FROM IRISH EXILE TO WELSH CELEBRITY: THE QUEER SELF-FASHIONING OF THE LADIES OF LLANGOLLEN
a lecture by Fiona Brideoake
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October 5, Wednesday
7 to 8:30 pm
Fiona Brideoake, Literature, American University
Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby eloped together from Kilkenny in 1778. They settled in the North Welsh village of Llangollen, their location on the road linking Dublin and London ensuring them a steady stream of prominent guests. Throughout their fifty-one years of domestic ‘retirement,’ Butler and Ponsonby were plagued by insinuations that their relationship was sexual. They responded by transforming their cottage into a Gothic mansion clad in local oak, masking their status as impecunious and sexually suspect exiles with a literal veneer of Welsh historicity. They established an extensive private library and located themselves within gentry and aristocratic networks of literary sociability, consolidating their affective alliances and distancing themselves from the charges of female social and sexual mobility associated with public circulating libraries. They cultivated friends including Edmund Burke; the Duke of Wellington; George Canning, and Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, drawing on Anglo-Irish social capital while asserting their enduring association with the picturesque Vale of Llangollen, this performative identity eventually reified by their designation as ‘the Ladies of Llangollen.’ Accounts of their inscrutable intimacy circulated widely in print and epistolary form, rendering them among the most significant cultural celebrities of late-Georgian Britain.
Butler and Ponsonby’s performance of geographic and class identity distanced them from both the putatively metropolitan vices of sapphism and the sexualized ‘stain’ of Butler’s Irish Catholic upbringing. As they were transformed over the course of their retirement into central, and increasingly eccentric, features of the British cultural landscape, they also came to embody the productive slippage between fame and notoriety, rendering their corporate identity a form of the commodified cultural production that Clara Tuite terms “scandalous celebrity.” Butler and Ponsonby may thus be recognized as both sophisticated self-promoters and producers of a distinctive and nationally hybrid form of queer celebrity, their identity as Irish exiles at once underpinning their public prominence and necessarily erased by their successful self-fashioning.
Glucksman Ireland House
One Washington Mews
at 5th Avenue between 8th Street and Washington Square Park
For more information, please contact the NYU Glucksman Ireland House at 212-998-3950.
This event is free and open to the public. Venue is wheelchair accessible.
1819 image of Butler and Ponsonby is owned by the British Library, call number/ms details Add. 59655 f. 78