When Anne Lister returned from her pilgrimage to meet the famed Ladies of Llangollen in 1822, she reflected in her diary “I could have mused for hours [and] conjured up many a vision of … hope”. To Anne, Sarah Ponsby and Eleanor Butler were evidence of what could be. They had left their wealthy families in Ireland, set up home together in Wales and had been living as “companions” for forty-two years by the time Anne visited. Mariana, Anne’s old flame, wrote to her after her visit, curious to discover “if their regard had been platonic”? To this, Anne had replied she would “hesitate to pronounce such attachments uncemented by something more tender still than friendship”. Like Anne and Mariana, all we may do is speculate as to the true nature of their relationship. However, it is clear that the manner in which “the ladies” lived sparked Anne’s interest and in 1834 she asked her own sweetheart, Ann Walker, to move in with her at Shibden Hall.
Anne Lister, her girlfriend Ann Walker, her ex Mariana and her visit to Llangollen offer only a glimpse into the network of queer women and transmasc folk, who lived and loved in early nineteenth century Britain. Close female friendships were fashionable and thus encouraged during this period. Women often expressed intimacy through letters and a closeness that was strictly platonic. However, as the historical record suggests, some of these friendships crept past platonic and were subtly hidden in the folds of these fashionable friendships. In fact, some dared to go even further, subverting not only their sexuality, but their gender as well. They were known as ‘female husbands’. Historian Jen Manion defines this popular early modern term as someone assigned female at birth, who passed as a man and married a woman. Passing as man at this time may have included dressing in men's clothes, adopting male pronouns and a new name. The women who married these rule breakers were almost always aware of what they were entering into before the wedding day. In fact, the ladies of Llangollen are connected to another queer couple who did just that.