Butler is born in Cambrai, France, the youngest daughter of Walter Butler, 16th Earl of Ormonde, of Garryricken, County Tipperary, and his wife, Ellen (née Morres), of Latargh, County Tipperary. Her family are members of the old Catholic gentry, and her father is the sole lineal representative of James Butler, 2nd Duke of Ormonde. In 1740 her family returns to the Garryricken estate, where she spends part of her childhood. She is educated by the English Benedictine nuns of the convent of Our Lady of Consolation in Cambrai, where her Jacobite grand-aunt is a pensioner. Reared in the liberal and anti-clerical environment at Cambrai, she is open about her opposition to Irish Catholicism. She is also well read in literature.
By the time Butler returns to Ireland, her brother John has claimed the family titles and is recognised as 17th Earl of Ormonde. Though he never uses the title, his sisters are recognised as the daughters of an earl. As the family is impoverished, and she is not disposed to marriage, a decade is passed in unhappiness. Then in 1768 the thirteen-year-old Sarah Ponsonby arrives in Kilkenny to attend a local school. Following her visit to the Butler home at Kilkenny Castle, and despite the difference in age, the two form an immediate friendship and correspond secretly, having discovered their mutual interest in the arts and Jean-Jacques Rousseau‘s ideal of pastoral retirement.
Ponsonby, on finishing school, is sent to live with relatives at the nearby Woodstock Estate, and there is subject to the uninvited attention of a middle-aged guardian. Butler is discontented with her life and the prospects of her family’s wish to send her back to Cambrai, so the two plan to leave their difficulties behind and settle in England. In their first attempt to flee in March 1778, they leave for Waterford disguised as men and wielding pistols, but their families manage to catch up with them. Butler is then sent to the home of her brother-in-law Thomas ‘Monarch’ Kavanagh of Borris, County Carlow, but makes a second, successful attempt and runs away to find Ponsonby at the Woodstock Estate. Her persistence wins out when both families finally capitulate and accept their plans to live together.
The two set out for Wales in May 1778 and, after an extensive tour of Wales and Shropshire, eventually settle in Llangollen Vale, where they rent a cottage which is renamed Plas Newydd. They are accompanied by Mary Carryl, a former servant of the Woodstock household, who remains in their service until her death in 1809. Having made a deliberate decision to retire from the world, they spend the greater part of their days corresponding with friends, reading, building up a large library and making alterations to Plas Newydd, which takes on a fashionable Gothic look. Their garden, landscaped under their direction, becomes a popular attraction for visitors. Butler meticulously records their daily routine in a series of journals, some of which are now lost.
Their seclusion, eccentricities, semi-masculine dress and short-cropped powdered hair gain them notoriety, and it becomes fashionable to call on them. Their numerous and illustrious visitors include Hester Lynch Piozzi, Charles and Erasmus Darwin, Sir Walter Scott, Sir Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Gloucester and Josiah Wedgwood. In 1792 they entertain Pamela Sims, later that year to become the wife of Lord Edward FitzGerald, and her mother Madame de Genlis. Following the arrest of Edward FitzGerald in 1798, Pamela and her suite flee to London and on May 27 pass through Llangollen, where the events in Dublin are already known. On hearing that Pamela FitzGerald is staying in the local inn, Butler and Ponsonby invite her to call in. However, when Pamela wishes to stay for the day, their apprehension of Jacobinism leads them to persuade her “principally for her own sake and a little for [our] own to proceed as fast and as incognito as possible for London.”
Both Anna Seward and William Wordsworth, who stay at Plas Newydd, write poems celebrating their friendship, and Lord Byron sends them a copy of The corsair. Owing to her support of the Bourbons, Butler is sent the Croix St. Louis, which she wears about her neck. Their celebrity does have its drawbacks: an article in the General Evening Post of July 24, 1790, entitled ‘Extraordinary female affection’, suggests indirectly that their relationship is unnatural. Butler is particularly angered by this publicity and appeals to Edmund Burke for legal advice. Their retirement is also continually dogged by financial difficulties. They live mainly off their respective allowances and Butler’s royal pension, granted through the influence of Lady Frances Douglas, but spend beyond their means and are often in debt. To add to their problems, Butler receives no mention in her father’s will. However, the Gothic eccentricities of their cottage, which they succeed over time in purchasing, and garden attract even the interest of Queen Charlotte.
Though it is claimed that neither woman spent a night away from Plas Newydd, in January 1786 they stay with their friends the Barretts of Oswestry, and that September they visit Sir Henry Bridgeman of Weston Park, near Staffordshire. In June 1797 they take their only holiday, at the coastal resort of Barmouth. Despite their isolation they are well informed about international events and society gossip. The Irish serjeant-at-law Charles Kendal Bushe recalls how they gave him all the news of Dublin, London, Cheltenham, and Paris. In later years Butler’s eyesight deteriorates, preventing her from keeping her journal. She is secretly painted as an old woman with Ponsonby by Lady Mary Leighton and sketched by Lady Henrietta Delamere. A distinctive, anonymous silhouette shows the two generously proportioned women in traditional riding habits (National Portrait Gallery, London).
Butler dies on June 2, 1829, and is buried alongside Mary Carryl at St. Collen’s Church in Llangollen. Sarah Ponsonby is subsequently buried with them.
(From: “Butler, Lady (Charlotte) Eleanor” by Frances Clarke, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie)