- Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America by Rachel Hope Cleves
Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake were two literate seamstresses who lived in Weybridge, Vermont, in the first half of the nineteenth century. What brings them to the fore as the subject of this beautifully written book is that they lived together as a couple in their own house and were regarded as joined in a marriage by contemporaries and posterity, including Charity’s nephew William Cullen Bryant. In telling their story, Cleves has written more than a work of recovery of a lesbian past. She offers an intriguing inquiry into the language of letters and poetry. Her close reading uncovers hidden meanings to reveal the private coded words of the same-sex female lovers. Cleves also explores the essential silence that shielded the women during their lifetime.
Bryant was the elder of the two, born in Massachusetts in 1777 to a consumptive mother who died soon after her birth. Her independent streak and masculine manner attracted female friends, evoked gossip, pushed her out of her father’s house, and forced her to move a number of times before coming to Weybridge to visit friends. There in February 1807, she met Drake, seven years younger. Sylvia’s family life in Massachusetts had been disrupted by the economic troubles following the Revolution; ultimately, she was able to resettle with her mother in Vermont in the house of her brother who had ventured to western New England, bought land, married, and prospered. Drake’s married sister Polly, newly settled in Weybridge, welcomed Bryant when she needed a place to stay.
Bryant had already known a number of romantic relationships with women when the two met. Drake was the less experienced, but she responded quickly and by July the two were united in work and love. Eighteen months later, they moved into their own home, a single 144 sq. ft. square room on a quarter-acre leased lot. This structure, with periodic additions, served as both their home and their workshop for the next four decades. It enabled their hospitality and became their base as they devoted themselves to their clients, apprentices, family, church, and benevolent society. Cleves gives rich historical context to their daily life. [End Page 588]
In some ways, the two women reproduced the social roles of husband and wife, Bryant serving as head of house and business and Drake as cook and domestic worker. We learn much about their harmony but little about what may have been the ups and downs of their relationship, their disagreements and conflicts; Bryant’s independent streak could hardly have been completely quelled during these years. Cleves gives much attention to their possible sexual relationship. As she does with Bryant’s earlier love affairs, she teases out information from letters and poems. Some of the exegesis is brilliant and convincing, especially her ability to connect seemingly bland words to romantic and sexual meanings via the quoted fragments from published writings known and shared by writer and recipient. There are, however, moments when Cleves goes too far in sexualizing language, especially as she deals with the women’s confrontation with their sinful selves. Same-sex sexual practice was hardly the only activity to cause many Christians to feel the deep depravity of original sin in the era of the Second Great Awakening.
Ironically, in a book determined to reveal sex in the past, one of its signal achievements is to convey the power of an earlier era’s shared silence, the unspoken words of family members and neighbors. Protected by the cloak of silence, Bryant and Drake lived their conjoined lives—dedicated to each other, hard work, and service—with communal acceptance and respect.