In April 1778, three years after Jane Austen was born, Lady Elizabeth Fownes of Woodstock, Ireland wrote to a Dublin confidante:
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.
“Sally” was Sarah Ponsonby, and in April 1778 after two previously attempts were foiled, she successfully eloped with Lady Eleanor Butler.
Most often referred to as Ladies of Llangollen, or as one royal described them “the two most celebrated virgins in Europe” their ‘romantic friendship’ spawned a cultish fascination that inspired poetry and “their civilized and romantic life became legendary.”
Who were the Ladies of Llangollen?
The Llangollen Ladies, Lady Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831) were unmarried members of the eighteenth-century Irish Protestant aristocracy.
Then in Ireland, as it was in England nearly 20 years later, when Jane Austen first started writing Sense and Sensibility, the choices for gentry women were very limited. To gain economic security and a respectable, fulfilling life, marriage was considered their only real option. Remaining as – God forbid – a spinster – and living independently was inconceivable.
Eleanor was the youngest daughter of the Earl of Ormonde, of Kilkenny Castle. He was a devoutly Catholic Irish peer though his title was attained in 1715. It was his son, Robert, who paved the way for restoration of the Ormonde earldom by converting to Protestantism.
Sarah was an orphan and lived with her relatives in Woodstock, Kilkenny.
Eleanor and Sarah met at a Convent School in France, when Eleanor was 29 and Sarah was 13. Despite the age gap they became close friends.
So why did the ladies run away?
Both women felt trapped by their families’ expectations and for many they fantasized about a perfect life together.
By the time Eleanor was 39, clever, bookish and satirical, she was well on the shelf. To get rid of this spinster in their midst, and to possibly make amends to God for their apostasy, her family intended to send Eleanor to a convent.
Twelve miles away, at the mansion of Woodstock, her 23-year-old friend Sarah Ponsonby was suffering the unwanted attentions of her middle-aged guardian, Sir William Fownes. His wife, Elizabeth, whom Sarah dearly loved, was still alive, but her health was failing. Meanwhile, Sir William was clearly anticipating the day when he could take pretty Sarah as the second Lady Fownes.
By 1778, their fantasy of living together in a private rural retreat turned into a desperate plot to escape banishment or an arranged marriage. Clandestine correspondence flew back and forth between Kilkenny Castle and Woodstock, before they decided to elope together.
By the way, it seems that in 18th and 19th century England, the term ‘to elope’ carried much less romantic connotations than it does today, as it originally meant to simply ‘abscond or run away’, not necessarily to get married.
In April 1778, dressed as men, carrying a pistol and Sarah’s dog Frisk, the ladies rode through the night to catch the ferry at Waterford. Unfortunately for them, it did not sail and they were forced to hide in a barn before they were found and taken home.
Sarah fell seriously ill with a fever, but Eleanor, faced with imminent incarceration in a French convent, ran away again – this time to Woodstock, where she hid in Sarah’s bedroom and a housemaid, Mary Carryll, smuggled food in to her. When this was discovered, the Ormondes declined to collect their errant daughter and after 10 days the Fownes family capitulated. Sarah and Eleanor were free to go.
After making their way across the Irish Sea and travelling through Wales and England, the two friends finally set up home together in the North Wales town of Llangollen. It was here “amid some scandal and innuendo,” they formed their two-woman cloister founded on the principles of romantic friendship.
Saints or sinners
These days, they are most often represented by the early Victorian picture of them as respectable elderly women dressed in traditional Welsh costume but the truth is they were lightening rods for controversy.
Called ‘virgins’, ‘child-like’ and ‘spinsters’ at the time they were often portrayed as exemplars of spiritual love, chastity and the romantic idealism of the time. The English poet, Anna Seward in her poem “Llangollen Valle” of 1796 even writes or ‘Thine sacred friendship, permanent as pure” and ‘Pant for coy nature’s charms, silent plain and vale’.
Others regarded them with suspicion – feeding on fears about women taking the place of men – dressing like them, eloping with another women, about their sexual orientation.
On arrival in Llangollen they rented a plain and simple cottage, Pen-y-maes. Initially living a largely secluded life devoted to self-improvement, farming and gardening, they eventually bought the cottage and began a project of what has to be one of the most typical activities of any normal married couple, both then and now – home improvements!
Renaming their humble cottage as “Plas Newydd’ they set about transforming it to a Gothic extravaganza. They had a passion for old carved oak and spent the next 50 years piecing together huge collection of oak woodcarvings from medieval churches or broken-up Elizabethan and Jacobean furniture.
The location of Plas Newydd, on the main route connecting Dublin and London and their reputation as eccentrics but excellent hostesses, ensured them a constant stream of distinguished visitors.
They were very well educated, fluent in French, studied the classics as well as contemporary literature in English, French, Italian and Spanish and kept up a voluminous correspondence with the greatest minds of their day.
Visitors included the poets, Byron, Wordsworth and Shelley as well as the novelist Sir Walter Scott. Other famous visitors included Lady Caroline Lamb, a distant relative of Sarah, and the Duke of Wellington.
To ensure a warm welcome visitors soon learnt to appear with pieces of wood carvings which the ladies promptly added to their collection.
It was all highly, fashionably picturesque; it was also highly expensive. They drank the best wine and kept several servants, including the faithful Mary Carryll as their housekeeper.
Despite their family allowances and an eventual state pension, they were often in debt – and when this happened, to cheer themselves up, they embarked on more home improvements.
Servants were essential for the Ladies to maintain their place in society but no-one was more critical to the success of their endeavours than Mary Caryll.
Mary had served Sarah’s family Ireland and helped with their eventual elopement. She was uncouth and formidable (her Irish nickname had been Molly the Bruiser), but the Ladies were devoted to her, and she to them. When she died, they erected an elaborate stone monument, under which they later joined her; and she bequeathed them an additional field, bought with her life savings.
The era of these remarkable ladies came to a close when Lady Eleanor Butler died in 1829 and Sarah Ponsonby following two years later, ten years after the death of Jane Austen.
200 years later the ladies are of particular interest to scholars of gay folklore and their lives reinterpreted as Lesbian Icons. Plas Newydd is even promoted by Stonewall Cymru into an ideal place for legally recognised commitment ceremonies.
Perhaps not her usual heroines, but I find myself wondering what Jane might have made of them and if she knew of them.
No melodrama, however, would be complete without epilogue – while Eleanor, Sarah and their maid, Mary, were touring Wales in search of a home, it seems that Sir William was struck down with “strangulation of the stomach”, followed by a stroke, and after a fortnight of barbaric treatments – “blistered and glistered and physick’d” – he died in agony.
If they had only waited another month, Sally may not have needed to run away at all but then the Ladies of Llangollen and Plas Newydd may never have been.