The 18th Century Lesbian Icons Everyone Assumed Were Just Close Gal Pals
For decades, historians have speculated over whether the scandalous Ladies of Llangollen—who ran away together under the pretense that their "romantic friendship" was merely platonic—actually achieved a high-profile lesbian love affair.
Illustration by Broadly. Lithograph print of Sarah Ponsonby (L) and Lady Eleanor Butler, via Wikimedia Commons.
Eighteenth century Ireland seems an unlikely place to find a high profile lesbian love affair. But many believe that in 1778, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby had just that. What began as a passionate yet (seemingly) platonic friendship ended in an astonishing elopement to Wales, the outrage of two prominent families, and the fascination of Georgian high society. To this day, historians speculate about the extent of the duo’s romance, and whether their perceived friendship is an indication of how lesbians hid their affairs at the time.
As chronicled in the 1971 book The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship, Eleanor was the daughter of one of the most affluent aristocratic Catholic families in Ireland. A bookish woman who failed to meet contemporary beauty standards, her family saw her as the perfect candidate for the nunnery and a means to redeem their shame after her brother defected to protestantism. Sarah, meanwhile, was a beautiful and charming orphan whose married, middle-aged guardian set his sights on making her his next wife before he was even widowed. Needless to say, Sarah was less than thrilled by the prospect.
The girls’ families initially encouraged a friendship between them, seeing the two as suitable friends in terms of class and religion. But that didn’t last. The duo quickly reached the threshold of too close for heterosexual comfort—a boundary still intimately familiar to young queer women today. Their respective parents decided that they needed to be kept apart for everybody's sakes.
Sarah and Eleanor didn't take that news well. Instead, they planned to run away immediately.
Their first attempt was a failure, though wonderfully dramatic. The two dressed in men’s clothing and, with lapdog and pistol in hand, rode to the Irish coast to catch a boat. But they were caught while spending the night in a damp barn. Although their families were furious, they avoided a public scandal by outwardly brushing it off as simply a scheme of romantic friendship.
“Romantic friendships,” passionate but supposedly sexless love affairs between members of the same sex (although mostly women), were all the rage in this era throughout the Western world. As described in Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America, they featured some combination of feverishly written love letters, public declarations of affection, and even spooning in bed when the friends would pass a night under the same roof, and were—now surprisingly—considered platonic and perfectly ordinary.
Although many people today don’t realize it, the idea that love is both romantic and sexual, and that sex is an integral part of romantic love, is actually a modern one. As explained in “Same-Sex Friendships and the Rise of Modern Sexualities,” prior to the twentieth century, love and desire existed on two seperate spectrums, and true emotional parity was seen as something only shared by persons of the same gender. This was partly due to the vast differences in experiences between men and women and the very different lives they led, and partly due to the perceived differences in intelligence, the same essay notes. In short, men believed women were stupid; and women, as ever, had trouble finding emotional fulfillment from people who thought of them in much the same way that they viewed their dogs.
Of course, the accepted normality of these passionate friendships between women granted the lesbian and bisexual women of the era the perfect camouflage for their affairs. As long as certain lines weren’t crossed—being too independent, too opinionated, too high-achieving, or too physically intimate in public—they could pass unnoticed. This also makes it difficult for us to know which of these women were what we would now call “queer” and which were simply following the social scripts of the time.
Undeterred by their previous failure the two women tried again. Eleanor’s parents had her locked up in one of their homes, intending either to ship her out to a nunnery or let her rot in confinement as punishment for her behaviour. With the help of Sarah’s loyal maid, Mary Caryll, Eleanor got out and walked the twelve miles to Sarah’s home in the middle of the night. After much negotiation with Sarah’s foster family, the two of them, this time accompanied by Mary Caryll, were allowed to leave for Wales once more.
The three women settled into the Vale of Llangollen, eventually acquiring a house, which they named “Plas Newydd”—the New Manor. Granted a pointedly small allowance by their families, the two ladies then set about "retiring" from society—forgoing the social circuit of their peers and dedicating themselves to learning, art, literature, and charity. And they did it with gusto, collecting wooden carvings, curating a magnificent library (with their entwined initials embossed on the books leather covers), and landscaping famously lovely gardens.
Known as the "Ladies of Llangollen" by the locals, the two became objects of fascination to the British upper classes both for their rarity—two platonic female friends living together independently—and for the beauty of their house and its manicured grounds. Conveniently located on the route between Dublin and London, members of the aristocracy regularly stopped by to visit their home, including Sir Walter Scott, the Duke of Wellington, and famous lesbian Anne Lister who, according to her diary, was inspired to go home and informally marry her own lover as a result. They also hosted literary salons, attended by the likes of Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Wordsworth, as well as various women novelists such as Anna Seward and Lady Caroline Lamb.
Eventually, Eleanor and Sarah grew so famous, they even rose to royal attention: At the behest of Queen Charlotte, they were granted a pension for being such a beautiful example of pure, platonic female friendship. With that and money from their families, they managed to spend 50 years together simply improving their home and enjoying each other’s company.
Sarah and Eleanor’s apparent conservatism and popularity among aristocrats—including daily prayers for the king—are the primary reasons some modern scholars argue that they were never lovers in the physical sense. Meanwhile, though, many LGBTQ historians consider them early lesbian icons, citing things like their tendency to wear men’s clothing and share a bed, and at least one book has been dedicated to their queer legacy.
Their diaries don’t mention sex between them—although it’s unlikely that they would, even if it did occur. What the diaries do make clear, however, is that the two women cared deeply for each other.
“I kept my bed all day with one of My dreadful Headaches. My Sally, My Tender, My Sweet Love lay beside me holding and supporting My Head till one o’clock,” reads Eleanor’s journal dated December 2, 1785.
So, perhaps the question of whether they ever consummated their relationship is ultimately made irrelevant by the clear fact that, either way, they were in love.