May 11, 1739 – Eleanor Butler
This month, we find ourselves surrounded by political turmoil once more with the leak of a draft opinion showing that the U.S. Supreme Court intends to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. LGBTQ Americans have reason to worry that this court draft opinion could be a “roadmap” to strike down other rights like Marriage Equality. The overturning the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage could be in our near future. Considering this, I have decided to tell you all a love story. It is the tale of the “Ladies of Llangollen”, two Irish women who fell in love and lived happily ever after.
Once upon a time, there was an Irish lass named Eleanor Butler, who was a member of the noble Butler family (the Earls and later Dukes) of Ormond, the daughter of Walter Butler, the 16th Earl of Ormonde. Her family, whose seat was an actual castle, Kilkenny Castle, considered her an over-educated bibliophile. She was educated in a convent in France and so spoke French.
Sarah Ponsonby (1755 – 1831) was orphaned as a child and lived with relatives in County Kilkenny. Her father was Chambré Brabazon Ponsonby, and she was a second cousin of Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough, and therefore the second cousin of his daughter Lady Caroline Lamb. Ponsonby was 16 years younger than Butler when they met, and the two quickly become friends.
Butler led a relatively quiet life reading as her siblings were married off. Ponsonby lived under the care of a guardian and his wife. The two women came from very different places, but one thing was expected of them both: marriage.
Butler found a way to circumvent this circumstance and she had been perfectly pleased to stay at the family home with her books. Her older brother disapproved and, unable to marry her off, urged her to become a nun in the Anglican church. Just a few miles away, Ponsonby’s guardian’s wife was dying, and Ponsonby was being groomed to be his new bride. But these two women were not having it. They had their own ideas; they wanted each other.
It would have been simpler for them to have left separately, escaping in opposite directions. But the fear of at least one of them being caught, and because they were not willing to abandon each other, they came up with a plan.
Sadly, the plan, both running off at night dressed as men with only a dog and a pistol, wasn’t well-thought out. They hid from their families in a barn while waiting for a boat that didn’t leave until the next day. Ponsonby caught a cold and was too sick to continue. The pair were discovered and taken back to their respective houses.
So, what do resourceful girls do? They came up with plan B. Ponsonby was too sick to run away again, but her illness brought her a reprieve from the looming marriage. Butler was being packed up for her trip to the nunnery. Again, it would have been much simpler for Butler to just left Ponsonby behind and flee as fast and a far as she could. But when she ran away, she ran right to Ponsonby.
The new plan was for Butler to hide in Ponsonby’s room until she was well enough for them to make a break for it again together. That plan didn’t work either. Though they had the cooperation of a maid who would bring food and water for Butler, the maid lost her nerve. Ponsonby’s guardian sent for Butler’s family to come get her, but they never did, deciding that she was just too much trouble. Finally, the guardian also decided that it was easier just to let the two women go. The two of them and Mary, the maid, traveled to Wales, where they purchased a home where they spent the rest of their lives. They named the house “Plas Newydd” (Welsh for “new mansion”).
Here is the happily-ever-after part of our story. In their large five-bedroom Gothic home, the two women shared a room, sleeping in the same bed. You know how handy lesbians are; the happy couple renovated their home, adding a library, and collecting bits and bogs, including a lock of Mary Queen of Scots hair.
While they were happy, the couple spent money beyond their means and never seemed to have any sort of manageable budget. But admirers, fascinated by the way the two lived their lives, visited, including poets William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron; novelist Sir Walter Scott; Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington; entrepreneur, and abolitionist Josiah Wedgwood, and many others who often brought donations to help the two manage. They also corresponded with Queen Charlotte, who granted them a royal allowance. Anne Lister, an English diarist famous for revelations for which she was dubbed “the first modern lesbian” was their frequent houseguest with her own room. The people of the village simply referred to them as “the ladies”.
This additional income was mostly spent on their home because they were mostly self-sufficient, growing their own vegetables and fruit and running a dairy. They were generous, giving 10% of their money to charity and treating their gardener, footman and two maids extremely well. When Mary, the maid, died, they built a large stone monument.
Butler and Ponsonby lived together for 50 years. Their books and glassware carried both sets of initials and their letters were jointly signed. Towards the end of their lives, they both dressed in black riding habits and men’s top hats; some visitors thought this was eccentric. Through the decades, the couple had a succession of pet dogs, all of which were named “Sappho”.
When Butler died in 1829, Ponsonby followed two years later. They are buried together in the cemetery at St. Collen’s Church, in the village of Llangollen. Plas Newydd is now a museum run by Denbighshire County Council.
In April 2011, when the first Irish civil partnerships took place under the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010, Irish state radio RTÉ broadcast a documentary about their lives titled An Extraordinary Affair. It begged the question, were they Ireland’s first openly lesbian couple?
Originally published in 1936, Chase Of The Wild Goose, is a thinly-disguised biographical novel about the couple by Mary Gordon.
While composing this post, I think of the queer children in the USA who are wondering if they will have a happy ending.