Before the Boston Marriage: The lesbian Ladies of Llangollen
Later on, the two Irish ladies– Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby– became “the two most celebrated virgins in Europe” during the 18th century.
In a sense, these two women started the idea of a Boston Marriage— a domestic relationship between two single women independent of men in the 19th century.
Who were the Ladies of Llangollen?
On one hand, Lady Eleanor Butler was the youngest daughter of a rich family– the Butlers of Kilkenny Castle in Ireland– and her father was the Earl of Ormonde.
Having no husband at the spinster age of 39, the clever and bookish Eleanor seemed on her way to a nunnery, given how her family felt about her.
On the other hand, 23-year old Sarah Ponsonby lived some miles away at the mansion of Woodstock. An orphan, Sarah was the target of the attentions of her guardian, Sir William Fownes, whose own wife was dying.
Sarah was attending a nearby girls’ school and she met Eleanor in 1768, becoming close friends such that they sent each other mail regularly.
Through their correspondence, they decided to run away together. Their first attempt failed and they were brought back to their respective families.
The second time– with the help of Eleanor’s servant, Mary Caryll– they succeeded and the three sailed to Wales where they settled in a stone house in Llangollen called Plas Newydd (New Hall).
The Ladies of Llangollen and Plas Newydd
With their respective families giving up on them, the two managed to create a world for themselves in Plas Newydd.
They spruced up the five-room house, adding stained glass panels and installing a library filled with books and curiosities. They also elaborated on the gardens with miniature ravines, rustic bridges, and even a temple.
They came up with a system, developing a way of life for themselves by growing their own fruits and vegetables. They even built their own dairy.
Unfortunately, though they earned a small allowance from their families, they were always in debt. But they kept at it, managing to keep several servants– including Mary, who became their housekeeper.
The World and the Ladies of Llangollen
Eventually, the two ladies accrued a reputation that soon spread throughout Europe and drove visitors, many of them writers, to check them out.
These range from Percy Shelley, Walter Scott, William Wordsworth to Thomas de Quincey, Robert Southey, Lady Caroline Lamb, and Lord Byron.
Other visitors included royalty like the Duke Of Wellington, Prince Paul of Esterhazy, the Duke of Gloucester, and the German Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau.
Anne Lister was so inspired by her visit, she also informally “married” her close female friend before her official wedding to her husband.
After fifty years of living together, Eleanor died in 1829. Sarah died two years later. Both are currently buried at St Collen’s Church in Llangollen.