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Charity and Sylvia

A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America

by (author) Rechel Hope Cleves

Oxford University Press
Initial publish date
Oct 2016
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2016
    List Price

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Charity and Sylvia is the intimate history of two ordinary women who lived in an extraordinary same-sex marriage during the early nineteenth century. Based on diaries, letters, and poetry, among other original documents, the research traces the women's lives in sharp detail. Charity Bryant was born in 1777 to a consumptive mother who died a month later. Raised in Massachusetts, Charity developed into a brilliant and strong-willed woman with a passion for her own sex. After being banished from her family home by her father at age twenty, she traveled throughout Massachusetts, working as a teacher, making intimate female friends, and becoming the subject of gossip wherever she lived. At age twenty-nine, still defiantly single, Charity visited friends in Weybridge, Vermont. There she met Sylvia Drake, a pious and studious young woman whose family had moved to the frontier village after losing their Massachusetts farm during the Revolution. The two soon became so inseparable that Charity decided to rent rooms in Weybridge. Sylvia came to join her on July 3, 1807, commencing a forty-four year union that lasted until Charity's death.

Over the years, the women came to be recognized as a married couple, or something like it. Charity took the role of husband, and Sylvia of wife, within the marriage. Revered by their community, Charity and Sylvia operated a tailor shop employing many local women, served as guiding lights within their church, and participated in raising more than one hundred nieces and nephews. Most extraordinary, all the while the sexual potential of their union remained an open secret, cloaked in silence to preserve their reputations. The story of Charity and Sylvia overturns today's conventional wisdom that same-sex marriage is a modern innovation, and reveals that early America was both more diverse and more accommodating than modern society imagines.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Rachel Hope Cleves is Associate Professor of History at the University of Victoria. She is the prize-winning author of The Reign of Terror in America: Visions of Violence from Anti-Jacobinism to Antislavery.

Editorial Reviews

"[A] remarkable story of which [Cleves] tells with equal parts rigor and sensitivity... Charity and Sylvia is an absorbing and perspective-shifting read in its entirety, chronicling the lives of these two pioneering women, the multitude of challenges, personal and social, they overcame to be together, and the depth and richness of their lifelong love."


"In telling [the story of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake], Cleves has written more than a work of recovery of a lesbian past. She offers an intriguing inquiry into the language of letters and poetry. Her close reading uncovers hidden meanings to reveal the private coded words of the same-sex female lovers."

--Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"The book is the first to delve deep into the history of an early American same-sex marriage. Cleves sees Drake and Bryant not as an aberration, but as part of a larger history of same-sex partnerships that has yet to be written - one that now exists mainly as clues dropped in family histories and stories told in the archives of local historical societies."

--Rebecca Onion, Boston Globe

"...Rachel Hope Cleves's Charity and Sylvia is an important contribution to the field. Finally, a historian has documented a long-term same-sex relationship in the early republic.... Charity and Sylvia is a compelling story that fills a long-standing void in the history of sexuality."

--Journal of American History

"Starting with the birth of the woman on whom author Rachel Hope Cleves focuses most, this book opens with a slice of life during the Revolutionary War. We then move back and forth in narrative, but Cleves never lets us forget the time and space that her subjects inhabited, the social mores, the historical aspects, nor the seemingly-inconsistent attitudes toward romance and sex that our forebears held and that which we've been led to believe they had. I found that deeply fascinating and highly entertaining. I think that if you're a fan of history (LGBT or otherwise), this is something you'll relish. With chaste retelling and its abundant details, Charity and Sylvia is your grandmother's book - and yours, too."

--Washington Blade

"Rachel Hope Cleves offers a lyrical portrait of a same-sex marriage in this new book. Here completely assembled for the first time is the compelling story of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake and their forty-four-year (1807-51) domestic, romantic, and sexual union.... Through nineteen short, crisply composed chapters, readers are drawn into the intimate world of Charity and Sylvia.... Scholars of the history of sexuality and the general reading public alike - but especially those engaged in same-sex marriages in the twenty-first century - will appreciate the depth of research and the beautiful prose of this book. Charity and Sylvia would be proud."

--Journal of the History of Sexuality

"Charity and Sylvia is undeniably smart - a devastatingly handsome contribution to our understanding of the history of gender and sexuality in the United States and the history of the early republic and antebellum period generally."

--The New England Quarterly

"In a year when same-sex marriages are being recognized, unrecognized and rerecognized in courtrooms around the country, historian Rachel Hope Cleves flies us back in time two centuries to a remarkable couple... Drawing on documents and letters, and occasionally reading between the lines and interpreting silences, Cleves meticulously reconstructs their lives together in Charity and Sylvia. She explores fascinating and difficult questions, such as how the two women squared their relationship with their religious community and whether this was a sexual union."

--Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"In this beautifully written and utterly absorbing love story, Cleves (The Reign of Terror in America) explores the lives of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, two ordinary middle-class women who serve as a window on historical constructs of marriage, gender, and sexuality in late 18th-century and early 19th-century America... Meticulously researched and brilliantly argued, Cleves has crafted an important work of history that resonates with one of today's most public debates."

--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"The moving true story of a same-sex couple who found an honored place in early 19th-century Vermont... Rachel Hope Cleves' new book, Charity and Sylvia: A Same Sex Marriage in Early America, is a slim, tender tribute to this marriage-in-all-but-law... Academic histories capable of bringing tears to a reader's eyes are rare, but Charity and Sylvia is one of them."