel concludes, "whether their relationship was sexual. But they have become iconic figures for the lesbian community" ("A Most Extraordinary Affair"). [End Page 203]
Although the Ladies of Llangollen are accepted today as kitschy queer icons, in their own time they were lightning rods for controversy. In Dangerous Intimacies, Lisa Moore observes that whereas "the two were often held up as exemplars of chastity," they were just as often regarded with suspicion (83). The tenor of these contemporary rumors regarding the nature of the Ladies' mutual affection illustrates "how fears about women 'taking the place' of men—dressing like them, eloping with women like them" fueled suspicions about Butler's and Ponsonby's sexual orientation (84). Whether contemporaries read their brazen elopement and subsequent domestic union as epitomizing "spiritual love and the purest dreams of romantic friendship" (qtd. in Moore 83), or as "something more. . . than friendship" (Lister 210) the Ladies stood as sexual rebels, and their choice to live together without men was regarded by the general populace with either contempt or celebration.
Soon after their elopement, speculation about the nature of their relationship found its way into print. The Ladies captured the imagination of English poet Anna Seward, whose 1796 poem "Llangollen Vale" celebrates the abstract concept of "Romantic Friendship." The poem's high-flung celebration of the Ladies' cohabitation was rooted in a desire for options to the pre-scripted, binary futures of forced marriage or spinsterhood. Influenced by an early passionate attachment to her foster sister Honora Sneyd (thwarted when Sneyd married Richard Edgeworth and became stepmother to Maria), Seward located in the Ladies' suspicious domestic arrangements a viable alternative. Seward was not alone; the Ladies served as muses for literary lesbians well into the twentieth century. The 1930 publication of Butler's journal prompted Colette's updated portrait in Ces Plaisirs (1932), which imagines Butler and Ponsonby as radical left bank lesbians: "They would own a car, wear dungarees, smoke cigarettes, have short hair, and there would be a bar in their apartment. . . . Eleanor Butler would curse as she jacked up the car and would have her breasts amputated (qtd. in Mavor 206). In 1936, London suffragette Mary Gordon published The Chase of the Wild Goose, a speculative, explicitly homoerotic "biography" in which a worldly friend warns: "Why, my dear Miss Ponsonby, when she gets you away . . . she might make love to you!" to which a vaguely lascivious...