Fall Sabbatical with Dr. Incorvati

– image from Wikipedia

My fall sabbatical is giving me time to work on two essays that I’m hopeful will grow up into articles fit for publication. One of them is an analysis of style in Keats’s letters, an idea that gained some steam after a literary immersion course on Keats last fall (and thanks go to the good people in that class for being open to all sorts of ideas). The other is an older idea that may take more explanation, so I’ll devote this blog entry to that one.

This essay takes its starting point with two unusually bold ladies, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who in 1780 eloped together and set up household in Llangollen, Wales. “Eloped” is the word they used to describe their escape to a long life of domestic retirement together, but their use of the word needs to be put in some context.

For starters, our own inclination to characterize a relationship like this one as “lesbian” should probably be stifled. Sexual relationships between two women were next to unthinkable, and while Butler and Ponsonby were unabashed at using expressions like “my beloved” and “my better half” in their journals, they would have bristled at the suggestion of lesbianism.

Bristle they did when a London newspaper published an account of their relationship which, without openly labeling them “lesbian” (or “sapphists” in the language of the day), offered up more than a few innuendos about the unaccountable couple. In a fit of indignation, Butler appealed by letter to Edmund Burke, an eminent Parliamentarian, to rectify the slight. He responded to them with his regrets that he could do little, and to be fair, the article, though full of implied snickers, had the facts pretty well right.

This sets up the context for my questions. As the experience with the newspaper article shows, there was in Romantic-era England a thin line between a factual account of two women living as a married couple and sensationalist fodder for the London tabloids, and I’m interested in writers who, while presumably being aware of the risks, chose to publish poetic tributes to the Ladies of Llangollen, as they came to be called. How did these poets navigate the narrow waters between the facts and scandal? How did they represent this unusual household in a way that bracketed titillating suggestions long enough to make for a satisfying poetic experience?

As it turns out, a number of writers and other luminaries visited Butler and Ponsonby. In fact, the ladies’ home became a frequent stop for curious Britons traveling from London to Ireland or Scotland. Walter Scott, the Duke of Wellington, and Josiah Wedgewood (of Wedgewood pottery fame) all visited, but I’m primarily interested in Anna Seward’s visits and correspondence, which led to her long poem “Llangollen Vale” in 1795, and William Wordsworth’s stop with the ladies in 1824, which he commemorated with two sonnets published the following year.

Seward and Wordsworth have very different styles, but there are common threads. Both of these poets situate the unusual household in a long arc of time as if to suggest that their current arrangement expresses historical forces capable of dwarfing the court of public

opinion. They also depict the women as part of the land itself, growing organically together in a fertile valley.

In addition to the stylistic decisions of these writers, I’m hopeful I can make some hay out of the domestic arrangements of these writers. It may be significant that the two most prominent poets who chose to publish celebrations of these ladies also had some experience with unconventional households. Seward never married and had close relationships with women. At one point, she purchased a portrait of the woman to whom she was most devoted, the married Hanora Sneyd, and sent it to the ladies after Sneyd’s death to commemorate her in Llangollen, which Seward imagined as England’s great temple to female friendship. Wordsworth, for his part, had a relationship with his sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, that some objected to as scandalously close. And they did share an unusually close bond. On the eve of the poet’s marriage to Mary Hutchinson, Dorothy slept with Mary’s wedding ring on her finger and then the following day found herself too distraught to attend the ceremony. She lived out the remainder of her life in Mary and William’s house.

It may be happenstance that the two writers who celebrated the ladies’ arrangement had some personal connection to unconventional households, but I’m testing the argument that these poems to the ladies constituted a way of making room in the public imagination for different shapes of domesticity, different ways for people to live in full relationship with each other.

I’m glad to have the time to look into the possibilities and will be ready to return to the classroom once this project has matured a bit more.

– Dr. Rick Incorvati


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