Ponsonby: English Diaries

 

Arthur PONSONBY, M.P., English Diaries: A Review of English Diaries from the
Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century with an Introduction on Diary Writing
(London: Menthuen; NY: George H.  Doran), 2nd ed.  1922, 1923.

[241]
THE LADIES OF LLANGOLLEN

THE romantic story of the Ladies of Llangollen is so unique, and one may almost say fantastic, that it might easily be supposed that tradition, local gossip and hearsay had woven the highly-coloured strands of fiction over the bare threads of whatever there may have been of fact.  There are, however, in existence diaries kept by the Ladies themselves which fully testify to the authenticity of the accounts given of them.

            We must resist the temptation of entering at length into the history of the two ladies who lived together for over fifty years in Plas Newydd, a curious Gothic cottage in the Valley of Llangollen.  But in order to explain and give a frame to the diary extracts which will be quoted a brief outline of their story must related.

            Lady Eleanor Butler, a sister of the 17th Earl of Ormonde, was a high-spirited and independent young woman who conceived a loathing for the idea of marriage.  Exasperated by the matri­monial plans her relations tried to make for her and impatient with the restrictions imposed on her in her aunt’s house in Ireland, she decided to “elope” with her friend Sarah Ponsonby, a daugh­ter of Chambre Brabazon Ponsonby and cousin of the Earl of Bessborough.  Her first attempt, which was unsuccessful, was some time in the early seventeen-seventies, when she was 33, [242] and Sarah Ponsonby about 17.  The second attempt, whether it was again a flight or whether she waited till her friend was of age, anyhow ended in the two friends settling as tenants of Plas Newydd without any further protest from their relations.  There they remained together for over fifty years, never sleeping away from home for a single night.

            There they passed their time, carrying on an extensive correspondence, reading, drawing, gardening and making little excursions in the neighbourhood.  There, in spite of their love of retirement, they received many guests, among whom may be named Miss Seward, Madame de Genlis, the Duke of Wellington, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the Duke of York, Prince Puckler Muskau, de Quincey, Walter Scott, Wordsworth and Charles Mathews, the actor.  Some special fascination in the ladies must have attracted such visitors.  They were cultivated and well read, they spoke French with ease, and their charm and originality is dwelt upon in several of the accounts of them which have been handed down by those whom they entertained.  Their costume and appearance was very singular.  With short powdered hair, tall hats, waistcoats, cravats, and riding habits they looked when seated more like two old gentlemen.  Lady Eleanor wore orders and decorations which had been presented to her by the Bourbon family.  There they sat surrounded by strange curios in their well-filled library, into which the sun pierced through stained-glass windows and which was lighted at night by a prismatic lantern of coloured glass.

            But the most remarkable thing about these so-called recluses was their devotion to one another, which not only stood the test of time, but was kept up all through at an almost ecstatic pitch, as we shall see by the diary extracts.  Lady Eleanor died in 1829, when she was nearly 90; Miss Ponsonby died three years later.

            As to diaries, only fragments remain, but they are of so regular and minute a character that we may well suppose that one of the two ladies may have kept one throughout the whole period.  It would be in keeping with their methodical and punctual habits.

            Lady Eleanor’s diary [footnote: these quotations are published for the first time by kind permission of the Marquis of Ormonde, to whom the diary belongs.], from which our quotations come, covers three months from September 15 to December 14, 1785; that is to say, after they had been resident in Llangollen for about ten years.  It is contained in a little book measuring about 4 inches square, bound by herself in buff coloured paper.  Every day is [243] accounted for.  The handwriting is a marvel of neatness, but can only be read easily by the aid of a magnifying glass.  The lines and margins are as straight as those of a printed book and there is not a single erasure throughout.

            The occupations of almost every hour are set down.  Every day begins with the hour of rising.  and a weather report.  Scenery is described in detail and often with enthusiasm.  The gardener’s doings, the visits of guests, books read, and all the little trivial incidents of their daily life are carefully entered.  Sarah Ponsonby is referred to as “my Sally,” “my beloved,” “the darling of my heart,” “the joy of my life.” At the end of each entry the day is summed up in a phrase of which the following are examples:

a silent happy day.

an undisturbed peaceful day.

a day of sentiment and delight.

[after visitors] a tumultuous day.

a day of delight and uninterrupted retirement.

sweet converse with the delight of my heart.

We will first give two full specimen entries:

Sep. 18.  Rose at seven.  soft morning inclined to rain.  went the rounds after Breakfast.  Our shoes from Chirk.  vile.  scolded Thomas for growing fat.  from ten till one writing and reading (La Rivalité) to my beloved.  She drawing.  spent half an hour in the shrubery.  mild grey day.  from half past one till three reading.  from four till seven read to my Sally finished la Rivalité began Warton on Milton.  in the Shrubery till eight.  Powell returned from Wrexham.  no letters.  eight till nine read l’Esprit des croisades.  papered our Hair.  an uninterrupted delightful day.

Dec.  12.  Rose at nine.  all the mountains covered with snow.  a loaded gloomy sky; the most piercing Bitter cold sharp Wind.  Letter by the Oswestry Post from the Burnetts.  from Mr.  Chambre the contents of which will be ever gratefully remembered by us.  from my friend Boissiere enclosing a pattern of paper a Vignette avec envelope done by a Protegée of His.  some poor tawdry french creature who (like a cameleon) lives upon air in some garret in London.  mem. to write to Mrs. Simpson and recommend her to her protection and oblige my friend Boissiere.  wrote to the Burnetts.  from eleven till two each writing.  at two went the Home circuit.  most penetrat­ing cold and the sharpest wind.  gloomy sky.  Sent Powell to Tower.  the poor Whalleys very ill.  from half past two till Three read Rousseau to my beloved.  She at her Plan.  After dinner went round the gardens cold beyond imagination.  the Library is exquisitely warm and comfortable.  From five till eight read (Rousseau finished the 14th tome) to my beloved.  She drawing her plan.  from eight till ten I read Madame Sévigné.  A day of the most perfect and sweet retirement.

            [244] During this period of three months they read fourteen volumes of Rousseau, who is referred to as “beloved,” while Voltaire is noted as “that detested Voltaire.” A subsequent diary shows the enormous amount of literature they consumed, history, memoirs and classics in French, Italian and English.  Miss Ponsonby’s drawing consisted often of maps of Wales or of the world or sometimes plans.  Lady Eleanor says:

            My beloved finished her map (of the world) with a neatness and accuracy peculiar to herself.  The writing and ornament particularly beautiful.

            Lady Eleanor superintended the gardening operations; she goes the round every morning and notes what Powell the gardener is about, whether he is mowing, raking, planting or “scuffling in the shrubery,” and sometimes scolds him.  The entry “Mar­garet extremely indelicate” might at first be taken to refer to a domestic servant, but a later entry shows who Margaret was.  There were guests, and “she came and showed herself and was milked before them.”

            They brewed their own beer.  This year she notes:

            Brewed again.  all our Beer proving sour owing to the dishonesty and negligence of the vestal whom for her malpractices we discarded last August.

            Guests dropped in frequently, specially the Whalley family, who lived in the neighbourhood.

            Mr.  Whalley came staid till two.  melancholy, languid and interesting.  gave him a melon and a pencil.

            But visits from the outside were not always appreciated.  The Whalleys called one day when the ladies were occupied with a friend drawing up their wills, and Lady Eleanor writes:

            Wished them at the deuce for interrupting us.

            We also find:

            Colonel Mydelton smoked and we ran off sick to death.

            John Jones stayed till three.  provincial politics how I hate them.

            Nothing they disliked more than a pretentious or patronising air on the part of their visitors.  General Yorke, who succeeded them at Plas Newydd, relates how on one occasion Lady Eleanor was describing a visit of this sort, but as her memory was failing at the time she appealed to her companion, “Did we like him, [245] Sarah Ponsonby?” “We hated him, Eleanor,” was the reply;

and she continued her tale by repeating, “We hated him.”

            Curious as their costume was, we see by the following entry that they were very particular:

            The habits we have so long expected arrived by the stage coach–that detestable Donnes–instead of the dark violet colour we so expressly ordered he sent a vulgar ordinary snuff colour like a Farmer’s coat and in place of the plain simple Buttons which we chose has sent a paltry dullish Taudry three coloured thing like a Fairing.  Just looked at them, observed with fury tho total mistake of our order, packed them up and returned them to him by the same coach in which they came.

            In illness the mutual devotion of the two ladies becomes very apparent.

            I awoke with a violent headache.  kept my bed all day.  How can I acknowledge the kindness and tenderness of my Beloved Sally who never for a moment left me but sat reading and drawing till ten o’clock at night.

            My Sally my tender, my sweet love lay beside me holding and supporting my head till one o’clock.  When I by much entreaty prevailed with her to rise and get her breakfast.

            Their financial circumstances remained rather a mystery.  They talked over their “poverty” and occasionally “presents” helped them.  There was evidently one from Mr. Chambre in the entry of December 12 above quoted.  Lady Eleanor talks over their affairs with the Talbots.

            Mr. Talbot has a perfect recollection of the provision which was made for me in my brother’s marriage settlement.  They agree in thinking I have been barbarously cheated.  I also acquainted them with my having signed, sealed and delivered my last Will and Testament.  That I might secure all I am possessed of or entitled to to the Beloved of my Heart.  They will see justice done her when I am no more.

            In the last entry, December 14, she notes: “looking over correcting and binding this Journal.”

            One quotation alone from Miss Ponsonby’s diary in the year 1788 is available [footnote: Quoted in A Swan and Her Friends, by E.V. Lucas.].  It is in precisely the same style, Lady Eleanor is referred to as “my beloved,” and the entry ends, “a day of sweet and silent retirement.” But this diary and the others, if they existed, cannot be traced.  Miss Ponsonby kept the accounts, and a few quotations from her account book [footnote: Quoted in A Swan and Her Friends, by E.V. Lucas.] may be given as an instance of how much may be learned from a recital of items of expenditure.  The accounts are filled with small generosities.

[246]

A travelling boy for the kindness with which he gave us some pinks.

Lodowick’s unfortunate daughter

Poor woman 4d.           Irish woman 1s 6d.

John Rogers, for bad work

Tinker for spoiling tea kettle

Ale from “Hand” not fit to be drunk

Powdered Hair Tax

Four little boys at chimney fire

Halston gardener with horrid melon

Mr.  Salmon for cleaning our teeth

Muffins for kitchen quality

Old, dirty, ungrateful Lloyd

Carline’s man with cart full of disappointment

Brandy for our landlord’s cough

£     s     d.

       1

       1

       1.    10.

       2.      6.

       1.      3.

                6.

3.    3.      0.

                6.

        2.     6.

1.     1.     0.

                6.

                6.

        2.     6.

                3.

            Among other extracts are “Eels and trout for Mrs. Piozzi” and “Pair of Turkies, expectation of Miss Seward.”

            It is unfortunate that we have no diary comment on some of the eminent guests who visited Llangollen valley.

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