This essay explores romantic responses to Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, known as the Ladies of Llangollen, arguing that Anna Seward and Anne Lister celebrated the Ladies’ relationship in order to melancholically enact the same-sex ties they were themselves unable to maintain. Hailed as both pioneering lesbians and chaste romantic friends, Butler and Ponsonby may appear unlikely candidates for queer recuperation. Their place within romantic literary history is equally contentious, their status as a female couple challenging notions of singular and masculine romantic subjectivity, and their creative production diverging from canonical textual forms. This essay nonetheless claims Butler and Ponsonby as queer romantics, arguing that the indeterminacy of their bond constitutes a commensurately queer resistance to definition. Their romanticism is similarly disclosed by that of their romantic acolytes, who lauded the Ladies’ home as an ideal of lasting affective community. Drawing on Judith Butler’s account of gender melancholia, this essay claims that Seward and Lister identified Butler and Ponsonby as embodying the hopes of queer community foreclosed in their own lives. Accordingly, they protected and promulgated the Ladies’ relationship in order to melancholically enact the same-sex attachments they were unable to establish enduringly or mourn publicly. In celebrating a model of flourishing female desire, Seward and Lister thus melancholically preserved their own lost love-objects, and affirmed the future instantiation of enduring queer communities.
Corps de l’article
The parish churchyard of Llangollen, North Wales, is dominated by a triangular Gothic monument, in which Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby are interred with their housemaid, Mary Caryll, who accompanied them on their 1778 elopement from Ireland and shared their home until her death in 1809. Ponsonby’s 1831 epitaph, added after the deaths of all three women, emphasizes the longevity of her relationship with Butler, “with whom she had lived in the valley for more than half a century of uninterrupted friendship” (qtd. in Hicklin 38). Butler’s epitaph, however, inscribed in 1829, describes her virtues as having “secured the Grateful attachment of those by whom they had been so long & extensively experienced,” acknowledging the more expansive community marked by the tripartite monument and anticipating its posthumous renewal, “When THIS TOMB shall have closed over its Latest tenant” (qtd. in Hicklin 38).
Butler and Ponsonby, now known as the Ladies of Llangollen, were not alone in emphasizing the endurance of the community they created at their cottage, Plâs newydd. Ruth Vanita suggests that the first generation romantics perceived Butler and Ponsonby’s household as an ideal of romantic community, abidingly bound by affective, emotional and spiritual ties, rather than the biological bonds of the heterosexual family (4). Although Butler and Ponsonby’s retirement encompassed both the idealism and ultimate dissolution of pantisocratism and the Lakes community, this essay suggests that a complex range of responses underlay the romantics’ interest in its continuity. While William Wordsworth suggested that their relationship transcended the passage of time, Thomas de Quincey and Walter Scott instead identified Butler and Ponsonby as exemplars of an outdated cultural milieu. My focus, however, is on the way in which Anna Seward and Anne Lister responded to the endurance of Butler and Ponsonby’s relationship, identifying it as embodying the hopes of the same-sex relationships foreclosed in their own lives, and yet unable to be grieved as genuine loss. In protecting and promulgating Butler and Ponsonby’s union, Seward and Lister melancholically preserved their own less abiding intimate bonds and affirmed the continuing possibility of queer community.
Identified over the last thirty years as the exemplary manifestation of chaste romantic friendship, Butler and Ponsonby may appear unlikely candidates for queer recuperation. In her influential 1971 biography, The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship, Elizabeth Mavor stresses her desire to consider Butler and Ponsonby “in terms other than Freud’s”—an obliquely clinical euphemism for genital sexuality (Ladies xvii). Mavor instead details the following “symptoms” of romantic friendship: “‘retirement’, good works, cottages, gardening, impecuniosity, the intellectual pursuits of reading aloud and the study of languages, enthusiasm for the Gothick, journals, migraines, sensibility and often, but not always, the single state” (Ladies 80). This ostensibly general list is a catalogue of Butler and Ponsonby’s characteristics, not only identifying them as archetypal romantic friends, but as Tim Hitchcock notes, constitutive of the very category in which they are located (82). Affirming Mavor’s account of the physical chastity of romantic friendships, Lillian Faderman’s 1981 Surpassing the Love of Men echoes strains of 1970s and 1980s lesbian-feminism in defining lesbianism as a gendered commitment to women, rather than a primarily sexual practice or identity (Surpassing 17-18). Faderman thus privileges romantic friendship as the definitive precursor of twentieth-century lesbian subjectivity, and Butler and Ponsonby as its “great success story” (Surpassing 120).  This metonymic linkage of the Ladies and romantic friendship was echoed throughout scholarship of the late 1980s and early 1990s, with scholars’ categorization of Butler and Ponsonby also marking their position in the intractable debate between proponents of chaste romantic friendship and trans-historical lesbian identity (Castle, Apparitional 93-95). The recuperation of working-class women’s relationships also led Butler and Ponsonby to be dismissed as emblematic of the middle- and gentry-class women whose narratives dominated lesbian historiography (Nestle 166). They were thus rendered sexual archetypes in a manner that obscured their protean cultural project, which incorporated country house sociability, female scholarship, and the crafting of both themselves and their cottage as sites of cultural tourism.
The Ladies’ central role in debates of the history of female same-sex desire was reinforced by the 1988 publication of extracts from the diary of Yorkshire heiress and self-described lover of “the fairer sex,” Anne Lister (145). In the London Review of Books, Mavor downplayed the empirical challenge Lister’s diaries posed to the romantic friendship model, despite the antagonistic relationship implied by her role as reviewer (Mavor, "Gentleman" 18-19). Lister’s well-documented desires nonetheless rendered Butler and Ponsonby the unlovely mascots of what Terry Castle termed “the no-sex-before-1900 school” (Apparitional 93), needing only to be dismissed en route to discussion of Lister (Castle, Apparitional 93-95). Lister’s rakish gender transitivity was further celebrated amidst the diffusion of queer theory in the early 1990s, bringing into relief the Ladies’ apparent normativity and obscuring the ways in which their gendered self-fashioning was also highly performative. Butler and Ponsonby’s detractors remain undeterred by implicit critical endorsement of Lister’s belief that their relationship was “surely [. . .] not platonic,” or by their role in framing Lister’s hopes for her own relationships, which I explore below (Lister 210). Indeed, while the contrast between Lister’s frank sexual records and the Ladies’ textual chastity renders their juxtaposition inevitable, such a direct contrast fails to reflect the complexity of either Butler and Ponsonby’s cultural project or the varied phenomena identified as constituting romantic friendship. More recent work reifies Butler and Ponsonby’s foundational link with romantic friendship, with Martha Vicinus’s 2004 Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women 1778-1928 using Butler and Ponsonby’s elopement to commence a historical narrative that concludes with the equally over-determined publication of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. Vicinus distances her account of female intimacies from the desexualizing work of earlier scholars (xx), moderating her claim that the second half of the eighteenth century distinguished between sensual romantic friendship and sexual sapphism by noting the uncertain contours of these categories (xvii). However, such conceptual instability also indicates Butler and Ponsonby’s contested status within the history of female same-sex sexuality, which both resists and relies upon the opacity obscuring the precise nature of their relationship.
In light of this opacity, I propose “queer” as a singularly useful concept to the analysis of Butler and Ponsonby. Butler and Ponsonby’s persistent association with romantic friendship, critiqued roundly by the scholars Faderman terms “Academic postmodernists,” has until now foreclosed their sustained analysis under the rubric of queer (Believe 2). Susan S. Lanser gestures towards such a move by arguing for the analysis of the governing commitments manifest by women’s same-sex relationships in history, rather than their often indeterminate sexual practices (261). Nonetheless, she designates Butler and Ponsonby “gentry sapphists,” despite the applicability of a queer paradigm implied by her acute observation that it makes no sense to consider them as either heterosexual or undesiring (Lanser 261). A productive queer reading of Butler and Ponsonby need not commence with the question, “Were they queer?”—which risks merely reframing the familiar demand, “So, were they lesbians?”—but might instead begin with a consideration of the rhetorical utility of such an intervention. David Halperin declares that queer, “acquires its meaning from its oppositional relation to the norm. Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers” (qtd. in Turner 134, emphasis in original). Queering Butler and Ponsonby thus allows their relationship to be examined without recourse to either the rhetoric of romantic friendship or the presumption of normative heterosexuality. It further circumvents the intractable debate between proponents of chaste romantic friendship and trans-historical lesbian identity and sexual practice, in which analyzing Butler and Ponsonby in light of post-nineteenth century notions of sexual subjectivity leads to anachronism and conceptual impasse. Indeed, the irreducibility of this debate may be seen as a prototypically queer resistance to determination, suggesting that Butler and Ponsonby’s opacity lies at the heart of both their continued fascination and appropriability. The discourse of romantic friendship frames Butler and Ponsonby as an indissoluble dyad, erasing the persistent presence of Mary Caryll, who received no wages, echoed the Ladies’ hospitality in entertaining local servants, features in much of their correspondence, and whose death occasioned the erection of their tantalizingly triangular tomb (Ponsonby to Parker 16 Dec 1809). By contrast, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s claim that queer may refer to the ways in which the multiple elements of an individual’s gender and sexuality “aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” offers new ways of conceptualizing the presumed contradiction between Butler and Ponsonby’s emphatically public partnership and Caryll’s more private role in sustaining their retirement (7-8). Sedgwick also claims that queer offers crucial critical tools with which to consider ostensibly non-sexual dimensions of being such as nationalism and geographical location (8-9). Queering Butler and Ponsonby thus allows theorization of aspects of their lives that have inspired comparatively little concern, such as their concurrent and contradictory national identifications as Irish exiles, Welsh indigenes, British worthies and, in the twentieth century, globalized lesbian icons. It also allows the analysis of the myriad ways in which they resisted social norms, traversing gender boundaries through the appropriation of masculine prerogatives of activity, dress and demeanor, without asserting any necessary link between such gendered transgressions and their sexual practices or self-conception.
Butler and Ponsonby’s categorization as romantics may initially appear as problematic as their conceptualization as queer, but offers similar critical rewards. Butler and Ponsonby are generally considered from the perspective of eighteenth century studies, although their retirement (1771-1831) spanned the romantic period, and their sociable and epistolary networks incorporated many of its major figures (Donoghue 149-50; Hunt 271). Their exclusion from romantic literary history reflects the fact that they did not produce canonical romantic forms such as the first-person lyric, but generically marginal texts including journals, correspondence, commonplace books, and an elaborate library catalogue (Russell and Tuite 4). Their jointly-signed texts and the corporate identity implied by their designation as the “Ladies of Llangollen Vale” (Seward, qtd. in Pearson 169) also challenge received notions of romantic subjectivity as both singular and indicatively male (Ross 29). Their romanticism, however, may be discerned in the light of the work of John Worthen and Jeffrey Cox, which emphasizes the significance of communities to the production of romantic texts and identities (Cox 4; Worthen). Similarly, Gillian Russell and Clara Tuite suggest that romantic sociability must be considered a significant form of cultural and textual production, rather than biographical or contextual detail, allowing the Ladies to fall within the scope of romantic literary studies (4). Butler and Ponsonby’s Gothic cottage, Plâs newydd, may also be defined as an aspect of their cultural production, an elaborate and self-conscious creation that, like Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, came to stand as a near-metonymic representation of their subjective and material worlds. Their romanticism is further indicated by their identification with their Welsh location, which inspired much interest in the wake of Thomas Pennant’s 1778-81 A Tour in Wales (Watson 87-90). While Pennant described Llangollen as “a small and poor town,” he offered fuller praise of the surrounding vale, “I know no scene in North Wales, where the refined lover of picturesque scenes, the sentimental, or the romantic, can give a fuller indulgence to his inclination” (Pennant 295). Butler and Ponsonby subsequently came to epitomize the picturesque scene of Llangollen Vale, celebrated in poetry and prose tributes, numerous engravings and even the manufacture of a dinner service (Mavor, Ladies 204).
Locating Butler and Ponsonby within romanticism illuminates not only their cultural project, but those of the canonical romantics whose varying reports are united in emphasizing the endurance of their relationship. Byron identified Butler and Ponsonby among the faithful friends he invoked to characterize his love for Cambridge choirboy, John Edleston, when he wrote to Elizabeth Pigot in 1807: “We shall put Lady E. Butler, & Miss Ponsonby to the Blush, Pylades & Orestes out of countenance, & want nothing by a Catastrophe like Nisus & Eurylus to give Jonathan & David the ‘go by’” (Byron 124-25). Byron’s litany locates Butler and Ponsonby alongside the heroic lovers of Lucian’s Amores, the latter of whose names, Pylades, Byron employs in “To Romance” to denote a friend whose charms equal those of a loved woman (Crompton 102-03). While Byron’s relationship with Edleston did not outlast that of his Welsh ideals, his continuing interest in their relationship is indicated by their receipt of a presentation copy of The Corsair in 1814, leading the smug Ponsonby to write to a friend, “May we not be proud?” (Ponsonby to Parker 7 Feb 1814). In September 1824, William Wordsworth visited Llangollen’s “celebrated Recluses” with Mary Wordsworth and their daughter, Dora ("Letter to Sir George Beaumont" 277). J.R. Watson describes this visit, in which polite sociability took the place of the physical and poetic exertion of the Welsh tours of 1791 and 1793, as “of little interest to the student of Wordsworth’s poetry,” suggesting that Wordsworth’s cultivation of Butler and Ponsonby marked his transition from revolutionary poet to social conservative (Watson 101). While this view testifies to Butler and Ponsonby’s successful self-fashioning, it attributes an inaccurate stability to their retirement, occluding their frequently precarious financial position and the near loss of the “peaceful possession of [their] little Mansion” in 1804 (Ponsonby to Seward C.1804). It further denies the persistence of prurient interest in their relationship, with Butler’s 1829 obituary pointedly describing her abhorrence of marriage and their families’ desire “to separate two individuals who appeared to cherish each other’s eccentricities” ("Obituary of Lady Eleanor Butler" 175). In light of such trials, Butler and Ponsonby’s successful performance of the values of fixity and place form a precedent for Wordsworth’s own cultural project, which echoed the Ladies’ transformation of provinciality into national celebrity. Wordsworth’s 1824 sonnet, “To the Lady E.B. and the Honourable Miss P.,” differs from Byron’s eroticized analogies in describing the Ladies as “Sisters in Love” (Wordsworth, "To the Lady E.B and the Hon. Miss P" 41). However, it similarly emphasizes the steadfastness of their bond—“a love allowed to climb, / Even on this Earth, above the reach of time!”—which is figured as transcending conventional temporal bounds (Wordsworth, "To the Lady E.B and the Hon. Miss P" 41).
Not all romantic commentators portrayed Butler and Ponsonby’s relationship so positively, with many emphasizing their cultural and stylistic anachronism. Thomas de Quincey’s 1840 “Literary and Lake Reminiscences” described them as “those sentimental anchorites of the last generation,” identifying them with both an earlier time period and a superseded sentimental aesthetic (410). Such views were also expressed during their lifetimes, with the comedian, Charles Mathews, describing them as “dear antediluvian darlings,” who predated the Biblical flood (qtd. in Mavor, Ladies 182). Butler and Ponsonby traveled to Oswestry to see Mathews in 1820, the comedian scrutinizing their sociable performance as closely as they did his stagecraft. Mathews gave full, if ambivalent, credit to their gendered pose, declaring them to look “exactly like two respectable superannuated old clergymen” (151). Scott visited the Ladies with his biographer, John Lockhart in 1825, whose description of them “fussing and tottering about their porch” like “a couple of hazy or crazy old sailors” likens them to aged and unwitting drag kings (qtd. in Hicklin 13-14). Visitors such as Mathews were amused by their dressed and powdered hair (Mathews 151), a style abandoned by all but court debutantes and old men in the 1780s, and virtually abolished by the introduction of hair powder tax in 1795 (Laver 153). Their Titus haircuts, popular at the turn of the century, were marginally more modish, yet were nonetheless passé by the time of their respective deaths in 1829 and 1831.  In 1828, the Prussian Prince Puckler-Muskau described them as members of the ancien régime who had outlived their milieu, his reference to pre-revolutionary France emphasizing their temporal and political anachronism. As he observed: “I was [. . .] affected with a melancholy sort of pleasure in contemplating it in the persons of the amiable old ladies who are among the last of its living representatives” (qtd. in Hicklin 16). Butler and Ponsonby were thus identified as emblems of an outdated era, their cottage standing unknowingly defiant amidst its demise.
In the remainder of this article, I turn to Anna Seward and Anne Lister’s representations of Butler and Ponsonby. Seward and Lister joined the romantic commentators explored above in emphasizing the endurance of Butler and Ponsonby’s relationship. However, I suggest that they also viewed it as exemplifying the enduring queer communities they were unable to realize in their own lives, their celebrations of the Ladies melancholically preserving their own less permanent romantic bonds and embodying hopes of their future enactment. Freud’s 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia” describes melancholy as the pathological product of unresolved mourning, in which an individual’s attachment to a lost love object is not withdrawn and redirected to a new object, but set within the ego through a process of identification ("Mourning" 257-58). In his 1923 “The Ego and the Id,” however, Freud revises his distinction between mourning and melancholia, claiming that melancholic identification facilitates both the work of mourning and the formation of character by allowing the ego to incorporate the lost love object within the structure of the self ("Ego" 638). Building upon this account of the constitutive nature of ungrievable loss, Judith Butler develops the concept of heterosexual melancholy, arguing that masculinity and femininity are formed through the foreclosure of the possibility of homosexual object choices ("Melancholy" 135). Butler describes the formation of femininity through the exclusion of women as objects of love, a loss that is not grieved, but refused through the preservation and incorporation of the lost object in the form of feminine identification (Bodies 235). The melancholic straight woman thus “becomes” the woman she never loved or mourned, just as the straight man incorporates the gender attributes of the man he may never desire (Butler, Bodies 236). Butler links the psychic impossibility of grieving proscribed desires with the contemporary absence of cultural conventions with which to mourn the loss of same-sex attachments, an absence rendered palpable by the catastrophic losses of the AIDS pandemic ("Melancholy" 138).
Drawing upon Butler’s account of the “gay melancholia” of societies in which same-sex attachments are figured as constituting neither “real” love nor “real” loss (Butler, "Melancholy" 148), I argue that Seward and Lister celebrated Butler and Ponsonby in order to melancholically preserve their own ungrievable attachments and affirm hope of their future instantiation. Such readings are unapologetically biographical in nature, a framework perhaps inevitable in relation to Lister, whose partially published diaries currently stand in the place of a full-length biography. While Seward forms the subject of several biographies, past readings of her life and work either downplay the significance of her same-sex attachments or interpret them within the framework of romantic friendship (Faderman, Surpassing 132-38), indicating the importance of more recent reconsiderations, of which this essay is part (Castle, Literature 339-43; Donoghue 120-21). I further deem the following readings queer insofar as they resist both heteronormative biographical assumptions and the retrospective conferral of “lesbian” identity, working outside of and across such designations in order to reconstitute Seward and Lister’s own conceptions of same-sex community.
Seward was amongst the most ardent of Butler and Ponsonby’s romantic acolytes. Her 1796 poem “Llangollen Vale” identified them with the romantic celebration of the Welsh landscape and emphasized their geographically fixed provincial gentility, distinguishing them from the public censure experienced by rumored metropolitan sapphists. Seward thus honored a publicly acceptable model of flourishing female affection, through which she melancholically preserved her passion for her foster sister, Honora Sneyd. In 1756, the Seward family adopted the five-year-old Sneyd, to whom the fourteen-year-old Seward appointed herself tutor, guardian and eventual lover (Pearson 10-14). As Seward’s biographer Hesketh Pearson observed in 1937, “Anna grew strangely attached to this child [. . .] and eventually made her the object of a romantic devotion which, in happier circumstances, might have been bestowed upon a member of the sex more likely to profit by it” (14). Seward anticipated a life shared with Sneyd and believed that such hopes were reciprocated. She was therefore devastated when Sneyd married Richard Lovell Edgeworth—whom Seward termed “an artful & bad Man”—in 1773, becoming stepmother to the future novelist Maria Edgeworth (Seward, Weston 1). Seward’s poetry mourned Sneyd’s exchange of “plighted love” for “cold disdain,” revealing an anguish that has troubled her biographers (Seward, qtd. in Donoghue 120). As Margaret Ashmun wrote in 1931: “It is not easy to analyze [Seward’s] emotions. Did she perhaps desire to marry Edgeworth herself?” (61). She continues, with unwitting irony: “[Seward’s] desire for marriage with Edgeworth, if it existed, was well suppressed” (61).
Honora Sneyd died of consumption in 1780 at the age of forty-nine, Seward attributing her demise to neglect at the hands of “the murderous Edgeworth, who [. . .] crushed to death, the finest of human flowers” (Seward, qtd. in Pearson 21). While Sneyd’s letters speak of her love and admiration for her husband, one is tempted to concur with Seward’s judgement upon learning that Edgeworth married Sneyd’s sister, Elizabeth, within six months of her death (Sneyd). Edgeworth, however, appears to have viewed this marriage as a way in which to retain possession of his lost love, describing the unfortunate Elizabeth as “the Sister of the beloved, the unrivalled object of my affections” (Edgeworth). Seward preserved her love for Sneyd with more obvious constancy, remaining unattached, despite her later infatuations with Elizabeth Cornwallis, the actress Sarah Siddons, and several married men (Pearson 17-18). She nonetheless yearned for the “matchless Honora” throughout her life, melancholically preserving Sneyd’s memory through her protection and celebration of Butler and Ponsonby.
Seward was introduced to Butler and Ponsonby in 1795 when she visited members of their Welsh gentry circle (Lucas 260). Seward’s reputation as “the Queen Muse of Britain” had been secured by her 1780 “Elegy on Captain Cook,” her 1781 “Monody on the Unfortunate Captain Andre,” and her 1784 Louisa, a Poetical Novel (Brewer 601), leading Butler and Ponsonby to view their new friendship as a social and literary coup. Seward was mutually enamored of Llangollen’s “fair Recluses” (Seward, Letters 4: 201), soon visiting their “little temple, consecrate to friendship,” and partaking in “rural dinners” given, to the sound of a hired harper, in the ruins of nearby Vale Crucis Abbey (Seward, qtd. in Lucas 264). Seward’s enthusiasm may imply she was untroubled by the residual scandal surrounding the 1790 General Evening Post’s description of Butler and Ponsonby’s “Extraordinary Female Affection” and curious “antipathy to the male sex” ("General" 2). It may also suggest she was oblivious to the physical discrepancy between her friends’ matching riding habits and the newspaper’s framing of Butler and Ponsonby within a sexualized model of gender difference, in which Butler was figured as “tall and masculine [. . .] hanging her hat with the air of a sportsman in the hall,” while Ponsonby, the taller of the two, was described as “polite and effeminate, fair and beautiful” ("General" 2).
From a queer perspective, however, Seward’s insouciance indicates, not her naïveté, but that Butler and Ponsonby’s retirement paralleled the life she longed to share with Sneyd. Just as Seward had acted as Sneyd’s tutor, Butler had taught Ponsonby, sixteen years her junior, in the years preceding their retirement. Ruing her failure to similarly transform youthful passion into lifelong commitment, Seward sought to physically incorporate Sneyd’s memory within Plâs newydd, presenting the Ladies with J.R. Smith’s engraving of George Romney’s “Serena Reading Burney’s Evelina,” for which Sneyd was the model (Brewer 607). As she wrote after learning of its prominent placement, “I am excessively gratified that you think dear Honora lovely; that you honour her with a situation so distinguished […] All the obligation of her establishment in the Lyceum of Llangollen Vale is on my side” (Seward, qtd. in Ashmun 226). In an important early reconsideration of Seward’s same-sex attachments, Faderman suggests that this gesture was “perhaps [Seward’s] way of living out a fantasy,” allowing her to identify with Butler and Ponsonby and to place Sneyd’s image, if not the woman it represented, within Plâs newydd (Surpassing 137). However, I revise Faderman’s claim that Seward envied the Ladies’ relationship (Surpassing 138), suggesting that she melancholically preserved Sneyd’s memory by identifying Sneyd with the artistic representations that she incorporated psychically, as well as physically, into Butler and Ponsonby’s home. Accordingly, Seward’s protection and promulgation of the Ladies’ relationship does not reflect the jealousy and pain attributed to her by Faderman, but her desire to publicly preserve both their community and the incorporated ideal of her own lost and ungrievable love (Faderman, Surpassing 137-38). Seward’s identification of Sneyd’s image with its deceased subject is revealed by her use of the present tense when discussing the Romney portrait and her failure to distinguish between the absent individual (“dear Honora”) and her representation. Seward’s preservation of an eternally youthful Sneyd is also apparent in her account of her ritual shrine, which was subject to annual observances: “Another striking likeness of my lost Honora [. . .] stands opposite my bed, and has stood there from the time she left this house in her nineteenth year” (Seward, qtd. in Ashmun 227). In metonymically bringing Sneyd to Plâs newydd, Seward revealed her desire to share in a relationship like that of her hosts and to enduringly incorporate Sneyd’s countenance, described as “the sun” of her “youthful horizon,” within the hope it embodied (Seward, qtd. in Ashmun 227).
Seward’s poetic celebration of the Ladies may thus be seen as both protecting and melancholically enacting the romantic community she was unable to bring to fruition. Published in 1796, “Llangollen Vale” contributed crucially to Butler and Ponsonby’s celebrity, Seward’s celebration of their “sacred Friendship” gaining a wide readership and prominence in both private correspondence and the public press (Seward, Llangollen 6). Seward’s epic narrative locates Denbighshire as a crucible of Welsh history, the site of Owain Glyndwr’s fourteenth-century resistance of Henry the Fourth and the encroaching English troops (Seward, Llangollen 1-3). Seward suggests that these battles have marked and permeated the landscape’s “craggy steeps,” transforming the river Dee in the “Deva,” its name derived from the Roman fortress that lay at its mouth (Smith 771; Seward, Llangollen 2-4). These martial scenes recede, however, “the din of arms” giving way to songs sweeter than those Petrarch sang to Laura or the Welsh Bard, Hoel, composed for his mistress Lady Mifanwy Vechan (Seward, Llangollen 5). At the center of this Eden lies Butler and Ponsonby’s “fairy palace,” its mistresses bathed in the “dim, religious light” of Milton’s Il Penseroso (Seward, Llangollen 7). Seward dubs Butler and Ponsonby “Eleanora” and “Zara,” recalling the tragedy heroines popularized by Seward’s beloved Siddons, but emphasizing the Ladies’ less tragic teleology (Seward, Llangollen 7).  She further emphasizes the futurity of their relationship by expressing the hope they will perish together beneath “one kind icebolt,” lest one live her “desolated hours” alone (Seward, Llangollen 11).
“Llangollen Vale” may appear merely another example of the sentimental effusions the Ladies both sought and inspired. However, its narrative, incorporating Raphael Holinshed’s sixteenth-century chronicle of British history and the procession of Britain’s past, presents Butler and Ponsonby as the apotheosis of Welsh history, as indigenous and elemental as the valley’s contours and standing stones (Seward, Llangollen 5). In so doing, it erases their status as Irish exiles, as well as Butler’s French birth and Catholic upbringing, all of which rendered their relationship susceptible to hostile social scrutiny. Late eighteenth-century sources often identify sapphism as a specifically French vice, as revealed by Hester Thrale Piozzi’s 1789 denunciation of Marie Antoinette as “the Head of a Set of Monsters call’d by each other Sapphists” (Thrale 740). The 1797 English translator of Denis Diderot’s La Religieuse explained his excision of one of the novel’s more explicitly sapphic scenes as reflecting his reluctance to “shock an English reader,” continuing, “The French writers [. . .] in this respect, are permitted a latitude which the English taste has forbidden” (qtd. in Donoghue 193). Indeed, the view of sapphism as a foreign practice was endorsed at common law in the oft-cited 1810 case of Pirie and Woods v. Cumming Gordon, in which such female vice was declared “hitherto unknown in Britain” (qtd. in Moore 82).
As important as the alleged distinction between English and French women, however, was the moral gulf asserted between metropolitan and provincial women. In 1774, The Westminster Magazine described the lives of court ladies as characterized by “charming scandal—to gambling—to dissipation—to noise, and to confusion.” So-called “City Ladies” do little better, described as “Humble awkward copies of Court folly and frippery” ("Pictures" 235). Country ladies, by contrast, are likened to Milton’s prelapsarian Eve: “Grace is in all their steps, Heaven in their eye, In all their gestures dignity and love” ("Pictures" 236). Accordingly, Seward’s poem shelters Butler and Ponsonby beneath a Welsh pastoral masquerade, incorporating their relationship within the heroic Welsh history and geography celebrated in Pennant’s A Tour in Wales. Seward’s letters echo this pastoral location in describing Butler and Ponsonby as “the Rosalind and Celia of real life” (Seward, Letters 4: 200), recalling the coupled and cross-dressed heroines of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, whose gendered transgressions are safely contained in the performative realm. However, this coded reference also discloses Seward’s desire for enduring queer community, recalling, to the knowing reader, the roguish female masculinity typified by Dorothy Jordan’s performance of Rosalind at Drury Lane between 1787 and 1814 (Brissenden 53).  Moreover, Seward’s rustic pair remains in Arden with their faithful female “Adam,” her queer narrative forestalling the heterosexual closure of both Shakespeare’s text and Sneyd’s short life. Seward’s “Llangollen Vale” locates Butler and Ponsonby within a heroic Welsh landscape, displacing hostile sexual scrutiny by celebrating their chaste provinciality. In protecting Butler and Ponsonby, however, Seward also preserved the ideal embodied by Sneyd’s image, making their lives the “lasting tablet” upon which she rendered Sneyd immortal (Seward, "Elegy" 340).
As noted above, Anne Lister and the Ladies are frequently held up as mascots of competing accounts of female same-sex relationships in history. However, Lister’s diary resists this antagonistic framing, suggesting that their enduring retirement allowed her to preserve melancholically her hopes of a life shared with her greatest love, Mariana Belcombe. Lister, who lived from 1791 to 1840, was the daughter of a downwardly mobile West Yorkshire captain. She was appointed heir to her unmarried aunt and uncle in 1815 after her brother’s death and inherited the estate of Shibden Hall in 1826 (Vicinus 19). Lister commenced her first same-sex relationship while at boarding school in York and met Mariana in 1812 at the age of twenty-one, becoming her lover in 1814 (Liddington 16). While Lister anticipated inheriting her family’s estate, the woman she termed her wife possessed few prospects of financial independence. As Lister was yet to gain financial autonomy, she encouraged Mariana to enter into a pragmatic marriage with Charles Lawton, a widowed Cheshire landowner, in March 1816. Nonetheless, Lister and Mariana renounced neither their relationship nor their hope that Charles’s premature death would allow them to establish a shared home (Whitbread, qtd. in Lister 7), solemnizing their commitment in July 1821 by pledging their faith over gold rings and taking communion together (Lister 159-60). In January 1822, Lister wrote of Mariana: “Our hearts and minds are mutually & entirely attached. We have [. . .] promised ourselves to be together in six years from this time. Heaven grant it may be so” (177). Lister’s telling supplication was not satisfied, however, as Mariana became increasingly uneasy over their anticipation of her husband’s demise (Lister 198). As Lister confided to her diary in July 1822:
When I asked [Mariana] how long it might be before we got together [. . .] she seemed to fight off answering [. . .]. She seemed as fond of me as ever, yet all the night when I was almost convulsed with smothering my sobs, she took no notice, nor was affected at all apparently.197-98
As her own romantic dreams diminished, Lister identified Butler and Ponsonby as her erotic and emotional kin, through whom she preserved the hopes once held for her relationship with Mariana and defiantly asserted the possibility of enduring queer community.
The thirty-one-year-old Lister pilgrimaged to Plâs newydd in July of 1822, soon after she began questioning the future of her and Mariana’s eight-year relationship. As she had read of the Ladies twelve years previously in the fashionable magazine La Belle Assemblée, Lister’s timing suggests her desire to renew her faith in the continuance of romantic community even as her own hopes retreated (Lister 204). Lister travelled with her aunt, sending their introduction to Butler and Ponsonby before walking to the grounds of Plâs newydd. Lister quizzed the Ladies’ gardener, whom she described as “much attached to his mistresses after having lived with them 30 years” of their forty-three year residence (Lister 196). As Lister wrote of his report: “it excited in me for a variety of circumstances, a sort of peculiar interest tinged with melancholy. I could have mused for hours, dreamt dreams of happiness, conjured up many a vision of . . .hope” (196). Lister’s “peculiar interest” may be argued to reflect her interest in whether the Ladies shared her sexual proclivities. Similarly, her melancholic musings may be argued to express her recognition that the Ladies’ domestic relationship paralleled the one she longed to share with Mariana, suggesting the possibility of enduring romantic community even as such opportunities appeared personally unrealizable.
Lister’s linkage of her visit to Plâs newydd and her relationship with Mariana is indicated by her desire to detail her experiences to her absent lover, penning what Mariana described as “the prettiest narrative I have read” (qtd in Lister 210). Lister’s association of the two relationships is further revealed by her concern, expressed in her diary, that Butler’s ill-health would prevent her from bringing Mariana to observe such an ideal relationship: “I do indeed feel anxious & interested that these Ladies should live together at least a few years longer. I should like to see them both together & should like M- to be with me” (Lister 215). Mariana, too, viewed the Ladies’ relationship as potentially analogous to that she shared with Lister, asking her pointedly whether she believed Butler and Ponsonby’s regard for one another “[had] always been platonic” (qtd. in Lister 210). While Lister’s diary shows her to be acutely aware of class difference in other contexts, she copied out Mary Caryll’s epitaph, “reared by Two Friends who will her loss bemoan / ‘Till with Her Ashes Here shall rest their own” (qtd. in Hicklin 40). This gesture suggests that Lister admired the stability of Butler and Ponsonby’s chosen family, juxtaposing its fixity against Mariana’s perceived inconstancy. Further comparing Butler and Ponsonby’s situation with her own, Lister distinguished youthful aspirations from their enduring instantiation. Having deemed their relationship to be “cemented by something more tender still than friendship,” she continues, “But much, or all, depends upon the story of their former lives, the period passed before they lived together, that feverish dream called youth” (210). Herself unable to transform her love for Mariana into enduring domesticity, Lister lauded Butler and Ponsonby’s success and affirmed the aspirations they embodied.
Lister’s visit to Plâs newydd disclosed her desire to locate herself within a queer community, her anxiety for acceptance reflected in her careful gathering of information from their gardener and the two hours she spent washing and dressing before their meeting (201). As the eighty-three year old Butler was unwell, Lister met only with Ponsonby, recalling the Ladies’ less respectful commentators in noting her waddling gait and “remains of a very fine face” (202). However, Ponsonby’s age and infirmity were soon eclipsed by what Lister reports as the “freshness of intellect” and “verdure of amusing talents” which illuminated her and Butler’s home (209). Lister habitually gauged women’s erotic inclinations through the use of classical allusions, declaring in 1823: “Miss Pickford has read the Sixth Satyr of Juvenal. She understands these matters well enough” (268). Lister subjected Ponsonby to a similar quiz, with disappointing results: “Contrived to ask if they were classical. ‘No,’ said she. ‘Thank God from Latin and Greek I am free’” (Lister 202).  Lister may have recognized the defensiveness of Ponsonby’s reply, having herself assured Miss Pickford that her sapphic sensibility was purely theoretical (273). Certainly, it did not deter Lister from enthusing over “their place & the happiness they had there” (Lister 204), explaining to Ponsonby, “I should not like to live in Wales—but, if it must be so [. . .] it should be Plasnewydd at Llangollen, which is already endeared even to me by the association of ideas” (209). Lister thus figured Plâs newydd as both a real place and promise of futurity in which disappointed dreams might bear fruit.
Ponsonby recognized Lister’s need to locate herself within a queer genealogy, presenting her with a rose from Plâs newydd’s garden as a token of their affinity. Lister protested against this gesture, recording Ponsonby’s prescient response: “It may spoil its beauty for the present, but ‘tis only to do good afterwards” (Lister 210). Lister responded, “I said I should keep it for the sake of the place where it grew” (204), later musing, “There was something in this simple circumstance that struck me exceedingly” (210). In giving Lister a sign of her journey, Ponsonby passed a torch to her younger acolyte, her comment expressing the wish that Lister’s “hopes” would indeed be “fulfilled” (210). Such dreams came to only partial fruition. In 1832, the forty-one-year-old Lister established a domestic partnership with Ann Walker, heir to a wool-manufacturing fortune and the property bordering Lister’s own (Liddington 31). Their relationship was more pragmatic than passionate, with Walker fulfilling Lister’s downgraded desires for a “manageable” life-companion and solid income with which to improve her estate (Lister, qtd. in Liddington 61-62). It never attained the fervour of Lister’s own “feverish youth,” and she died in 1840, aged forty-nine, while travelling in Russia (Liddington 237). Walker was left the unenviable task of accompanying Lister’s corpse on its six-month journey home, only to be forcibly removed from Shibden Hall, bequeathed to her by Lister, and confined to a private asylum (Liddington 238). While Lister’s own hopes of romantic community were bitterly disappointed, she is now celebrated, as she once celebrated Butler and Ponsonby, by those anxious to memorialize past queer communities and to aspire to their future formation.
Butler and Ponsonby’s admission to romantic cultural history indicates the critical rewards of analyzing sociable practices and communities, correspondence and material culture. Similarly, their receptivity to queer readings indicates the rewards of revisiting familiar figures and debates, identifying their intractability as constituting their continuing interest, rather than critical obstinacy. Romantic accounts of Butler and Ponsonby manifest a common interest in the longevity of their relationship, whether figured as an emblem of same-sex love or sororal commitment. However, Lister and Seward also identified them as embodying the possibility of enduring queer community, celebrating their relationship in order to preserve melancholically their own less lasting bonds, and aspire to alternate narratives. Such hopes have been affirmed by ensuing queer communities. In 1936, pioneering British doctor, author and lesbian, Mary Louisa Gordon, imagined the Ladies drawn back into time by the call of their queer descendents. As Gordon tells the Ladies’ ghosts, “You made the way straight for the time that we inherited. You meditated among your books and dreamed us into existence” (269). In 1981, Faderman described lesbian-feminism as the “contemporary analogue” to romantic friendship, tracing an explicit line of descent from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries (Surpassing 20). More recently, a North Welsh lesbian organization has requested that Plâs newydd be recognized as a significant site in lesbian history and Butler and Ponsonby as foremothers of contemporary lesbian community. While in 1930, Butler’s biographer, Eva Mary Bell, declared her “not among the immortals,” one may question this claim, as Butler and Ponsonby continue to facilitate both the memorialization of queer communities and their future instantiation (384).
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I would like to thank David Collings, Michael O’Rourke and Gillian Russell for their valuable advice on earlier versions of this essay.
- Faderman’s gendered argument, with its echoes of Adrienne Rich’s concept of a lesbian continuum, usefully resists the binary demarcation of sexual acts and identities. As Kathryn R. Kent observes, however, Faderman also reproduces stereotypes of white, middle-class women as sexually passive and ignorant (4), while also emptying the category of friendship of desire and bodily specificity.
- http://www.umich.edu/~ece/student_projects/enlightened_elegance/head.htm Accessed 4 Feb. 2003.
- I am grateful to Gillian Russell for drawing my attention to this point.
- The use of the names Rosalind and Celia to suggest female same-sex desire is also apparent in a letter from Sarah Siddons to Mary Berry, dated only the 1st of July. While Siddons’s familiarity with Shakespeare’s character stems from her own performances of Rosalind in 1785 and 1786, her likening of Berry to “Rosalind in her mannish dress” arguably also refers to Berry’s relationship with the sculptor and alleged sapphist, Anne Damer (Letter to Berry, 1 July [n.d.], Lewis Walpole Library, Farmington).
- Ponsonby also mentions a volume of Lucretius to Ponsonby, but explains she is afraid to read such “a very bad book” (Lister 203).