THE SURPRISES OF RESEARCH: LOVERS WHO LIVED OUTSIDE THE NORM

By Nancy Means Wright

With research you never know what new worlds might open up. Not infrequently a fresh encounter or a chance remark or bit of local news has altered my plot and offered a fresh, exciting way to end a story. It even changed the focus of this blog–originally a piece about Christmas–when a friend invited me to attend a Middlebury College talk about two remarkable women who had lived in the area more than a century and a half ago.

Author Rachel Hope Cleves discovered the women in Middlebury’s Sheldon Museum while researching a work about the 19th-century American romantic poet, William Cullen Bryant. She unearthed a letter in which the poet mentioned the alleged “marriage” of his niece, Charity Bryant (1777-1851) to another woman, Sylvia Drake (1784-1868). The two females ran a prosperous sewing and tailoring business out of their home, and lived together as respected members of their local church and community.

The young women had encountered scorn and intolerance in their respective Massachusetts communities, and, in their twenties, had fled independently to live in the frontier town of Weybridge, Vermont. Months after meeting, they fell in love, rented a room, and on July 3, 1807, moved in together. Charity wrote out their “consent,” a term for marriage in 19th-century vernacular, to live as “help-meets,” a common synonym derived from Genesis 2:18 for marital partners. Sylvia performed the wifely domestic chores, while the more extroverted Charity took on the role of husband and business partner, and was recorded as head of the household by Federal census takers. Both women sewed fiercely, taught Sunday school at the local church, cooked for church suppers, and were listed together on land and tax records.

Undoubtedly there were whisperings and raised eyebrows about the relationship, but If there was any talk of punishment by law, Cleves said, it was ignored. The pair slowly gained acceptance and were considered a couple, rather than two spinsters living together out of need. For yes, this was a marriage of love. The Sheldon Museum holds in its archives framed silhouettes of the two women, done in the early 1800s by an itinerant artist. The women had braided bits of their hair in loops to frame the portraits, with the middle loop in the shape of a heart–“a message of romantic unity of souls” according to Cleves, “that in the grammar of early America signaled marriage.”

“The sameness of the silhouettes is misleading,” Cleves asserts, “a misapprehension that obscures their differences from each other, and their differences as a pair from others at the time.”

The women by all accounts lived together in health, sickness, and hard times until Charity’s death in 1851, and were ultimately buried side by side in the Weybridge cemetery where one can still visit their grave. If the relationship wasn’t “legal” as it is today in Vermont and other liberal states, “their union,” Cleves said, “was within the contemporary category of marriage.”

Whether Cleves will complete her research on Charity’s Uncle William, remains to be seen. But through her side trip into the history of the poet’s niece and her partner, readers have gained a compelling story of love, tolerance, and acceptance. No closeted love affair this–but an open secret, with an entire village looking on! In 1843 another nephew published a lyrical portrait of their lives that he called “no less sacred to them than the ties of marriage.” And Cleves’ new book, Charity and Sylvia: A Same Sex Marriage in Early Weybridge, Vermont, is now on the shelves.

Isn’t it amazing what one’s research might turn up? We must keep our minds and hearts open and our pens at the ready. And remember that Christmas¬† (my original topic) is about love.

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6 Responses

  1. Mary,

    As you observe, there are many kinds of love relationships. As long as the individuals are happy together and harm no one, it’s really fine. Hopefully, tolerance will increase.

    • Thank you, Jacquie–you are indeed an early bird! And yes, I think this 19th-century community response was wonderful. The women, too, were remarkable.

  2. The more love in the world, the better, as far as I can see. Thank you for bringing this marriage into the light, Nancy.

    • It was really the poet Wm Cullin Bryant who brought it to light, and then the author of this new book. I love this long ago story of two brave women and a wholly tolerant village. Thanks for your kind words, Nikki.

  3. A lovely case of the delight of research.

    • As you well know, Sheila, there is no end to one’s research. Thanks for reading this, and have a lovely holiday!

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