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The Ladies of Llangollen

Most of us have little opportunity to wrap our tongues around the Welsh language. As a partial Celt, I often enjoy taking a shot at it.

Among the aglutinative languages (those, like German, that form words by ramming others together, so many box cars in a three-engine freight train), Welsh may be the poster child. Take the name of a train station in the island of Anglesey at the principality’s northwest corner—Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch—which boasts the longest officially recognized place name in the U.K. Don’t ask me what it means.

Not far from there is the village of Llangollen, with a pair of very characteristically Welsh double-Ls which are pronounced like an L with an H in front of it. [Frank Lloyd Wright’s middle name should properly be pronounced “Hloyd”.] And just outside the village is an eccentric country house named Plas Newydd, presenting us with several more Welsh peculiarities: the W and the Y as vowels, and the double-D as a TH.

I mention all of this for two reasons: 1) Welsh is a beautiful language reminiscent of J.R.R. Tolkein’s invented elvish tongue, and 2) Plas Newydd was the home of two ladies you ought to know.

Plasnewydd

Growing up in 18th century Ireland—when women had less control over their destinies than even the Tea Party might approve (i.e., none)—Eleanor Charlotte Butler and Sarah Ponsonby lived three miles from one another. Despite a sixteen year difference in their ages, the ladies found common cause to resist the marriages arranged by their male heads-of-family. Translation: they said “no” in an age when arranged marriages were not optional. Intending to avoid such indenture, they decided to settle together in England, but ended up in Wales, where they pooled modest resources, purchased a decrepit property and set about “restoring” it, 18th century code for turning something vaguely Renaissance into something remotely Gothic. The result was Plas Newydd (not to be confused with the nearby and similarly named house of the Marquess of Anglesey—not nearly as interesting) and a local legend concerning the notorious “Ladies of Llangollen” was born.

Let it not be said that I shielded you from the quaint and curious.

Rose Kavanaugh

You might know this would eventually lead to Agincourt. Most things do.

One of the models in the new Agincourt exhibit will be the home of Rose Kavanaugh (which I have sometimes spelled “Kavana”). Miss Kavanaugh was principal of Charles Darwin school in Agincourt’s northwestern neighborhood. She was a composite of teachers I had known throughout elementary school and represents a generation of what I call “secular nuns”—women from the ‘teens and 20s who chose career over marriage. Single women became teachers and nurses and secretaries—and nuns—rather than wives and mothers. Ask your grandparents if you don’t believe me.

Miss Kavanaugh also became a vehicle to explore modest single-family housing stock from the 1920s. And now, as the scale model develops, I wonder about Rose. While it’s not only possible but also very likely to lead a full and satisfying life as a single person, I thought Miss Kavanaugh might have been half of Agincourt’s own “ladies”.

Without making any judgment on the reputations of two single women sharing a modest home, there’s an expanded story forming. And photographic evidence to back it up.


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