Celebrated Virgins: A Story of the Ladies of Llangollen by Katie Elin-Salt – 24th May 2022 – Theatr Clwyd

Thanks to the TV series Gentleman Jack, many people now know the life story of Anne Lister, (3 April 1791 – 22 September 1840) but hers was not the singular tale of an 18th century lesbian. By the time of her death in 1829, Eleanor Butler had been living with Sarah Ponsonby in Plas Newydd, Llangollen, for half a century. Cast out by society and forced to leave their homes in Kilkenny, Ireland, Eleanor and Sarah assumed residence in the Welsh town of Llangollen where they became minor celebrities.

What is known about the Ladies of Llangollen is that they were two Irish women who met in 1768 who absconded from their hometown with their maid, Mary Caryll. They ended up in Plas Newydd, Llangollen, where they lived together for 50 years entertaining various visitors of Georgian society, including the Duke of Wellington, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron. Whilst their story may not be known outside of the area, those from around Llangollen tell the story with pride. These were two ladies who were cast out by their own society, were welcomed and accepted by the people in Llangollen to live a private, peaceful life. The two ladies became minor celebrities, seeing their lives written about by those that visited but who could never understand the nature of their relationship. This play allows them to tell their story on their terms.

Celebrated Virgins maps out the relationship between Lady Eleanor and Sarah from their first unarticulated feelings for each other, to their tender relationship towards the end of their days spent quietly among the beautiful rose gardens they created. This new play has been developed based on the true story of Lady Eleanor Butler and her former student Miss Sarah Ponsonby, and whilst it is based on real events, it is written from the perspective of a 2022 audience, therefore it is a reimagining of their lives rather than a documentary.

This production relies on the community to make it work, and local residents played the parts of the visitors and staff who surrounded Lady Eleanor and Sarah in their daily lives. Heather Agyepong plays Sarah with a playfulness and charismatic charm. This is clearly her telling of the story, and she connects with the audience throughout the play. Victoria John by contrast executes Eleanor as a more cautious character, concerned with public perception and how the world will view her and react to her unconventional life choices.

It is difficult to tell a full well-balanced story spanning 50 years during a 130-minute play, so the first act feels as though we are being bombarded with various events to bring us up to speed as to how the ladies find themselves in Llangollen. The second act, once Sarah, Eleanor and Mary arrive at Llangollen, settles into a much more considered story of who they all are as people; much of this is due to the ladies’ maid, Mary Caryll played by Emma Pallant. The action feels as though the fourth wall has been broken and the audience is connected to the characters, rather than watching their story from afar, and hearing Mary Caryll speak is like a breath of fresh air. This is a strong formidable woman, not someone to be messed with, and with all the work expected of her she is “FLATARSE KNACKERED” and does not hold back from telling the audience so which is met with warm affection.

The Ladies of Llangollen is a tender story about real women, and it is commendable that this drama does not forget the house-keeper Mary Caryll as she was such an integral part of the story before and after her death. Lady Eleanor and Sarah were constantly in debt, as was most of the aristocracy of their time; they did not understand money unlike Mary who had the foresight to save the pennies she made from tips from the visitors to Plas Newydd. Many people were allowed to visit the extraordinary gardens of Plas Newydd and Mary Caryll would give some of those visitors a tour of the house for a fee. Upon her death in 1808, she left Sarah and Eleanor her life savings of £500 in order that they could get a mortgage on the property so they could live there for the rest of their days.

Lady Eleanor died in 1829, and the Kilkenny Moderator reported on Eleanor’s funeral as follows:

 “It is impossible almost to describe the feeling of the inhabitants of Llangollen upon this melancholy occasion; all the shops were closed, business at a stand and scarcely a dry eye to be seen. All who could afford were attired in deep mourning and the poorer classes (to whom she was a most liberal benefactress) bewailed the loss of her whose remains were in a few hours to be conveyed to that “bourne-from whence no traveller returns”

Sarah Ponsonby died two years later in 1831. When Mary Caryll died, it was decided that when the time came, all three ladies would be buried together, and so in 1810 a three-sided gothic style monument was erected in St Collen’s churchyard. All three ladies are buried there, and Plas Newydd remains open welcoming in visitors to Llangollen. A fitting ending to a beautifully written play; it would be wonderful if Theatr Clwyd could once again join forces with the BBC to bring this play to a TV screen like they did with Isla, so that more people could hear the fascinating story of Eleanor, Sarah, and Mary.

Celebrated Virgins: A Story of the Ladies of Llangollen by Katie Elin-Salt and Eleri B Jones.

Theatr Clwyd - 20 May 2022 until – 4 June 2022, in Theatr Mix.

Running Time: 2hrs 10 mins

Sarah: Heather Agyepong
Eleanor: Victoria John
Lady Betty/ Mary: Emma Pallant
Sir William/William Wordsworth/Edmund Burke: Seán Carlson

If you'd like to read the play, you can order a copy here:    https://www.concordtheatricals.co.uk/s/94873/celebrated-virgins