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The Ladies of Llangollen

Desire, Indeterminacy, and the Legacies of Criticism

Fiona Brideoake

The Ladies of Llangollen is the first book length critical study of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, whose 1778 elopement and five decades of “retirement” turned them into eighteenth century celebrities and pivotal figures in the historiography of female same-sex desire. Debates within the history of sexuality have long foundered over questions of what constitutes “proof” of past sexual desires and practices, and the nature of Butler and Ponsonby’s intimacy has been deemed inimical to productive critical consideration. In this ground-breaking study Fiona Brideoake attends to the archive of their shared life—written, performed, and enacted in the vernacular of the everyday—to argue that they embodied an early iteration of female celebrity in which their queerness registered less as the mark of some specified non-normativity than as the effect of their very public, very visible resistance to sexual legibility. Throughout their lives and afterlives, Butler and Ponsonby have been figured as chaste romantic friends, prototypical lesbians, Bluestockings, Romantic domestic archetypes, and proleptically feminist modernists. The Ladies of Langollen demonstrates that this heterogeneous legacy discloses the queerness of their performatively instantiated identities. « less more »
University Press Copublishing Division / Bucknell University Press
Pages: 368Size: 6 3/8 x 9 1/2
978-1-61148-761-9 • Hardback • April 2017 • $110.00 • (£75.00)
978-1-61148-762-6 • eBook • April 2017 • $104.00 • (£70.00)
Fiona Brideoake is assistant professor in the literature department at American University.
Chapter 1: “Sketched by many hands”: Narrating Butler and Ponsonby
Ponsonby’s Transformation of Plas newydd
Chapter 6: “Love, above the reach of time”: Butler and Ponsonby and the
‘Spiritual Descendents,’ 1928-37
About the Author
Fiona Brideoake’s is by far the best account of the Ladies to have appeared in some time. It is generous with earlier accounts, deeply learned and engaged with all scholars of lesbianism and the history of sexuality. It also contextualizes the Ladies brilliantly and makes great sense of their choice of a house and how they decorated. I cannot imagine a more informed or more exhilarating account of the Ladies of Langollen. This will be a book that is treasured by students and scholars as well as anyone interested in the history of ‘romantic friendship’ between women.
George E. Haggerty, Distinguished Professor of English, University of California, Riverside

The first book about Butler and Ponsonby in almost half a century, The Ladies of Llangollen does brilliant justice to the famous female couple about whom our knowledge will always be maddeningly limited. Blending biography and critical history, Fiona Brideoake reads the Ladies through their successive afterlives, grappling with the ways in which they have been appropriated and analyzed, mythologized and mystified in tandem with shifting sexual, social, and aesthetic norms. In so doing, The Ladies of Llangollen models a new approach to sexual history that could not be better suited to our own queer times.
Susan Lanser, Brandeis University