History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

02 March 2007

Time Well Spent: the Ladies of Llangollen

The book I'm working on is demanding a heap of research, some of which the finished product will flaunt, much of which, I hope, it will offer in the spirit of flirtatious discretion. Which suggests an affinity of historical romance and eroticism - but perhaps that's another post...

Anyhow, I'd been really enjoying the research, adorning my notes and outlines with occasional dialogue or internal monologue in the voices of my characters, and welcoming those voices as a sign that there's actually a book there. Suggesting, perhaps further affinities, this time with schizophrenia or would-be sainthood - which would occasion quite another sort of post...

When, caught in the midst of all this busy process and satisfying rumination, I found myself beguiled by a voice from a farflung corner of my research.

I'd wanted the true-life figures Lady Eleanor Butler and her Beloved (as she calls her) Miss Sarah Ponsonby as off-stage characters in my book. I had in mind sending a pair of the characters whose voices I've been hearing, go to visit this couple in their cottage in North Wales, but I wasn’t sure they were still alive in 1828.

So I went to the library to check their death dates in Elizabeth Mavor’s The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship. But the book I found first was the now out-of-print Life With the Ladies of Llangollen, Mavor’s collection of their daybook entries.

Which was just as good, I thought, for what I needed. I made a quick scan of the pages and indeed, I’d soon found an entry for 1828. I closed the book and tried to ignore the siren song that had wafted out of it.

Our Pleasures though Very Sublime will not be very expensive for next Winter.
Amazing how pushy certain books can be, even so unassuming, sweet-natured, and elegantly terse a one as the one I held in my hand.

I opened it again, at random.
Lovely Morning. Intense White Frost. Brewed.
In the moment it took me to unpack the compressed language, I was hooked. Ignoring more pressing tasks, I took the book home and let it do its magic on me.
1788, January 1. Soaking rain. Gloomy heavy day. Three. Dinner. Roast Beef. Plum pudding. Half past 3 till 9. Still close night. Reading - making an accompt-Book. Then reading Sterne to my Beloved while she worked on her Purse. 9-12 in dressing room reading - writing to Mrs. Goddard Bath. A day of Sensibility and Sweet Repose.
Making me wonder, in March 2007, what’s the last day of Sensibility and Sweet Repose I’ve had, for it seems that I'm busier than ever, even after having received early retirement from my day job. Maybe the Internet and air travel aren't everything they're cracked up to be. Perhaps my Beloved might let me read Sterne to him some evening; possibly we’ve overdosed on Big Love and Battlestar Gallactica.

Of course, there’s a certain sameness to the Ladies' days and nights. But in so responsive a universe as they inhabited, sameness acquires its own sublimity. By January 14 Mrs. Goddard has sent back two views of Bath. And after a day of “storm and gloom,” there’s delighted notice paid to a “lovely celestial night. Millions of stars, silver moon.

Dressed in their invariable costume of men’s waistcoat and women’s skirt, the Ladies weren’t bothered by repetition (nor, I find am I, as I work my way through the fifty years they spent together). Of course, they’d probably had quite enough excitement at the beginning of their idyll, when, in 1778 (in Mavor's words), "to the fury and consternation of their aristocratic Irish families, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby eloped and fled to a cottage in North Wales.”

When I finish the daybook entries (and the chores I’ve neglected for it), I’ll have to read Mavor’s study of their lives. To find out more about the families and the elopement, and how, as the Amazon blurb puts it, “their fame traveled widely: Lady Caroline Lamb and Josiah Wedgwood visited them, Wordsworth and Southey wrote poetry under their roof, and other celebrities of the day became cherished friends.” I gather, from having done some web surfing, that no one's quite sure about whether the couple "qualifies" as true lesbians or simply as a “romantic friendship.”

Frankly, either way is okay with me, happy as I am simply to pass the cycle of the seasons in their valley and to puzzle over gnomic diary entries like "Expenses: 1795 August 13: Thos. Simon for killing his cat 1s." To pretend that, along with the poet Anna Seward, I am part of the party invited to “drink tea and coffee in that retreat, which breathes all the witchery of genius, taste, and sentiment.”

And perhaps to look out my own window rather more often.



Blogger Unknown said...

OMG, Pam. I MUST have a copy of these pages. MUST!!! I've heard of these ladies, of course, but I've never moved on to hunting down sources.

What amazing people they were, in their quiet way. Kind of like the Berry sisters.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thank you Pam -- I have had this book on my shelf for years and never even opened it. Now I know it is well worth paging through if only to make me sit quietly awhile and absorb their world.

I suppose it would be worthwhile to read the later examination of thier lives but after your post it does feel like it would be invading their privacy.

I would be curious as to how they attracted the attention of such well known regency persona. Through their correspondence.

And, a question, would you not trade the intensity of modern life for the opportunity to see more deeply into the world around you?

4:53 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Your question, Mary, was the one that occurred to me as well. Mostly I wouldn't. Nor do I suspect that most regency people enjoyed the serenity possible to them -- else what was all that frenetic gambling about? Perhaps it was exactly that quality that made the Ladies so sought after (though I still don't understand how word of them got spread about).

7:24 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Maybe they gambled because it distracted them from how much they hated town life and would rather have been in the coutnry counting stars....in truth I imagine people went to town for the Season for the same mix of reasons writers go to RWA National -- some because they love it, some because everyone else does, some who are there because they have things to accomplish.

Maybe the "bio" of their lives will give an answer to our other question -- how the gliterati found them.

6:44 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

LOL, Mary, about RWA National. But I'm not convinced that everyone wanted to count stars in the country either.

I'm reminded of Katha Pollitt's poem, "Rereading Jane Austen's Novels," which, even if not entirely fair or accurate, is nonetheless chilling in its exhortation to:

a life of teas with Mrs. and Miss Bates,
of fancywork and Mr. Elton's sermons!
No wonder lively girls get into states --

9:54 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

fptlgI think it might be safe to assume the Ladies of Llangollen were a committed same-sex female couple who dared to live openly together and didn't claim to be relatives (sisters, cousins, etc). They did elope, they did refer to each other as "beloved"....

A lifestyle such as theirs would have been considered bohemian at the time, and that alone would attract the glitterati, wouldn't it?

Good on ye laddies.

8:52 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Well, I gather that there was controversy at the time, Kathrynn, about how to categorize their relationship. Perhaps this is because in the early 19th century lesbianism flickered in and out of view, in some sort of intellectual limbo. It didn't officially exist. Partly, I think, because it wasn't officically illegal like sodomy, it didn't make it to people's imaginative radar screens. And partly this is due to the very large role that sentimental same-sex friendships played in many women's lives throughout the 19th century -- which was how the Ladies presented themselves (though they did have a pet, I forget what kind, named "Sappho.")

The question of what we're willing to imagine and what we're not is a fascinating one, and one that implicates "erotic romance" as well.

5:34 AM  
Blogger Jessica Trapp said...

WOW! That sounds fascinating!

8:28 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

We to go "LADDIES????" Ack!

I meant ladies. Whenever I post, just assume it's a spelling or punctuation error. ;-)


Eleanor and Sarah, I meant no disrespect.

3:41 PM  

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