The Ladies of Llangollen were two upper-class Anglo-Irish women whose relationship scandalised and fascinated their contemporaries. The Ladies are interesting today as an example of historical romantic friendship.
Eleanor Charlotte Butler (11 May 1739 - 2 June 1829) was considered an over-educated bookworm by her family, who occupied Kilkenny Castle. She spoke French and was educated in a convent in France. Her mother tried to make her join a convent because she was becoming a spinster.
Sarah Ponsonby (1755 – 9 December 1832) lived with relatives in Woodstock, Ireland. She was a second cousin of Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough, and thus a "second-cousin-once-removed" of his daughter the Lady Caroline Lamb. Her host, Sir William Fownes, tried to force himself on her on various occasions.
Their families lived only two miles (3 km) from each other. They met in 1768, and quickly became friends. Over the years they formulated a plan of a private rural retreat. Rather than face the possibility of being forced into unwanted marriages, they ran away together in April 1778. Their families hunted them down and forcefully tried to make them give up their plans – in vain.
They decided to move to England but ended up in Wales, and set up home at Plas Newydd, near the town of Llangollen in 1780. They proceeded to live according to their self-devised system though they could rely on only an annual £280 from intolerant relatives (equivalent to £28,739.20 in today's terms 2007). Still, they overhauled Plas Newydd to the Gothic style with draperies, arches and glass windows. They hired a gardener, a footman and two maids. This led to significant debt, and they had to rely on the generosity of a very few friends.
They devoted their time to seclusion, private studies of literature and languages and improving their estate. They did not actively socialise and were uninterested in fashion. Over the years they added a circular stone dairy and created a sumptuous garden. Eleanor kept a diary of their activities. Town-dwellers of Llangollen simply referred to them as "The Ladies".
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.
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