- Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America by Rachel Hope Cleves
Rachel Hope Cleves offers a lyrical portrait of a same-sex marriage in this new book. Here completely assembled for the first time is the compelling story of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake and their forty-four-year (1807–51) domestic, romantic, and sexual union in the rural New England village of Weybridge, Vermont. Reading against the grain and across a number of scattered archives, Cleves illustrates the power of a same-sex marriage not only to create a lasting partnership between two women but also to contribute positively to the lives of their extended families and to the wider community. Through nineteen short, crisply composed chapters, readers are drawn into the intimate world of Charity and Sylvia.
Clearly a gifted writer, Cleves introduces a tremendous number of themes in her evocative preface. Readers learn about Charity and Sylvia in thumbnail sketches, the difficulties of reading the fragmented historical record, the historiographic challenges of researching same-sex relationships, and even the connection of this single story to modern concerns about marriage equality. And while many readers will be eager to see the marriage of Charity and Sylvia as extraordinary, Cleves brilliantly belies these expectations with the concluding line: “The most remarkable element of Charity and Sylvia’s life together, in the final assessment, may be how unremarkable it was” (xix). In the process, the author complicates the sometimes overly facile understandings of historical same-sex unions and effectively argues for the place of her chosen subjects in the scholarly discourse on same-sex sexuality and relationships.
Cleves begins her history of Charity and Sylvia with the women’s respective origins in southeastern Massachusetts (North Bridgewater and Easton, respectively). She reveals how family connections could be a source of both pride and grief, of emotional support and financial instability. Here and in other chapters, Cleves demonstrates the biographer’s impulse to find connections across the many branches of both families. For example, the author uses the intimate male friendships of Charity Bryant’s older brothers Daniel and Peter as cautionary tales and foreshadows later ruptures from the normative gender and sexual relations expected of Charity by family and community.
The women followed different paths to marriage. Charity became a teacher and found self-confidence and assertiveness through poetry, epistolary relationships with other women, and the daily routine of the classroom. In so doing, she encountered a hostile environment in various New England towns. Cleves’s readings of romantic friendships with Mercy Ford and Lydia Richards, respectively, are a model for historical speculation on the oblique, euphemistic sources of early nineteenth-century [End Page 519] correspondence. The author explicates the meanings of female friendship in concise terms and helpfully offers readers the range of romantic and erotic possibilities available to women in the postrevolutionary era. In contrast to Charity’s experience with early adulthood, the younger Sylvia followed her brother to Vermont to further her education but apparently had no intimate connections with other women. Both women, however, committed “never to marry” (60).
The long-awaited meeting between Charity and Sylvia in the town of Weybridge, Vermont, greets the reader halfway through the book. Cleves shows how Sylvia became “an apprentice” (94) and, later, a “help-meet” and “companion” (101) to Charity in the highly skilled tailoring trade. Throughout their lives, Charity and Sylvia struggled to make their household financially viable by spending endless hours in needle work and to make it socially acceptable by integrating family members and townspeople into their domestic circle. In analyzing the gendered qualities of their marriage, Cleves addresses how a “public-minded” (141) focus permitted them a degree of respectability in the community. Charity was publicly recognized as the husband and Sylvia the wife in a surprising number of instances. Yet, the two women shared a strict religious worldview that insisted on the sinful nature of their union and thus struggled to come to terms with the meaning of...