THE LADIES by Doris Grumbach


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In a foreword, Grumbach (Chamber Music, The Missing Person) declares that ""this is a fiction about the Ladies of Llangollen, not in any way a history. I have 'made them up' as I imagine they might have been."" Nevertheless, her slight, rather flat and reverent reconstruction--about the two 18th-century Irish gentlewomen who ran off to establish a lesbian ""marriage""--never reaches in depth or drama beyond tasteful, admiring, mildly speculative biography. Lady Eleanor Butler is the daughter of a cold mother and a hostile father, both of whom ached for a boy-child. (Lord Butler's reaction to her birth: ""In his mouth was the burning, acrid taste of the terrible feminine common noun: a girl."") So Eleanor grows up virtually as a boy, long unaware of gender differences, utterly uninterested in dresses or marriage. Then, at 34, she meets delicate 18-year-old orphan Sarah Ponsonby, niece of a neighboring Lady: ""she recognized in Sarah the missing person of her heart."" The soulmates attempt a secret elopement; their families--horrified, perplexed--chase and capture them. But when the women's mutual devotion remains unbreakable they are allowed to leave together, disowned and disgraced, free to travel to Wales and--after some wandering--set up house there. Grumbach does offer a few probing, less-than-adulatory comments on the Ladies: ""The longer they live together the more the Ladies think of themselves as victims, not agents, of their bold act""; while Eleanor never doubted the rightness of their passion, religious Sarah was always plagued by ""deep and clouded confusion."" Still, the overall impression here is that of a romanticized tribute; the book's deadly second half, which largely consists of famous visitors (Burke, Wordsworth, Walter Scott, the Duke of Wellington) and the Ladies' famed gardening, is especially devoid of tension and texture. And, despite some pointless shifting between present and past tenses, Grumbach's flavorless style gets stuck in an uninvolving no-man's-land between fiction and non-fiction. An intriguing story, at least in the opening chapters--but without the clarity of viewpoint or force of imagination needed to turn it into a novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 27th, 1984
Publisher: Dutton