Image of two men kissingHomosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook compiled by Rictor Norton

Extraordinary Female Affection, 1790

17-20 July 1790


MISS Butler and Miss Ponsonby, now retired from the society of men, into the wilds of a certain Welch vale, bear a strange antipathy to the male sex, whom they take every opportunity of avoiding.
          Both Ladies are daughters of the great Irish families whose names they retain.
          Miss Butler, who is of the Ormond family, had several offers of marriage, all of which she rejected. As Miss Ponsonby, her particular friend and companion, was supposed to be the bar to all matrimonial union, it was thought proper to separate them; and Miss Butler was confined.
          The two Ladies, however, found means to elope together. But being soon over-taken, they were each brought back by their respective relations. Many attempts were renewed to draw Miss Butler into marriage. But upon her solemnly and repeatedly declaring that nothing could induce her to wed any one, her parents ceased to persecute her by any more offers.
          Not many months after, the ladies concerted and executed a fresh elopement. Each having a small sum with them, and having been allowed a trifling income; the place of their retreat was confided to a female servant of the Butler family, who was sworn to secresy as to the place of her retirement. She was only to say that they were well, and safe; and hoped that their friends, without further enquiry, would continue their annuities, which has not only been done, but they have been increased.
         The beautiful above-mentioned vale is the spot they fixed on, where they have resided for several years, unknown to the neighbouring villagers by any other appellation, than the Ladies in the Vale.
          About a twelvemonth since, three ladies and a gentleman stopping one night at an inn in the village, not being able to procure beds, the inhabitants applied to the female hermits for accommodation to some foreign strangers. This was readily granted – When lo! in these foreigners they descried some of their own relatives! But no intreaties could prevail on the ladies to quit their sweet retreat.
          Miss Butler is tall and masculine. She wears always a riding-habit. Hangs up her hat with the air of a sportsman in the hall; and appears in all respects as a young man, if we except the petticoat, which she still retains.
         Miss Ponsonby, on the contrary, is polite and effeminate, fair and beautiful.
          In Mr. Secretary Steel’s list of pensions for 1788, are the names of Ellinor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, for annuities of fifty pounds each. We have many reasons to imagine, these pensioners are the ladies of the vale; and their female confident still continues to send them their Irish annuities beside.
          They live in neatness, elegance and taste. Two females are their only servants.
         Miss Ponsonby does the duties and honours of the house; while Miss Butler superintends the gardens and the rest of the grounds.
                   (St. James’s Chronicle.
A virtually identical report was published in the General Evening Post for 20-22 July 1790. The same report was published in the London Chronicle for 20-22 July, except that the names were shortened to “Miss B——” and “Miss P——”.)

22-24 July 1790

The two female Hermits of the Welch Vale must have a strong reciprocal inducement to forego the pleasure of friends and relations for such a system of sequestration; – but should two romantic Edwins discover those Angelinas, and take up their abode on the same spot, the connection would be much improved. (General Evening Post)

[The newspaper article prompted the Ladies of Llangollyn to write to the politician Edmund Burke for advice on taking legal action for libel. His response was as follows:]

Letter from Edmund Burke to Eleanor Charlotte Butler and Sarah Ponsonby

Beconsfield, July 30th, 1790

My dear Ladies,

      I am very much flattered by being honoured with your Commands. You do no more than justice to me and to this family when you suppose us ready to do everything in our power to show our respect to your character, and our grateful remembrance of the polite and hospitable reception you gave us in your elegant retirement at Llangollen. [The Burke family visited Llangollen in late September 1788.] It is however a most sensible mortification to us all that our correspondence should begin upon an occasion so disagreeable. They must be the most wicked probably, certainly the most unthinking, of all wretches who could make that retirement unpleasant to you. I have not seen the base publications to which you allude. I have spoken to a friend who has seen them and who speaks of them with the indignation felt by every worthy mind, but who doubts whether that redress can be had by an appeal to the law to which the whole community as well as you are entitled. There are offences of this nature deserving of the severest punishment but on which it is very difficult, if not impossible, to bring the offenders to Justice. My brother is absent on the Circuit, but my son is here, and if on the perusal of those infamous papers it should appear that there is an hope of obtaining a legal sentence on their author or publisher you may be assured that no pains shall be wanting for that purpose without trouble or expense to you. I am afraid, indeed, that this object cannot be compassed. Your consolation must be that you suffer only by the baseness of the age you live in, that you suffer from the violence of calumny for the virtues that entitle you to the esteem of all who know how to esteem honour, friendship, principle, and dignity of thinking, and that you suffer along with everything that is excellent in the world. I do not wonder that minds tenderly sensible to reputation should feel for a moment from this shocking licence; but I should be sorry and ashamed for the independence of virtue, if the profligacy of others should shorten, or even embitter in any degree, such valuable lives as yours. I trust that the piety, good sense, and fortitude that hitherto have distinguished you and made you the mark of envy in your retreat, will enable you on recollection perfecty to despise the scandals of those whom, if you knew them, you would despise on every other account, and which, I faithfully assure you, make no impressions except those of contempt on any person living. The Newspapers have over done their part, and have brought things to such a point by their indiscriminate abuse that they really contribute nothing to raise or lower any character, so that if you contrive to keep yourselves in your own persons, where you are, infinitely above the feeling of their malice, the rest of the world will not be in the smallest degree influenced by it, any further than you being objects of low unmerited persecution will increase their interest in Characters in every point so formed to engage it. I do not know one of the prsons who are engaged in the conduct of the papers, and have great reluctance in acknowledging their importance so far as to make an application to them, but since you desire it I will make an enquiry into their connections; and will take care to have notice given to them to attend to their behaviour in future, rather in the stle of menace than as asking any favour from them. Mrs Burke desires her most respectful and affectionate compliments, and I shall think myself highly honoured if you continue to believe me with the most perfect sentiments of respect and regard, Ladies,

            Your most faithful and most obedient and obliged humble servant,
                        Edm. Burke

SOURCE: The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, ed. Alfred Cobban and Robert A. Smith, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967, vol. 6, pp. 131-2.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Extraordinary Female Affection, 1790", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 22 April 2005, updated 15 June 2005 <>.

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