Bookshelf: Charity and Sylvia by Rachel Hope Cleves

Cleves coverAs a historian and a reader, my favorite “relaxation” books are the ones that spotlight unknown or unusual personal stories that complicate what we think we know about the past. Sure, I’ll read an analysis of the origins of the Boxer Uprising or a monograph on everyday life in twentieth-century Shanghai—and both of those books are great, by the way—but if I’m really going to kick back with a book, it will probably be some sort of biography. The more obscure the subject, the better. Like, say, two early nineteenth-century New England women who spent more than forty years together in a partnership that, while never legally recognized, was acknowledged by their family, friends, and community as a marriage.

That sounds impossible, right? After all, same-sex marriage feels like an issue very much of the present day; it’s not even legal in a majority of states yet. So the idea of such a union taking place nearly two hundred years ago might seem like the stuff of historical fiction. But as University of Victoria historian Rachel Hope Cleves demonstrates in her wonderful and beautifully written new book, Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, such stories are there—we just need to look for them.

Charity Bryant was born in 1777 to a doctor and his wife living in North Bridgewater, Massachusetts, a community south of Boston. Charity’s mother died of tuberculosis only a month after the girl’s birth, and Charity grew up in a contentious household dominated by her stepmother, who had little patience for Charity’s preference for books and writing over household chores. To escape the stifling atmosphere at home, twenty-year-old Charity embarked on a series of teaching jobs that took her around Massachusetts.

But Charity didn’t move from place to place in search of a better job: rumors and scandal spread wherever she settled, due to her intense friendships (at least some of which seemed to have involved a physical relationship) with young women, who quickly grew enamored with her and sent Charity letters detailing their affection. Such passionate friendships in and of themselves were not scandalous; this was an age of “sensibility” and romantic friendships between people of the same sex. But Charity—independent-minded and somehow un-feminine in her bearing and demeanor—drew women to her with such intensity that it sent tongues wagging wherever she went. By 1807, she felt the need to escape Massachusetts and traveled to Vermont to visit a friend, intending to stay only a few months. It was during that trip, however, that Charity met Sylvia Drake, and a few months turned into forty-four years.

Sylvia came from the same general area of Massachusetts as Charity, but completely different family circumstances. Her father had gone bankrupt during the Revolution, then died in 1798, when Sylvia was fourteen. She and her mother moved to the wilderness of Weybridge, Vermont the following year, joining her older brother Asaph, who had run away to the new state and done well for himself. Sylvia lived a much more sheltered life than the well-traveled Charity, and it seems that at least one of Charity’s attractions in twenty-two-year-old Sylvia’s eyes was her comparative sophistication and maturity. What drew Charity to Sylvia is less clear, as Charity did not leave a diary and directed that much of her correspondence be destroyed. After so many apparent romances with other women, why did Charity decide to settle down and build a life with Sylvia? Did the remoteness of the Vermont frontier enable her to envision such a union in a way that the tight-knit Massachusetts communities she had lived in did not?

Whatever the reason, the two joined their lives almost immediately after meeting, moving in together on July 3, 1807, a date that they celebrated as their anniversary for the rest of their life together. Charity opened a tailoring business, and initially Sylvia served as her “assistant.” But they soon discarded this pretense and began to live more openly, to the extent that a man from a neighboring town recorded in his memoir that everyone in the community spoke “as if Miss Bryant and Miss Drake were married to each other.” The two rented land from a local widow and built a small house for themselves; they were counted individually but as a single household unit in local tax records and censuses. Charity and Sylvia could not, of course, legally wed, but they merged their lives, work, and property as completely as possible.

The residents of Weybridge appear to have accepted this union. Cleves argues that Charity and Sylvia gained public acceptance of their marriage by living lives above reproach and becoming pillars of their community: they were active in their church, trained local girls in tailoring skills, and gave money so their nieces and nephews could be educated. In return, the people of Weybridge treated their relationship as an open secret. If anything, the women faced more opposition from their families, especially the Drakes; Sylvia’s mother refused to visit their house for many years, and Asaph Drake also expressed discomfort at calling on them. But over time, the lingering antagonism dissipated.

Cleves uses poems that the women wrote, as well as their business accounts, Sylvia’s diaries, and surviving correspondence, to tease out the details of their lives. Though Charity and Sylvia were apparently happy with each other—aside from a short separation soon after they met, they never spent a night apart—their life together was not easy. Both, especially Charity, suffered from health problems that the medicine of the day couldn’t treat, and their tailoring business required almost constant work, much of it by candlelight. Sylvia, generally viewed as the “wife” in their relationship, pulled double-duty, working in the tailoring shop whenever she wasn’t cooking, cleaning, or otherwise running their household. In addition to telling the story of a remarkable partnership, Cleves offers readers an understanding of what early nineteenth-century life was like for women. It was, in a word, hard.

At various points, I got the sense that Cleves was responding to the criticism—either already heard or anticipated—that she is exaggerating the relationship of Charity and Sylvia. In other words, maybe they were just good friends. This would fit with our conventional understanding of early America as a place governed by strict religious and moral codes; as Cleves writes, “The self-congratulatory certitude that modern times represented an apogee of tolerance compared to the benighted wasteland of the past has made it impossible to fit women like Charity and Sylvia into the historical memory.” But Cleves uses the women’s poetry and their religious writings, which detailed their struggle with feelings of sin, as evidence that Charity and Sylvia shared a sexual relationship. And after all, if an unmarried man and woman lived together, worked together, and slept in the same bed for forty-four years, no one would try to argue that they were “just friends.”

In a January 2013 Perspectives on History article that I happened to pick up around the same time I read Charity and Sylvia (I’m, ah, a little behind on my Perspectives), historian Ben Lowe proposes that scholars need to do more to include sexuality as a “useful category of analysis” in history courses (echoing Joan Scott’s path-breaking 1986 article on gender as a useful category of analysis). Charity and Sylvia is a perfect example of how “incorporating sexuality into our interpretive frameworks fundamentally changes how we view the past.” It’s certainly not easy, from the historian’s perspective: Cleves admits that “the historical record of Charity and Sylvia’s relationship is also notable for its silences,” particularly when it comes to the women’s sexuality. And Lowe acknowledges that not all professors feel comfortable bringing a discussion of sexuality into their classes, for fear of inciting controversy or jeopardizing their own job security (and this could definitely happen, depending on the school). But as Cleves demonstrates in Charity and Sylvia, we can completely upend what we think we know about the past if we start paying more attention to questions of sexuality, and finding one story like this one can lead to discovering another and another and another. “The most remarkable element of Charity and Sylvia’s life together,” Cleves writes, “… may be how unremarkable it was.” But we’ll never know if we don’t look.

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