French travellers visit the Ladies of Llangollen
at Plas Newydd
by HEATHER WILLIAMS
The Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831), were famous for their Francophilia, among other things, and they were known to welcome French visitors to their home at Plas Newydd.
||Poor Louis Simond, a Frenchman who had lived in America for twenty years before making his tour of Britain with his English wife, discovered this fact rather too late, as he recounts in his travelogue, Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the Years 1810 to 1811, by a French Traveller (Edinburgh, 1815), which he quickly translated into French as Voyage d’un Français en Angleterre pendant les années 1810 et 1811 (Paris, 1816).
On arrival in Llangollen they sent a note requesting permission to visit Plas Newydd, making the mistake of announcing themselves as American travellers. But the ladies were cruel: ‘Les belles dames se sont montrées cruelles’ and they refused. Later on back at the inn Simond’s landlady remarked that they would probably have been let in if only the ladies had known that they spoke French:
‘La maîtresse à l’auberge, qui probablement nous avait entendu parler français, a remarqué que ces dames aimaient la langue française, et que si elles eussent su que nous la parlions, nous aurions été admis. L’avis était venu trop tard.’ (pp. 320-321)
Basile-Joseph Ducos (1767-1836) had more luck when he visited in 1826, and describes his guided tour of their property in his travelogue Itinéraire et souvenirs d’Angleterre et d’Écosse 1814-1826, vol 4 (1834):
‘Nous avions fait demander la permission de visiter leur domaine où elles accueillent volontiers les Français. Une pente douce y conduit. Nous y sommes arrivés par un chemin ombragé, sinueux, charmant. La maison n’est qu’une chaumière ornée. Des sculptures gothiques tant soit peu prétensieuses, surchargent la porte et les fenêters qui sont cintrées en ogive. La bibliothèque est éclairée par des vitraux coloriés. Une rotonde sert de laiterie. L’ordre, l’arrangement, les soins les plus minutieux se montrent partout, dans ce modeste ménage dont lady Élénora nous a fait gracieusement les honneurs. Il nous restait à voir les jardins. Leur étendue est médiocre, mais il y a tant d’art dans le dessin des sentiers qui les parcourent, que nulle part on n’en aperçoit les limites. Un point de vue est-il ingrat? Des massifs le dérobent. Aux endroits d’où l’on domine la rivière, les ravins, hérissés de rochers menaçans, les aspects romantiques de la contrée, des percées s’ouvrent et permettent de porter au loin les regards. Quelquefois on rencontre un berceau de feuillage et de fleurs. Là se trouve un banc confident muet des plus tendres épanchemens. Peut-être attend-il les deux causeuses. Craignons de nous rendre importuns, malgré les aimables propos de notre vieille cicérone. Aussi bien sommes-nous loin de la couchée que nous nous sommes prescrite.’, pp. 190-191.
[We had asked permission to visit their property where they are keen to welcome the French. A slight slope leads to it. We arrived there by way of a shaded, winding, charming route. The house is just a decorated cottage. Some slightly pretentious Gothic sculptures weigh down the door and windows with their pointed arches. The library is lit by stained-glass windows. A rotunda serves as dairy. Order, tidiness and attention to detail are to be seen everywhere in this modest household that Lady Eleanor graciously showed us around. The next thing was for us to see the gardens. Though their surface area is not great, there is such art in the design of the paths that run through them that there is no position from which their limits can be seen. Any view that is found unattractive is screened by banks of planting. From the parts that overlook the river, the ravines, studded with threatening rocks, the romantic aspects of the land, vistas open up and guide the gaze into the distance. Here and there are bowers of foliage and flowers, a bench, discreet confidant of the most tender of effusions. Perhaps it awaits the two lady conversers. We’re afraid of getting in the way, despite the kind words of our aged guide. Also we’re a long way from the accommodation that we had arranged.]
One French visitor who would surely have received a warm welcome was Louis Antoine Philippe d’Orléans, duc de Montpensier (1775-1807), the son of Louis Philippe (known as Philippe Égalité) and younger brother of Louis Philippe who became King in 1830. Montpensier was living in exile in Twickenham on account of what the Ladies referred to in their letters and diaries as ‘the horrors in France’, and came to Wales in summer 1806 in order to sketch the landscape and to console himself that his family had forbidden him to travel to Scotland to visit Elizabeth Forbes, with whom he was in love. He chronicled his travels in Wales in a series of letters addressed to Elizabeth’s mother, but intended for her: Correspondence to Mrs Forbes, Seaton House, Aberdeen MS 2358 University of Aberdeen. Wearied by so many society functions in Twickenham and London, he writes on the 20th September that he had intended to make just one visit in Wales, but abandons even that plan in order to avoid the risk of further engagements:
‘The only [visit] I had an idea and intention to pay was to the female hermits of Langollen, but having heard of some races taking place under the management of Sir W.W. Wynne, just in their neighbourhood, and at the very time I meant to call upon them, I gave up even that, knowing that it would have been very difficult for me in that case to disentangle myself from Sir Watkin’s kind invitation.’
Their most famous French visitor was novelist and educationalist Madame de Genlis (1746-1830), who was also in exile because of the Revolution. She describes her visit in her Mémoires inédits de Madame la Comtesse de Genlis, published over a quarter of a century later in 1825 (with an English translation – Memoirs of the Countess of Genlis – appearing in the same year), complimenting the Plas Newydd library: ‘très-belle’( p. 349), and the ladies’ French: ‘elles parloient français avec autant de facilité que de pureté’ (p. 348).
If you know of other French visits or near misses, I’d love to hear from you! [Heather can be contacted via her own website, or email her at:
h [dot] williams [at] cymru [dot] ac [dot] uk]
Heather’s research was undertaken as part of an AHRC-funded project http://etw.bangor.ac.uk.