REVIEW: From Irish Exile to Welsh Celebrity: The Queer Self-Fashioning of the Ladies of Llangollen: “In Your Own Persons, Where You Are”

Butler and PonsonbyFrom Irish Exile to Welsh Celebrity: The Queer Self-Fashioning of the Ladies of Llangollen:
“In Your Own Persons, Where You Are”

New York University, 5 October 2011

NYU’s Ireland House was the perfect setting for Fiona Brideoake’s talk, sponsored by the Irish Studies Program, the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, and the Department of English. The old-fashioned, ornate room provided the right sort of ambiance for Brideoake’s discussion of the infamous Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who have been described as “‘mascots’ for the no-sex-before-1900 school” of proto-homo romantic friendships, understood to be “emotionally passionate but physically chaste.” Brideoake didn’t venture into the speculative, did-they-or-didn’t-they, even as she carefully situated Butler and Ponsonby in a queer genealogy of intimacy; instead she focused on the important role of their beloved estate in their canny self-fashioning, as they “painstakingly” transformed themselves from “queer Irish exiles” into the honorific “Ladies.”

Butler and Ponsonby successfully “eloped” together in May 1778, leaving Ireland for Wales with the begrudging blessing of their guardians and with small pensions, on which they were to live without further tarnishing their family names. They commenced a fifty-one year retirement just outside Llangollen, a town on the road connecting Dublin and London, which ensured them a “constant stream of prominent guests,” including noblemen and poets; and which, as Brideoake articulated, they used to their benefit in distancing themselves from their scandalous origins—Ireland!—even as their Irish connections remained important in the success of their retirement, as they “styled their home as a family seat, secured by pedigree and illustrious ancestors.”

Brideoake described Butler and Ponsonby as “amongst the most significant cultural celebrities of late Georgian Britain,” and accounts of their “inscrutable intimacy” were widespread and circulated both “in print and epistolary form.” She detailed the ways in which their relationship was “subject to prurient interest” from their contemporaries, including accounts in newspapers of their suspiciously gender-deviant style, meant to imply an untoward sexual relationship. Brideoake argued for their complex negotiation of that interest as evidence of their “sophisticated self-promo[tion],” as they relied upon their potentially scandalous identities to achieve prominence among the British gentry, even while working to deny any claims of scandal. They thus came to embody a “productive slippage between fame and notoriety,” as they simultaneously denied any charges of sexual deviance, while also “capitaliz[ing] on the fascinated frisson that surrounded their shared life.”

Brideoake argued that their extensive architectural improvements of their Welsh home, Plas Newydd, from “humble cottage to Gothic extravaganza,” worked to “subsume their transgressive status beneath an edifice of chaste provincial friendship,” and served, along with their extensive library, as their “material and textual refutation of Sapphic scandal.” They clad the cottage, inside and out, in ornately carved Welsh oak, echoing the architectural style of their neighbors in order to “assert possession of similar temporal and geographical ties.” The “sheer materiality” of the oak-clad house—which they didn’t own, but rented, until 1819, well after its Gothic transformation—allowed Butler and Ponsonby to portray themselves as “sexually virtuous Welsh gentry.”

While Brideoake emphasized that the “irreproachable gentility” of their home and persons shouldn’t imply that their “unconventional ménage” was “accepted uncritically,” she suggested that the “increasing eccentricities” of their later years implies that the success of their material accrual of social capital was such that it “authorized, with time, their increasing oddity.” Thus they were free, eventually, to act “like a couple of hazy and crazy old sailors,” living out their lives together in style. As Ponsonby wrote in a letter before their departure from Ireland: all she wanted was to “live and die with Miss Butler.” After 51 years of romantic friendship and cohabitation, the Ladies were buried together in a three-sided tomb—along with their maid; however, as Brideoake said, that is “a whole other course of interest.”

–Julia DeLeon

Julia DeLeon is a PhD student in Performance Studies at NYU.

(1819 image of Butler and Ponsonby is owned by the British Library, call number/ms details Add. 59655 f. 78)