The Ladies of Llangollen, a Romantic Friendship, from Guest Author Sue Wilkes

The post originally appeared upon Austen Authors. I know you find it an exceptionally well researched and compelling tale. 

It’s clear from Jane Austen’s novels and letters that female friendships played a very important role in her life. In Northanger Abbey, inexperienced Catherine Morland is delighted when she makes a new friend, Isabella Thorpe, so soon after she arrives in Bath: ‘Catherine and Isabella, arm in arm…tasted the sweets of friendship in an unreserved conversation’.

When Jane Austen was a little girl, a passionate female friendship shocked the families involved and caused much gossip.

On 30 March 1778, in the dead of night, 23-year-old Sarah Ponsonby, disguised in men’s clothes and armed with a pistol, jumped from a downstairs window and left her home.

An elopement was not an uncommon event in those days of arranged marriages and strict parents. But Sarah was hurrying to meet 39-year-old Eleanor Butler, her intimate friend. The two Irish ladies hoped to escape to England, but their relatives, soon in hot pursuit, found them hiding in a barn. Their plan to live together seemed doomed.

Both ladies had problems at home. Sarah Ponsonby (1755–1831), was related to the powerful Bessboroughs, who formed part of Ireland’s Protestant ruling class. Sarah was a penniless orphan. A kind relative, Lady Betty Fownes, and her husband Sir William, of Woodstock, took charge of the lonely girl and sent her to Miss Parke’s boarding school, Kilkenny. Here in 1768 she met Eleanor Butler – an event which changed her life.

Eleanor (1739–1829) was the daughter of Catholic aristocrats, Sir Walter and Madam Eleanor Butler of Kilkenny Castle. Eleanor, who had been educated at the English Benedictine Convent in Cambrai, France, was extremely well-read. She loved the works of writers like Rousseau and Voltaire. Her family thought she was a ‘blue-stocking’. Eleanor felt isolated and lonely.

Sarah and Eleanor’s friendship blossomed at school. Eleanor’s knowledgeable conversation and fondness for French literature made her an object of awe to Sarah. They discussed living together in peaceful retirement, à la Rousseau. When Sarah finished school and went back home, they wrote to each other secretly.

At first Sarah was happy at home; she attended balls and assemblies at Dublin Castle. But Sarah was pestered by Sir William. His wife was poorly, and he wanted a male heir.

Meanwhile Eleanor was being pressured by her family to ‘take the veil’. They did not want to maintain a spinster. Eleanor’s letters to Sarah became increasingly frantic.

Their thwarted escape in spring 1778 left Eleanor distraught and Sarah ill after sleeping in the barn. Eleanor’s parents were more determined than ever to send their daughter to a convent abroad. Sarah was very poorly, and terrified she would never see Eleanor again.

Sarah gradually recovered. In desperation, Eleanor fled her family again and hurried to Sarah’s home at Woodstock, where she was smuggled into her room by a sympathetic housemaid Mary Caryll.

After many arguments, the families surrendered; Sarah got her wish to live with Miss Butler.  Eleanor’s family arranged a small financial allowance for her.  In May 1778, they sailed from Ireland and began a tour of North Wales, with Mary Caryll in tow.

After exploring Crow Castle on the summit of Dinas Bran, and the ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey, they continued their jaunt. The ladies originally planned to settle in England, but the beautiful Welsh countryside and the cheap cost of living there changed their minds. After lodging in the post office in Llangollen, in spring they were offered the tenancy of Pen-y-Maes cottage. Renaming it Plas Newydd (New Hall), they at last began their new life together. 

The Old Post Office, Llangollen. The two ladies stayed here before they moved into Plas Newydd in 1780. © Sue Wilkes

The Ladies of Llangollen lost no time in beautifying their house and gardens; improvements they could ill afford on their tiny income. Luckily a friend obtained an annual pension from the King for Sarah; but they had constant money worries and often borrowed from friends. They kept four servants, their ‘family’: Mary Caryll, more friend than servant, who drew no wages; a kitchen-maid, footman and a gardener.

The two friends adopted a singular mode of dress. They wore blue riding habits, men’s neckcloths, cut their hair very short, and wore tall hats. But they were free to enjoy their ideal life of seclusion and self-improvement. They studied Latin and Italian; collected a huge library; stitched and sketched, and wrote to friends.

Inevitably, complete isolation was impossible. As their acquaintance grew, they visited the Myddletons at Chirk Castle and friends the Barretts at Oswestry, borrowing the carriage from the nearby Hand inn. The restoration of the Ormonde family titles meant Miss Butler became Lady Eleanor in 1791, but her unforgiving family kept all their money to themselves. To make ends meet, the Ladies kept cows and chickens, grew fruit and vegetables, and rented land for growing crops.

Eleanor was fiercely protective of their lifestyle. Imperious and haughty, she could be downright rude; the more tranquil Sarah often smoothed over her outbursts. But as reports of their Romantic friendship, ‘Gothick’ home and wonderful gardens (with over forty kinds of roses) spread, lots of eminent people came to see them.

Plas Newydd, Llangollen, the ladies’ home for nearly half a century. Our Own Country Vol. I, Cassell & Co., c.1898. Author’s collection.

Sheridan and Lady Caroline Lamb arrived at their door; Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) became a firm friend; writer Madame de Genlis stayed, her slumbers disturbed by the Aeolian harp positioned under her window.

Harriet Bowdler, (writer and sister of Thomas, the ‘improver’ of Shakespeare) visited, and corresponded frequently. She gave the Ladies a cow, named Linda; this redoubtable animal walked (the only affordable method) all the way from Bristol to Llangollen. Another literary friend was Anna Seward, ‘the Swan of Lichfield’, who. wrote many gushing letters to them, and composed Llangollen Vale in their honour.

Other literary stars who came to the Vale were Thomas De Quincey, Robert Southey, and Wordsworth and his family, who came to tea in 1824. Wordsworth wrote a sonnet on the Ladies’ Romantic retreat, and declared that Llangollen was ‘the Vale of Friendship’.

Eleanor and Sarah took great care of the parish’s poor people, despite their own limited means. In their turn, the people of Llangollen repaid their kindness. One old man nursed their sick cow; a little boy brought them white foxgloves for their garden; the whole village helped when their chimney caught fire. John Lockhart, Sir Walter Scott’s son-in-law, accompanied the writer on a visit to the Ladies. Lockhart wrote unkindly about their eccentric mode of dress, but confessed: ‘They have long been the guardian angels of the village, and are worshipped by man, woman and child’.

Eleanor and Sarah died two years apart. But they are forever united in the peaceful churchyard. The exact nature of Eleanor and Sarah’s romantic friendship is still controversial. But it was no-one else’s business, and it took great courage to defend their love and pursue their ideals despite the family pressures and conventions of their day.

Meet Sue Wilkes 

Born in Lancashire and now living in Cheshire (since 1981), Sue Wilkes has been a fan of Jane Austen’s works since she was a little girl. At school, Sue read Physics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She is a member of the Society of Authors. Her latest release, Regency Spies( Pen & Sword, 2015) uncovers the world of state spies, informers and secret societies in late Georgian Britain.
Sue’s first book Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives (History Press, 2008) recreates everyday life for working families in Victorian Lancashire during the Industrial Revolution. Regency Cheshire (Robert Hale, 2009), tells the story of county life during the age of Beau Brummell, Walter Scott and Jane Austen. The Children History Forgot (Robert Hale, 2011) explores children and young people’s working lives during the late Georgian and Victorian eras.
Tracing Your Ancestors’ Childhood (Pen & Sword, 2013), Tracing Your Lancashire Ancestors (Pen & Sword, 2012) and Tracing Your Canal Ancestors (Pen & Sword, 2011) are guides for family historians.
A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England (Pen & Sword, 2014) explores daily life for the middle and upper classes in late Georgian and Regency England.
Sue writes for adults and children and contributes regularly to magazines in the UK and USA. Her specialities are social and industrial history, literary history, and family history. Sue is also a creative writing tutor specialising in non-fiction. She is married, with two grown-up children. Sue is a Jane Austen fan. She loves country walks and exploring Britain’s history.
Read Sue’s blogs at and 

Follow her on Facebook ( and Twitter: @austensengland and @SueWilkesauthor.

Immerse yourself in the vanished world inhabited by Austen’s contemporaries. Packed with detail, and anecdotes, this is an intimate exploration of how the middle and upper classes lived from 1775, the year of Austen’s birth, to the coronation of George IV in 1820. Sue Wilkes skillfully conjures up all aspects of daily life within the period, drawing on contemporary diaries, illustrations, letters, novels, travel literature and archives.
Were all unmarried affluent men really ‘in want of a wife’?
Where would a young lady seek adventures?
Would ‘taking the waters’ at Bath and other spas kill or cure you?
Was Lizzy Bennet bitten by bed-bugs while traveling?
What would you wear to a country ball, or a dance at Almack’s?
Would Mr Darcy have worn a corset?
What hidden horrors lurked in elegant Regency houses?
Put on your dancing gloves and embrace a lost era of corsets and courtship!
This is an ingenious volume. The author, who has written extensively on social history and on genealogy, provides us with a detailed guide book to the habits, facilities, sights and values of Southern England in the early 19th century. Her walk-through of the territory is attractively supported by extensive quotations from the works of Jane Austen herself and from contemporaries. The text is lively and well arranged and the anecdotes relevant and illuminating. This is a book which Janites will enjoy and which will provide an informative context to the novels.

An Age of Revolutions:
Sue Wilkes uncovers the hidden histories of Regency spies and the men they hunted. Eavesdrop on the secret meetings of Britain’s underground political societies of the 1790s and early 1800s. Discover the true stories behind the riots, rebellions, and treason trials in late Georgian Britain.
Regency Spies explores the plots, intrigues and perils of those thrilling times:
* Wolfe Tone’s ambitious plan to free Ireland from British rule
* Luddites incite arson and machine-breaking in Britain’s industrial heartlands
* The doomed Pentrich uprising of 1817
* The race to stop the 1820 plot to murder cabinet ministers and seize control of the capital 

Sue Wilkes reveals the shadowy world of Britain’s spies, rebels and secret societies from the late 1780s until 1820. Drawing on contemporary literature and official records, Wilkes unmasks the real conspirators and tells the tragic stories of the unwitting victims sent to the gallows. In this ‘age of Revolutions’, when the French fought for liberty, Britain’s upper classes feared revolution was imminent. Thomas Paine’s incendiary Rights of Man called men to overthrow governments which did not safeguard their rights. Were Jacobins and Radical reformers in England and Scotland secretly plotting rebellion? Ireland, too, was a seething cauldron of unrest, its impoverished people oppressed by their Protestant masters. Britain’s governing elite could not rely on the armed services – even Royal Navy crews mutinied over brutal conditions. To keep the nation safe, a ‘war chest’ of secret service money funded a network of spies to uncover potential rebels amongst the underprivileged masses. It had some famous successes: dashing Colonel Despard, friend of Lord Nelson, was executed for treason. Sometimes in the deadly game of cat-and-mouse between spies and their prey suspicion fell on the wrong men, like poets Wordsworth and Coleridge. Even peaceful reformers risked arrest for sedition. Political meetings like Manchester’s ‘Peterloo’ were ruthlessly suppressed, and innocent blood spilt. Repression bred resentment – and a diabolical plot was born. The stakes were incredibly high: rebels suffered the horrors of a traitor’s death when found guilty. Some conspirators’ secrets died with them on the scaffold…


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to The Ladies of Llangollen, a Romantic Friendship, from Guest Author Sue Wilkes

  1. carolcork says:

    I wrote a post about the Ladies of Llangollen on my blog a few years ago –

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