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4.5 starsThe Blurb from the back of the book: “Lady Eleanor Butler was 29 when she first met Sarah Ponsonby, a sensitive retiring girl of 13. Ten years later the two ladies eloped. Amid scenes of scandal and havoc they settled in an idyllic cottage in Llangollen where their unorthodox relationship blossomed, and their generous, civilised way of living became a legend.” They lived together for over 50 years and were only parted by death. The story of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby has long been one that has fascinated and Elizabeth Mavor has done a good job of cutting through all the myths and telling their story in a competent and scholarly way. Both women were members of the Anglo-Irish upper class. Both were women and therefore not going to inherit and so a good marriage was what was expected of them. Eleanor was bookish and was interested in literature and language (much to the annoyance of her family) and as she was 39 in 1778 and was now unlikely to marry her family planned to place her in a convent. Sarah was 16 years younger and had been friends with Eleanor for ten years; they lived only two miles apart. Sarah was orphaned and living with her guardian Sir William Fownes and his family. Sir William’s wife was ailing and he saw Sarah as a ready-made replacement and Sarah was suffering from his unwanted intentions. Both had good reason to want to be somewhere else. They hatched a plan to live together in England and dressed in men’s clothing they set out for Waterford and the ferry. They were captured and endured a period of detention by their families. Eleanor escaped again and was hidden in Sarah’s bedroom for ten days. Eventually and reluctantly the families gave way and the two women left Ireland and settled in Llangollen in Wales in a cottage called Plas Newydd. Here they lived for over 50 years.The story of their elopement and their new way of life became well known. They developed their cottage and their garden, kept a very detailed journal, corresponded voluminously, studied literature and languages and very rarely spent time away from their retreat (two nights in 17 years according to Mavor). Their fame spread and their list of visitors is impressive: Wordsworth, Southey, Byron, Shelley, Sir Walter Scott, the Duke of Wellington (a longstanding friend), Josiah Wedgwood, Lady Caroline Lamb, Dr Johnson, various assorted members of the royal family and several continental princes and princesses. Their fame has continued and they influenced the suffragettes; one suffragette, Mary Gordon wrote a biography of them based on the new psychotherapeutic ideas. Colette wrote about them in Ces Plaisirs in 1932 and Simone de Beauvoir mentions them in The Second Sex. Inevitably people have speculated about their relationship; they shared a bedroom and a bed; their relationship was private and its nature is not really known. There was a tradition of romantic friendships between women in the eighteenth century with novels like Millennium Hall by Sarah Scott portrayed a feminine utopia. This sort of literature was almost certainly known to both women. They referred to each other as My Beloved (shortened to My B) or my Better Half and often entwined their signatures. They created scandal in some circles, but were accepted by most. They were rather traditional in their political views, quite conservative, worried by the French Revolution and the spread of radicalism (and Methodism, which also worried them).

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