Following their 1778 elopement from Ireland to North Wales, Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, known as the Ladies of Llangollen, undertook a picturesque Welsh tour before settling in a modest cottage outside of the village of Llangollen. Having visited Chirk Castle, Wrexham, the fourteenth-century seat of parliamentarian Richard Myddleton, the self-described “Fugitive Ladies” described Chirk’s two “State Bedchambers, one furnish’d with Crimson, another with Yellow Damask Very Old-looking.” The title given to these grand chambers was later applied to their guest bedroom, its four-poster, carved oak bedstead covered with “a Fawn colour Cloth.” The disparity between this grandiose epithet and the modest scale of their cottage discloses the inherently camp nature of Butler and Ponsonby’s assertion of landed status, camp being defined by Susan Sontag as a sensibility in which extravagantly stylized cultural productions undermine their own seriousness by being “too much.” This is not to suggest that Butler and Ponsonby’s improvements were not undertaken earnestly; by contrast, Sontag declares, “The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.”
In my presentation, I will explore the gendered dimensions of eighteenth-century camp, focusing on the tonal differences between Butler and Ponsonby’s Gothic improvements and those of Horace Walpole, Lord Orford, the son of Prime Minister Robert Walpole. The gleeful inauthenticity of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and “little Gothic Castle” of Strawberry Hill was enabled by his social and financial security, this lightness of touch, at once literal and figurative, contrasting sharply with the gravity of Butler and Ponsonby’s architectural and social endeavors. Walpole crafted his home from cardboard and trompe l’oeil, causing eighteenth-century wits to remark that England’s inclement weather led him to outlive four sets of papier mâché battlements; Butler and Ponsonby instead buttressed their cottage with carved oak traded with their neighbors, shielding their household of sexually suspect Irish exiles behind a literal façade of virtuous Welsh historicity. The seriousness of their eighteenth-century camp reveals this ostensibly artificial aesthetic to be inflected crucially by axes of gender, sexuality, and class, the political implications of which Butler and Ponsonby recognized as all too real.
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