Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler wanted only to be able to spend time together in study and meditations. Though they were both of age, Eleanor was in her late thirties, their families were appalled and refused to allow them to leave home. The two friends refused to change their minds. Seeing that they were set on this disastrous course, the families finally gave in. Buoyed by their sense of freedom and a promise of money, Sarah and Eleanor left Ireland for England and Wales. They found a place to rent in Wales and settled down to live the quiet life they envisioned. Unfortunately matters did not turn out actually as they planned.
One big problem they faced was that of money. The solicitor refused to give Sarah the money she had been left, insisting that it must be kept for her dowry. Sarah’s arguments that she wasn’t planning to marry and that she was too old to marry had no effect on the solicitor who refused to release the money. Fortunately some friends came to her rescue. One gave her an annuity and another sent her gifts of money from time to time.
Once Eleanor was settled in Wales, her family forgot their promises of an allowance. She was estranged from her brother because he turned Anglican in order to be eligible for a title that had once belonged to the family. He had hoped to regain the title of Duke but had to be satisfied with that of earl. He was not pleased that his assumption of the title gave his sister the precedence of a daughter of an earl and the right to call her self Lady Eleanor.
In 1790 , The General Evening Post reported on "Extraordinary Female Affection."
Miss Butler, who is of the Ormonde family, had several offers of marriage, all of which she rejected. Miss Ponsonby, her particular friend and companion, was supposed to be the bar to all matrimonial union, it was thought proper to separate them, and Miss Butler was confined.
The two Ladies, however, found means to elope together.
Miss Butler is tall and masculine, she wears always a riding habit, hangs her hat with the air of a sportsman in the hall, and appears in all respects a young man, if we except the petticoats which she still retains.
Miss Ponsonby, on the contrary, is polite and effeminate, fair and beautiful.
A few thought them sapphists. Creevey called them "Chiennes" which is French for female dog. Writing from Ireland to his step-daughter, Miss Ord, in 1828, he says: "Do you know that this is the house from which those chiennes Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby, the heroines of Llangollen, escaped to that retreat they have occupied ever since. Lady Eleanor Butler, aunt to the present Lord Ormonde....."
However, by the early nineteenth century , most sentimentalized the couple. They were even written up in a short article in a book for girls extolling friendship.
They were looked at as eccentrics and as examples of romantic friendship. Many people were amazed that they had lived together in peace and harmony for so many years.
"From my earliest childhood I was taught never to touch or meddle with anything that was not my own. Dearest Mamma once took me with her to visit two old ladies, Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sara Ponsonby, who lived together in a beautiful cottage at Llangollen and had no end of pretty things in their drawing room. I looked and admired everything and thought how much I should like to have some of them in my hand but I remembered what I had been taught. When we were going away the old ladies said, 'Come, dear little Mary, and give us a kiss for you have been so good and not meddled with any of our pretty things, so we shall be glad to see you here again and here's a nice peach for you.' (The little thatched summer house in Charlecote's garden by the orangery I copied from what I remembered of that visist and furnished it with child-sized tables and chairs to amuse my children and their children after them.) These two ladies looked just like two old men. They always dressed in dark cloth habits with short skirts, high shirt collars, white cravats and men's hats, with their hair cut short. When they walked out (they never rode on horseback) they carried a stick to look like a whip and an Italian greyhound was their constant companion. They were so devoted to each other that they made a vow, and kept it, that they would never marry or be separated, but would always live together in their cottage and never leave it or sleep out for even one night."
from Mistress of Charlecote: The memoirs of Mary Elizabeth Lucy
Though Eleanor and Sarah had wanted to set up a house together where they could read, study, and meditate as they wished, they did not become hermits. They scheduled their day with time for study and reflection, visited some worthies in the neighborhood and over saw the remodeling of their house and garden. In the evening Eleanor would read while Sarah sewed. They managed to finish a great many books in this way, including some they had a bad opinion about.
Eleanor died at ninety one years of age in 1829 and Sarah in 1831. If they had ever quarreled or even disagreed with each other, no one ever knew it. Their diaries and journals record nothing but loving thoughts about each other.
Questions and speculation as to just how intimate the friendship was have been around ever since the beginning, but such speculation was pushed aside in the overwhelming sentimentality of the idea of romantic friendship popular in the nineteenth century. Even modern Lesbians disagree on the subject. Lillian Faderman who wrote about them in her Surpassing the Love of Men thought it unlikely that they touched each other below the waist. She thinks that their general attitude towards sex and propriety made it unlikely. Besides there are no words suggesting such intimacies, not even recurring symbols or euphemisms. Their contemporary, Anne Lister, wrote about her loves in code. Despite the lack of proof, many Lesbians claim the Lladies as being one of them.
Some women were known as lesbians or sapphists in the early nineteenth century, Anne Lister was one. She visited them , but so did Anne Seward and Martha Bowdler. Seward wrote a book of poems about them Martha Bowdler wrote to Sarah as though Eleanor was a suitor for whose attentions they were competing. Martha was the sister of Bowdler who helped her brother clean up Shakespeare and the Bible for family use.
So many people of rank visited that the ladies felt they had to provide a decent place for them to stay. Though always short of money they remodeled their house to have a guest room worthy of such as the Duke of Wellington who spent the night there. Wordsworth wrote them a sonnet.
It was obvious by the number and variety of highly born and employed people who visited that the ladies were considered more of a curiosity than a moral blot on the landscape. All commented on the fact that the ladies had never strayed from each other since they had started living together.
The first public Lesbian was Anne Lister of Yorkshire. She dressed in tailored clothes and took a masculine approach to lovers. She dealt with her estates and her colliery with what many called masculine competence.
The public attitude towards lesbians at that time was mixed. Though some women , even Marie Antoinette, were derided for liking their own sex too much, most people found female homosexuality hard to believe. It wasn’t against the law and even the church had a hard time dealing with the concept.
Male homosexuality was much easier to deal with as unnatural, perverse, nasty, immoral, and degrading. Sodomy was a crime for which a man could be hanged, though most often he merely spent a year in prison with regular stays in the pillory. However, even there , the law required more than supposition. Someone had to be seen committing buggery or the partner had to turn the man into the magistrate. Penetration was necessary to prove sodomy just as it was for rape.
The best source for information on homosexuality in the period is Rictor Norton’s web page. http://rictornorton.co.uk/