- Love’s Labor Found
Rachel Cleves’ Charity and Sylvia is a noteworthy book for many reasons: it is a microhistory that tells a larger story; it offers a persistent reading against the grain of a begrudging archive; it aims at a general rather than an academic reader; and it reveals the hidden history of the long-term loving partnership of two New England women during the first half of the nineteenth century. Cleves tells the life stories of two women who became inseparable companions and lovers at a time in which, we have been led to believe, same-sex marriage was not possible. Although historians of sexuality have documented the existence of passionate and romantic same-sex friendships during the nineteenth century, well before sexologists and Freudian psychologists created the normative standards that would render all such connections deviant, no one has recounted the story of a North American couple in such detail across the sweep of decades spent together.
To write the history of a long-term, same-sex, loving partnership, Cleves has had to adopt methods similar to those used by historians who work with the archives of slavery, colonized populations, and the incarcerated. Archival documentation of these populations does not come easily because of the politics of archival production. A sexual partnership between two women during the first half of the nineteenth century was unspeakable: it could not be aired except as a subject for titillating pornography or moral condemnation. Even as a subject of disapprobation, euphemistic evasion was the rule. Creating the space to live an unconventional, non-normative life required an individual to avoid the kind of public recognition that would gain her inclusion in a historical archive. Thus, Cleves suspects, Charity Bryant (1777–1851) and Sylvia Drake (1784–1868) carefully tidied up their paper trail so that explicit documentation of sexual love—for each other and in relation to Charity’s previous female lovers—would not survive. Although Charity and Sylvia were of a class of people privileged to leave a historical archive—they were white, literate, and property owning—the prohibited nature of their sexual desires required them [End Page 85] to self-censor. Their privilege creates a different type of archival challenge than that facing historians of enslaved women, female criminals, or indigenous women in colonial societies. For these latter populations, the archives are either unyielding or they teem with an overabundance of representations: in some of these, the figure of the woman serves as a foil for respectable white women by communicating some type of fundamental deviance, while in others the representation fulfills a sentimental purpose equally aggrandizing to the white female audience targeted to be moved by her plight.
Cleves follows the relationship from the moment the two women set up housekeeping together in 1807 through the death of Charity in 1851 and Sylvia in 1868. She chronicles the impact of the economic panics of 1819 and 1837 on their tailoring business, the intensification of religiosity during the Second Great Awakening, and the two women’s increasingly desperate efforts to find health remedies, including sleeping in an adult sized cradle, for their chronic illnesses.
Working with an archive of family papers, letters, and journals she suspects has been carefully produced and at least partially destroyed, Cleves has resorted to a type of historical argument familiar to scholars of same-sex relationships: she tries to connect tiny shards of information, read deeply into poetry and letters, and provide context and comparison in order to craft inferential and circumstantial arguments about the early years of each woman before they became a couple. It is difficult work that requires reading against the grain of sources. Through prodigious social history research, Cleves is able to show that Charity became persona non grata wherever she went as a young woman, and that this likely resulted from the intense, romantic, and probably sexual feelings she inspired in the young women she befriended. Through the use of literary context, Cleves is able to tease out meanings from Charity...