Lurid Editions is a brand new independent publisher with a remit to publish “Lurid writing from the 20th century and beyond: reprints that refuse to fit in”. Their very first production is this reprint of Mary Gordon’s intriguing 1936 book, first published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press.

It’s a genre-crossing work of research and historical fiction, framed by Gordon’s own life and experiences with the ghosts of the Ladies of Llangollen, for yes, this is whom the book is about. All I knew about them was that they were two Welsh women, (nope), probably queer (yep) who lived together in Wales (yep) in the somethingth century (late 18th century). I certainly know a lot more about them from this wonderful book, which the publisher kindly sent me in return for an honest review. You can find lots of information about “Chase of the Wild Goose” and a link to the Lurid Shop here.

Mary Gordon – “Chase of the Wild Goose”

(September 2022, from the publisher).

“… you were there for us. Is it nothing to have shown the world a perfect love … to have shown it in your darkest times… to be showing it now after a hundred years? That was indeed doing your bit. Had you any idea how many women have been on a pilgrimage to this little old house of yours? Silently, saying nothing to anybody – but they came. A girl of seventeen came once. She is here again in her seventy-fifth year … You made the way straight for the time that we inherited. You mediated among your books and read us into existence. You handed on to us your passionate love of freedom plus honour. (p. 245)

After an author’s introduction, the book is divided into three parts: “The Ladies Meet One Another”, with Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, members of the Irish aristocracy, growing up different in their different household and eventually encountering one another, “I Meet the Ladies” , where we learn about their household in Plas Newydd, Wales, and look through Eleanor’s journal, following their life together to its conclusion, and “The Ladies Meet Me”, a presumably fantasy section where Gordon interacts with the ghosts of the Ladies in their home. There’s an appendix with the inscriptions on the tomb of the ladies and Notes which include copies of letters and extracts quoted in the book, and finally an Afterword by Nicola Wilson detailing the process of Hogarth Press’s original publication of the book. There’s a short biography of Mary Gordon right at the end, and reproductions of contemporary illustrations throughout.

So a comprehensive volume with lots of extras, but the core of it is this highly readable account, beautifully written, fiction blending into fact, fantasy into reality, whose importance lies in its double pioneering account of queer history: both the Ladies and their unashamedly happy life together and Gordon’s portrayal of her predecessors.

Gordon sets out her process in her Introduction:

I have taken every pains to ground my tale on the things nearest to reality, preserving historical setting where it may be had, as well as genuine incidents when these are available. (p. xv)

There is so much lovely detail, on the Ladies’ costumes, both when they are in high society and when they choose their country outfits to stick to in Wales, on their books, on their management of their house and garden and their many guests and friends. In the main text, Gordon makes the strictures of the Ladies’ young lives plain: unlike in contemporary times, women with independent means were not able to be free. We watch with hope as they try to escape their families and forge their own lives, with what would now be called their Chosen Family of good friends and their beloved and trusty housekeeper. Through these friends, they keep up with both world events and schools of thought, acting as the middle of a web of information. The details of their spiritual life, Eleanor who “finds the words” to express their relationship with God but Sarah who makes “the most use of them” are affecting and deep. Their lives are admirable and then Gordon pulls all the strings of history together, showing how information on their bad treatment at home was suppressed by witnesses and odd stories allowed to grow up around them.

Nicola Wilson makes the important point right at the end of the book that, published as it was within a decade of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” and Vita Sackville-West’s “The Edwardians”, “Chase of the Wild Goose” offered an important addition to “represent[ing] the possibilities of a fun and hopeful lesbian history, rather than one characterised by suppression and violence” (p. 260) as presented by Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness” and its accompanying court cases and scandal. As with all minority populations, it’s important to read about LGBTQUIA joy as well as pain, and this excellent work of fiction and history provides that beautifully. It’s a lovely object, as well, thick card covers and good-quality paper, and that lovely deep fuchsia cover!

Bookish Beck has taken part in this small unofficial blog tour, too, and has a lovely review out with more biographical detail about Mary Gordon and some lovely images: see her review here.

And Laura Tisdall has looked at the book from her position as a historian who teaches lesbian history of the period, setting it in contrast to Radclyffe Hall: see her review here.

This is Book 1 of my contribution to #ReadIndies month!