Extraordinary Instance of Female Friendship: Female Romance Before Gentleman Jack

07 June 2019

Gender and Sexuality | History

If you’ve switched on a television in the last month or two, you’ve likely caught a glimpse of Suranne Jones – all cheekbones, wry smile and top hat – embodying the character of ‘Gentleman Jack’. Anne Lister is one of history’s most iconic lesbian figures; her coded diaries shattered everything we thought we knew about nineteenth century “lesbianism” upon their rediscovery in 1933. Iconic female romances existed in Britain long before Lister’s notorious love affairs, however, and one such story can be found in our Defining Gender resource.

Lithograph: Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, the Ladies of Llangollen. Image via: Wikimedia Commons.

When Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby met in Ireland in 1768, homosexuality was both socially and legally unacceptable. However, non-sexual “romantic friendships” were often encouraged between young and respectable unmarried women, for whom the friendship was considered a suitable distraction from pre-marital temptation. Such a friendship was established between the ‘tall and masculine’ Miss Butler and the ‘polite and effeminate’ Miss Ponsonby, and initially their families considered nothing out of the ordinary. After Miss Butler’s fifth rejected marriage proposal, however, that opinion had been utterly ruined. With Miss Ponsonby declared ‘the bar to all matrimonial union’, the two were separated and Miss Butler sent into confinement.

While it’s important to note that there is no concrete evidence of a true romantic relationship between the two – nothing on the scale of Anne Lister’s diaries, at least – the strength of their families’ response and their determination to be reunited both hint at something far beyond companionship. A 1796 publication titled The Parental Monitor details two dramatic elopements, the second of which saw Eleanor and Sarah happily settling across the Irish Sea in the beautiful Welsh vale of Llangollen. They continued to live for fifty years together as women of class and respectability in a house named Plas Newydd, and ‘no persuasions could ever get them from this retreat.’

The Parental Monitor, 1796. Image © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. 

Known locally as the Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor and Sarah attracted much fame as paragons of platonic female friendship. It appears that few ever suspected that the pair might be lovers; in fact, The Parental Monitor was intended by its writer, Elizabeth Bonhote, to be presented to her children as an instructive work in virtue and character. An abridged version of Bonhote’s anecdote was again printed in The Lady’s Monthly Museum in 1799 with the addition of a poem by their friend Anna Seward, dedicated to their ‘sacred friendship, permanent as pure.'

The Lady's Monthly Museum, 1799. Image © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. 

As such, it seems that the concept of ‘romantic friendships’ had provided the Ladies of Llangollen with a perfectly convincing camouflage for their love. Shielded by their respectability, Miss Butler and Miss Ponsonby maintained a relationship spanning half a century that not only managed to avoid scandal, but in fact earned admiration in both the society and conduct literature of Georgian Britain. Their story is not as explosive as that of 'Gentleman Jack', but, in this, the month of LGBT Pride, it offers us a rare and heart-warming insight into the history of female romance.


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About the Author

Lauren Clinch

Lauren Clinch

I joined Adam Matthew in February 2019, and since then have had the chance to work on some fantastic projects such as 'Ethnomusicology - Global Field Recordings' and 'Research Source'. I studied MA History & Heritage at Aberystwyth University and my academic interest lies in hidden histories, particularly race and gender history.