lol3Extraordinary Female Affection was the title of a 1790 newspaper article on two female friends, Miss Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler, who had defied convention by running away to live together.

The article, which appeared in St. James’s Chronicle, the General Evening Post and the London Chronicle, made it quite plain what the author thought of such goings-on, describing Butler in disapproving tones as of masculine appearance (this was true) and the couple as bear[ing] a strange antipathy to the male sex, whom they take every opportunity of avoiding – which was decidedly false; the ladies entertained many male guests, including the Duke of Wellington, Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth. The author described Ponsonby as Butler’s particular friend and, more censoriously (for the time), the bar to all matrimonial union. Needless to say, the ladies were less than happy with the tone of the article, and took legal advice.

However, the attitude of society in general was very different. The zeitgeist of the time was for romanticising all things, including nature, landscapes and the bonds of friendship, and their story captured the popular (educated) imagination. The ladies were celebrated for their romantic friendship and presumed celibacy, to the extent that they became celebrities of the day—similarly, one supposes, to many early female Christian martyrs who were lauded for their chastity as much as for any miraculous deeds.

There is plenty of the romantic in the ladies’ story: both were from aristocratic (though attainted) families in Ireland and both were under intolerable pressure from their families—Butler to enter a convent, and Ponsonby to accept the advances of her guardian. Close friends for many years, when Ponsonby was 23 and Butler, 39, they hatched a plot to run away together dressed as men, taking with them a pet dog and a pistol. Having ridden through the night to catch a ferry to Wales, they were hit by what we tend to think of as a bane of modern life: transport cancellation. Unluckily, they were discovered and brought back home.

Much as for Marianne in Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (who would have known of the Ladies of Llangollen), for Ponsonby, romantic disappointment was swiftly followed by dangerous illness. To comfort her friend—and escape her family, who had stepped up attempts to ship her off to that convent—Butler fled to Ponsonby’s house, where she concealed herself in her friend’s bedroom, aided by a sympathetic maid, Mary Carryl. When, after some days, she was discovered, the families evidently decided that enough was enough, threw up their hands and consented to the couple removing to Wales as they’d wanted all along.

Ponsonby later wrote up the tale in Account of a Journey in Wales perform’d in May 1778 by Two Fugitive Ladies, showing she had an eye for a catchy, if long-winded, title.

The ladies eventually found a house near Llangollen where they settled down and lived happily for the next fifty years in quiet retirement—apart from the steady stream of society visitors.

Were they lovers? Nobody knows. Even in their own lifetimes, opinion was divided. They addressed each other in terms used between husband and wife, and they shared a bed—but this was not unusual behaviour for friends at the time. They also cropped their hair and wore masculine hats and coats—although retaining their petticoats. Their visitors included Anne Lister, who was, by her own writings, what we would nowadays term a lesbian and had physical affairs with women, and Anna Seward, who although romantically interested in women is not known to have had a sexual relationship with any.

It’s often speculated that Butler, the more obviously masculine of the two, was a lesbian, but that Ponsonby, the younger, more femme partner, might have been just as happy with a man. I personally tend to take this more as evidence for the enduring quality of stereotypes than as anything else.

 

Further reading: Rictor Norton (Ed.), “Extraordinary Female Affection, 1790”, Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 22 April 2005, updated 15 June 2005 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1790extr.htm>.

Nancy Meyer, Regency Researcher http://www.regencyresearcher.com/pages/ladies.html

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Waterhouse_a_mermaid hiresJL Merrow is that rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea.  She read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where she learned many things, chief amongst which was that she never wanted to see the inside of a lab ever again.  Her one regret is that she never mastered the ability of punting one-handed whilst holding a glass of champagne.

JL Merrow is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, International Thriller Writers, Verulam Writers’ Circle and the UK GLBTQ Fiction Meet organising team.

Find JL Merrow online at: www.jlmerrow.com, on Twitter as @jlmerrow, and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/jl.merrow

A CERTAIN PERSUASION 1600px.jpgJL Merrow is the author of “A Particular Friend” which appears in A Certain Persuasion, a new anthology of stories set in and around the writings of Jane Austen, featuring LGBTQIA characters, which was released on 1st November.

Thirteen stories from eleven authors, exploring the world of Jane Austen and celebrating her influence on ours.

Being cousins-by-marriage doesn’t deter William Elliot from pursuing Richard Musgrove in Lyme; nor does it prevent Elinor Dashwood falling in love with Ada Ferrars. Surprises are in store for Emma Woodhouse while visiting Harriet Smith; for William Price mentoring a seaman on board the Thrush; and for Adam Otelian befriending his children’s governess, Miss Hay. Margaret Dashwood seeks an alternative to the happy marriages chosen by her sisters; and Susan Price ponders just such a possibility with Mrs Lynd. One Fitzwilliam Darcy is plagued by constant reports of convictions for ‘unnatural’ crimes; while another must work out how to secure the Pemberley inheritance for her family.

Meanwhile, a modern-day Darcy meets the enigmatic Lint on the edge of Pemberley Cliff; while another struggles to live up to wearing Colin Firth’s breeches on a celebrity dance show. Cooper is confronted by his lost love at a book club meeting in Melbourne while reading Persuasion; and Ashley finds more than he’d bargained for at the Jane Austen museum in Bath.

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Ah, mothers. Every hero has one—or does he? It’s a sad fact that for most of the time in which historical fiction is set, it wasn’t uncommon for mothers to say a final farewell to their sons rather sooner than we’d hope in today’s world of antibiotics and modern hygiene.

And as if childbearing itself weren’t perilous enough in less enlightened times, there’s the further danger of narrative demands—after all, where would Harry Potter have been, if his parents had lived? Not, one suspects, the star of seven ever-more-bricklike tomes. In fact the number of fictional orphans is so suspiciously high, one might be tempted to suspect some sort of juvenile murder ring going on.

But never fear. The fictional historical mother isn’t extinct, merely somewhat endangered. And often, due to the smaller circles in which people moved in former times, rather more closely involved in her son’s life than might be the case nowadays, both in happy times:

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Mam came bustling down from upstairs, looking bright herself in her Sunday best. “Oh, that’s a beauty, Danny. Will you stay for supper with us now?” There was a furrow in her brow as she said it, so Danny reckoned he knew what the answer had better be. – Keeper’s Pledge

And also in times of worry:

“Mam, you know me and him have been, well, close?”

She nodded, tight-lipped. It wasn’t something they ever spoke of.

“I think it’s over, Mam. I can’t risk my job, not when like as not he’ll be looking for a reason to fire me. What’d we do then?” He tried to keep his voice steady, Lord knew, but the pain was too great not to let it show a little.

“Oh, Danny.” Mam put down her sewing and rose to lay a gentle hand on his arm, then gathered him to her. “Oh, love. Hush now. Don’t you worry. I’ll not say another word about it. You just do what you think is best.” – Keeper’s Pledge.

And maybe this close involvement, with children staying in the area their parents had grown up in, helped sons see a fuller picture of their mothers. Including the astonishing fact that mothers were once young themselves. Here’s Danny from Poacher’s Fall and Keeper’s Pledge talking to Philip about his mother:KeepersPledge_postcard_front_DSP

“[Mam’s] always loved having a bit of mistletoe in the house come Christmas. Says it reminds her of how she met my da.”

“Oh? That was at Christmas? At a dance, I suppose?”

“There, sir, you’d be supposing wrong. See, she was the second chambermaid here, back when old Mr. Luccombe was alive, God rest him. Maybe you’d remember her? Right pretty she was, by all accounts. Helen Braithwaite, as was.”

Philip shook his head absently. He’d never really paid much attention to the chambermaids.

“Any road, she’d been sent to ask the men to cut some mistletoe for the hall, here. And it happened it was my da sent to get it for her. Now, Da being Da, he tells her she’s to come with him to get it. So he takes her out into the woodland, out to that very oak tree I came a cropper on. ’Course, I reckon it’s grown a bit since then,” he added, grinning.

It seemed to be infectious. “So I suppose he shinned up the tree and fetched the mistletoe, whereupon she was duly impressed and agreed to let him court her?”

Costessey’s grin had turned wicked. “Well, she never did go into detail, mind. But they were wed the following Easter, and I was born in time for harvest that year.” – Poacher’s Fall.

Which leads us on to another aspect of mothers. One of the perks of having grown-up (or nearly grown-up) children is, of course, being able to embarrass them and/or anyone they bring home to meet the parents. Here’s the reserved George meeting his friend Matthew’s mother for the first time in Dulce et Decorum Est:

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Matthew’s mother was an unusually tall woman, thin as a beanpole and as energetic as a whippet. She greeted her son with a kiss that left him with powder on his shoulder and a faint lipstick mark on his cheek. She then proceeded to bestow the same honor upon George, rather to his discomfort. “Welcome to our home, dear. So glad that Matthew’s found such a good friend in London—a mother does worry so, particularly when—”

“Mother!”Dulce et Decorum Est

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JL Merrow is that rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea.  She read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where she learned many things, chief amongst which was that she never wanted to see the inside of a lab ever again.  Her one regret is that she never mastered the ability of punting one-handed whilst holding a glass of champagne.

JL Merrow is a member of the UK GLBTQ Fiction Meet organising team.