Romance hasn't always been the stuff of bodice rippers and bad vampire movies. Back in the 18th century, the word "romantic" meant something akin to "foolish" or "fanciful." But then a bunch of hipster sentimentalists changed everything — and invented the idea of love as we know it today.
Saucy illustration "Archers," by Adam Buck (1799)
One of the most romantic true stories of the 18th century is a perfect illustration of how the idea of romance has changed over time. In Kilkenny, an Irish aristocrat named Eleanor Butler was at wit's end. She didn't fit into her family's plans to reclaim their castle by inheriting a fortune, and she was considered far too "satirical" to be polite company among ladies. So she spent a lot of time reading, and eventually found satisfying work tutoring young women at a local boarding school.
There, the 29-year-old Eleanor met the 13-year-old schoolgirl Sarah Ponsonby. The two began a furiously intense friendship, founded entirely on their shared love of books — especially Rousseau. Even after Sarah's schooling was over, the two women kept in touch in a flurry of letters that servants carried quickly between their estates, located only about a dozen miles apart. As Eleanor grew more bored and alienated by her family, Sarah faced a more urgent problem. Her beloved adoptive aunt (actually a cousin of her father), who had cared for Sarah after she was orphaned, married a creepy, rich guy who kept hitting on Sarah. In tears, she wrote to Eleanor about her uncle's advances, heartbroken for her sickly aunt and afraid of what would happen after her aunt died.
Eleanor was furious. Soon, the two women were plotting their escape from Ireland, planning how they would sneak to a local port and find passage on a boat to Wales. Sympathetic servants helped the two women exchange secret messages, and eventually even helped the two make it to the port. Unfortunately, they were caught before they could make it to Wales. Their outraged families separated them, and they spent months imprisoned in their respective homes, fearing that the Butlers would consign Eleanor to a nunnery and Sarah would be left to her uncle's care. When they tried to run away a second time, their families finally gave up and allowed the women their freedom.
A few kindly relatives promised the women a total of about 100 pounds a year, if they would live in "retirement" across the sea in England. At that time, the notion of retirement had become quite fashionable among upper class English hipsters. It was what romantic poets did, escaping from the dirty city into lovely, country estates with wild gardens and just the cows and simple village folk to keep one company. This use of the word "romantic" — so popular among late 18th century and early 19th century artists — bore little resemblance to our use of the word today. Certainly it implied intensity of feeling, and an appreciation for beauty, but it also implied a rejection of the rigid scientific worldview that had become all the rage as the industrial revolution gathered steam.
And so when Eleanor and Sarah described their bond as a "romantic friendship," it didn't have the same overtones it would today. First of all, the concept of lesbianism hadn't really reached English shores yet. And second, as Elizabeth Mavor explains in her excellent biography The Ladies of Llangollen, the women were using a word to describe their relationship that was more often applied to a sublime sunset or lovely story. It didn't have sexual implications.
With so little money to their names, the two women settled on a cheap cottage with a garden in the northern Welsh village of Llangollen, located conveniently on a popular road taken by English tourists exploring Wales or heading to Ireland. Now, their retirement could truly begin. For the next fifty years, the two lived together, romantically besotted. They planted a legendarily lovely garden, remodeled their cottage to look like a gothic retreat, and spent most of their days hiking, reading books or writing letters. (You can still visit their cottage, Plas Newyyd, today.) They preferred riding habits to dresses, and topped their fashionably short hair with coonskin caps, a rakish French style.
In the 1790s and early 1800s, Eleanor and Sarah were celebrities, praised by poets, and lied about in the scandal sheets. Hundreds of authors, artists, politicians and random aristocrats came to visit them — even the famously crotchety Samuel Johnson. Among the upper class hipsters I mentioned earlier, the ladies became a romantic legend.
But, as Mavor writes, the ladies' "retirement" may have been more like the sisterhood of a secular cloister rather than a 21st century gay marriage. Some of their frenemies gossiped in letters about how there might be something "rotten" or "French" about their relationship, but many of the ladies' closest friends were clergymen who admired their purity. Neither woman wrote in their journals about sexual feelings or a sexual relationship, so we are left to wonder.
Still, there was never any doubt that the two women loved each other beyond measure. They shared everything, delighted in one another's company, and built a much-admired home together. Indeed, Eleanor wrote often in her journal about how jealously she guarded her alone time with Sarah. They had so many visitors that sometimes it was hard for them to spend a day just walking and reading, the way they preferred. Everything about the women's relationship fits the definition of romance that you'd find today in a Harlequin novel or romcom. The only thing that's missing is sex — or at least, openly-acknowledged sex.
Plas Newyyd today, with the wooden Tudor-style porch that the ladies added after Gothic went out of style. Photo by Andy Dingley.
Two centuries ago, romantic love, sex, and marriage weren't viewed as being part of the same package. A person was not expected to love one's spouse passionately, nor were men expected to have sex exclusively with their spouses. And romantic love? Well, that was something that grew almost exclusively between friends.
And yet the example set by the ladies of Llangollen, who became what John Donne called "one another's hermitage," sounds more like today's stories about (hetero)sexual relationships that lead to marriage. Today it's very hard to imagine a passionate relationship like Eleanor and Sarah's that isn't sexual. Romance in the twenty-first century is wedded to sexual desire — one is supposed to lead to the other, and if that doesn't happen, the relationship is regarded as a failure.
There are of course exceptions to that rule. The blossoming of the "bromance" is a kind of half-joking return to what Sarah and Eleanor would have called "romantic friendship." But for the most part, the 18th century idea of romanticism has been lost. The ladies of Llangollen, however, embodied both the older and the newer definitions of the term. They dedicated their lives to the romantic ideals of nature and retirement. But their ambiguously erotic relationship, so like a marriage, suggested the idea of sexual romance that was to come.