Charity & Sylvia

Review of “Charity & Sylvia: A Same Sex Marriage in Early America”

Despite Rachel Hope Cleves’ early assertion to the contrary, her book, Charity and Sylvia is hardly an “unremarkable” history. Certainly, elements of the work’s focus—namely its look at romantic and familial relationships, gender expectations, and domesticity—are rather ordinary and speak to a common 18th/19th century New England experience. But one would be mistaken to discount the extraordinariness of the title characters’ abilities to adapt these otherwise typical components of life to their own unique circumstances. Cleves, initial modesty aside, knows this well and so her study of Charity and Sylvia, a same-sex married couple in 19th century New England, reads as nothing less than profound and worthy of the extended consideration given it.

The book’s first half largely establishes its two titular characters’ pasts prior to their meeting. Charity, the older of the two, is given a more thorough backstory though both women’s struggles with singlehood are adeptly argued. Cleves also introduces a recurring cast of characters whose lives frequently come to intersect with Charity and Sylvia’s over the span of years and even decades. In assembling sources—including letters, diaries, and memoirs—from many of these side characters, Cleves both legitimizes the couple’s marriage (as a social and public institution) and provides several outside perspectives on an otherwise personal relationship. The latter half of the book explores various dimensions of the couple’s life together including their public/private dynamic, homebuilding efforts, business and family ties, physical intimacy, and ultimately, separation upon death. In speaking to each of these, however, Cleves continually reminds us of the couple’s family and friends. This is significant because their union did not exist in isolation and Cleves does well to situate it within a world both knowing and frequently approving of it. The extent of this approval proves surprising and is easily the work’s most poignant detail.

In piecing together the couple’s story, Cleves relies on a large number of sources from both Charity and Sylvia but also, perhaps most impressively, from those whose lives only just intersected with the pair. She additionally gives much consideration to period specific cultural items which provide necessary contextualization for many cited allusions. Yet, Cleves’ analysis frequently depends on a close reading—particularly of poetry—that looks between the lines for deeper meaning into the couple’s psyches. In these instances, her speculation never feels cheap or unfounded but is always grounded in a wealth of knowledge built from an understanding of other pertinent contemporary sources including the frequently referenced British lesbian Anne Lister.

As Cleves herself attests at the onset, Charity and Sylvia builds on decades of existing research in fields as varied as early American history and contemporary gender studies. Her micro-history then contributes a single account of a powerful, well-researched and documented same-sex marriage that may be of interest to a wide cross-section of scholars and researchers. The work’s greatest significance though, Cleves notes in closing, is not in its documentation of a mere committed lesbian relationship but in that relationship’s vibrant existence in early American public life.


Note: The above review was originally submitted as an assignment for HIS 780 in Spring ’17 at Queens College, CUNY.

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