Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America

January 6th, 2015

candsssmLast year, Rachel Hope Cleves published a book that was one of the most fascinating reads of my year. Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America is a detailed and precise account of two women, Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, and their lives together in the rapidly changing environment of early 19th century America.

Born into middle and working class homes, neither woman had a chance to be highly educated and both worked well into their late years as seamstresses But, despite less opportunity than we can imagine, the two made what can only be understood as a happy life together. They were, during their lifetime, regarded as a “married” couple by their families and the people in their town.

In the course of the book we discover that Charity was a bit of a player, but, as with so many other lesbians, she remained friendly with her exes. ^_^ Of the two, Charity took up the “man’s” role in the house, keeping their business running, signing contracts and making large decisions for the two of them, while Sylvia handled accounts for the home.

Cleves takes great pains to make a strong case for the two as lovers, not because it’s not obvious, but because the Victorian among us are so ridiculously persistent. As we encountered with Deborah Shamoon’s Passionate Friendship and Annalee Newitz’s recent io9 article on the Ladies of Llangollen, we’re always inundated with modern Victorian finger-wagging at that thought that two women writing love letters, sharing a bed and living together for decades cannot possibly be seen as a lesbian couple because they might not have had sex. As I replied to Ms. Newitz, I do not understand why it is not “wise” to look at a thing through Occam’s Razor. We don’t push ourselves through this kind of hoop for heterosexual marriages, why on earth would it be different for this one? These women wrote copious letters and there is epistolary testament to their having been lovers. It’s not conjecture. It’s time to accept that the duck is a duck. ^_^

Cleves removes all doubt by putting together a case that is all but unshakable.  Newitz makes the case that concept of “romance” was different in the 18th century, which is exactly why Cleve’s detailed and meticulous combing through written evidence is so critical. At first, as I read the testimonials and evidentiary writing, it appeared to me to be gilding the lily, but I quickly realized her intent was not to gild the obvious lily but to really make sure that the finger-waggers had as little space to tut-tut as possible. After today’s discussion on io9, I am both thankful and glad for her thoroughness on the issue.

While reading about the enormous difficulties of post-Revolutionary War life was interesting, the  toll deprivation, disease and market factors took on society was a bit of an eye-opener. As I frequently say, humans don’t change, only technology does and reading about the market crashes after the War, has convinced more than ever before that we are one hella stupid species.  ^_^

There was a lot of detail in the book about Charity and Sylvia’s lives, growing up with their families and their years together. I have to admit, I kind of want to visit the old girls next time I’m in the area and pay them my respects. They and I wouldn’t have seen eye to eye on religion, but I think I would have enjoyed having them over for lunch. ^_^

Ratings:

Overall – 9

Thank you, Rachel Hope Cleves for introducing me to Charity and Sylvia and they life they built together in Weybridge, Vermont.

This book is available in Hardcover print, Kindle and Audible audio editions.

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11 Responses

  1. JRB says:

    My impression of the io9 article was that the author wanted to make the point that our current cultural assumption that all passionate friendships and all cohabitation arrangements automatically imply that the people involved are lovers is ahistorical and applying it to the past is unjustified; I don’t know anything about that particular couple but in general this is most certainly true.

    I have a c.1910 girl’s magazine that has an article on “women in business” (which I really ought to scan and post someday), which explains quite bluntly that if you want to keep your independence you will probably have to stay single, which means you will spend your life in straitened financial circumstances, and sharing housekeeping expenses with another single woman is a good plan to be able to keep up at least a modestly middle-class standard of living. I sincerely doubt that the author was advocating lesbianism.

    • Yes that was her point. A point I have always found irritating beyond belief. Walking like a duck and talking like a duck generally means the subject is a duck, not the opposite.

      • JRB says:

        Well, I still think that attitude reflects a 20th century assumption that emotional intimacy and shared living arrangements arise only from romantic relationships (in the modern sense). I completely agree that both historians and laymen have been eager to brush off premodern lesbian couples as “just friends”, but that does not mean that all cohabitating friends were lesbians (or gay, if male). Especially in eras where women lost all legal and social autonomy after marriage.

        • Louis Patterson says:

          ” that does not mean that all cohabitating friends were lesbians (or gay, if male).”

          Or straight, if mixed-sex.

          But…

          • JRB says:

            Not a good comparison. Premodern Europe (and indeed most premodern cultures) heavily policed mixed-sex interactions among nonrelatives, especially when they involved young, unmarried middle- or upper-class women; they were even more prone than we are to assume that any degree of social intimacy between a man and a woman implied an illicit sexual relationship. Unmarried women cohabitating with unrelated men were subject to *intense* social condemnation, harassment, and in some eras legal penalties, unless they had a clearly defined master/servant relationship (or mistress/servant). There are a few cases of women who do seem to have cohabitated with male friends in a completely platonic relationship, but it required the courage and endurance to fly in the face of all definitions of social propriety.

            TL;DR: Opposite-sex friends were not allowed to have the same kind of emotional intimacy or physical proximity that was accepted in same-sex friends. It’s kind of ironic that modern society has become more suspicious of same-sex friendships while simultaneously becoming less suspicious of mixed-sex friendships…

          • just me says:

            “TL;DR: Opposite-sex friends were not allowed to have the same kind of emotional intimacy or physical proximity that was accepted in same-sex friends. It’s kind of ironic that modern society has become more suspicious of same-sex friendships while simultaneously becoming less suspicious of mixed-sex friendships…”

            Seems to me that all depends on which the family elders fear will expose themselves to more ridicule from their neighbors: a daughter’s extramarital pregnancy or a daughter’s homosexuality.

            In some times and places, they found extramarital pregnancy harder to hide from the neighbors (especially when it was easier to force a lesbian daughter to marry a man than to get anyone, even the father, to marry a woman or girl who’d ever been pregnant outside marriage)

            In some times and places, they found homosexuality harder to hide from the neighbors (especially when it was easier to persuade a man or boy to marry the woman or girl he got pregnant outside marriage than to force a lesbian daughter to marry a man)

  2. Nancy Garden saved my life with her amazing Annie on my Mind and one of the books that one led me to was Patience and Sarah which your description here puts me in mind of.

  3. I bought this book on Erica’s recommendation. It’s one of my top books of 2014; it’s absolutely stellar, full of excellent information as well as good writing. I don’t know what io9 is and didn’t read the article, but have read a few others that make the claim that “passionate friendships” do not require physical intimacy. That’s true, it doesn’t. It’s the next step that bothers me, the claim that “lesbianism” did not exist before the modern era. Nonsense.

    Also, since a great deal of the material in Charity & Sylvia is original research, I doubt the relationship was anything more than arcane academic knowledge in 1969. It’s far more likely that Patience and Sarah inspired Charity & Sylvia than the inverse.

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