Harland: Where Ghosts Walk

Marion HARLAND, Where Ghosts Walk: The Haunts of Familiar Characters
in History and Literature (second series: 1912).



In a locked drawer of my library is an old manuscript book bound in soft calfskin, the hall-mark of the “Edition de Luxe” of the eighteenth century. The pages, sallowed by the century-and-a-quarter that have made them tender to the touch, are covered with characters, small, but as clear as copperplate and distinct, although faded to a leaf-brown. One hundred and fifty letters, carefully numbered, were here transcribed by the man who wrote the originals to a woman whom he knew from her girlhood. He married her sister. Through the stilted platonics of the numbered epistles, it is plain to this one of his correspondent’s descendants that he should have wedded the younger of the two girls.

[32] Why he did not has nothing to do with the story I have in hand to-day. The title of the manuscript volume has been in my thoughts since I entered the doors of a house more venerable than the copied letters. ­


is stamped deep in gold letters upon the soft calfskin. The inscription was the man’s device. After forty years of wedlock with the Other Sister, it is probable that he was honest in belief and intention. That was a sentimental age in which he lived with his lawfully-wedded wife on one side of the Atlantic, while The Ladies of Llangollen illustrated Friendship Perpetuated on the other.

Careful sifting of traditions and contemporary printed gossip enables us to get a tolerably correct outline of the circumstances which brought about an intimacy without precedent or parallel in feminine biography.

            In 1769 or 1770, Sarah Ponsonby, a [see figure: Ladies in Riding Habits] [33] girl of seventeen, the daughter of an “Honourable,” was placed at school in Kilkenny during the absence of her parents in Italy, whither they had gone for the mother’s health. The Butlers of Garryicken, a fine old estate within easy calling distance of Kilkenny, were friends of the Ponsonbys, and Sarah was commended to the maternal oversight of Mrs. Butler. She spent Sundays and holidays at Garryicken, and fell violently in love with the eldest daughter of the house – Miss (afterward Lady) Eleanor Charlotte Butler, then thirty-three years of age. The attachment was reciprocated so ardently that the two resolved before the return of the travellers to devote their lives to one another, and, “forsaking all others, to cling to each other alone until death should part them.”  Even in the age when Laura Matilda and Lydia Languish set the pace for young women of fashion and sensibility, the absorbing devotion of the friends, in no wise chilled by the cold fact that their [34] birthdays were sixteen years apart, met with no sympathy from their relatives. So pronounced was Mrs. Butler’s contemptuous opposition that the fond pair planned an elopement. Lady Betty Fownes, Lady Eleanor’s aunt, invited them to her country seat of Woodstock, County Kilkenny, and they seized upon the opportunity of making their escape from tyrannical kinspeople. It is not likely that the house-door was locked, but the twain let themselves down, in true dramatic fashion, from an upper window. The descent was accomplished in safety; in the attempt to scale the park wall one of the fugitives – one account says Miss Ponsonby, another Miss Butler – fell and sprained her knee so severely that they were forced to return ignominiously.

The lovers were separated for several years, absence making both hearts grow fonder. Now and then, a note in Lady Eleanor’s diary testifies to this – as, when she speaks of a brother of Miss Ponsonby, whom she has met casually, [35] as the “brother of the most perfect thing on earth.”

Why they should have elected to run away from home and kindred when one was forty-odd, and the other twenty-two, and her own mistress, is enigmatical in a law-abiding age. That a second elopement was planned appears from a note in a private letter written by a member of the Butler clan to a friend:

“The runaways are caught! My mother has gone to Waterford for them, and we expect to see them here [Woodstock] to-night.”

A postscript, added after the return, says, wonderingly, “They do not appear in the least ashamed of themselves!”

Finally, an entry in the diary of another kinswoman announces that “Eleanor and Miss Ponsonby set out in a chaise at early dawn, as many as possible, taking with them one Mary Carryl, a well-known character in the neighbouring village of Mestioge.”

This is our introduction to the faithful [36] follower who sleeps beside her mistresses in the old Llangollen churchyard after thirty years of devoted service. Her nickname in the village from which the ladies took her was “Molly the Bruiser.” How she earned it we are not told. She accompanied them to what was then considered the wilds of North Wales. We have pitched our moving tent for a few days in the ancient hostelry that was their abiding-place while they cast about for a permanent home. “The Hand” (named from a tradition connecting it with a tragic incident in the history of Chirk Castle in the neighbourhood) had then, as it has now, an enviable reputation for good living and hospitality. In situation, it is unsurpassed for beauty and healthfulness.

            Less than half a mile from the inn, in the very heart of the loveliest valley of picturesque Wales – walled in from the world the recluses had renounced for the solitude à deux for which they had pined for nearly a decade – stood a cottage of [see figure: Mary Carryl] [37] modest proportions, surrounded by a few acres of arable land and backed by a wood. Mary Carryl must have husbanded her savings judiciously, for the purchase of cottage and grounds was made in her name, and for long she was their only servant.

Maria Edgeworth, English by birth, and Irish by residence and in heart, satirised the Ladies of Llangollen in her Moral Tales, published in 1801. Her story of “Angelina, or L’Amie Inconnue,” is founded upon such rumours of the elopement as had reached her in Ireland. She followed the real story in making one of the enamoured pair much older than the girl she bewitched into quitting friends and setting conventionality at defiance, and in giving mountainous Wales as the goal of their flight. The moral of the Tale fails utterly when one compares Angelina’s disappointment and penitent return to her guardians with the actual denouement of the comedy, the first acts of which I have reviewed.

[38] For awhile, the coveted solitude à deux would seem to have satisfied them. They had no neighbours of their own rank, and Wales was as little known to their former associates as Darkest Africa to the average twentieth-century fashionist.

One chronicler writes of the few years immediately succeeding the induction into “the cottage near a wood”:

“For some years they led secluded lives, entirely wrapped up in each other. They created no sensation in the neighbourhood except by their kindness and charity. They were respected by the Welsh, and their characters were summed up with shrewdness by a Mrs. Morris in the following antithesis: ‘I must say, sir, after all, they was very charitable and cantankerous. They did a deal of good, and never forgave an injury!’

“By degrees,” pursues our chronicler, “as their retreat became known, they were drawn into correspondence with their Irish connections and friends. The [39] romance of their lives grew with time. Their long solitude was part of the romance, and when, later on, it was discovered that these two quiet ladies were, the one, a sister, and the other, a grandniece of two Earls, they awoke to find themselves famous.”

Theirs was not an indolent seclusion. They remodelled the house and laid out the grounds in accordance with directions printed by celebrated landscape gardeners of a day when picturesque gardening was a fad with refined landowners.

“Although the farm had only thirteen acres of land, they employed a carpenter, a cowman, a man for all work on the farm; and, in the hay-harvest, an additional number of men and poor women, with two ladies’ maids and three female servants in the house.”

Lady Eleanor was “the man of the concern,” to borrow an expressive Americanism. Her account-books are entertaining reading, and give us more correct [40] and clearer views of their daily living than any of the various narratives that have been printed of the Two Eccentrics. They are written in a minute, but legible, hand; and contain notes of all expenses incurred by the two, from the purchase of gowns, in which they were to attend balls, down to beer from “The Hand,” condemned once as “very bad.”

The noble book-keeper always refers to her younger mate as “My Beloved,” or, for brevity’s sake, as “My B.,” which meant the same thing.

From a record belonging to the present proprietor of Plas Newydd (thus the named the cottage that grew into the mansion in which we are graciously permitted to stray and dream, on this perfect summer noon) I copy a page from the diary that has for me exquisite flavour. It lingers with one as the sweetness of clover-honey on the tongue. Yet it is simple to homeliness:

New Year’s Day.

            “When all was in order, we admired [see figure: Plas Newydd] [41] the perfect neatness and regularity with which we had adjusted our little matters; all the account-books and journals in one large drawer; letters from friends, poems, essays, and odd things in another, and our answers in a third. In one press, four large bundles of newspapers; waste paper with twine for packing; old almanacs, plays and poems in another press. The few medicines we are possessed of, for our poorer neighbours; powder, pomatum, elderflower water; orangeflower water; bottle of essence of violets; black and white paint and brushes for repeating labels in the garden; paste brush for mounting drawings, and gluepot.

“Then we sat in converse sweet, then read, –and thus closed this day of sweet and blessed retirement.”

Friendship Perpetuated should not, perhaps, be so marvellous a thing in this world of ours, that we should query whether or not these women ever wearied of each other in the “blessed retirement.” [42] In the half-century of their residence at Plas Newydd they never slept for one night under any roof except their own. Newspapers and private letters kept them advised of what was astir in the sphere from which they had voluntarily exiled themselves for all time. How lively was their interest in happenings in which they had no part, we learn from the reports of pilgrims to Friendship’s Shrine. Among the throngs who paid their respects to the mistresses of the now beautiful “cottage,” was Madame de Genlis, who frankly confesses that she was drawn thither by curiosity to see two women “who had long been united by the bonds of genuine friendship.” She was accom­panied in her visit by her pupil, Mademoiselle d’Orléans, and bore a letter of introduction from Lord Castlereagh.

“We were received” – she says, “with a grace a cordiality and kindness of which it would be impossible for me to give any idea. I could not turn my eyes from those two ladies, rendered so interesting [43] by their friendship, and so extraordinary on account of their way of life. . . . After living so many years in this sequestered retreat, they speak French with equal fluency and purity. An excellent library, composed of the best English, French, and Italian authors, affords them an inexhaustible source of diversified amusement and solid occupation.”

She remarks upon Miss Ponsonby’s skill with pencil and brush, and Lady Eleanor’s proficiency in music, and points out, as a matter of congratulation, that “so much merit is secured in this peaceful retreat from the shafts of satire and envy.”

“I was much struck with the little resemblance between them. Lady Eleanor has a charming face, embellished with the glow of health. Her whole appearance and manner announce vivacity and the most unaffected gaiety. Miss Ponsonby has a fine countenance, but pale and melancholy. . . You might [44] suppose that she still cherishes some painful regrets.”

If she did, we may be sure that the leading spirit of the household never suspected it.

Most of the pilgrims to Plas Newydd took up the same strain of panegyric. It is however amusing, if not edifying, to observe that “so much merit,” joined to hospitality unfeigned, and personal gifts, were not an impervious shield against “the shafts of satire.” Certain graceless wits and irreverent scribblers had their fling at what one of them patronisingly styles “the amiable Eccentrics of Llangollen.” One of the least responsible and most flippant rattles on in this fashion:

            “At Llangollen, our Irish grandees left us, stopping there to pay their respects to the two Ladies, their country-women, of whom everybody has heard, who came there professedly for retirement, yet whose cottage, situated on the roadside, is literally a house of call to all [see figure: The Ladies of Llangollen in their Library] [45] who travel to and from the dear country, as well as for all curious and impertinent pedestrian tourists, female novel writers, and maudlin poetesses.”

Leaving us to guess in which category he puts himself by the outbreak that smacks suspiciously of personal pique, he comments upon the style of conversation introduced by the predatory horde into the placid refinement of the Retreat:

“These visitors talk of the parks and lodges of their fathers and uncles; the beauty of their mothers and aunts, and their alliance to half the peerage of the United Kingdom; of fighting duels in sawpits; of Curran’s eloquence; of the Lake of Killarney; the Irish pipes; bogwood; Dublin Bay herrings; the clearness of the Liffey and whiskey punch.”

The list is like the skirl of bagpipes drowning the “wind-weird melody produced by the Æolian harp,” placed in the window of Madame de Genlis. She calls the abode of the recluses “the delicious cottage of North Wales.” Lady [46] Eleanor uses the same adjective in recounting the incidents of one of the excursions they were sometimes persuaded to make into comparatively gay life:

“After dinner, Miss Webb played divinely on the harpsichord and acted a scene in Percy” [Hannah More’s popular drama] “then, in Douglas and Jane Shore so finely – such a voice, such gesticulation, a countenance so animated, so lovely, and every movement so graceful that every person in company burst into tears! At eleven we took leave. At half-past one, we arrived at our delicious abode.”

The journal of another day is yet more amazing, when one considers that the elder of the pleasure-seekers was now nearer seventy than sixty years of age, and her “Beloved” over fifty. Lady Eleanor writes zestfully of the visit to the Bishop of St. Asaph’s, the incumbent of the venerable see founded by a Father of the Church in 500 A.D.

[47] “We arose at four A.M.; Holiday, the Chester hairdresser, dressed our Hair. Went in the ‘Hand’ chaise-and-four, and reached Ruthin at seven. Did not get out while the horses rested. Reached the Palace at half-past nine. Received at the hall-door by that most benevolent and reverend of prelates in his gown and black velvet nightcap, and Mrs. Shipley and her two sweet daughters who all exclaimed at our expedition. Breakfast ready; then to Cathedral. Very fine purple velvet and gold curtains. Arrived at home at two.”

She should have been the artist, instead of gentle, pensive Sarah Ponsonby. There is not a meaningless stroke in her sketch. The bestirment of the orderly household at the peep of day; the solemn dressing of the two heads at the hands of the artist, kept in the house overnight that he might be punctual to the minute; the rumble of the hired chaise-and-four out of the court-yard, postilions in livery on the leaders; the halt at the relay [48] house, and the seclusion of the stately gentlewomen, in full dress and towering headpieces, behind the closed windows of the carriage while the horses were rubbed down and “rested”; the arrival, in the still sweetness of the young day, at the palace; the cordial welcome of the family, headed by the prelate in dressing-gown and nightcap, and the flattering admiration expressed of the courage displayed in the “expedition”; the touch of provincial wonder at the gorgeous trappings of the sanctuary – she gives it all to us in a few lines. We feel sure that the record was penned that same afternoon before the “delicious” thrills excited by the “lark” left pulse and nerves to their habitual tranquillity.

Molly the Bruiser had long ago been promoted to the dignity of housekeeper. She was “Mrs. Mary Carryl,” and a power in the home. All the same, Lady Eleanor never relaxed her watchfulness of domestic incomings and outgoings. Her expense-books were kept as carefully [49] after legacies and inheritance increased modest means to wealth, as when the daily living of the household depended upon the pensions granted to her and her “Beloved,” and Mary Carryl’s economies made up what was lacking. Some of these entries throw light upon the quality of their associates that dis­counts the slurring summary quoted just now.

“Eels and Trouts for Mrs. Piozzi; Pair of Turkies – expectation of Miss Seward” (a then popular author); “Veal – expectation of Dean of Orrery,” are jotted down, not far from mention of a visit from Lady Duncannon and her grandson, Arthur Wellesley – “a charming young man, handsome-fashioned, tall and elegant.”

The acquaintance with the promising young man ripened into friendship. The Duke of Wellington was as freely at home at Plas Newydd as had been Arthur Wellesley. The richly carved mantel, to which I raise my eyes from [50] the faded entries in the Diary, was his gift after, he had conquered Napoleon. The orders kept under glass, in such a showcase as one sees in jewellers’ shops, were given to the “Ladies” by royal personages and divers other dignitaries. The Duke of Orleans, when a refugee in England in 1789, knew and visited the “Eccentrics,” and, we are told, presented Lady Eleanor with several French orders. She was proud of them and wore them on state occasions later in life. A chronicler remarks slyly, and none too respectfully:

“We may picture to ourselves those Orders and that of the Harp and Crown of Ireland, all displayed with a light blue ribbon on the dignified breast of Lady Eleanor; but when, through her imperfect vision, they became coated with melted butter and hair-powder, the sight must have been comical.”

Bishop Heber had just written “From Greenland’s icy mountains,” and was on the eve of departure for “India’s [51] coral strand,” to receive there the bishopric of Calcutta, when he paid the last of several visits to Plas Newydd. Sir Walter Scott was another guest. His son-in-law biographer says of the visit, paid in 1825, –and somewhat equivocally:

“We had read histories and descriptions enough of those romantic spinsters, and were prepared to be well amused; but the reality surpassed all expectation.”

He adds that Sir Walter was impressed by Miss Ponsonby’s beautiful handwriting, and praised it to the venerable spinster.

In the same year (1825), Hon. George Canning, then Secretary for Foreign Affairs, wrote to Lady Eleanor that his daughter, Lady Clanricarde, “is setting out for a visit to Wales, and looks forward to the pleasure of being presented to the Ladies of Llangollen.

“Mr. Canning wishes that he were to be of the party, instead of reassuming, about the same time, the toils of the House of Commons. He has, however, [52] a selfish reason for calling himself, at this moment, to the Ladies’ recollection. They insisted that he should find some occasion for profiting by their kind offer of a specimen of Llangollen mutton. Now, he knows no more worthy occasion likely to occur in the whole year than that of the celebration of the King’s birthday, which takes place on Saturday, 23d, on which day Mr. Canning entertains the Foreign Ministers.

“His addresss is– ‘Foreign Office,’ for mutton, as well as for letters!”

Sir Humphrey Davy, William Wilberforce, the poet Southey, Edmund Burke, William Wordsworth, and Lords and Ladies innumerable, paid their respects to the now distinguished friends, and, as a German prince, who visited them in 1828, tells us– “There is scarcely a remarkable person of the last half-century who has not sent them a portrait, or some curiosity, or some remains of ancient art, as a token of remembrance.” Some of these tokens were [53] very valuable. We have looked them over this morning with keen – sometimes amused – interest.

For, it cannot be denied that, in spite of the romantic flavour that surrounds and informs their history, through and through, and the undoubted fact that they were gentlewomen of rare accomplishments – the wonder grows as we read, and hear, and inspect their home: –What drew the fashionable world, with men of letters, artists, and foreign tourists, to this corner of North Wales, throughout that half-century?

Our German prince describes them as “peculiar in appearance, but quite up-to-date in their refined and elegant manners.” He was much struck with “the genuine and unaffected attention paid by Miss Ponsonby to her older friend.”

Lady Eleanor was now in her ninetieth year.

The celebrated comedian Charles Matthews, then at the height of his fame, enlightens us further upon a point [54] touched lightly by the gallant German. Perhaps because Lady Eleanor had been a famous rider in earlier life, fond of fox-hunting and other masculine amusements, the two adopted, soon after their flight into Wales, and never laid aside, a costume resembling Irish riding-habits, including the high hats then worn – and indeed, late into the forties – by women equestrians. The hats were always in the latest style of men’s head-gear, and ordered from the most fashionable hatter in London.

Matthews’s reputation had, of course, reached Plas Newydd, and, learning that he was to play in the theatre at Oswestry, twelve miles distant from Llangollen, the Ladies determined to see him. This was in 1820, Lady Eleanor being over eighty, and her “Beloved” sixty-five. They had their own carriage and did not send for the “Hand” chaise and four. They were driven over the mountain roads in season to take their places in the playhouse before the curtain rose. Matthews writes to a friend [55] of the superiority of the entertainment he had at sight of these spectators to any diversion his acting would have afforded them.

“I was highly flattered,” he confesses, “as they had never been in the theatre before. They looked like two superannuated clergymen. As they are seated, there is not one point to distinguish them from men: the dresses and powdering of the hair, their well-starched neck-cloths; the upper parts of their habits (which they always wear, even at a dinner-party) made precisely like men’s coats, with regular black beaver hats – everything contributing to this semblance. To crown all, they had crop heads, which were rough, bushy, and white as snow.”

He informs his correspondent, in an ecstasy of glee, that he was so shaken by inward laughter at the unexpected sight that he could scarcely get through his part in the play.

A while later, he writes to the same confidante:

[56] “I have to-day received an invitation to call on the dear old gentlemen called “Lady Butler” and “Miss Ponsonby.” [”]

In a third epistle, dated October 20, 1820, we have a still more graphic sketch from the facile pen of the wit:

“I mentioned to you in a former letter the effect they produced upon me in public, but never shall I forget the first burst yesterday, upon entering the drawing-room, to find the ante-diluvian darlings attired for dinner in the same manified dress, with the Croix de Saint Louis, and other orders, with myriads of large brooches with stones large enough for snuff-boxes, stuck in their starched neck-cloths.

“They returned home, fourteen miles, after midnight. They have not slept from home for more than forty years.”

“Great Scott! but they must have been a holy show!” interpolates Young America, who has been reading the record over my shoulder, and whom I, forthwith, order, in part punishment [57] for the graceless speech, to copy the extract, and to transfer other items from the Expense-book to my portfolio. He grins more widely in transcribing that in which I descry a pathetic strain, in view of the character and surroundings of the mourners over the respective poodles, terriers, and cats here registered:

“Our precious and never-to-be-for­gotten Loup’s last expenses – four shil­lings, sixpence.

“Expenses attending the impassable and unlamented death of our dearest Crell – eightpence.

“The whole expenses of poor little Tippet’s life and death – sixpence.

“Shaving Christian” (presumably a poodle) – sixpence.

“Poor Tatters – aged 18, buried this morning – one shilling.

“To Simon, for placing our beautiful Tommy by his poor mother – sixpence.

“To Simon and William Jones, for saving the life of a Hedge-hog – sixpence.

“To Simon for bringing poor, poor [58] Brandy’s body and burying it – one shilling.”

Even “the boys” do not laugh at entries which prove the steadfastness of the attachment between the third of the Irish exiles and her nominal mistresses:

“Fowls for Mary’s intended supper next Monday – two shillings.

“Cards and Lemons for Mary’s guests – ale and rum for the supper – eight shillings, sixpence.

“Box of Pills for Mary – four shillings, sixpence.

“To Wrexham for Mary’s Rheumatic side – one shilling, sixpence.”

Titled visitors wrote of “Mistress Mary,” and desired that she should be assured of their “best wishes.”

In sharing and abetting the flight of her “great ally, the lively Miss Ponsonby,” to whom she was especially devoted, she had cut loose from native land and kindred.

“Few and far between were the letters she despatched, and those were apparently [59] trusted to some friend to deliver. Both Lady Eleanor and Miss Ponsonby had a great regard for her. She, seemingly, was the one who did all the marketing and anything that required a little diplomacy. Now and then, she was fêted and petted, and sent to spend the day at Brynkinallt and other places.”

Tokens of these kindly acts crop up in the “account-book”:

“Dick Morris, driving Mary to and from Brynkinallt – two shillings, sixpence.

“Mrs. Salter – five shillings for repairing Mary’s watch.

“Mary’s expenses to Chirk Castle – three shillings, sixpence.” .

Her tombstone in Llangollen churchyard shows that she was the first to leave the home her savings had bought, and her industry had helped to beautify. She left her later savings to “her first friend, Sarah Ponsonby,” if she survived her. If not, to Lady Eleanor.

A clause that has in it an intimation of sarcastic significance, directs that her [60] mother is to have five pounds, “if living,” and each of her brothers and sisters one shilling apiece – “if they shall come and demand it of her executrices.” These were her late employers and staunch friends.

The monument “erected by Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby at Plas Newydd in this Parish,” is three-sided, in evident anticipation of the time when the trio so long and closely united in life should sleep together in death. The inscription, “In Memory of Mrs. Mary Carryl,” composed by one or both of her grateful survivors, extols her virtues in life and speaks of her Christian resig­nation in death:

Patient, industrious, faithful, generous, kind,

Her conduct left the proudest far behind;

Her virtues dignified her humble birth,

And raised her mind above this sordid earth.

Attachment (sacred bond of grateful breasts!)

Extinguished but with life, this tomb attests.

Reared by two friends who will her loss bemoan,

Till with her ashes here shall rest their own.

[61] Young faces grow grave, and laughing voices are tender, as we look at a picture of the faithful servant. It is grotesque in itself. Mary is in the exact centre of her kitchen; the ponderous bunch of keys, her insignia of office, hangs from the hands joined over her white apron; she is planted squarely upon a pair of trimly-shod feet; her cap is reared aloft upon a roll of white hair. A saucepan simmers on the hob; a flower-pot is in the latticed window; a dog and a cat – perhaps “Tatters” and “Loup” – are cheek by jowl upon the hearth; another and bigger cat, maybe “our dearest Crell,” occupies a bench in the background. Mary was no beauty, yet her smiling mouth and earnest eyes may have made her comely to those who knew her best.

Irrepressible Young America comes to the front again:

“Look at the wrists and the hands of her! You can understand why she was ‘Molly the Bruiser!’  To my way of [62] thinking, she is the most interesting of the Eccentrics!”

We come back to that word all the time. Another – a woman’s voice – says tentatively, almost timidly:


We stand in the rooms they furnished and lived in; the rooms in which they held court; where peers and peeresses sued to be “presented” to the twain whose fantastic appearance moved the prince of nineteenth century comedians to mirth that was well-nigh “inextinguishable”:

I answer confidently –“Who, at any rate, believed in themselves!”

How seriously they took themselves, and how whole-souled was their enjoyment of their career, is evident in every feature of the homestead and grounds.

The second inscription on the monument we went to see this morning, in the yard of the church where the Ladies worshipped for half a century, records the death of Lady Eleanor in 1829. “Her [63] Beloved” wrote the epitaph. The last clause runs thus:

“Her various perfections, crowned by the most pious and cheerful submission to the Divine Will, can only be appreciated where it is humbly believed they are now enjoying their Eternal Reward, and by her, of whom for more than fifty years, they constituted that happiness which, through our blessed Redeemer, she trusts will be renewed when THIS TOMB shall have closed over its latest tenant.

Sorrow not as others who have no hope.

We make one more transcript from the biography before us:

“After the death of Lady Eleanor, Miss Ponsonby felt very desolate and heart-broken – making frequent visits to the grave of her ‘precious, precious friend.’ Toward the end of the year 1831 she became very feeble, and died on the 9th of December.”

The epitaph set above her was prepared by the vicar of the church close [64] to the “Hand” inn. The first passages stand thus:


Departed this life on the 9th December


Aged 76

            “She did not long survive her beloved companion LADY ELEANOR BUTLER, with whom she had lived in this valley for more than half a century of uninterrupted friendship. “But they shall no more return to their house, neither shall their place know them any more.

Six months thereafter, the celebrated auctioneer, Mr. George Robins, offered for sale at auction on Monday, the 13th day of August, “at the Domicile so long hallowed as the abode of Friendship,”


appertaining to the residence and which for extent, variety and novelty, [see figure: Plas Newydd, Llangollen] [65] is certainly unexampled in the Annals of Auctions, it having been congregated by those highly talented Ladies, the fair MISTRESSES OF PLAS NEWYDD, during a series of 50 years, aided by their joint taste, and at considerable expense.”

Pages of italics and towering capitals set forth the riches of the mansion. Nothing was omitted. Autograph letters of numerous “renowned personages, particularly one written by Charles the First from Whitehall during his confinement” ; a lock of Marie Stuart’s hair; rich and varied carvings; a sideboard of plate – dishes and covers, salvers, waiters, tea and coffee equipages; fine cameos; a library of books comprising many thousand volumes, elegantly bound, etcetera, etcetera.

The etceteras are mine, not the celebrated auctioneer’s. He made the best of curios collected from every quarter of the globe to beautify the wee corner consecrated to Friendship Perpetuated. [66] The cellar, stocked with rare wines and liquors, had honourable mention. A copy of the memoirs of the Duc de Montressor in scarlet morocco, was a gift to the Ladies from his Majesty the King of France, accompanied by an autograph letter asking their acceptance of the same in terms royalty might use to royalty.

The sale occupied seven days, and resulted in a grievous scattering of furniture and bric-a-brac.

Those were the dark ages of the historic spot. It was still, in a way, the showplace of the region. Catherine Sinclair, Scottish novelist and philanthropist, took in Plas Newydd in the course of a tour of Wales in 1833, a year after the auction, and spoke more slightingly of it than might have been expected of one whose works evince both sensibility and imagination.

“She saw in it little more than ‘a memento of two Ladies who, for more than half a century, had devoted their [67] long lives to friendship, celibacy, and the knitting of blue stockings!’ ”

She said one apt thing of the house which recurs to the memory of each of our little party in the passage from one “restored” room to another:

“The house is long and low – so completely cased in richly carved oak that it might be mistaken for an enormous wardrobe.”

The carvings are incredible and unaccountable, even after we are told by the pleasant-faced, sweet-voiced cicerone that certain portions were gifts from distinguished admirers, –for instance, the superb mantel bestowed by the Duke of Wellington, already mentioned, – and that the elaborately wrought stair-rail was put into the hall on the occasion of a visit from Queen Victoria. Another explanation of the antique and fine carved work decorating every room is that the ruined abbey of Valle Crucis, which we explored this forenoon, yielded up many valuable bits that were wisely [68] and not irreverently utilised in the embellishment of Friendship’s Shrine. It does not shock us to hear that this and that cornice, or panel, or doorway was originally a part of the abbey. The ruin was at the mercy of an ignorant peasantry who would as soon use altar-rail and rood-screen for firewood as to cut brushwood from the hedges to keep their huts warm in winter. Here the art-treasures were safe and appreciated.

“Plas Newydd,” we read, “was, in 1876, on the point of falling into the hands of a metropolitan firm of old carved-oak-dealers when it was purchased by the late General Yorke, C.B., a gentleman who had been intimately acquainted with the ladies in his Eton school-days. He thus saved the revered old domicile from being despoiled and ruined, filled the rooms with rare antiquities, and converted the grounds, so far as was practicable, to their former loveliness. . . . In 1878-79, the General added an extensive wing to the back of the [69] house; and just before his death, a lodge, which he styled ‘The Hermitage,’ was erected at the northwest point of the property. When, at the age of seventy-six, he died in 1890, he was succeeded by G. H. Robertston, Esq., of Liverpool, a well-known antiquary, who purchased the property.”

Mr. Robertson’s name had become most pleasantly familiar to us through the talk of residents of Llangollen, before the receipt of the courteous “permit” to see the wonderful house in person. The public at large no longer has the run of dwelling and grounds, as was the case for some years after he had secured, at great expense, all the relics of the Ladies to be found in the neighbourhood, and restored every room as nearly as possible to the aspect it wore when the distinguished Eccentrics reigned here. How admirably he has succeeded in the work would not be credited by those who have not been favoured, as are we, with a sight of the Welsh château. Lady Eleanor’s [70] bed is hung with the curtains that shut her in from wintry winds for forty-odd years, and the counterpane covering it was wrought by her fingers. In another room we have more of her embroidery in a pair of silk curtains that are beginning to give way under the weight of years – literally falling to pieces under the heavy work. The antique sideboards are laden with silver as ancient; treasures of fäience, cut-glass, bronze, and marble, the authenticity of which is undoubted, glitter and gleam before our dazed sight-dazed by the prodigality of the exhibition.

Well-meaning Wordsworth – reminiscent, amid the comparative affluence of Rydal Mount, of the beloved plain living and high thinking of Dove Cottage, where he cut up wood for the fire over which Dorothy was to cook the dinner – wrote, at the request of the Ladies, a poem commemorative of his visit to Plas Newydd. Oblivious of the lineage of the patrician dames, of whose withered hands Lady Eleanor would have said, [71]

Princes have lipped them trembling,

and all unmoved by the suite of elegant apartments through which he was led in state, the guileless Lake Poet began the lines with an apostrophe to

The low-roofed cot on Deva’s banks.

            “Deva” was the ancient name of the Dee, on the banks of which stands Llangollen. (See to it that you do not fail to pronounce it Langothlen!)

I hope – I am quite sure – that perfect breeding held the hostesses back from letting the luckless rhymester know that they resented the belittlement of their “delicious abode.” Other friends heard their complaint, and were diverted thereat.

Leaving what is a colossal casket of treasures, we are conducted by the interesting guide – a member of the household – through the spacious grounds. They remain as they were laid out by the exiles. Their passion for outdoor life was one of the causes of long lives [72] and continued activities that made them a benefaction to their poorer neighbours, a perpetual source of wonder to those of their own rank. Strolling through a wood flanking the gardens, we cross a rustic bridge to a grottoed fountain, seen in the picture of the Ladies with which we are most familiar. Upon the rising ground beyond the purling stream is a summer-house, completely embowered by the wood, where the pair loved to sit with books and work. The practical member of the party opines shrewdly that “they could have had no rheumatic tendencies, or they would have chosen a drier spot.” We find the green glooms slightly chill in the very heart of the August day. Yet, somehow, the shades of the friends are more like real people here than in the luxuriously appointed dwelling. Miss Ponsonby was the taller, albeit the junior and the more dependent of the two. But we hear how, when age bowed Lady Eleanor’s figure into absolute dwarfishness [73], her “Beloved” became the protector and support of her to whom she had looked up and deferred since the school-girl cast in her lot with the fascinating, strong-willed woman of the world, who was sixteen years older than herself.

We bring away with us a copy of the one really authentic picture of the Ladies – if we except, possibly, that to which I referred just now. They sit at the library-table over there, just where they were posed by the artist, a personal friend who always condemned the outdoor picture. The costume is identically that described by Matthews between his bursts of inextinguishable laughter. We take upon trust the tale that Lady Eleanor was a beauty and a belle in her early womanhood, and Sarah Ponsonby more than pretty. A sigh gets the better of the smile with which we survey the bowed forms, the whitened hair, the flaccid lines of the faces.

As we bid our kindly cicerone Good-[74]bye, “ and accept an armful of memorial ivies from the head gardener; –and as we enter our carriage and are driven back to our cozy quarters at the “Hand,” – our minds are busy with one question:

Is human friendship – the love of one good woman for another, of a strain so fine and true as to outlast a half-century of time and change – so phenomenal a product of human nature as to make the pair with whom it was possible the Unique of the age in which they lived?

From a photograph by Valentine 

From a photograph by Valentine

From a photograph by Valentine 

From a photograph 

From a photograph by Valentine 

From a photograph by Valentine 

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Godfrey J Curtis
    Nov 21, 2011 @ 05:36:20

    For Ms Harland, I read with interest,. How complete a series of letters and other archives have you of these ladies? I am particularly interested in a visit made by Lord Ossulston and two companions (one of whom was a Mr Earle) all three from Cambridge in either 1793 or 1794. They certainly wrote a letter of introduction – any chance it still exists? – slso have you heard of a Miss Bowdler of Bath or a Mr Becher both innconnection with paintings in the Llangollen cottage.


    • Janeite Kelly
      Nov 21, 2011 @ 09:34:53

      Hi, Godfrey —

      I’ll have to check The Hamwood Papers — this publication (from the 1930s) has Eleanor Butler’s diaries; and there was a publication in the 1970s or 80s by Elizabeth Mavor that also reproduced PART of these same diaries. It goes under a couple titles, one being A Year with the Ladies of Llangollen.

      The Hamwood Papers have entries for years in which the diaries exist, and that may or may not include 1793/4. My Smiths are in there! but if you did not know to whom Eleanor referred you would NOT recognize them (if I remember correctly, it was Emma’s great uncle and his wife; the year Mary and family visited not longer is extant).

      The Ladies wrote a letter of introduction? Or a letter was written by the three visitors to gain entry? Eleanor was very particular! Not everyone who wanted to see the house gained entry!

      Bowdler is a quite “famous” name. I’ll check The Hamwood Papers for all and get back to you.

      thanks for commenting!! Such as always great to read.



  2. Susan Briscoe
    Dec 02, 2016 @ 06:10:12

    I have a window that came from the 1960s demolition – looks like the one in the gable end visible in the last photo. http://susanbriscoe.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Plas%20Newydd Now installed in my summerhouse.


    • Janeite Kelly
      Dec 03, 2016 @ 10:24:11

      Hi, Susan – how wonderful that you’ve something architectural that can be called a “window on the Ladies of Llangollen”. Exciting to read of your residencies at Plas Newydd; it must, indeed, be a special place to return to, day after day. I’m really thrilled to see the auction booklet. What a true FIND!

      Thanks for visiting – and adding comments.



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