The Ladies Who Were Famous for Wanting to Be Left Alone

The Ladies of Llangollen fell in love, ran away together, and lived a scholarly life of “delicious seclusion” — secluded, that is, except for all the visitors.

 

Patricia Hampl | Excerpt adapted from The Art of the Wasted Day | Viking | April 2018 | 18 minutes (4,735 words)

 

On the night of Monday, March 30, 1778, an Anglo-Irish lady named Sarah Ponsonby, age twenty-three, the unmarried dependent of well-placed relatives (her parents long dead), slipped out of her guardians’ Georgian mansion in Woodstock, Kilkenny, the rest of the house asleep. She was dressed in men’s clothing, had a pistol on her, and carried her little dog, Frisk.

She made her way to the estate’s barn where Lady Eleanor Butler, a spinster sixteen years her senior, a member of one of the beleaguered old Catholic dynasties of Ireland (the Dukes — later the Earls — of Ormonde), was awaiting her, having decamped from stony Butler Castle twelve miles distant on a borrowed horse. She too was wearing men’s breeches and a topcoat.

Their plan, long schemed, was to ride through the night, the moon a bare sliver, to Waterford, twenty-three miles away on the coast, and from there to embark for England to live together somewhere (they had no exact destination) in “delicious seclusion.” Their goal was “Retirement,” a life of “Sentiment” and “Tenderness.”

Their alarmed relatives followed in panicked pursuit, intercepting them in a barn where they had sheltered overnight when they missed the packet boat. It is thought they were given away by the frantic yapping of Frisk. They were hauled back to their respective homes, where Sarah, having caught a cold in the barn, advanced the plot of their gothic tale by falling seriously ill with fever.

Her life hung in the balance, but not her determination. The sweet-tempered, seemingly tractable Sarah told her guardians that were she denied her desire to “live and die with Miss Butler,” such a refusal would, according to a correspondent of her distressed guardian Lady Betty Fownes, “provoke her to an act that would give her friends more trouble than anything she had yet done.” A wiry will was coiled under her mild demeanor, betraying a capacity to perform acts more bold than the purse crocheting she was known for in the Fownes’s salon.

Within five years of their taking up residence in Llangollen, the Ladies’ renown was so far advanced that the queen was asking to see the plans of their cottage and garden.

As Sarah recovered over the next month, she and Lady Eleanor wore down their dismayed relatives. Everyone was comforted that at least “there was no man concerned with either of them,” as Lady Betty put it with some relief, if deeper perplexity.

Finally, with the two families apparently played out by the intransigence they faced, the two friends were allowed to leave Ireland together on a lovely May morning in a fashion less romantic but more commodious than their attempted escape some weeks before —  they were provided with a coach to the seaport and were accompanied by a Butler housemaid, Mary Carryll. It was reported they were laughing merrily as they stepped into the coach.

The plot was yet richer. Sarah Ponsonby’s guardian, Sir William Fownes, had confessed his passion for her in the midst of the upheaval. He entreated her, down on his knee, to stay in Kilkenny. He had been rather counting on Lady Betty’s poor health to release him before long. Thinking himself something of a catch (he was just over fifty and allowed that he considered himself to have “a pretty face”), he still hoped to provide a male heir to the family baronetcy (poor Lady Betty having managed only a daughter, now grown and married with children of her own in Dublin). Sarah Ponsonby had come into the household thanks to Betty, her kindhearted elder cousin who had taken in the orphan girl, originally against the grumpy objections of the later smitten Sir William.

While the Ladies were touring Wales, looking for a place to retire in delicious seclusion, Sir William succumbed to a stroke, though not before he was “cup’d blistered and glistered” in the medical method of the day. As he feared, the family baronetcy was extinct with his death. Lady Betty, with her weak heart, soon followed. They were buried side by side in the little Church of Ireland graveyard near their Woodstock home.

* * *

The “Ladies,” as they were known in Llangollen, and are known still, settled themselves and proceeded to pass fifty years in their “Welsh vale,” living the hyperdomesticated “retirement” they had dreamed of in Ireland.

They soon became celebrated. They were famous for wishing to be left alone.

In pursuing the Ladies in Llangollen, I was not discovering them, though no one I mentioned them to had heard of them. I was picking up a trail first laid down by their intrigued contemporaries two centuries earlier. During the Ladies’ long years in their home, called Plas Newydd, it seems just about everyone beat a path to the heavily ornamented Gothic door of their remote “Cottage.” Wordsworth and Southey composed poems under its low roof; both Shelley and Byron turned up to talk and “stare,” apparently flummoxed by the orderly cloister life of the Ladies. Charles Darwin came as a child in the company of his father; Lady Caroline Lamb (the novelist and lover of Lord Byron — and a distant relative of Sarah) made a visit. As did Sir Walter Scott. Even the Duke of Wellington (a treasured friend) and De Quincey (“coldly received”) — on and on the personages of the age made pilgrimage to the isolated Welsh village on the river Dee. Josiah Wedgwood visited the Ladies to tour and opine about the rock formations of the surrounding “savage” landscape.

“The two most celebrated virgins in Europe” became, with their pastoral life, both a model and a curiosity. The poet Anna Seward, known as “the Swan of Litchfield,” visited and corresponded with the Ladies. Various royals from the Continent also made the pilgrimage — the aunt of Louis XVI, Prince Esterházy from Budapest. Coming and going, the aristocrats paid wistful (or baffled) homage to a way of life rare in its independence and chosen affection.

Some visitors spent the night at Plas Newydd, though this was not favored by the reclusive Ladies, who valued their quiet nights à deux, tucked up by the fire (made up by Mary Carryll), reading aloud to each other from French novels. They directed visitors to put up at the Hand, the Llangollen inn still open for business today in a wan sort of way, a big barny hotel where, a sign indicates, the Llangollen Rotary Club meets every Monday, 5 p.m., save for bank holidays. The Ladies called on the Hand when they needed to hire a coach. But Eleanor and Sarah rarely required a coach — they stayed home. That was the point, or part of their point. The retired life was the cloistered life. Secular nuns.

Within five years of their taking up residence in Llangollen, the Ladies’ renown was so far advanced that the queen was asking to see the plans of their cottage and garden. The plans were lost — or perhaps discarded: Queen Charlotte was known to abhor the scent of musk, the very perfume the Ladies lavished on their linens and all correspondence sent from Plas Newydd. Anything posted from the Cottage was redolent of their signature funky fragrance. But in spite of the musk, the word from those who visited was that the Cottage and environs were beguiling — and the Ladies themselves “enchantresses.”

* * *

The Ladies were forever either in debt or in frenzied terror of ruin, waiting for Eleanor’s family in Ireland to “settle” something substantial on them, or urging the Crown to provide a pension (for what? for being themselves, apparently).

They trembled with money worries, but kept on spending — on the gardens and the property, new shrubbery, the damming and redirection of the Cuffleyman, the “picturesque” stream that ran through the property. Nature often required an assist back to its ideal disorder. “Sat in the rustic seat,” Eleanor wrote in her journal (a seat over the Cuffleyman she had of course made rustic), “disliked the appearance of the Stones over which the Water falls, thought it appeared too formal. Sent our workmen to it with a spade and Mattock.”

Over the years, the Ladies found much to alter in nature’s too great tidiness, much to decorate in the house interior, always discovering something that could be improved (or amplified or put in proper disarray). New doors for the library, a marble chimneypiece, carpets and curtains, upholstery. And a growing commitment to augmenting the grotesqueries of Gothick design, colored glass at the windows lending the place a cathedral air with images not of saints but suns and moons, stars, falcons, an antlered stag.

As for other expenses — a person had to eat, set a proper table, not to mention the occasional guests. When it was “Scowling and Black” outside in January, the Ladies were at table with roast goose and hog’s puddings, though Eleanor’s journal tut-tuts that they will “eat no more of the latter, too savoury, too rich for our abstemious Stomachs.” Meals were a point of pride, or at least part of the rapturous daily accounting of the daily round of exquisite retirement. Lady Eleanor, always stocky, became quite stout. Even the wandlike Sarah filled out over the years.

The Ladies’ impulse for retreat… made them irresistible outliers for an age just revving the engines of the Industrial Revolution.

They wore riding habits of black and men’s top hats. They powdered their hair, a style long out of fashion. Much unkind merriment about their getups was made by visitors who saw them in their old age and found the riding habits and top hats absurd. But the local people thought them sensible, wearing outdoor clothes for a farm and garden life. They had their uniform, and were free to ignore fashion, anticipating Gertrude Stein by over a century: “You can either buy clothes or buy pictures,” Hemingway quotes Stein as saying. “It’s that simple. No one who is not very rich can do both.” Substitute “buy shrubbery” for “buy pictures” and you have the essential value at work here. Eleanor, vain about her journal and letter writing, was happy to describe to a correspondent their excellent larder, tended by Mary Carryll:

new laid Eggs from our Jersey Hens Who are in the Most beautiful Second Mourning you ever beheld . . . Dinner Shall be boil’d chickens from our own Coop. Asparagus out of our garden. Ham of our own Saving and Mutton from our own Village. . . . Supper Shall consist of Goosberry Fool, Cranberry Tarts roast Fowel and Sallad. Don’t this Tempt you.

The Ladies’ impulse for retreat, coupled with their compulsive tending of the Plas Newydd property, made them irresistible outliers for an age just revving the engines of the Industrial Revolution, whose speeded mass fabrication was beginning to be mistrusted as a false new god laying waste the pacific slowness of ages past. Among the genteel classes a moist regret hovered over this pastoral ideal. This nostalgia, like much nostalgia, was not for something actually experienced and lost, but for a notion held in the fond focus of the imagination. “Retirement” was in the spirit of the times among cultivated classes.

The Ladies were not alone in their pursuit of retreat, even if Dr. Johnson, cultural arbiter of the age, decried such fashionable rustication as “Civil suicide.” He replied, famously and tartly, to James Boswell’s question on the topic, “Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” I have seen the tired-of-London/tired-of-life remark on tea mugs in souvenir shops near Big Ben.

This was the period when Marie Antoinette and her set were dressing up in faux farm frocks while she played shepherdess at her hameau at Petit Trianon, never imagining that barely a decade later she would be delivered to her beheading in a tumbrel, a farm cart whose usual purpose was for unloading manure in the fields.

The French Revolution made the Ladies shudder — perhaps especially Catholic Eleanor, who had been educated by French nuns at a convent boarding school in Cambrai, founded by a descendant of the martyred Sir Thomas More, a typical education for a Catholic aristo in Anglo-Ireland. Eleanor certainly would have heard of the murders (the martyrdoms) of Blessed Madeleine Fontaine and her small band of Sisters of Charity in June 1794 in Arras, barely thirty miles from Cambrai. The nuns went to the guillotine singing the Ave Maris Stella.

But before the déluge of the Revolution, the Ladies shared with Marie Antoinette a taste for rural life — what they imagined and arranged for it to be. They took their cue from Rousseau. Lady Eleanor seems not to have carried her Catholicism from Ireland to Wales. But she harbored a Francophile soul of the ancien régime sort, including this passion for pastoral life.

Rustication was not simply chic. It presented itself as a saving grace against the dark satanic mills (Blake) and the getting-and-spending (Wordsworth) of the new world economic order. The world managed by academicians and technicians (business and markets, in a word) that we live in today is a souped-up version of the one the Ladies and their admirers saw with alarm rolling toward them and, they feared, soon rolling over them.

The Ladies lived to see France, whose language they knew and whose elegant humanist culture they revered, decimated by the Revolution and its bloody aftermath. They lived beyond that to see the further ruination of their orderly (well, feudal) values trashed by the usurper Napoleon. They did what they could to keep ordered grace going in their corner of Wales, chatelaines of serenity.

Yet theirs cannot be understood as a life of hedonism or even precisely of aestheticism. They had a daily regimen, as monastic orders always do, a strict rule of life. Their leisure, like a monastery’s, was ruled by the clock. This domestic order may have been part of their “enchantment,” why poets and nobles made the trek to their cottage door. They called their organized day our System. They were fearful of veering from it, as if the life of retirement relied, fundamentally and paradoxically, on discipline and strict observance, not indulgence. The System was the reason they never — almost never — left home. They had to obey the internalized bells of their ordered day, ringing its changes as it sent them about the business of their enclosure. Their devotions were not a prayer schedule, but acts of self-improvement, a vow of betterment for themselves and their patch of the world.

Each day was exactingly scheduled, hours given to study (languages especially: Italian, Spanish), transcription of admired texts, drawing and sketching, long walks, correspondence, reading, reading, reading in several languages — both silently and, at night, aloud to one another amid the glow of candles, an alarming expense of nine pounds per annum, but a requirement of the romantic reading life. Sarah ruined a map she was drawing one winter day and had to report in her diary that “a mistake in the Tropics has left me nothing to show for the last six weeks of my life.”


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* * *

The nature walk the Ladies loved, the “Home Circuit,” what still exists of it, runs along the Cuffleyman that rushes and burbles over the stones Eleanor often described in her journal as she did on a fine day in April 1788. The Ladies have taken their books into the garden, rising at six to an “enchanting morning.” Their morning reading is Sterne.

Walking the Home Circuit, as they called this ramble from the house, past the pasture and gardens (no topiaries then), into the rough down by the Cuffleyman stream and its outcroppings, and back again, along the planted greenery they called their Shrubbery, to which they were ever adding and replanting.

“How splendid, how heavenly,” Eleanor exults in her journal that day.

Then back inside “for a few Minutes to Write.” For of course the retired life is the described life, the life relived in rolling sentences. Then out again with the letters of Madame de Sevigné to read in the rustic hut overlooking the Cuffleyman.

“Such a day!” Eleanor reported. Then on to dinner at three: “roast breast of Mutton boil’d Veal Bacon and Greens Toasted Cheese.”

The life of retirement relied, fundamentally and paradoxically, on discipline and strict observance, not indulgence.

All this was followed by “such a heavenly evening — blue Sky with patches of Cloud Scattered over it. So picturesque, like little Islands studding it.” Back to the Shrubbery for another walk. Then on to the Bower where another sign, quite faded, reports what Eleanor records for the day in her journal: “Spent the Evening there. Brought our Books, planted out our hundred Carnations in different parts of the Borders. Heavenly evening. Reading. Writing.”

Then, night falling, back inside within the glow of the candles they indulged so profligately. “Nine to One in the dressing room. Reading. A day of such Exquisite Such enjoyed retirement. So still. So silent.”

So tightly controlled.

They seemed to experience liberation precisely because of the limitation of the System. This insistence on the ideal use of time was the point of their life together. The tourniquet of the System was a saving ligature.

Theirs was then and remains even more today the stranger passion, the one little understood — or even comprehended as passion. Not erotic life, but the pleasure of the mind filling like the lower chamber of an hourglass with the slow-moving grains of a perfect day — sky, carnations, walking, reading, writing, Toasted Cheese, the presence of another who wishes to be so still, so silent too.

For a moment, don’t dismiss it as trivial or creepy. For a moment, feel the fact of being alive as it breathes in, breathes out. It’s a life. It’s the life. It’s the System. I suppose it’s even love. For surely they loved each other. A love that passeth even the understanding of Eros.

* * *

All the people, the poets and princes, who preceded me to this distant place to visit — to pay homage, to claim connection to “the most Illustrious Virgins in Europe.” How was it that the Ladies’ strenuous “retirement” so quickly turned to society news? That their seclusion so soon translated into fame and fashion?

Their celebrity may have changed coloration over the decades, but their way of life remained essentially unaltered for fifty years. By the end (which came with Lady Eleanor’s death, age ninety, in 1829, Sarah following her Beloved two years later in 1831), visitors to Llangollen did not always find the Ladies so enchanting, but simply very odd. The Scottish editor John Lockhart, visiting Plas Newydd in 1825 with his father-in-law, Sir Walter Scott, delighted in a malicious description of them wearing “enormous shoes, and men’s hats, with their petticoats so tucked up, that at first glance of them fussing and tottering about . . . we took them for a couple of hazy or crazy old sailors.”

Perhaps their earlier, more romantic celebrity, remarkable to us, was no great mystery in their own age. Their fame was a result or even the function of the deepest bond that first brought them together in the salons of their families ten years before their elopement to Wales, the bond that sustained their way of life for fifty years. Writing did it. Writing had inspired these two admirers of Rousseau, as had their taste for the novels and philosophy of the Enlightenment and refined French culture in the years preceding the Revolution.

Writing was the silver thread stitching together relations in their class, relations of love and especially of female friendship.

These women picked up a pen the way we tap on a cell phone, passing the latest to each other in reams of sinuous, dependent-clause-heavy prose, transcribing whole volleys of dialogue from dinners and tea parties, unfurling descriptions of spring blossoming and autumnal murk from long walks in all weathers. In a sense, they were all writing essays, meandering in their minds, and sometimes taking on questions of the day — slaveholding, environmental depredations (those satanic mills), the recent alarming rumors from France.

But the analogy to the cell phone is wrong: the Ladies and their friends weren’t yakking, they were writing, sentences and paragraphs lending their expression formality and the chance of longer shelf life through copying and quotation.

Theirs was a writing world, a small sphere by the standards of our mass culture, moving not over media outlets but across the well-oiled tracks of correspondence, warmed and boiled over by heated gossip and rumor. In this closed but wordy culture of correspondence, “reputations could be made,” according to Elizabeth Mavor, “without so much as publishing a book.”

Letters were copied and shared, quoted, read aloud to visitors. And of course everyone was keeping a journal, annotating encounters with the eye not of an historian but a proto-novelist, keeping track, keeping score, assessing and attesting — and then quoting themselves from their journals back into their letters, a kind of self-publishing editorial project that kept these supposedly idle women very busy.

Writing — or passionate reading (which comes to the same thing in ardent bookish youth) — was the first attachment between Sarah and Eleanor when they met in their families’ salons, Sarah a child of thirteen, Lady Eleanor, sharp-tongued, going nowhere in the marriage market, but suddenly on the way to becoming the soul mate to the shy, dependent orphan.

It was at first and for years before their elopement an epistolary friendship, words on the page allowing the two friends an intimacy that conversation could not equal, deepening attachment, confirming intimacy, heart to heart, mind to mind. The letters flew between Woodstock and Butler Castle, great sheaves of shared feeling folded within the confines of envelopes ripped open and immediately responded to. Passionate paragraphs, the subject-verb-object of ardor. As Lady Betty said of Sarah after the elopement, expressing herself in her distracted but acute way, “Poor Soul if she had not been so fond of her pen so much would not have happened.”

* * *

Their System may have had a monastic tinge to it, but Sarah was ardently anti-Catholic. Part of the argument about “living and dying with Miss Butler” she made so passionately to her guardians concerned the Butler plan to dispatch troublesome Eleanor to a convent in France (what a fate that would have been on the eve of the Revolution). “I would do anything,” she wrote to a friend in the midst of the upheaval before they were allowed to leave Ireland together, “to save Miss Butler from Popery and a Convent.”

Mary Carryll was the first to go, November 22, 1809. Her death was occasion for the monument’s erection, to which the other two plaques would be added in due course.

A heavily end-rhymed poem (surely by Eleanor), honors the Ladies’ faithful servant whose

Virtues dignified her humble birth
And raised her mind above this sordid earth. . . .
Reared by Two Friends who will her loss bemoan,
Till with Her Ashes . . . Here shall rest, Their own.

They were as good as their word. The plaque on the second side is “Sacred to the Memory of the Right Honorable Lady Eleanor Charlotte Butler,” deceased June 2, 1829, aged ninety years, with every title and relationship to a title toted up (“Daughter of the Sixteenth, Sister of the Seventeenth Earls of Ormonde and Ossory, Aunt to the Late and to the Present Marquess of Ormonde”). Never mind that her Irish relatives would have nothing to do with her.

Strange to think of a form of love going extinct, like a carrier pigeon, a rare tortoise, a lilac or apple whose seeds are not to be found anymore, the scent and taste of the thing long lost, never to be touched again. An extinct relationship.

The list of her attributes, surely written by Sarah, include “Brilliant Vivacity of Mind,” “Delight,” “Excellence of Heart and . . . Manners worthy of Her Illustrious Birth,” “amiable Condescension and Benevolence,” and “various Perfections.” All these virtues, the plaque assures the reader, are, together with their possessor, now “enjoying their Eternal Reward, and by Her of whom for more than Fifty Years they constituted that Happiness Which . . . She trusts will be renewed When this tomb Shall have closed Over Its Latest Tenant.” A tongue-twisting form of bereavement from the grieving Sarah, a longing for death. That is, for reunion.

Sarah became that final Tenant two years later, December 9, 1831, age seventy-six. She must have composed the scant words on her own side of the pediment, unable to keep Eleanor entirely separate over on her side, giving her Beloved pride of place on her own plaque: “She did not long survive her beloved companion lady eleanor butler with whom she had lived in this valley for more than half a century of uninterrupted friendship —  but they shall no more return to their House neither shall their place know them any more.” As if they had eloped again, absconding yet deeper into their romantic retirement.

* * *

Friend was the word the Ladies insisted on, the relation they claimed from the start to the end of their long life together. Not “lover,” or “spouse,” not “mate,” certainly not “partner,” though they referred to each other in their journals, even in letters to friends, as my Beloved, so frequent a term that Sarah often shortened it to “my B.” The word in their time and place had the breezy social affection of our “darling,” fond but casual. It was the endearment Dorothy and William Wordsworth, also living the cottage life of retirement and poetry in the Lake District at that time, used for one another.

The Ladies’ romantic friendship, that “once flourishing but now lost relationship.” Strange to think of a form of love going extinct, like a carrier pigeon, a rare tortoise, a lilac or apple whose seeds are not to be found anymore, the scent and taste of the thing long lost, never to be touched again. An extinct relationship.

The reason for this “loss,” of course, is that it is almost impossible for the contemporary mind to read a passion like theirs (my Beloved!) as anything but erotic, and therefore homoerotic. They were lesbians — good for them, we say. What their biographer calls lost, most modern, self-congratulating “liberated” minds (heterosexual or otherwise) see as more fully found. They were out, we say. And then think we understand, even if they didn’t themselves, what they were up to.

They were aware of the possibility. They were appalled by the notion. Before long they were treated to gossip — they were lovers, their elopement the result of an unnatural passion. In July 1791, three years after their settling in Llangollen, an article in the General Evening Post so offended the Ladies that Eleanor immediately wrote to cancel their subscription “for Essential reasons.”

One reason really: under the headline “Extraordinary Female Affection,” the unsigned reporter described in broad if sometimes inaccurate detail the story of their flight from Ireland and their life together as “the Ladies of a certain Welsh Vale.” The implication was clear: they were Sapphists.

The Ladies sought out no less a friend than Edmund Burke for redress to this grievance against their life, their System, and the nature of the love they practiced.

Burke took up their cause, saying he too had responded to the article “with the indignation felt by every worthy mind.” But he had to advise them, as prudent lawyers often must, that filing suit for libel was a game hardly worth the candle. “Your consolation,” he said, “must be that you suffer only by the baseness of the age you live in.”

They were suffering for their “virtues,” he reminded them, qualities that earned them the highest regard among those who “esteem honour, friendship, principle, and dignity of thinking.”

Let it go, as people say in our own age.

And, amazingly, given the high horse Lady Eleanor so often rode, they did just that. They let it go. In the next day’s journal, as if no feather had been ruffled, no insult absorbed, Eleanor was able to report (as she routinely did, day by day, year after year, summing up the preceding twenty-four hours) that she and Sarah had once again gloried in “a day of delightful retirement.”

In the unrivaled world of private life and in the journal, that book whose publication is confined to heart and hearth, there is no higher court. Life lived, life described, the bits and pieces of the day collected, vignette by vignette. And thus, life affirmed. More than enough.

Send the visitors off to the Hand, light the candles in the dressing room, curl up for a bit of Rousseau, Mary Carryll having made up the fire, all so snug. The System is the thing as, arm in arm, the two of them walk the Home Circuit, pausing to consider the placement of the carnations, the question of an addition to the Shrubbery, the utter impossibility that fifty years have passed — already! — in the succession of these Celestial glorious days, these heavenly evenings.

* * *

Four of Patricia Hampl‘s books have been named Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review. Hampl’s work has appeared in The New YorkerParis ReviewGranta, The American Scholar, the New York Times, the Los Angeles TimesBest American Short Stories and Best American Essays. In 1990 she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. Hampl teaches fall semesters in the English MFA program at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

From THE ART OF A WASTED DAY by Patricia Hampl, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Patricia Hampl.

Editor: Dana Snitzky