Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, by Rachel Hope Cleves
A version of this post originally appeared on March 4, 2023.
For Women's History Month, meet Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake. Charity hailed from an erudite family--she was aunt to William Cullen Bryant, known for "Thanatopsis" and other poems--but Sylvia was no slouch herself, and they wrote reams of letters over the decades. From this correspondence, historian Rachel Hope Cleves reconstructs how two lesbians lived as a married couple in 19th century Vermont.
I will confess I zoned out occasionally--many of the letters took the form of poems, and there is only so much early American poetry I can take--but I was glad to discover the Bryants' story. There is a lot of drama here. Before meeting Sylvia, Charity was popular with the ladies, and I can't forgive how she done Lydia wrong.
There's also a lot about the social life, religion, and lifestyle of people in the decades following the Revolution. For one thing, people generally were more accepting of a same-sex marriage than I would have guessed. Of course there was some prejudice, and the two women themselves struggled to reconcile their lesbianism with their religion, but they were not pariahs. Far from it: they were esteemed members of the community. Remember this the next time someone claims that gay marriage is a recent invention.
When Covid first hit, I started doing book talks on social media as a way to keep in touch with people. I never got out of the habit. I don't discuss books by my clients, and if I don't like a book, I won't discuss it at all. While I will sometimes focus on craft or offer gentle critical perspectives, as a matter of professional courtesy, I don't trash writers. Unless they're dead. Then the gloves come off.