The time: Ireland, mid 1700s. Young Eleanor Butler is from one of the most notable families in the country and lives in a grand castle.
Her life is full of careful manners, fine things and many people who would like to see her married to a gentlemen her equal. But Eleanor remains unmoved by all of her suitors, and her life of privilege is turned on its head when she falls in love with Sarah Ponsonby, a woman whose life is equally proscribed, living just two miles down the road. Together, they cast off their fates, challenge their times, and scandalize all of Ireland.
Behind the Scenes: read an interview with Leeanne O'Donnell about the making of An Extraordinary Affair.
Leeanne O'Donnell has worked in radio in the UK and Ireland since 2004 and loves how the best radio allows a good story to tell itself. She has worked as a presenter, reporter and freelance producer across a number of radio genres. In 2006, Leeanne established her own production company, Whistling Gypsy Productions. Her documentary, An Extraordinary Affair, won the silver medal for Best Documentary at Ireland's Radio Industry Awards, the PPIs.
Liam O'Brien is the Series Producer of the RTE's Documentary on One. He began working in radio documentaries in 2005 and has since worked occasionally across daytime programming within RTÉ Radio 1. In 2006, Liam achieved a scholarship place on the European Broadcasting Union Masterschool for young radio documentary makers. He has won numerous national and international awards in both radio documentaries and radio drama. To date, Liam has been involved in almost 200 Documentary on One productions.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Leeane O'Donnell
Is the story of the "Ladies of Llangollen" very well known in Ireland? How did you come to find out about it?
Surprisingly the story isn't well known at all, and Ireland is a country that is generally interested in its history. We Irish love a good yarn and I'm pretty sure the fact that this particular yarn isn't better known is because there was discomfiture or a bit of bafflement as to why these two women would risk everything to be together. If you don't acknowledge or understand the love the between Eleanor and Sarah the whole story loses its central motivation. So it's been pretty relegated to accounts of "queer history", which is where I came across it in a big academic looking tome. My partner said, "That would make a brilliant doc" and I said, "You clearly don't understand these things it would NEVER work.”
Why did you think it wouldn’t work at first?
I had the concern I always have with historical features: I thought the story was interesting but worried that a wider audience would find it boring. I thought maybe it didn't have enough dramatic structure to make a good beginning, middle and end. The account I read presented their story as two middle aged women gardening a lot in rural Wales and having posh friends to dinner. It was when I looked into how they ended up together and why that I realized what a good story it was. Despite the fact that it was presented as a rare example of lesbian love, I didn't see the romantic aspect of it initially - which is interesting because I think if they had been a straight couple I'd have seen the romance of it immediately. I also didn't really understand until I investigated how incredibly unusual it was for two women to live together like that at that time. Also, I felt it would need some dramatization of the diaries and letters, to let the characters speak for themselves, but dramatization can be tricky to do well.
It seems like a lot of research went into this piece - how long did you work on it and was there any part of the story that was difficult to put together?
There was a lot of reading involved, maybe too much! I read lots of contemporary diaries and letters and I think sometimes with these historical projects you can lose the forest for the trees and start getting distracted by who had mutton chops for breakfast one Sunday in 1812 while forgetting the basic bones of the story that drew you to the project in the first place. That made it quite challenging to put the middle section of the story together because after the drama of the first few years, despite the fascinating guests they hosted, there were lots of very ordinary days. It took a bit of thinking to convey how life can be precious and mundane at the same time after the initial intensity of a love affair. I used the extracts quite a bit there and the actress Hilary O'Shaughnessy was great at inhabiting the characters and conveying the mood.
Was there any one discovery you made in your research that really made you feel like the piece was going to come together?
If there were any eureka moments they were when I got my head out of the books and went to the locations. Kilkenny Castle was really atmospheric - it's ancient and grand and radiates power and wealth. Wandering around the enormous draughty rooms with looming family portraits made realize what was involved in these two women defying their families. The most special moment was walking into their house in Wales - it's an incredibly unusual place bursting with a personality that was entirely created by the ladies and has endured for nearly 200 years. I felt like I'd met them when I was leaving. It was weirdly emotional.
It sounds (in the piece) like you are having a lot of fun finding out about "the ladies" - what was the most interesting / surprising thing for you either about their story, or about working on the piece more generally?
I found it really interesting to look at how these women identified themselves and how they were perceived by others. There wasn't a gay identity as we would understand it and I felt I didn't want to impose an identity on them that they would never have recognized. They saw "sapphism" as something abhorrent and pornographic because that's how it was portrayed in their time. There wasn't a satisfactory model for two women-oriented-women choosing to live and die together and sharing a life and a bed for decades. The question of sex and what happened in their bed was an interesting one to handle; it's been debated pretty extensively in some places. But I realized at some point that you can never know what happens in the intimate moments of any relationship and it's crazy to try and define a life-long love by something that is intensely private and unknowable to anyone but the two people involved. I suddenly found it very amusing to think of people 200 years later writing papers about whether these two very private women had an active sex life, and if so what it constituted!
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