Brain Pickings

Truth and Tenderness: Ralph Waldo Emerson on Friendship and Its Two Essential Conditions

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“What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?”

It’s been argued that friendship is a greater gift than romantic love (though it’s not uncommon for one to turn abruptly into the other), but whatever the case, friendship is certainly one of the most rewarding fruits of life — from the sweetness of childhood friendships to the trickiness of workplace ones. This delicate dance has been examined by thinkers from Aristotle to Francis Bacon to Thoreau, but none more thoughtfully than by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In an essay on the subject, found in his altogether soul-expanding Essays and Lectures (public library; free download), Emerson considers the intricate dynamics of friendship, beginning with our often underutilized innate capacities:

We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken. Barring all the selfishness that chills like east winds the world, the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor, and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eyebeams. The heart knoweth…

The emotions of benevolence … from the highest degree of passionate love, to the lowest degree of good will, they make the sweetness of life.

More than mere gratification of the heart, however, Emerson celebrates friendship as something that expands and enriches our intellectual landscape:

Our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection. The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend, and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words.

But beyond the rewards of emotion and intellect lies an even deeper satisfaction — that of the soul:

What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling? How beautiful, on their approach to this beating heart, the steps and forms of the gifted and the true! The moment we indulge our affections, the earth is metamorphosed; there is no winter, and no night; all tragedies, all ennuis vanish; all duties even; nothing fills the proceeding eternity but the forms all radiant of beloved persons. Let the soul be assured that somewhere in the universe it should rejoin its friend, and it would be content and cheerful alone for a thousand years.

For Emerson, friendship isn’t something that can be willed or forced but, rather, the natural byproduct of our interaction with the world. A century and a half before the modern social web, he pens a passage that rings with extraordinary poignancy and prescience today:

We weave social threads of our own, a new web of relations; and, as many thoughts in succession substantiate themselves, we shall by-and-by stand in a new world of our own creation, and no longer strangers and pilgrims in a traditionary globe. My friends have come to me unsought.

Drawing from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc, a tender illustrated story about loyalty and the gift of friendship. Click image for more.

In the deepest of friendships, Emerson finds an element of reverie as the two friends amplify each other’s goodness through a boundless generosity of spirit:

I must feel pride in my friend’s accomplishments as if they were mine, and a property in his virtues. I feel as warmly when he is praised, as the lover when he hears applause of his engaged maiden. We over-estimate the conscience of our friend. His goodness seems better than our goodness, his nature finer, his temptations less. Everything that is his, — his name, his form, his dress, books and instruments, — fancy enhances. Our own thought sounds new and larger from his mouth.

But even the most absolute of friendships, Emerson argues, have a certain pace of presence and absence, a natural rhythm of “comings and goings” that should be respected rather than bemoaned as a weakness in the relationship:

The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone, for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society. This method betrays itself along the whole history of our personal relations. The instinct of affection revives the hope of union with our mates, and the returning sense of insulation recalls us from the chase. Thus every man passes his life in the search after friendship, and if he should record his true sentiment, he might write a letter like this, to each new candidate for his love:

Dear Friend:—

If I was sure of thee, sure of thy capacity, sure to match my mood with thine, I should never think again of trifles, in relation to thy comings and goings. I am not very wise; my moods are quite attainable; and I respect thy genius; it is to me as yet unfathomed; yet dare I not presume in thee a perfect intelligence of me, and so thou art to me a delicious torment. Thine ever, or never.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House of Butterflies,' 1960. Click image for more.

To rush these rhythms or force friendship to comply to a specific fantasy, Emerson gently admonishes, would be an assault on the relationship:

Our friendships hurry to short and poor conclusions, because we have made them a texture of wine and dreams, instead of the tough fiber of the human heart. The laws of friendship are great, austere, and eternal, of one web with the laws of nature and of morals. But we have aimed at a swift and petty benefit, to suck a sudden sweetness.

In a sentiment that John Steinbeck would come to echo a century later in the context of love, writing to his teenage son that “the main thing is not to hurry [for] nothing good gets away,” Emerson argues that to be impatient in friendship is to mistrust the depth of the relationship and to deny the resilience and immutability of the friend’s affections:

Our impatience is thus sharply rebuked. Bashfulness and apathy are a tough husk in which a delicate organization is protected from premature ripening. It would be lost if it knew itself before any of the best souls were yet ripe enough to know and own it. Respect the naturalangsamkeit [German for the slowness of natural development] which hardens the ruby in a million years, and works in duration, in which Alps and Andes come and go as rainbows. The good spirit of our life has no heaven which is the price of rashness. Love, which is the essence of God, is not for levity, but for the total worth of man. Let us not have this childish luxury in our regards, but the austerest worth; let us approach our friend with an audacious trust in the truth of his heart, in the breadth, impossible to be overturned, of his foundations.

[...]

I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I’ll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss, 1954. Click image for more.

And yet how rare it is to have a friend with whom one can be earnest to the point of absoluteness — who doesn’t require the veneer of self-consciousness and the shield of cynicism. Echoing Aristotle’s assertion that a friend holds a mirror up to us and thus brings us closer to ourselves, Emerson outlines the two key elements of a true, solid, soul-fortifying friendship:

There are two elements that go to the composition of friendship, each so sovereign, that I can detect no superiority in either, no reason why either should be first named. One is Truth. A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud. I am arrived at last in the presence of a man so real and equal that I may drop even those undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy, and second thought, which men never put off, and may deal with him with the simplicity and wholeness, with which one chemical atom meets another. Sincerity is the luxury allowed, but diadems and authority, only to the highest rank, that being permitted to speak truth as having none above it to court or conform unto. Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins… We cover up our thought from him under a hundred folds.

[...]

The other element of friendship is tenderness. We are holden to men by every sort of tie, by blood, by pride, by fear, by hope, by lucre, by lust, by hate, by admiration, by every circumstance and badge and trifle, but we can scarce believe that so much character can subsist in another as to draw us by love. Can another be so blessed, and we so pure, that we can offer him tenderness? When a man becomes dear to me, I have touched the goal of fortune.

In another stroke of exalting prescience, Emerson bemoans — more than a century before our networking-preoccupied, self-promotional society — the superficiality and transactional ego-stroking that defines most human interactions, the vacant “chat of markets or reading-rooms.” (We all know the people who bestow upon professional relations and marginal acquaintances the misplaced label “friend” in an act of name-dropping or self-inflation — an injustice against true friendship.) Emerson laments:

To most of us society shows not its face and eye, but its side and its back. To stand in true relations with men in a false age, is worth a fit of insanity, is it not? We can seldom go erect. Almost every man we meet requires some civility, — requires to be humored; he has some fame, some talent, some whim of religion or philanthropy in his head that is not to be questioned, and which spoils all conversation with him. But a friend is a sane man who exercises not my ingenuity, but me. My friend gives me entertainment without requiring any stipulation on my part. A friend, therefore, is a sort of paradox in nature. I who alone am, I who see nothing in nature whose existence I can affirm with equal evidence to my own, behold now the semblance of my being in all its height, variety and curiosity, reiterated in a foreign form; so that a friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.

[...]

I hate the prostitution of the name of friendship to signify modish and worldly alliances.

He returns to the greatest gift of true friendship:

[Friendship] is for aid and comfort through all the relations and passages of life and death. It is fit for serene days, and graceful gifts, and country rambles, but also for rough roads and hard fare, shipwreck, poverty, and persecution… We are to dignify to each other the daily needs and offices of man’s life, and embellish it by courage, wisdom and unity. It should never fall into something usual and settled, but should be alert and inventive, and add rhyme and reason to what was drudgery.

Illustration by Carla Torres from 'Larry and Friends.' Click image for more.

But Emerson argues, as I too have long believed, that the fruits of friendship are best harvested in one-on-one companionship rather than larger social situations. He explores the inverse correlation between the quality of connection and conversation and the number of friends involved:

I find this law of one to one, peremptory for conversation, which is the practice and consummation of friendship. Do not mix waters too much. The best mix as ill as good and bad. You shall have very useful and cheering discourse at several times with two several men, but let all three of you come together, and you shall not have one new and hearty word. Two may talk and one may hear, but three cannot take part in a conversation of the most sincere and searching sort. In good company there is never such discourse between two, across the table, as takes place when you leave them alone. In good company, the individuals at once merge their egotism into a social soul exactly co-extensive with the several consciousnesses there present. No partialities of friend to friend, no fondnesses of brother to sister, of wife to husband, are there pertinent, but quite otherwise. Only he may then speak who can sail on the common thought of the party, and not poorly limited to his own. Now this convention, which good sense demands, destroys the high freedom of great conversation, which requires an absolute running of two souls into one.

Returning to the building blocks of true friendship, Emerson points out that the most valuable friendships don’t spring from a filter bubble of like-mindedness but, rather, from the perfect osmosis of shared values and just enough discrepancy in tastes and sensibilities to broaden our horizons:

Friendship requires that rare mean betwixt likeness and unlikeness, that piques each with the presence of power and of consent in the other party… I hate, where I looked for a manly furtherance, or at least a manly resistance, to find a mush of concession. Better be a nettle in the side of your friend, than his echo. The condition which high friendship demands is ability to do without it… Let it be an alliance of two large formidable natures, mutually beheld, mutually feared, before yet they recognize the deep identity which beneath these disparities unites them.

(A phrase like “a mush of concession” reminds you of just how daring a writer Emerson was in his era, and how original he remains in ours.)

Illustration by Ben Shecter from 'The Hating Book' by Charlotte Zolotow, 1953. Click image for more.

He returns once more to the organic formation of true friendship and the reverie with which its natural rhythms should be beheld, the room we should give a friend to breathe and grow and just be:

Friendship demands a religious treatment. We talk of choosing our friends, but friends are self-elected. Reverence is a great part of it. Treat your friend as a spectacle. [Your friend] has merits that are not yours, and that you cannot honor, if you must needs hold him close to your person. Stand aside; give those merits room; let them mount and expand. Are you the friend of your friend’s buttons, or of his thought? To a great heart he will still be a stranger in a thousand particulars, that he may come near in the holiest ground…

Leave this touching and clawing. Let him be to me a spirit.

To entrust a friend with the burden of our own wholeness, he suggests, is not only to place an unbearable weight on the relationship but also to relinquish vital personal responsibility:

We must be our own before we can be another’s… The least defect of self-possession vitiates, in my judgment, the entire relation. There can never be deep peace between two spirits, never mutual respect until, in their dialogue, each stands for the whole world.

Illustration by André François from 'Little Boy Brown,' a vintage ode to friendship by Isobel Harris. Click image for more.

Emerson ends by considering the dual art of what it takes to have a friend and to be one:

Wait, and thy heart shall speak. Wait until the necessary and everlasting overpowers you, until day and night avail themselves of your lips. The only reward of virtue, is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.

A patience with the rhythms of relationships and an attentive sensitivity to their dynamics, he argues, will eventually elevate the true friendships over the false ones, over those of unequal investment of affections and effort, which will invariably fall away to reveal the immutable:

It has seemed to me lately more possible than I knew, to carry a friendship greatly, on one side, without due correspondence on the other. Why should I cumber myself with regrets that the receiver is not capacious? It never troubles the sun that some of his rays fall wide and vain into ungrateful space, and only a small part on the reflecting planet. Let your greatness educate the crude and cold companion. If he is unequal, he will presently pass away… But the great will see that true love cannot be unrequited. True love transcends the unworthy object, and dwells and broods on the eternal, and when the poor interposed mask crumbles, it is not sad, but feels rid of so much earth, and feels its independency the surer… The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnanimity and trust.

Complement this with Andrew Sullivan’s beautiful reflections on friendship. Emerson’s Essays and Lectures includes equally insightful meditations on love, heroism, intellect, prudence, self-reliance, and more. The entire volume is available, and highly recommended, as a free download.

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Jane Goodall Answers the Proust Questionnaire

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A dead writer meets one of the greatest scientists alive.

A century before today’s popular personality quizzes, Victorian “confession albums” served essentially the same role, presenting a series of simple questions designed to reveal the respondent’s sensibility and aspirations. In the 1880s, teenage Marcel Proust was given one such questionnaire by his friend Antoinette, the daughter of France’s then-president, which he promptly answered. The original manuscript, titled “by Marcel Proust himself,” lay dormant for decades, until it was discovered in 1924, two years after the writer’s death. Half a century later, French television host Bernard Pivot resurrected the questionnaire as a backbone for his literary interviews. In 1993, Vanity Fair transplanted the tradition to the last page of the magazine, which began featuring various public figures’ answers to the Proust Questionnaire.

In 2009, the magazine released Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life (public library). Among the respondents is legendary primatologist and environmentalist Jane Goodall, she of great wisdom, who answered the famed survey in May of 2004.

Portrait of Jane Goodall by Robert Risko for Vanity Fair

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Sitting by myself in the forest in Gombe National Park watching one of the chimpanzee mothers with her family.

What is your greatest fear?
That I shall be tortured and be a coward.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Hypocrisy.

What is your greatest extravagance?
Long-distance phone calls to my friends.

What is your favorite journey?
My favorite ever journey was my first trip from Nairobi City to the Serengeti to Olduvai Gorge before it was famous, when there were no roads and all the animals were there. We were in an overloaded Land Rover, four people and two Dalmatians.

What do you dislike most about your appearance?
Aging skin!

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My childhood companion and teacher — my dog, Rusty.

When and where were you happiest?
In the early 60s, when I was alone at Gombe with the chimpanzees.

What talent would you most like to have?
Ability to learn languages.

What is your current state of mind?
Deep concern at the state of the planet, environmental and social.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I need to be 20 years younger — there is too much to do.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Starting our youth program, Roots & Shoots, along with helping to blur the line between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Knowing you have let someone down, betrayed their trust.

What is your favorite occupation?
Observing animals alone in the wilderness.

What is your most marked characteristic?
Determination/optimism.

What do you most value in your friends?
Being able to share happiness and sadness and have a good laugh.

Who are your favorite writers?
Shakespeare, Tolkien, Mary Wesley.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Robin Hood.

Who are your heroes in real life?
My mother, until her death; dedicated teachers; Kofi Annan; Nelson Mandela; Muhammad Yunus.

What is it that you most dislike?
Receptions and dinners in noisy places with people talking too loud, riding in stretch limos, waste.

How would you like to die?
Peacefully and before losing my physical and especially my mental facilities.

What is your motto?
“As thy days, so shall thy strength be.”

That Goodall — one of the greatest scientists of the past century — should answer this last question with a quote from the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish Torah only speaks to her sensitivity to the spiritual aspect of science and her conviction that religion is useful only when and if it inspires us to do better.

Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire features more responses by such cultural icons as Allen Ginsberg, Hedy Lamarr, Gore Vidal, Julia Child, and Joan Didion. Sample it further with David Bowie’s playful and poignant answers and complement it with LIFE magazine’s similarly-spirited 1991 volume The Meaning of Life.

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Charity and Sylvia: The Remarkable Story of How Two Women Married Each Other in Early America

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“For 40 years… they have shared each other’s occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other tenderly in sickness.”

In 1897, a man by the name of Hiram Harvey Hurlburt recorded in his diary: “Miss Bryant and Miss Drake were married to each other.” Nine decades earlier in a neighboring village, more than two centuries before Edie and Thea claimed equal dignity for all love in the eyes of the law, 30-year-old Charity Bryant and 22-year-old Sylvia Drake had entered into a lifelong union and promised eternal love to one another, immortalizing their vows in a traditional silhouette portrait. With level eyes and uplifted chins, two elegant black outlines gaze at each other across a thick cream-colored mat, framed by delicate paper with pinkened edges and encircled by a thin braid of blond hair, which forms a heart between their mirrored bosoms.

This is how historian Rachel Hope Cleves paints the backdrop of these two women’s era-defying relationship, the remarkable story of which she tells with equal parts rigor and sensitivity in Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (public library).

Reflecting on the symbolism of the silhouette portrait, Cleves writes:

Their sameness is misleading, a misapprehension that obscures their differences from each other, and their difference as a pair from others at the time…

Charity opened the door to a different life. She struck an astonishing contrast to the women in Sylvia’s family, who were all mothers to large and growing families. Sylvia ultimately had sixty-four nieces and nephews; one sister-in-law gave birth to eighteen children, ten by the time Sylvia and Charity met…

[Charity] had pledged at age twenty-three to never get married. Instead [she] poured her creative energies into writing verses, not birthing children. Charity’s singularity and singlehood were intoxicating to Sylvia, who had very little interest in marriage herself. Sylvia dismissed the men who courted her without consideration. The Drakes could not make sense of Sylvia’s aversion. But in Charity, Sylvia finally found a kindred soul.

What an irony that these two marriage-averse women ended up forming such a remarkable union… Once Sylvia and Charity found each other, they were never willing to be parted. Charity described their encounter as “providence.”

Mere months after that fateful first meeting — one imagines something akin to how Alice B. Toklas met Gertrude Stein — Charity rented a room at Weybridge and on July 3, 1807, Sylvia moved in. Cleves writes:

For the rest of their lives, the two women would celebrate this date as the beginning of their union. Over the next forty-four years they remained mutually devoted to each other through the tribulations of ill health, overwork, and spiritual doubt.

They finally parted when Charity died in 1851. Seventeen lonely years later, Sylvia was buried next to her in the graveyard on Weybridge Hill, under a shared headstone, like any married couple.

Charity and Sylvia's headstone at Weybridge Hill cemetery

But even though such same-sex unions were not entirely uncommon, what made that between Charity and Sylvia so singular was that it was an open secret — if there was any closet at all, it was wholly transparent, with the entire village looking in:

Although Sylvia and Charity lived a quiet life, far from the bustle and commotion of the nineteenth century’s growing cities, they did not live in secret. Everyone who knew them understood that they were a couple and viewed their relationship as a marriage or something like it… Charity’s nephew, the poet William Cullen Bryant, came close when he described the relationship as “no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage.”

And yet even boldness is beholden to the cultural context of its time — though their marriage was in many ways revolutionary, it simply reappropriated domestic gender expectations rather than creating new ones altogether:

One reason people viewed Charity and Sylvia’s relationship as marital was that the women divided their domestic and public roles according to the familiar pattern of husband and wife. Throughout their lives together Charity always served as head of the household. Her name came first in public documents, such as tax records and census records. She handled the money and took the leading role in all of their business. Sylvia performed the wifely work of cooking and keeping house. In some ways, she did not live all that differently from her sisters after all.

Once again, this dynamic calls to mind Gertrude Stein, who famously called Alice B. Toklas her “kitten, baby, queen, cherubim, cake, lobster and wife.” Cleves writes:

Hiram Hurlburt explained in his memoir, “Miss Bryant was the man” in the marriage. And Sylvia, according to William Cullen Bryant, was a “fond wife” to her “husband.”

Charity and Sylvia also seem to have viewed their relationship in these terms. Charity portrayed herself as a husband when she called Sylvia her “help-meet” — a common early American synonym for wife, adopted from the Bible, Genesis 2:18. Sylvia fantasized about taking Charity’s name for her own. On an archived scrap of paper, in Sylvia’s handwriting, there survives a list of names that looks like practice toward a signature, with big loops on the capitals and flourishes on the final letters. The list begins with the name “Bryant,” followed by “Bryant Charity,” then plunges into the sequence “Bryant Sylvia Bryant Sylvia Bryant Charity Bryant Sylvia.” Excluded from the legal form of marriage, it appears that Sylvia, in a romantic gesture, once inscribed her desire to become a wife in name as well as practice.

According to English common-law tradition, wives assumed their husbands’ names because marriage transformed spouses into a single person. Genesis 2:24 states that “a man shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” The idea that a husband and wife became one person, in spirit, body, and law, lay at the heart of early American ideas of marriage. The eighteenth-century English jurist William Blackstone described husbands and wives as one person in the law. Charity shared Sylvia’s evident wish for marital oneness. “May we pass our whole life,” Charity serenaded Sylvia in an 1810 poem, “and our minds be united in one.” Her language echoed an early nineteenth-century English treatise, which defined husbands and wives as “united in one body out of two by God.”

But perhaps most interesting of all is the transparency of their marriage. Indeed, that proverbial closet appears less like a closet than like a translucent Japanese parlor screen — as in their wedding portrait, one can see the women’s silhouettes, the outlines of the relationship, and interpret them with one’s chosen degree of realism, fill them in with as much social propriety as one needs to feel proper oneself.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love. Click image for more.

Cleves considers the question of freely relinquished privacy:

Like queer people in many times and places, Charity and Sylvia preserved their reputations by persuading their community to treat the matter of their sexuality as an open secret. Although it is commonly assumed that the “closet” is an opaque space, meaning that people who are in the closet keep others in total ignorance about their sexuality, often the closet is really an open secret. The ignorance that defines the closet is as likely to be a carefully constructed edifice as it is to be a total absence of knowledge. The closet depends on people strategically choosing to remain ignorant of inconvenient facts…

The open closet is an especially critical strategy in small towns, where every person serves a role, and which would cease to function if all moral transgressors were ostracized. Small communities can maintain the fiction of ignorance in order to preserve social arrangements that work for the general benefit. Queer history has often focused on the modern city as the most potent site of gay liberation, since its anonymity and living arrangements for single people permitted same-sex-desiring men and women to form innovative communities. More recognition needs to be given to the distinctive opportunities that rural towns allowed for the expression of same-sex sexuality.

[...]

Charity and Sylvia gained the toleration of their relatives and community not by hiding away but by being public-minded… They became “Aunt Charity” and “Aunt Sylvia” to the whole community… [Their] relationship, far from hidden, was widely known and respected. In fact, the absence of a man in their household allowed the women’s marriage less privacy than traditional unions received. In a male-dominated world, two women could not claim the same freedom from public interference that a man could for his home.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love. Click image for more.

The first formal account of the women’s marriage came from Charity’s nephew, Cullen, who wrote about it in the New-York Evening Post in 1843, as Charity and Sylvia were celebrating their fortieth anniversary. Charity supported Cullen’s poetic aspirations from a young age and he went on to become a writer. In 1850, he published a book of letters, in which he wrote a lyrical account of Charity and Sylvia’s life together, inspired by a popular marriage passage in The Book of Common Prayer:

If I were permitted to draw aside the veil of private life, I would briefly give you the singular, and to me most interesting history of two maiden ladies who dwell in this valley. I would tell you how, in their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and how this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in uninterrupted harmony, for forty years, during which they have shared each other’s occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other tenderly in sickness; for sickness has made long and frequent visits to their dwelling. I could tell you how they slept on the same pillow and had a common purse, and adopted each other’s relations, and how one of them, more enterprising and spirited in her temper than the other, might be said to represent the male head of the family, and took upon herself their transactions with the world without, until at length her health failed, and she was tended by her gentle companion, as a fond wife attends her invalid husband. I would tell you of their dwelling, encircled with roses, which now in the days of their broken health, bloom wild without their tendance, and I would speak of the friendly attentions which their neighbors, people of kind hearts and simple manners, seem to take pleasure in bestowing upon them, but I have already said more than I fear they will forgive me for, if this should ever meet their eyes, and I must leave the subject.

But the story, Cleves notes with a charming wink at her profession (“Historians, unlike poets, are not content with evocative imagery. We have a ravenous appetite for the factual.”), so woven as much of such second-hand accounts as it is of first-hand silences — once again, the negative space shapes the silhouette, adding by leaving out:

Not only have few of the women’s letters survived, the documents that do remain are mostly silent on the subject that first sparked my interest and probably the interest of most readers: the women’s sexuality. Some of the strongest evidence for the women’s sexual relationships appears in their religious writings, where they struggled with the burden of secret sins that left both women feeling uncertain about their redemption. Romantic letters and poems hint at more positive aspects of the women’s physical relationship. In both these sources, references to sexuality take the form of allusions, not direct statements. Respectable nineteenth-century women rarely wrote directly about sex of any sort, but this silence is especially characteristic of the history of same-sex intimacy. For many centuries, sex between women or between men was referred to as “the mute sin” or the “crime not fit to be named.”

Even famous lovers like Oscar Wilde and Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Cleves points out, called their longtime relationship “the love that dare not speak its name.” What’s singular about the women’s story is that they did speak, if sidewise, to the true nature of their relationship. As such, it reveals just how much more tolerant early America was of same-sex marriage than most people realize. Cleves writes:

Charity’s and Sylvia’s lives tell a more complicated story, revealing the gap that existed between prescription and practice, the rules that govern society and how societies actually operate… More astonishing still, society could also tolerate such sexual possibilities through manufactured ignorance, creating opportunities for same-sex sexuality that should ostensibly have been impossible.

[...]

Same-sex marriage is not as new as Americans on both sides of today’s debate tend to assume; it is neither the radical break with timeless tradition that conservatives fear nor the unprecedented innovation of a singularly tolerant age that liberals praise. It fits within a long history of marriage diversity in North America that included practices such as polygamy, self-divorce, free love, and interracial unions… Through their union, Charity and Sylvia undermined the conventional definitions of womanhood and manhood that ordinary marriages reinforced. They staked out new claims to familial, economic, and spiritual authority that were denied to their conventionally married sisters. It seems reasonable to hope that same-sex marriage has the same potential to reshape acceptable sex roles today.

In that regard, Cleves — who chanced upon Charity and Sylvia’s story by complete accident while browsing a local history museum — reflects on the broader importance of mining history for evidence of social phenomena we mistakenly believe to be unique to our age:

The research process has left me more sure than ever that there are countless pieces remaining to be found, if not from Charity’s and Sylvia’s lives then from the lives of other lovers who lived outside the norms. Their stories have been hard to see because they confound our expectations. We see each story as one of a kind, defying categorization. Taken together they tell a history we are only beginning to know. The most remarkable element of Charity and Sylvia’s life together, in the final assessment, may be how unremarkable it was.

Charity & 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. Complement it with the greatest queer love letters of all time, including Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Margaret Mead, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, then revisit the passionate correspondence of Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis and these moving vintage photographs of queer couples celebrating their love in the early twentieth century.

Thanks, Michelle

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