Last 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. ^_^
Overall – 9
Thank you, Rachel Hope Cleves for introducing me to Charity and Sylvia and they life they built together in Weybridge, Vermont.