Emily Kimbrough

 

Emily KIMBROUGH, And A Right Good Crew
(New York: Harper) 1958.

Kimbrough got more of her facts straight than Parker, though where she got the idea they were both being pressed into marriage with mates already selected is anyone’s guess; and we still see the same tired description of the Ladies’ dress. She obviously had access to either Ponsonby’s English Diaries or The Hamwood Papers, for she does discuss Eleanor’s journals. Only a trip into Plas Newydd itself would induce a New York socialite to think of “carved oak” as a hostess gift; still, the idea is a fitting one since gifts accounted for a lot of what the Ladies acquired.

Of interest is her mention of Chief Justice Bushe — he was an ancestor of writers Somerville and Ross, who visited Llangollen about 60 years before Kimbrough!

Mircea Vasiliu’s drawing of Emily and Sophy in front of Plas Newydd, viewing the topiary, is included.

*

In And a Right Good Crew, Emily Kimbrough describes her narrowboat cruise from Stone to Llangollen, along the then-recently reclaimed canal (for more on the early days of the Llangollen Canal, see, for example, T.C.L. Rolt’s Landscape Trilogy). A severe water shortage, dogging them much of the route, caught up with them finally:

We were surprised at Upper New Martin lock to see a lockkeeper’s house, but considerably more surprised when a lockkeeper shot out its door waving his arms and yelling to us to stop where we were. The news he brought was the greatest surprise of all.

“Don’t open them gates,” he urged, “there’s not a drop of water t’other side. Dry as a rock she be. You’ve coom as far as you’re going.” [pp. 136-7]

Luckily, the lockkeeper had a Llangollen friend who owned a car. Emily and best-buddy Sophy rode into town; and crossed their fingers that their boat, the Venturer, would catch them up.

CHAPTER ELEVEN [140]

WE STAYED two days and nights in Llangollen. The natural setting of the town is enchanting, but alas it has become crowded with souvenir shops and bus loads of tourists to buy these wares. We found the hotel comfortable with good food. We took walking trips in the neighborhood to Llantysilio and Rhewl. We did not walk over the mountains nor ascend Moel Gamelyn. We wanted to be able to touch base frequently in the hope of a message, or even the arrival of Mr. Walley on the Venturer. Someday I shall go back, I hope, in order to explore the surrounding country, see Chirk Castle, the seat of the Myddelton family, walk in the mountains, visit the monastic ruins of Valle Crucis and those of Crow Castle. Early July is the time of the Musical Eisteddfod, the Welsh festival of music and poetry at Llangollen that brings folk dancers in their national dress from Scandinavia, Central Europe, Italy, Spain, and more.

Although it was tantalizing to be in the neighborhood and yet not be able to take long excursions, we counted one place alone well worth the visit to Llangollen. This is Plas Newydd, a small estate that now belongs to the City [141] Council and is open to the public. From 1780 to 1831 it was the residence of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby. Even the indifferent and speedy sightseer who checks off on his itinerary the places he has “done” must be piqued to further exploring and reading when he has once heard the story of these extraordinary women.

They were members of two of the foremost families in Ireland. They became friends at boarding school and returning to their respective homes were bitterly unhappy. Each was being pressed to a marriage for money, though even the families admitted the individuals selected were distasteful. The two miserable young women corresponded with each other and through this medium developed a plan they carried out.

On a night in May in 1778 these unhappy and courageous friends left home and family and together made their way into Wales and eventually to Llangollen. Certainly neither of them had ever before so much as gone shopping unaccompanied. How they came to choose let alone reach Llangollen, part of the trip by sailboat, I have not been able to discover, but the story of the fifty years there is almost as extraordinary as their flight.

From the day they moved into the house they had been able to acquire, Plas Newydd and twelve acres of land surrounding it, they never again spent a night away. They traveled widely about the countryside, occasionally leaving before daybreak for a visit to friends but always returning by dawn of the following day without having passed a night in a house other than their own. Though such daring independence had created a scandal of a magnitude that befitted their rank, people visited them. Not because [142] they were objects of curiosity, but because they were two intelligent, lively women who read widely, spoke wittily and kept in touch through their reading and their monumental correspondence with people and events in the world. The little village they had chosen happened to be on the stagecoach road between London and Dublin. Travelers passing through stopped off to visit them and to see the beautiful gardens that over the years they created and developed. Had Lady Eleanor and Miss Ponsonby kept a guestbook it would contain the signatures of the most distinguished people of their time: Sir Walter Scott, Wordsworth, the Duke of Wellington; it is an astonishing list. But these names are included casually in Lady Eleanor’s diary among such events of the day as the birth of a calf to their beloved cow, or the discharging of a maid for “idleness, dirt and such a tongue.” The entries are of their other friends too, the villagers, who brought their troubles, recorded in the journal with tender concern.

Of all the souvenirs de voyage I have ever seen, this house contains the most improbable collection. The Ladies fancied carved oak and there is very little space outside or in that is free of it. This ornate forest grew by means of gifts brought by the visiting travelers. I myself follow the custom of bringing a house present to the hostess whose home I am visiting, but my present is of a size that takes up little room in an average bag. I do not arrive dragging behind me in some fashion a carved oaken beam and I do not understand how travelers of that day in whatever form of conveyance they used, managed to lug along with them, or even have sent–and by what means?–carved oak. Not the size of a paper cutter but of a size to panel a room or a [144] section of the exterior of the house. It is all there to be seen now.

The topiary and a good part of the garden are still preserved. The town itself is full of souvenirs of their Ladies. A silhouette made of them during their lifetime is reproduced on post cards, ashtrays and the like. The silhouette itself shows them to have been not very tall, plump, and dressed in eighteenth-century riding habits including the hat; a costume they invariably wore indoors and out, daytime and evening.

Chief Justice Charles Kendall Bushe wrote of them in 1805 in a letter to his wife after a call on “The Ladies.” “They gave me all the news of Dublin, London, Cheltenham, Paris and everywhere in a moment; everything they said was pointed, naive, polished and interesting–sometimes satirical, always witty.”

The Ladies were cordial to visitors who were either known to them or came with proper letters of introduction. They were high-handed with tourists. An entry in Lady Eleanor’s journal of June 14th, 1789, reads: “Peter the Smith, came to say that some company were coming to see the garden. We sent to inform them no person was admitted to see the shrubbery who did not send their names in, but if they would acquaint us with theirs they should be welcome to see it. They declined to do this and consequently went away with their curiosity ungratified.” Lady Eleanor died in 1829, Miss Ponsonby in 1831.

We spent Saturday and Sunday nights at the Bridge End Hotel. (The official guide to Llangollen includes in its list of accommodations “Temperance and Private hotels.” I [145] doubt I would make one of these my selection on a subsequent visit.) During this time we did not see the Venturer nor have word from Mr. Walley. On Monday morning the weather changed. Rain came and a telephone call from Mr. Walley. He could not reach us on the boat, but he had got turned around and was back at Ellesmere. Sophy and I held a sad conference and brief, because Mr. Walley waited at the other end of the wire.

Our decision was to drive to Ellesmere, gather up our belongings left on the boat, and return by train to London. Mr. Walley would deliver the boat to Stone. We reminded him to leave there Miss Ritchie’s lantern and guidebook. This weather was anything but ideal for cruising. We had had beautiful, sunny, warm days; better leave at the peak and not taper off into sodden discomfort. We drove in a taxi to Ellesmere, arriving there in something less than an hour and covering more than the distance of Friday’s and half of Saturday’s trip on the boat. While the car waited we packed and said good-by to Mr. Walley, but only a temporary farewell. He had promised to be our captain for the big cruise when we would be five, setting out from Stone again on another vessel, the Maid Marysue, a larger crew but Captain Walley at the tiller.

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