Romantic Friendships: Eminent Women and the Ladies of Llangollen
By Angela Wachowich
In 1824, London librarian and autograph collector William Upcott compiled an album of letters by eighteenth-century “Eminent Women.” “Original Letters Collected by William Upcott of the London Institution: Vol. XXX: Eminent Women” includes notes in the hands of a diversity of female writers and artists ranging from the celebrated wit Elizabeth Montagu to lesser-known figures like the travel writer Mary Holderness. Despite an uptake in the valuation of scribal documents at the end of the eighteenth century, many of these letters would have fallen into Upcott’s hands because they were considered worthless by contemporary publishing houses. Many eminent women, such as Frances Burney and Ann Radcliffe, are conspicuously absent, but, regardless of the limitations of the collection as a representative sample of female eminence, the interconnections between women in the album raise larger questions related to the literary implications of Romantic-era social networks.
A quick glance at the “Links Excerpts” tab on Orlando brings to light the especially intriguing and cross-cutting influence of the Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler (1739–1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755–1831). The note in Butler’s hand preserved by Upcott’s album sees her mediating an introduction between two acquaintances, a common practice for the Ladies, who were continually spinning “a great web of obligation and counter-obligation” (Butler qtd. in Orlando). Butler and Ponsonby rose to prominence due to their elopement and Rousseau-esque retirement to Llangollen, Wales. Their unconventional lifestyle drew the attention of Royals, writers, and travelers alike, including such celebrities as Queen Charlotte, the Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, Hester Thrale Piozzi, and Anna Seward. Rather than concentrating on these well-studied connections, I focus on their lesser-known interactions with fellow “Eminent Women,” such as Elizabeth Benger, Harriet Bowdler, Sarah Burney, and Lady Morgan Sydney.
This paper briefly explores Butler and Ponsonby’s influence over four of their fellow “Eminent women.” In the process I attempt to answer the following questions: How were Benger, Bowdler, Burney, and Sydney acquainted with the Ladies of Llangollen? What drew these four women, of all the women in Upcott’s album, to Butler and Ponsonby? What influence, if any, did Butler and Ponsonby exercise over these women? Finally, what can the interconnections between these four women tell us about literary sociability during the Romantic era? I begin by comparing the factors that brought Benger, Bowdler, Burney, and Morgan into the Ladies’ acquaintance, then proceed to a more detailed analysis of Butler and Ponsonby’s influence over Benger and Bowdler’s respective friendships with Elizabeth Hamilton and Elizabeth Smith. This paper demonstrates through discovery that the Ladies of Llangollen’s network of upper-class British women formed intimate connections with one another that emphasized mutual intellectual pursuits, thereby supporting women’s cultural production during the Romantic era.
Introductions: Benger, Burney, Morgan, and Bowdler
How were Benger, Bowdler, Burney, and Sydney acquainted with the Ladies of Llangollen? What drew these four women, of all the women in Upcott’s album, to Butler and Ponsonby? The most straightforward way to approach this question is to begin with Sarah Burney and Lady Morgan Sydney, who enjoyed the least intimate connections with the Ladies of our four subjects. Sarah Harriet Burney (1772–1844), novelist and oft-obscured half-sister of Frances Burney, was generally limited from social intercourse by financial hardship and her duties as a caregiver to her father, the musicologist Charles Burney. In 1805, while working as a governess to the Wilbraham family, Burney visited Plâs Newydd. Burney’s letters reference her group’s evening and breakfast visit with Butler and Ponsonby as a highlight of the group’s tour to her employer’s country seat in Cheshire (Letters of Sarah Harriet Burney, 64). Since Butler and Ponsonby were not well acquainted with the Wilbraham family, they were presumably among the gentry that visited on their way from Ireland to England. Receiving British gentry was customary for Butler and Ponsonby, who were themselves upper-class Irishwomen. That said, Burney’s family name would have distinguished her group from other visitants and perhaps influenced their invitation to breakfast in addition to dinner. Burney’s letters give no further insight into her visit to Plâs Newydd. She does not appear to have stayed in contact with the Ladies nor gained much more than momentary enjoyment from their meeting.
Lady Morgan Owenson Sydney (1781–1859) enjoyed a longer and more familiar introduction to the Ladies of Llangollen. Sydney, author of The Wild Irish Girl (1806), visited Butler and Ponsonby at Plâs Newydd in 1808 on her journey home from a promotional tour in England. Morgan’s introduction to Butler and Ponsonby, Mary Campbell speculates, was made by their mutual friend, the poet Mary Tighe (Campbell, 89). Sydney and Tighe likely met through their shared nationality and literary accomplishments. Ponsonby was related to the Tighe family through her first cousin, Lady Betty, whose daughter, Sarah Tighe, was Mary Tighe’s aunt. In the 1790s, Mary Tighe and her husband lived in England and made frequent trips to Ireland, consequently becoming friendly with the Ladies of Llangollen, with whom Tighe shared her manuscript poetry (Linkin, “Tighe, Mary”). Therefore, Morgan’s introduction to the Ladies was supported by various factors, including shared social standing, acquaintances, interests, and nationality.
While there are no detailed first-hand accounts of Sydney’s visit with the Ladies, her meeting differs from Burney’s in some informative ways—if we are to assume that both novelists got along with Butler and Ponsonby equally well, Sydney would be better able to maintain a friendship due to her social standing as a member of the gentry with money and free-time. Butler and Ponsonby very rarely left their home in Llangollen, and so, despite their impecuniosity, their lasting friendships were primarily with upper-class British women with the time and money to visit them (and occasionally lend them money). In other words, shared cultural interests were not necessarily enough to prompt or sustain a connection with the Ladies of Llangollen, which is one of the reasons why so few women in Upcott’s album encountered them directly.
While the novelist and historian Elizabeth Ogilvy Benger (1777–1827) is one of this paper’s subjects, she never met the Ladies of Llangollen in person. Benger is connected to Butler and Ponsonby through her close friend, the novelist and essayist Elizabeth Hamilton (c.1756–1816). She ‘met’ the Ladies through Hamilton’s account of them when she visited their home in April 1802. Hamilton’s visit to Llangollen commenced her and her sister’s sixteen-month tour of Wales, the lakes of Westmoreland, and Scotland (Memoirs, 152). Hamilton’s connection to Butler and Ponsonby is unclear; however, she and her sister went with the intention “to visit the ladies” and met them within “a few minutes” of their arrival (Memoirs, 153). Hamilton then wrote to Benger about the marvelous Ladies, inspiring a series of letters which we will explore in the following section. The Ladies’ relatively remote location made it difficult for non-travelers, like Benger, to meet them. Since Llangollen was not a destination itself but a stopping point between England and Ireland, eminent women like Benger, who lived and died in England, were unlikely to encounter them in person despite their mutual awareness of one another as cultural figures.
Correspondence was how most people heard about the Ladies of Llangollen and how the Ladies maintained the majority of their friendships. One of their closest friends, the writer and literary editor Harriet Bowdler (1750–1830), resided in Bath but wrote and visited the Ladies regularly from 1785 until she died in 1830. Elizabeth Mavor’s biography of the Ladies of Llangollen uses Bowdler’s correspondence as a source, calling it “Miss Bowdler’s news service” (78) because its contents centred around public affairs and the letters often read like newspapers (Hamwood). Bowdler’s dedication to the Ladies is also apparent in her letters though, which often take up the pseudo-sexual flirting that the Ladies famously shared. For example, Bowdler’s letters frequently referred to Butler as “my Viellard” (my old man), pondering new ways “to teaze and provoke him” and joking about finding “another Husband” when Butler “goes off with some new favourite” (Bowdler qtd. in Mavor, 95). Bowdler would later describe her visits to Plâs Newydd as “‘the most delicious days’ of her life, after which she had nothing to look forward to ‘except joys beyond the tomb’” (Mavor, 100).
Bowdler’s interest in the Ladies of Llangollen was evident from the day they met through mutual friends in 1785. While Bowdler arrived with her friend, Margaret Davies, they had a falling out shortly after, perhaps, as Mavor speculates, over Bowdler’s particular affinity for Ponsonby (Mavor, 97). “[M]y Margaret saw a rival in everybody…,” Bowdler later complained (98). While Bowdler’s propensity for intimate female friendships (which I will further explore in the following section) certainly sheds new light on an editor known for exaggerated virtue, the Ladies’ reciprocated affection for Bowdler is also of interest. Upon first glance, it seems strange that of all the women in Upcott’s album, the conservative Harriet Bowdler would share the closest relationship with the unconventional Ladies of Llangollen. That said, their contemporaries probably viewed them as uniquely compatible. While, from the space of over two hundred years, we may associate the Ladies with sexual transgression, they appear to have eschewed that dimension of their identities in favour of hard study, as did Bowdler. All three women were adept at multiple languages and interested in having serious conversations about culture and theology. Bowdler’s social standing and decision to remain unmarried also gave her the time and money to visit Butler and Ponsonby regularly, even renting a cottage nearby in the summer of 1798. For various reasons then, Bowdler was well suited to the Ladies.
The factors that enabled some women's intimacy with the Ladies of Llangollen while restricting other “Eminent Women” from joining their acquaintance are indicative of the limitations of the Ladies of Llangollen’s social network. Since the Ladies resided in one remote location for over fifty years, they depended on travel and correspondence for their sociability. While Benger, Burney, Bowdler, and Sydney were all drawn to the Ladies of Llangollen, only Bowdler and Sydney had the money and time to travel to them; Burney only met them because she was traveling with her employers; and Benger only heard about them through a mutual friend’s correspondence. The determinative influence of friendship, kinship, and locality on the Ladies’ cultural circle limited its diversity to women of the upper-classes. The intimacy of their relationship with Bowdler suggests that Butler and Ponsonby were particularly attentive to virtuous, single women with an interest in serious intellectual debate who could support their friendship with regular visits and correspondence.
Influence: Benger/Hamilton and Bowdler/Smith
The intimacy of friendships such as those shared by the Ladies of Llangollen, Elizabeth Benger and Elizabeth Hamilton, and Harriet Bowdler and Elizabeth Smith may be considered a subset of a larger phenomenon. In her biography of the Ladies of Llangollen, Mavor situates contemporary speculation about Butler and Ponsonby’s sexuality in relation to public consciousness of a new ‘unnatural’ form of female friendship purportedly arrived from France in the 1790s. In Thraliana, Hester Thrale Piozzi describes “a Set of Monsters call’d by each other Sapphists,” and recalls a friend’s warning that young women could easily slip into “personal Danger … from a female Fiend of this Sort” (Piozzi qtd. in Mavor, 87). The concern for women like Piozzi was that they or their daughters might strike up a friendship with a machinating Sapphist who might draw them into a sexual relationship before they could tell the difference. The problem faced by modern scholars is not entirely unrelated—from an outsider’s perspective, it is difficult to differentiate between a close friendship and a friendship with a sexual component.
Scholars have concluded that it is highly unlikely that the Ladies of Llangollen shared a sexual relationship based on the extant documents, although they flirted, cuddled, and shared a bed for over fifty years. Therefore, ethical categorization of their complex relationship necessitates a category somewhere between friendship and lesbian relationship. I have elsewhere taken after Fiona Brideoake in advocating for the use of the flexible term “queer.” Since this section compares the Ladies of Llangollen’s friendship to other, less well-researched pairs, however, I will refer to their relationship in the language of their contemporaries as a “romantic friendship.” Broadly speaking, “romantic friendships” were characterized by features typically associated with heterosexual relationships. The symptoms associated with romantic friendship in the late eighteenth century—"'retirement,' good works, cottages, gardening, impecuniosity, the intellectual pursuits of reading aloud and the study of languages, enthusiasm for the Gothick, journals, migraines, sensibility and often, but not always, the single state” (Mavor, 88)—appear to have been modeled after Butler and Ponsonby, down to the migraines that plagued Butler her whole life. So what influence, if any, did this model of friendship exercise over Benger and Bowdler? Moreover, what do these three romantic friendships, Butler and Ponsonby, Benger and Hamilton, and Bowdler and Smith, tell us about literary sociability during the Romantic era?
Benger and Hamilton’s relationship merits analysis as a romantic friendship because it distinguishes itself from their other numerous respective friendships by its emotional intimacy. Benger and Hamilton met during Hamilton’s four-year residence in London between 1788 and 1792. Their initial connection resembles a mentorship in light of their age difference (twenty-one years) and Hamilton’s experience with (anonymous) publication; however, they both published their significant works aftewards. Since they never lived in the same city again, their remarkable affection for one another has survived through their correspondence, where they often refer to each other in affectionate terms. For example, Hamilton’s last words for Benger were, "Give her my love, ten times told” ("Hamilton", Orlando).
Their extant correspondence on the Ladies of Llangollen indicates the prepossessing power of Butler and Ponsonby’s elopement and lifestyle to other female pairs. Upon her visit to Llangollen in 1802, Hamilton recounted to Benger that she and her sister became fast friends with Butler and Ponsonby (Memoirs, 153), and that “[t]he few days we spent with them passed in that sort of enthusiastic delight so seldom experienced when the days of youthful ardour are gone” (Memoirs, 154). Benger’s response does not survive; however, Hamilton’s proceeding letter reveals that Benger (whether seriously or not) proposed that she and Hamilton share the same kind of retirement ("Benger", Orlando). Hamilton is enthused by the prospect, considering it “a pleasure that … would certainly be beyond all expression” (Memoirs, 155), but she dithers on the timing and location, citing the inconveniences of her current residence. Her rejection dwells on the impracticality of such an elopement: “[C]onscious of the vivid colouring which your lively imagination throws over every object, I should think it unpardonable to aid its delusive power by creating a single hope, in which there is a possibility of disappointment” (Memoirs, 155). Hamilton’s practical thinking disntinguished her and Benger’s relationship from Butler and Ponsonby’s, wherein both characters had such “lively imagination[s]” as to persist despite the “possibility of disappointment” through their financially turbulent years at Plâs Newydd.
In July 1804 or 1805, however, upon her establishment in Edinburgh, Hamilton recirculated the idea, writing to Benger:
I am anxious to speak to you on a subject which both my sister and myself have much at heart. You guess that I allude to your coming to Scotland. Never again may you have such a favourable opportunity for making your promised visit. We have now a spare chamber to offer; but were it otherwise, we should contrive to accommodate you: for one can so easily make room for those one loves. Come, then, dearest—; come and try the air of Scotland … You shall go on with your pen as if you were at home. I shall go on with mine all the morning: from four till eleven the tongues shall be at work (Memoirs, 173)
Hamilton’s proposal that Benger join her in Scotland uses the language of romance, alluding to her love for Benger while suggesting a strict routine similar to that of the Ladies of Llangollen. Butler and Ponsonby’s daily routine was a critical part of their life at Plâs Newydd, and one which Hamilton would have been familiar with from her visit to Llangollen—to summarize, they rose at eight, occupied themselves with gardening, reading, painting, or learning languages from nine-thirty to three, then read together until nine (Mavor, 60). Hamilton’s proposal to Benger suggests that they work in the morning, receive friends at two, and read from seven to ten, usually aloud to each other (Memoirs, 173). Like Butler, Hamilton prioritizes time for her and Benger’s mutual intellectual pursuits, including reading aloud every night. Her imitation of the Llangollen model, whether deliberate or not, gestures to the common pursuit of intellectual edification in early nineteenth-century romantic friendships.
Unfortunately, Benger did not join Hamilton in Edinburgh; her mother may have been sick, or she may have simply established herself comfortably in London by this time. Instead, the two women maintained their correspondence across the ocean until Hamilton’s death approximately ten years later. Two years after Hamilton died, Benger published Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton (1818). In Memoirs, Benger pays tribute to her friend by extolling her benevolence and ability to “foster unprotected talent,” namely that of other women (137), including herself. Benger’s later acts of mentorship to authors like L.E.L. and Rosina Bulwer Lytton ("Benger", Orlando) demonstrate her appreciation for Hamilton’s mentorship. Her later-life project, a famously low-budget London salon, saw Benger “acting on a serious belief in the power of female patronage and female networking” ("Benger", Orlando), like her friend before her. As Benger nurtured Hamilton’s legacy with Memoirs, Lucy Aikin supported Benger’s posthumous legacy by writing her obituary ("Benger", Orlando). Hamilton, Benger, and Aikin’s support for each other’s posthumous reputations are notable because they were all single women who did not have family to preserve their legacies for them. Romantic friendship, therefore, might compensate for the lack of filial support to an unmarried writer’s posthumous legacy.
Harriet Bowdler and Elizabeth Smith’s friendship may extend our understanding of romantic friendship’s function as a form of intellectual support to acts of mentorship. In addition to Bowdler’s romantic attachments to Butler and Ponsonby, the Ladies’ biographer suggests that Bowdler harboured “[t]he tenderest” feelings for her pupil, the scholar and translator Elizabeth Smith (1776–1806) (Mavor, 98). Bowdler and Smith’s relationship bears striking similarities to both the Butler/Ponsonby and Hamilton/Benger friendships. First, they were all separated by a substantial age difference ranging from sixteen years apart (Ponsonby/Butler) to twenty-six years apart (Smith/Bowdler). Second, they all resemble mentorships, though Bowdler and Smith especially—Bowdler later recounted meeting Smith and her family in the summer of 1789, when Smith was only thirteen yet displayed “many proofs of uncommon talents” (2, Fragments). When Bowdler hosted the family shortly after, “she instructed Elizabeth in a course of ancient and modern history, English literature, religious studies, and astronomy”; the story of Bowdler mastering Greek and Hebrew inspired Smith to do the same to forward her study of the Bible ("Smith", Orlando). Like Bowdler, Butler met Ponsonby when Ponsonby was thirteen years old, though Butler herself was twenty-nine. On this account, all three pairs, Butler/Ponsonby, Benger/Hamilton, and Bowdler/Smith, connected through a mutual love of literature and support for each other’s intellectual pursuits.
Bowdler and Smith’s friendship also carried over into posthumous acts of memoriam. Although Smith was well-known as an intellectual during her lifetime and circulated some work in manuscript, her publishing career effectively began after her early death at age thirty. Two years after Smith’s death, Bowdler published her compilation of Smith’s Fragments, in Prose and Verse (1808), which is this paper’s primary source for information about their friendship. Fragments went through multiple editions in England and Ireland. Later that same year, Bowdler organized the posthumous publication of Bowdler’s English translation of the Memoirs of Frederick and Margaret Klopstock (1808). Smith and Bowdler’s romantic friendship functioned not only as an intimate form of mentorship, then, but as a kind of literary agency for Smith’s posthumous work.
It is worth noting that when Benger published her translation of the Klopstock’s memoir in 1814, she noted on the title page that she intended the volume as a sequel to Smith’s translation ("Benger", Orlando). This connection is far from the only link between Benger, Hamilton, Bowdler, and Smith, and the Ladies of Llangollen. In early 1802, Bowdler and Smith visited Coniston, where Bowdler introduced Smith and Hamilton ("Smith, Elizabeth", ODNB). During Hamilton’s travels with her sister later that year, after passing through Llangollen, they traveled to the Lakes, where they stayed with Smith and her family ("Smith", Orlando). Bowdler also praised the work of Hamilton and Benger in her posthumously published novel Pen Tamar; or, the History of an Old Maid (1830) ("Bowdler", Orlando). Smith met the Ladies of Llangollen herself when en route to Ireland with her mother in 1796. They received an invitation directly from Butler and Ponsonby, likely based on Bowdler’s numerous accounts of Smith’s talents and financial hardships (Mavor, 98). After the visit, Smith wrote an excited and laudatory letter to Bowdler that unfortunately does not survive (Fragments, 51–52). However, a letter that Smith wrote to another friend before departing for Llangollen gestures to her preemptive affinity for the Ladies (Fragments, 49).
In the course of this research, many other connections to Upcott’s “Eminent Women” have also come to light: Lady Caroline Lamb was Sarah Ponsonby’s second cousin and a frequent guest at Benger’s literary salon ("Benger", Orlando); the Smith family lived at Ballitore for nine months, where Smith became friends with Mary Leadbeater ("Smith", Orlando); Hamilton was a close friend of Maria Edgeworth ("Hamilton", Orlando)… I could go on. All the same, what the four eminent women (and their friends) that we surveyed reveal is not only the deep interconnectedness of Romantic-era literary women but the ways their affection for one another supported their cultural production and posthumous reputations.
Given that the Ladies of Llangollen were not publishing writers, this takeaway surprised me. I suppose, in answer to one of my initial questions, I expected to find that the Ladies influenced other women to take up retirement and private study. So they may have, but many pairs, in bringing these values to the public sphere, fostered a larger, more influential community of intellectual women than Butler and Ponsonby were capable of doing in their isolation. This research suggests that individual connections between women like Benger and Hamilton, and Bowdler and Smith, in addition to romantic friendships as a phenomenon, merit further study as mentorship and legacy work. The beauty of Upcott’s album resides in its ability to prompt these conversations about women writers as a group, uniting fractured histories that traditional eighteenth-century scholars might otherwise dismiss as insignificant.
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