The book : The Ladies of Llangolen – A Study in Romantic Friendship
The Ladies of Llangolen : A Study in Romantic Friendship by Elizabeth Mavor
Eleanor Butler & Sarah Ponsonby, two aristocratic spinsters who defied the rules and conventions of their day by setting up house together in an idyllic cottage situated at the Vale of Llangolen, North Wales in the late 1770s. They captured the imagination of many, including intellectuals and celebrities such as the Duke of Wellington, Charles Darwin, Lady Caroline Lamb, Wordsworth, Southey, Josiah Wedgwood and Sir Walter Scott, who were captivated and inspired by their romantic mode of life.
Theirs was a relationship so rare and subtle, known as a ‘romantic friendship’ (a once flourishing but now lost relationship), that encompasses features such as “tenderness, loyalty, sensibility, shared beds, shared tastes, coquetry, even passion.”
“True friendship is a divine and spiritual relation of minds, an union of souls, a marriage of hearts, a harmony of designs and affections, which being entered into by mutual consent, groweth up into the purest kindness and most enduring love, maintaining itself by the openest freedom, the warmest sympathy, and the closest secrecy.”
It was this conception of the relationship, one more akin to the modern idea of marriage, that Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were to make their own. Their relationship was not only ‘romantic’, abounding in all those features associated with the word, but to them, sacred. A quality hard to appreciate now when friendships between members of the same sex tend either to be valued lightly or viewed with suspicion.
The book is a warm record of the life they shared, spent together by reading much (they have a habit of reading to each other during their regular evening walks in their tenderly nurtured garden), writing to their many correspondences, entertaining visitors (so much so that Eleanor Butler once wrote in a journal entry : “When shall we be quite alone?”), tending to their gardens and making plans for continuous improvement works on the house. All is not a bed of roses though, for they have their share of trouble with finances as well as bouts of illness and infirmity.
The place : Plas Newydd, Llangolen – North Wales
The time : Summer of 2010
When we were planning our route for the trip, we knew we would be passing through Wales on our way down heading towards Brecon. We made Plas Newydd a point to stopover even though it was a little out of our way. We were driving down from Conwy and somehow only managed to get to Plas Newydd after 4:30pm, which meant that we missed our chance at getting into the house for a guided tour. Truly disappointing, because it is highly unlikely that we would ever happen to ‘pass by’ this corner of the planet again. And so, we just had to resign ourselves to snapping up shots of the house and garden grounds from the outside.
Despite the setback, I guess I would still say it was worth the effort of getting there. Having actually stood there on the garden grounds looking at the house, makes reading the following (my favourite passages from the book) even more poignant and moving.
” As then, so they were in spirit this last winter together, snow and cold contracting their world; yet small as it was, it was only through Sarah that Eleanor could make contact with it at all. As they moved about the library tenderly hand in hand, people noticed that their roles had reversed at last, Eleanor grown quiet and submissive while Sarah gently directed her.
Did she lead her through the shrubbery that spring to smell the white lilacs again, that shrubbery where nearly fifty years ago they had walked away their ‘little troubles’ in the moonlight? And did she, as the days lengthened out once more and summer approached, describe their favourite plans as they re-appeared in the border once again; the huge white violets, the great bed of gentian aucaulis that they had planted together? There may even have been time for her to pick her one of the first roses, but she was sinking fast.
On the second of June, that month which she so loved describing in the journal; when the streams were full, and the dark green shadows were flying over the woods and meadows, on just such a day when she and her Beloved would have gone walking along the Cufflymen to the Pengwern woods in the cool of the evening; the tired eyes which for nearly a century had looked out on the world, now bitter, now amused, but at Sarah Ponsonby always with love, closed at last.”