Extraordinary Instance of Female Friendship: Female Romance Before Gentleman Jack
If you‚Äôve switched on a television in the last month or two, you‚Äôve likely caught a glimpse of Suranne Jones ‚Äď all cheekbones, wry smile and top hat ‚Äď embodying the character of ‚ÄėGentleman Jack‚Äô. Anne Lister is one of history‚Äôs most iconic lesbian figures; her coded diaries shattered everything we thought we knew about nineteenth century ‚Äúlesbianism‚ÄĚ upon their rediscovery in 1933. Iconic female romances existed in Britain long before Lister‚Äôs notorious love affairs, however, and one such story can be found in our Defining Gender resource.
When Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby met in Ireland in 1768, homosexuality was both socially and legally unacceptable. However, non-sexual ‚Äúromantic friendships‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äėtall and masculine‚Äô Miss Butler and the ‚Äėpolite and effeminate‚Äô Miss Ponsonby, and initially their families considered nothing out of the ordinary. After Miss Butler‚Äôs fifth rejected marriage proposal, however, that opinion had been utterly ruined. With Miss Ponsonby declared ‚Äėthe bar to all matrimonial union‚Äô, the two were separated and Miss Butler sent into confinement.
While it‚Äôs important to note that there is no concrete evidence of a true romantic relationship between the two ‚Äď nothing on the scale of Anne Lister‚Äôs diaries, at least ‚Äď the strength of their families‚Äô 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 ‚Äėno persuasions could ever get them from this retreat.‚Äô
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‚Äôs anecdote was again printed in The Lady‚Äôs Monthly Museum in 1799 with the addition of a poem by their friend Anna Seward, dedicated to their ‚Äėsacred friendship, permanent as pure.'
As such, it seems that the concept of ‚Äėromantic friendships‚Äô 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.