Sleeping on the Same Pillow
Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America
By Rachel Hope Cleves
New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, 167 pp., $29.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Marla R. Miller
In Charity Bryant’s 1844 memoir, she records that, “On the 3rd day of July 1807 [Sylvia Drake] consented to be my help-meet and came to be my companion.” Bryant had originally added “in labor,” in recognition of the two women’s shared enterprise in the clothing trades, but in striking her pen through those final words, she signaled the more encompassing nature of their union. The household of Charity Bryant (1777-1851) and Sylvia Drake (1784-1868)—which flourished for nearly forty years in the rural community of Weybridge, in Vermont’s Champlain Valley—may have been atypical, but it was by no means closeted. The pair were beloved in their home community, and welcome (eventually) among (most of) their friends and relatives. What’s more, in 1843, Charity’s nephew, the celebrated poet, journalist, and editor William Cullen Bryant, published an account in the New-York Evening Post of these two “maiden ladies” who “took each other as companions for life,” linked by a bond “no less sacred than the tie of marriage.” They “slept on the same pillow,” he wrote, “and had a common purse.”
Rachel Hope Cleves’s fascinating book Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America recovers, examines, and celebrates the lifelong partnership of these extraordinary women. Drawing on correspondence, diaries, poems, memoirs, account books, tax and probate records, portraiture, and other materials, Cleves—a historian at the University of Victoria—offers a richly detailed account of what was by all accounts a de facto marriage between two women in Federal New England. Her engrossing narrative offers readers a narrative of early America that they likely have not encountered before, where more women than we have heretofore imagined were able to test, and violate, the boundaries of prescription and pursue romantic, passionate, physical relationships with other women.
The first half of this joint biography tacks between the early lives of its two protagonists. Born in May 1777, in North Bridgewater, Massachusetts (a farming town south of Boston), Charity Bryant entered a world in chaos: Britain’s North American colonies were engulfed in a violent war for their independence, and Bryant’s mother died of consumption just weeks after giving birth. Young Bryant acquired a stepmother, but the two were of very different temperaments, their household frictions exacerbated by larger generational tensions that separated mothers who had suffered through the worst the Revolution had to offer from daughters coming of age in a new and independent nation.
Sylvia Drake—the youngest of eight children born into an Easton, Massachusetts, family already struggling to wrest a living from their meager landholdings—arrived after peace had been restored, but the Drakes had weathered the tumult of the rebellion only to succumb to the deepening postwar financial crisis. Bankrupt, the family split up, and the older children were sent to live with, and work for, relatives. After bouncing around New England for a time, Sylvia’s brother Asaph made his way to Vermont, putting down roots in Weybridge. He achieved a measure of success, and in time his parents and siblings joined him there.
Cleves posits that both Bryant and Drake in their teens and early twenties began to stray discernibly from the path usually assigned to white middle-class women in the early Republic. Like many women of her generation, twenty-year-old Bryant found work as a teacher. She didn’t especially like it, Cleves writes, but she appreciated the benefits it conferred. Working in schools around New England, she could live independently of any parents or husband, earn her own income, and resist, if only for a time, the tyranny of domestic labor. She could cultivate relationships with other young educators steeped in art and intellect, embrace a life of the mind, and nurture her poetic voice.
These kinds of clusters of likeminded women provided fertile ground for the formation of “romantic friendships.” Bryant seems to have been a particularly charismatic personality, her wit and intelligence sparking almost immediate devotion. To a point, the parents of her companions did not seem to mind these affections, as they assumed the young women would eventually outgrow their youthful affinities. The problems came when they didn’t, jeopardizing their marital prospects. Cleves suggests that gossip about inappropriately intense relationships drove Charity out of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, and then followed her West to Cummington, where she moved to join the household of her brother Peter and his wife Sally (William Cullen’s parents), but trouble there too drove her on to other family members in Pelham.
In these years, Cleves says, Bryant formed a series of intense associations (intellectual, emotional, sexual) with several young women. But Bryant left the romances of her youth behind when, in 1807, while visiting her friend Polly Drake Hayward in Vermont, she encountered Hayward’s youngest sister, Sylvia Drake. Raised with little access to the expansion of women’s education flowering elsewhere, Drake had struggled to find ways to feed her lively curiosity. Cleves suggests that Drake’s determination to remain in school served, at least in part, as her own effort to dodge courtship, a concern hinted at in family letters. She was perhaps already displaying an aversion to marriage when Bryant appeared in Weybridge.
The two women felt an “immediate mutual attraction,” writes Cleves. In order to cultivate their affections with privacy, Charity took on Cleves ostensibly as an assistant in her Weybridge tailoring shop, but their association was romantic and devoted from the start. Both women, ever after, observed July 3, 1807—the date on which they committed to living together—as the anniversary of their lifelong union. As a couple, they became members of a church, taxpayers, and good citizens of their town, Bryant assuming the role of husband, and Drake that of wife, a measure of conformity that Cleves says facilitated their acceptance by the local community and their relatives across the region. Bryant would no longer be chased from town to town by gossip and rumors; she and Drake—beloved “aunts” (literally in their family and metaphorically in the village)—spent their lives united in what seemed to all a genuine, and generally accepted, marriage.
Cleves’s project appears at an auspicious moment in the history of and fight to secure same-sex marriage, as well as in the writing of early American history. The study of sexuality in early America is thriving, and though same-sex love, sex, and intimacy haven’t claimed as much space in those conversations as they could or should, Cleves’s important study joins a growing body of literature on same-sex relationships in the United States before the nineteenth century that includes William Benemann’s Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships (2006); Thomas A. Foster’s 2007 edited collection Long before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America; John Gilbert McCurdy’s Citizen Bachelors: Manhood and the Creation of the United States (2009); and Richard Godbeer’s The Overflowing of Friendship: Love between Men and the Creation of the American Republic (2009).
Cleves had a fairly slender archival base on which to ground her study. Of more than 1,500 letters Bryant penned over the course of her life, only 36 are known to have survived; while only fifteen of Drake’s appear to be extant. Both women kept diaries, but Bryant’s was destroyed, and only a fraction of Drake’s survives. Drake preserved Bryant’s poems, their shop ledgers, and letters from friends and family. Their (shared) gravestone still stands in the Weybridge cemetery where they were buried, side by side, and the book’s (lovely) cover art draws on a pair of silhouettes that today reside among the collections of the Henry Sheldon Museum in Middlebury, Vermont. From these fragments, Cleves has nevertheless been able to construct for readers a remarkably rich account of the world these women inhabited, created, and shared. Beyond the book’s central themes, Cleves paints a vivid portrait of the lives of early American women: the world of this generation of women schoolteachers, the ways families scattered across the region cultivated and sustained ties, and small town life in nineteenth-century Vermont.
But of course the book’s main preoccupation is the relationship between the two protagonists, and here Cleves is determined to show not only that their union was, both in private and in public, the equivalent of a marriage, but also that it was grounded in physical, sexual desire. As she considers Bryant’s several flirtations before she met Drake, and of course the bond between the two women, Cleves makes plain that these are not the so-called passionate friendships—essentially same-sex crushes—that other historians have described; nor was the marriage an asexual partnership of convenience: she is emphatic about the erotic, passionate, sexual nature of Bryant and Drake’s attachment.
The question of whether women could behave as lesbians a century before the category was formally articulated (in the 1890s) has been asked in a number of academic settings, and Cleves’s book, which draws on the techniques of both social and cultural history, offers readers the chance to do some methodological soul searching of their own. In many ways, the book is an evidentiary Rorschach test: your response to individual passages and lines of analysis will reveal the contours of your own analytical temperament and comfort with interpretative risk-taking. Though I occasionally found myself skeptical of Cleves’s reading of some sources, for me a whole greater than the sum of its parts clearly emerged. Apart from its significant contribution to the scholarship of early America, this provocative study would be an excellent addition to any seminar on research methods, as well as on the art and craft of biography.
Whatever your reaction to Cleves’s take on individual pieces of evidence, a strikingly fresh view of early American womanhood emerges from these pages. Some of Cleves’s most compelling discussions capture the aspirations and optimism of the generation that came of age in the aftermath of the American Revolution, just as the bundle of ideas comprising “Republican Motherhood” (that is, that women’s contribution to the new nation would be domestic rather than political) gained traction. Cleves’s study paints a fascinating picture of a community of young, middle-class, white women striving toward some not-yet-articulated option, embracing passionate relationships with others similarly straining against cultural expectations. As her subjects struggle to find words that can describe how they feel about one another—more than friendship, more than sisterly affection, more even than conventional romance, relationships so steeped in delight and optimism that they seemed to defy any known category of association—Cleves conveys beautifully a moment in time (in these young lives, and in the young nation) when many new things seemed possible. It seems almost paradoxical that Bryant and Drake, having found each other in such heady times, ultimately gained acceptance by embracing and replicating (at least partially) fairly conventional roles.
Cleves’s main aim is to convince her readers that the “historical record is littered with Charities and Sylvias; we need only open our eyes and see.” In the wake of this pathbreaking study, it will be very difficult to do otherwise.
Marla Miller is a historian of women and work in early New England. Her most recent book is Rebecca Dickinson: Independence for a New England Woman (2013).