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Sanremo Music Festival 2023
Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, otherwise known as the Ladies of Llangollen, lived together in 18th Century Britain, and are remembered for their remarkable life-long relationship and attachment. Let us learn more about their relationship and its ties to historical understandings of lesbianism…
Before terms such as ‘lesbian’ became commonly used, ‘romantic friendship’ was widely adopted to describe women who lived with or spent their lives with another woman. In 18th century Europe it was not uncommon for women to spend a lot of time together and have close bonds, particularly as their husbands were often absent. Some of these relationships were in fact friendships but others fulfilled emotions and acts beyond these realms and reflect what we would now understand as lesbian relationships.
During this time, the idea that these women were in any way comparable to heterosexual couples or at all sexually involved was entirely rejected and in many ways not even considered. Unlike gay men in Britain, lesbian women have often been overlooked by the public and the law as their relationships have been historically seen as mere friendships. Whilst the absence of criminalisation and widespread rejection for 18th century lesbians is linked to the common presence of close female friendships it is also rooted in ideas of masculinity, femininity, and patriarchy whereby in a male-led society intimate female relationships did not pose the same threat to the established order as gay male relationships.
1- The Ladies of Llangollen
The Ladies of Llangollen
The Ladies of Llangollen fulfilled 18th century understandings of romantic friendship. Eleanor and Sarah grew up and lived in Ireland where they were well regarded and flooded with potential male suitors. Nonetheless, these women yearned for delightful retirement and peace. Due to their dreams of a life filled with self-improvement, gardening and farming they ran away in 1788, dressed up as clergymen, to north Wales to set up house in the gothic, Plas Newydd. Here, they attracted much attention and interest from visitors and the wider public due to their deep devotion to one another; they were hailed by many people including William Wordsworth who celebrated them in a sonnet as sisters in love.
2- Plas Newydd
There was much debate throughout their lives and still today as to the true nature of the Ladies of Llangollen’s relationship. Some visitors suspected that their relationship exceeded the boundaries of romantic friendship whilst lesbian, Anne Lister wrote that she did not believe their relationship to be platonic. Eleanor and Sarah undoubtedly lived a fulfilled and complete life together in which they shared a home, bed, income, and friendship (factors which we associate with a romantic relationship). There is no evidence that they also engaged in a sexual relationship, but an absence of evidence does not mean that it did not exist particularly as it is unlikely that they would have recorded this part of their lives in a time where it was not widely acknowledged nor accepted.
Regardless of whether Eleanor and Sarah fulfilled a friendship or a lesbian relationship, or anything in between, it is known that they defied social expectations of 18th century women in their rejection of a conventional lifestyle bound by class and marriage and dependency on a man. It is a credit to Eleanor and Sarah that many people admired their devotion to one another and that we remember them as inspiring women who rejected social and economic restrictions to fulfil a life bound by peace and happiness.
3 – Art Print of The Ladies of Llangollen
3 – https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1933-0426-3
Written by: Molly Saxby