In Charity and Sylvia, Rachel Hope Cleves tells the story of Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant as an early history of same-sex marriage. In early nineteenth-century rural Vermont, these two women were able to build a life together for themselves, earning the recognition and respect of their community and their families. The earlier part of Charity’s story conforms more with what we might expect to see in the early 19th century history of lesbianism. Sylvia’s early life was different from Charity’s in many ways. She had a much happier life in rural Weybridge and never had to face to the sort of gossip that Charity endured. When the two women met, Sylvia was living at home, and Charity had come to visit one of Sylvia’s relatives. After just a couple months of knowing each other they had decided to move in together. To the family, they explained that Charity had hired Sylvia as a full-time assistant for her job as a tailor, but Cleve’s readings of Charity’s writings at the time reveal that this was much farther than just an economic arrangement.
I’ve noticed that in chapters pertaining to the marriage of Charity and Sylvia, Cleves continues to work with the unanswered questions of what happens behind closed doors and what this meant to the women themselves. Both Charity and Sylvia weren’t met with scorn, but were actually accepted and even embraced by both their town and families. Their community understood Charity and Sylvia to be married because they acted like a married couple by dividing their labor and public life according to the gendered understanding of how marriages work. Charity, as one relative later explained, “was the man” in their union, taking on the public face of the couple and serving as the head of the household (p. 132). Together, Charity and Sylvia were able to enjoy the benefits of the single life while still experiencing the love, partnership, and sexual pleasures of marriage.
I feel as though Charity and Sylvia presents an important contribution to the history of sexuality and women from about 200 years ago. They were able to show those who may not be too fond of inter-sex relationships that its not very different from “regular” relationships, and they were a very adorable couple. I also enjoyed reading about the history in the beginning and having a more exclusive background knowledge of where they came from, having personally gone to Bridgewater, Exeter, Providence and other places mentioned throughout the story.