Charity and Sylvia by Rachel Hope Cleves investigates the relationship of a same-sex couple in the dawn of American independence. While the book analyzes the interworkings of Charity Bryant’s and Sylvia Drake’s connection, in the first 9 chapters of the book, Cleves explains their lives before they came in contact with each other. Cleves describes how Charity’s constant exposure to mortality through her family members and the “financial chaos” following the revolution in Sylvia’s life, exemplified the social realities of early American life and how women’s placements were reimagined (8). I read about Silvia and Charity’s exposure to female liberation through poetry and classrooms and the sexual underpinnings of words like “friendship” (48). I learned about how Charity loved in past relationships with Mercy and Lydia, and what brought her to Sylvia. Spending a large part of the book explaining Charity and Sylvia’s personhood before they met, distinctly makes them people. They had humanity before becoming a part of one another, and it also made me understand how the world brought these two individuals together.
The second part of the book chronicles what Charity and Sylvia’s relationship meant to each other and how they operated in a heteronormative-appearing world. As reflected in chapter 10, Charity and Sylvia used biblical connotations to express the extent of their intimacy, and how these strong emotions made it necessary for Sylvia to leave her family to live with Charity. I witnessed the certainty of their love even though Sylvia, officially, was only seen as Charity’s “help-meet” (101). In the following chapters, I saw how Sylvia and Charity created a sort of American freedom by having a home that was their own. Silvia also struggled with her simultaneous love for God and love for Charity (125), but they found refuge in “feminine spiritual orientation” within religious systems (158). Charity and Sylvia created power dynamics, where Charity was the head of the household and appeared as the “female husband” (133), which somewhat replicated the heteronormative experience. Their family outside of themselves was important to them as well. They illustrated a female identity to their sibling’s children that did not have motherhood as the center of “female status” (152). This pride that came with their lives outside of traditional marriage was not just shown with Sylvia and Charity’s relationship because they created spaces for other women to exist and labor through their tailoring business.
What I thought were the most moving chapters were the last two on Charity’s and Sylvia’s ongoing ills, and Sylvia’s life after Charity passed. It told the fatal story of the love between two people of the same sex. It is rare to see authentic depictions of love like theirs in the current age. The love was not just bounded by their sexual ambiguity. They took measures to make each other better when it felt like disease in their body was preparing them for death (187). When Charity left this world, Sylvia felt the “loneliness” that is not unique to the same-sex romantic experience (191). Their relationship was not static. Charity and Sylvia exemplified the existence of a narrative that America is still grappling with today.