Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 197 – Hey Hollywood! Historic Couples who would Make Great Happy Movies - transcript
(Originally aired 2021/03/20 - listen here)
This episode was inspired by twitter chat about some new movie—honestly, I don’t recall the title at this point—that explores a female same-sex relationship in history that ends in violent tragedy, in this case, murder by an abusive spouse. This comes on the heels of Portrait of a Lady on Fire which ended in tragically wistful separation, and Ammonite which ended in…well I think there are different opinions as to what it ended in, but a happily ever after for the female couple was not in view.
And that’s what had people riled up. Not that unhappy stories aren’t interesting. Not that tragedy doesn’t often inspire great art. But that if we are never allowed to see sapphic stories in history that have a genuinely happy ending, it leaves people thinking that such endings didn’t exist. I’ve run into this belief often enough: “I don’t want to read f/f historicals because it wasn’t possible for a female couple to live happily ever after unless one of them was pretending to be a man.” And, yes, that’s usually how it’s phrased: “pretending to be a man” which is another issue because it erases the complexities of the “female husband” phenomenon and implies it doesn’t count as a happy ending.
And yet, women did have happily ever after endings together, or extended periods of happy for now. Real women with real lives. Many of whom had interesting enough lives to be made into movies. In some cases, we know a great deal about those lives. In other cases, we know just enough that we could elaborate a happy romantic story around the basic facts.
For this episode, I’ve chosen female couples who met, loved, and established a happy life together. I make no judgements about whether that life included a sexual relationship as long as there was a loving partnership. For some pairs, it was indeed an “ever after” not parting until death. For others, personalities and circumstances intervened and the happiness turned out to be only “for now.” But any of them could be given a non-tragic, non-depressing treatment on the silver screen. And these are just the women who also did something interesting enough to end up in historic records. Quiet happy couples don’t attract much notice, but quiet happy movies could be made about them nonetheless.
I started out with a list of three dozen couples, but I didn’t have time for quite that many, and some get just a brief mention. These lives are drawn from the 17th through the early 20th century, and as usual lean heavily on England and the US. My criteria were: did two (at least) women live together or present to the world as a romantic couple for an extended period of time? And do we know enough about them to tell a story about their lives?
I have a file of random bits of story text that come to me without knowing what project they’re going to land in. I’d like to use one of them to introduce the women I’m featuring in this episode. This snippet may end up being the opening—or the closing--of a medieval story I’m writing tentatively named “My Three Jehannes”—it has the feel of how a medieval woman might think.
“Whether a tale is comedy or tragedy depends so often on where one stops in the telling. Follow any man's life long enough and it ends in the grave. This is my story. For now, it is not a tragedy. And that is as much as anyone can hope for.”
Courtesans Just Wanna Have Fun: Isabella de Luna & Pandora
The Sieur de Brantôme was, in essence, a professional gossip monger in the French court of the late 16th and early 17th century. He had a fascination with sexual escapades outside of marriage, and recorded stories of lesbian sex for the shock value. But while he may not have been particularly sympathetic to his subjects, we can take a different view.
Isabella de Luna was a courtesan in Rome, but though her living might depend on her relationships with men, her heart was given to another courtesan named Pandora. Pandora eventually left the profession and married a butler in a cardinal’s household but her relationship with Isabella held fast. Isabella was known to boast of how they gave Pandora’s husband more cuckold’s horns that Pandora ever did in her former profession. Their story might not seem like a traditional romance, what with the sex work and marriage and all, but just imagine them swanning through Renaissance Rome, daring to love each other openly and giving the finger to conventional expectations. Brantôme describes Isabella as “old and wily” so we can assume that she knows her way around and has figured out how to make the system work for her.
Joined Even in Death: Mary Kendall and Catharine Jones
A century later in England, and from a much different level of society, we have the barest sketch of a love story that lasted until death parted them. Lady Catharine Jones and Mary Kendall lived lives that were praised on their tomb as virtuous and courteous to all, but praised especially for the “close union and friendship in which they lived” such that they desired not to be parted in death, and were interred next to each other. Mary Kendall left this life first, at the age of 33, while Catherine Jones survived her by another 30 years. Neither woman married—at least, no husbands are mentioned in their memorials. And their relationship was recognized and praised by their families, who were responsible for setting up the memorial that provides us their story.
What else may we know about them? There was a disparity of rank—Catharine’s parents were the Earl and Countess of Ranelagh --but that did not prevent their friendship. Together they would have seen the reigns of William and Mary, and then Anne. Ranelagh was an Irish title, but Catharine’s father was active in the government in London and that’s likely where she and Mary met. (Mary was born at Westminster.) We may imagine Mary joining the Ranelagh household in some function and the Ranelaghs must have approved of their bond, for their acquiescence would have been needed for the placement of Mary’s grave in a location reserved for their family.
We know nothing else of their individual lives, but a story could be told of the history they witnessed.
As we move into the 18th century, there are enough biographies to sort them out into topics. This century was the heyday of the “female husband”—of female couples, usually working class, who married by virtue of one partner taking on a male role. If we could see into their minds, some might fit better into a transgender narrative, but I’ve chosen examples where there’s some evidence that the “husband” was not motivated by an internal sense of gender.
What Might Have Been: Sarah Paul (Samuel Bundy) and Mary Parlour
Sarah Paul had something of a traumatic youth. In 1753, at age 13, she was seduced—which may well be a polite way of saying raped and abducted—by a traveling painter. To avoid pursuit and identification by Sarah’s mother, her seducer dressed her in male clothing and passed her off as his son, renaming her Samuel Bundy. After a year, she got away and spent a year as a sailor. But evidently she had learned something of the portrait trade, for she apprenticed herself—still passing as a boy—to a painter named Mr. Angel in Surrey for a year or so. That brings her up to age 16 or so, at which time she attracted the romantic attention of a young woman named Mary Parlour in Southwark. After courting for some time, they were married. The chronology is perhaps a bit fuzzy, for elsewhere it’s recorded that she was age 20 at the time of the marriage.
Sarah Paul—that is to say, Samuel Bundy—had some conflict with her employer and quit, which put the maintenance of their household entirely on Mary’s shoulders, who scraped by on savings and by pawning her clothing. Samuel Bundy tried to make a go at the sailor’s life again, but was now worried that she couldn’t succeed in the disguise any more in the close quarters of a ship, and so returned to her wife. Mary later testified that her spouse had initially claimed illness as a reason not to consummate the marriage, but she soon became aware of her spouse’s sex and chose not to go public with the discovery. But evidently some of their neighbors became suspicious and did their own investigation, at which Sarah’s disguise was revealed. This resulted in Sarah being brought to court on a charge of fraud. There wasn’t actually any law in England against gender disguise or sexual relations between women, but the charge was that Sarah had entered the marriage for the fraudulent purpose of gaining access to Mary’s possessions.
The problem with this charge? Mary doesn’t seem to have had any objections. The court record notes that “there seems a strong love and friendship” between them, and Mary kept Sarah company while she was in prison. And when the case came to trial, Mary declined to appear to testify against her which left no case to try. At that time, Sarah appeared before the court in female clothing and was noted to be a “very agreeable woman, a very good workwoman at shoe-making and painting…and a very sensible woman.”
The judge ordered Sarah’s male clothing to be burnt and ordered her never to appear in disguise again.
And then what? Sarah and Mary loved each other. Mary had supported her spouse throughout the legal ordeal and ensured her release by refusing to testify. We could easily imagine a future for them. Perhaps Sarah could return to the work of painting portraits. During the period of the trial, she had gotten back in contact with her mother. Perhaps Sarah and Mary could go to live with her while they sorted things out and got their feet back under them again.
Alas, we do have a later data point. Seven years later, Sarah Paul is recorded as dying in the workhouse of Saint Sepulchre in London, at age 27, still notorious for her marital adventure. But if we end our story shortly after the trial, we can imagine that other ending for them.
On the Flip of a Coin: Mary East (Mr. How) and Mrs . How
A few decades earlier, starting around 1730, we have a much different and happier story of a “female husband”. And once again, it has come to us in enough detail to provide good fodder for a movie. The initial parts of the story may have been a convenient fiction, designed to make the rest palatable to the general public, but it could just as easily have been true. This is the story of Mary East, who took on the identity James How, and of her wife Mary Snapes. (The contemporary news reports never mention the wife’s name, however Jen Manion tracked down their marriage certificate when researching the book Female Husbands: A Trans History.)
As the story goes, Mary East had been courted by a young man who turned his hand to highway robbery, and so was sentenced to transportation, which took him out of the picture. At age 16, East decided after that to remain single. A single woman was at an economic disadvantage. But she knew another young woman, a year older, who had similarly determined to live the single life after “many crosses in love”. This, as we now know, was Mary Snapes.
As the report says, the two “being intimate, communicated their minds to each other, and determined to live together ever after.” I’ll note that since many single women did not take this sort of approach, we can probably guess that they had an attachment of some sort to each other and expected to rub on well together. Their solution to the economic disadvantages was that one of them should put on men’s clothing, they’d move to another community where they weren’t known, and they would live as husband and wife. Who would be the man? They flipped a coin and the lot fell to Mary East who then became James How. (Which makes keeping track of references much easier than juggling two Marys.)
If true, that element in the story argues against viewing James How as a trans man. But let us also keep in mind that 18th century understandings of gender performance are not the same as 21st century ones. In including their stories among a list of female couples, I don’t mean to argue that all “female husbands” had identical experiences and understandings of their identities.
James and Mary pooled their resources and found they had 30 pounds between them, not a lot of money, but nothing to sneeze at. They left their original home and, while traveling, came across a public house in Epping that was looking for a proprietor. They rented it and set up as tavern keepers.
Then came an unfortunate event that turned into a blessing. James became involved in a quarrel with another man and one of his hands was badly injured. Between the resulting disability and presumably the clear fault of the other party, James brought a successful lawsuit against the attacker and was awarded damages of 500 pounds. Now that was very much not a sum to be sneezed at. With that as a nest egg, James and Mary found a much better location for their tavern-keeping at Limehouse-Hole. They lived there as husband and wife, prospered in their business, saved up money, and were able to purchase the White Horse tavern in the town of Poplar free and clear, evidently later acquiring other properties.
By all later accounts, they were pillars of the community. James took his turn serving in almost all the parish offices, being exempted only from that of constable due to disability. James served on juries, including several times as foreman. Their neighbors admired and respected them, and they had savings of between four and five thousand pounds, which was quite a comfortable fortune at that time.
They lived and thrived as husband and wife for 34 years until Mary Snapes fell ill and died. If that were all there was to the story, it might not be quite dramatic enough for a movie, but we need to step back a little.
When James and Mary had been a couple for about 18 years, a woman recorded as Mrs. B, who had known them back before Mary East became James How, bumped into them, recognized them, and decided that their wealth and situation made them an attractive target for a little blackmail. Mrs. B wrote to the Hows and suggested that 10 pounds would keep her mouth shut about their little gender disguise thing. Afraid of what disclosure would mean, James paid up and Mrs. B seemed to be satisfied.
Sixteen years passed with little to trouble the couple, and then over a short period of time, disaster threatened from multiple sides. Mary fell ill and went to stay with friends in the country for her health, but rather than recovering she was soon on her deathbed. She sent for James but he wasn’t able to join her. In what happens next, we might want to think a bit about who’s telling the story and what their interests are. Evidently Mary told her friends the truth about her and James. And later those friends claimed that Mary had promised they should inherit her half of what she and James had accumulated. And they wanted more besides.
Now how likely was it that Mary had actually promised this? Or is it likely that these supposed friends, having been confided the secret, became as greedy as Mrs. B? Oddly, the resolution of that conflict seems to be omitted in the very detailed reporting.
Shortly before Mary’s death, Mrs. B comes into the story again. Perhaps Mrs. B’s circumstances changed, or she got greedy. Perhaps she heard of Mary’s illness and figured it was a good time to make a move. In any event, she wrote to James again demanding another 10 pounds for her continued silence. Having received it, she wrote again two weeks later demanding another 10 pounds. James sent her five.
And then Mary died. It’s reasonable to assume James is grieving as well as concerned with how to keep the business going on his own. To keep their privacy, the couple had never employed servants, which would have been a heavy burden of labor in those times, to brew and cook and serve meals and clean up. And Mrs. B figured it was time to step up her demands.
She sent two bully boys pretending to be constables who accosted James How, claiming to come from the famous Justice Fielding, to take James into custody for a robbery committed 34 years earlier when she was living as a woman. Oh, and also threatening to expose her masquerade.
James called on a passing neighbor, Mr. Williams, for help and explained the whole, including that she was a woman, and demanded that she be taken before the local Justices, not hauled off to Justice Fielding. Mr. Williams agreed to help but said he needed to go home for a moment to put on a clean shirt. A trivial detail, perhaps, but one should put on a best appearance before the court.
While he was gone, the two thugs upped the ante: give them 100 pounds and they’d leave her be, otherwise she’d be hanged for the robbery in 16 days and they’d get only 40 pounds apiece for bringing her in. James resisted, but before the neighbor Mr. Williams could return, they dragged her off to Mrs. B’s house to continue the harrassment.
At this point, James seems to have hit on a clever stratagem. She couldn’t pay the money directly on the spot, but she’d give them a draft to be paid by Mr. Williams, the neighbor.
Mr. Williams, in the mean time, had come back to find James gone, and ran around to the local Justices and then to Justice Fielding to search for her. Coming back home, he found James there, who told him everything that had happened.
A few days later, Mrs. B shows up with her two thugs and the draft for 100 pounds…and the three are promptly arrested. When James How showed up to testify against them, along with Mr. Williams, she had returned to women’s clothing and to using the name Mary East, though evidently the mannerisms of a man were noticeably hard to shake.
The three conspirators fell out on the stand and accused each other and were sent off to Bridewell for trial and sentencing.
Mary East, for her part, decided it was time to retire from keeping a public house, and given the fortune that she and her wife had built, it would be a comfortable retirement indeed. Perhaps not as happy an ending as it might have been had Mrs. How not fallen ill and died, but a triumph for justice at the very least. Mary East lived for another 14 years, which by my calculations would make her in her mid-60s. Not bad for a hard-working woman in the 18th century. Enough of her fortune remained to leave money to relatives, friends, and the poor people of the parish.
Perfect Friendship: Katherine Bovey and Mary Pope
Not all couples left quite as complex a story for us to envision. The interesting details of Katherine Bovey’s life, and the exact nature of her relationship with Mary Pope, can only be teased out in part from the conjecture that she was the woman satirized as “the perverse widow” in an early 18th century magazine, though scholars are confident about the identification.
Katherine was born in 1669 and was widowed young at age 22 in 1692. Evidently that’s when the interesting part of her life began. Her epitaph reads that “it pleased God to bless her with a considerable estate”. Not only did she inherit her husband’s estate, since there were no children, but she was also her wealthy father’s sole heir. And evidently there were any number of men who felt that a young, wealthy widow owed a debt to society that could be made good by marrying one of them.
After her husband’s death, she retired to her estate in Gloucester and led a life of scholarship, contemplation, and good works. But our satirist complains, “You must understand, Sir, this perverse Woman is one of those unaccountable Creatures that secretly rejoice in the Admiration of Men, but indulge themselves in no further Consequences. Hence it is that she has ever had a Train of Admirers, and she removes from her Slaves in Town, to those in the Country, according to the Seasons of the Year. She is a reading Lady, and far gone in the Pleasures of Friendship; she is always accompanied by a Confident, who is witness to her daily Protestations against our Sex, and consequently a Barr to her first Steps towards Love, upon the Strength of her own Maxims and Declarations.”
That sure sounds like a jealous jilted suitor to me! But who was this confidante who poses a bar to Katherine’s remarriage? That would be Mary Pope, the woman whom Katherine named as her executor and who commissioned the memorial to her that stands in Westminster Abbey, overflowing with praise and adulation. The epitaph notes that the two women “lived near 40 years in perfect friendship never once interrupted” until Bovey’s death at age 57.
The math suggests an intriguing backstory. If Katherine and Mary had been living together in perfect friendship for almost 40 years when Katherine was 57, then they must have begun that friendship when Katherine was around 17, five years before she was widowed. Her husband was only 2 years older than her, and is described as being given to excess both in debauchery and ill-humor. This might go some distance to explaining her disinclination for a second marriage. I’ll note that there is absolutely no reference to her husband in her memorial inscription, which is a noteworthy fact.
So two years into an unequal and possibly unhappy marriage, Katherine begins a deep and abiding friendship that will last her entire life. That friendship sustains her through the remaining five years of marriage. When she is unexpectedly widowed, Mary remains as her companion, likely already being a member of her household. The satire that sniped at Catherine for declining re-marriage was published when she was 42 years old, at which time one might imagine she had plenty of practice in shrugging off unwanted attentions. After Katherine’s widowhood, she and Mary were together for another near 35 years, after which Mary Pope was left to administer her wishes after death.
We have a few glimpses of Katherine. Delarivier Manley, in The New Atalantis, depicted her under the poetic name Portia and describes her as “One of those lofty, black, and lasting beauties that strike with reverence and yet delight." The memorial that Mary Pope commissioned for her touches on personality rather than physical appearance. She was a good conversationalist, well-read, a philosopher who “ventured far out of the common way of thinking” except in the realm of religion where she was solidly orthodox. She was frugal but generous, cheerful and compassionate. Open-handed both in hospitality and charity.
We know less about Mary Pope. She was the daughter of a Bristol merchant and so, if not as wealthy as her friend, was probably used to comfortable circumstances. She was about 4 years older than Catherine, which must have helped her be a steady and stable companion to the young bride. Her own memorial describes her as “the friend of Mrs. Bovey and partner of her virtues.” There is no evidence that she ever married. Mary lived for another 19 years after Katherine’s death, surviving to age 81.
If theirs were not exactly lives of drama and adventure, there is no question that they lived happily ever after.
In the 19th century, there was something of an explosion of partnerships that paired romance and literary collaboration. Since this episode is starting to get a bit long, let’s skim over a few.
19th century Irish writers and cousins Edith Somerville and Violet Martin wrote together under the pseudonym “Somerville and Ross”. (Violet Martin used the pen name Martin Ross.) They led an active life and their political sympathies leaned toward women’s suffrage and Irish nationalism. After Violet’s death, Edith continued the literary collaboration with her via seances.
English authors Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Cooper were also both close relatives and literary collaborators, as well as having a relationship that their friends considered equivalent to a marriage. They wrote together as “Michael Field”.
Late 19th century English novelist Marie Corelli (a pen name of Mary Mackay) outsold the combined work of her contemporaries Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, and Rudyard Kipling—and that you’ve probably never heard of her is a striking example of the erasure of women’s literature. Her childhood has the stuff of drama, as her mother was a servant in her father’s household and she was shipped off to be educated in a French convent, perhaps to avoid the embarrassment of having a bastard daughter underfoot. Her fiction featured melodrama and the supernatural and she may have been the originator of the “curse of the Pharaohs” that was said to strike British archaeologists who excavated Egyptian tombs. Marie shared her life for 40 years with Bertha Vyver, who was named her heir. The two had met as girls at that Parisian convent school. Bertha’s family had done a lot of self-fictionalizing. Her rather feckless father at one time had a business selling fictitious hereditary titles and decided to create himself and Bertha’s mother a Count and Countess. When Marie Corelli and Bertha Vyvyr were just short of 20 years old, well before Marie’s writing career took off, Bertha became caretaker for Marie’s invalid father. She also took up photography, though little of her work has survived. In a short space of time, Marie’s father and Bertha’s mother died, leaving the two free to pursue their own careers. Throughout Marie Corelli’s blazing literary career, Bertha Vyver was at her side, supporting her. Truly happily ever after.
The Cushman Circle
I did an entire episode on 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman and her rather tangled love life. Despite the drama and occasional infidelities, I don’t think it can be argued that Cushman had anything other than a happy and positive life. She was a blazing star on the stage, the center of a vibrant and creative artistic circle of queer women, and finished her life in a series of triumphal performance tours even while suffering from breast cancer, resting at last with her life partner, sculptor Emma Stebbins at her side. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it is a crime and an embarrassment that we don’t have an entire extended mini-series about Cushman and her circle. This is a community packed full of female couples with happy endings. Let’s look at a couple more of the stories that can be told here.
Matilda Hays was a journalist, writer, and translator of the works of George Sand. She was an activist for women’s rights and economic opportunities. She participated in the creation and support of a series of periodicals focused on women’s rights, though these efforts were often hampered by clashes of strong opinions among the partners. She also tried her hand at acting, which is how she met Charlotte Cushman. Matilda and Charlotte had a 10 year relationship that contemporaries recognized as a type of marriage. But Cushman’s need for the spotlight and star status eventually undermined the relationship. A romantic polygon formed, with Matilda engaging in an affair with sculptor Harriet Hosmer and Cushman secretly beginning her relationship with Emma Stebbins. Matilda brought a palimony suit against Charlotte and won a settlement for having set her own career aside to support Charlotte’s. Matilda then had some sort of relationship with poet and feminist Adelaide Anne Proctor, who dedicated love poems to her, but it was cut short by Adelaide’s death. Matilda’s final romantic partnership was with Theodosia Blacker, Lady Monson, another activist for feminist causes. In Matilda Hays we see the intersection of Charlotte Cushman’s circle of artistic women, many of them in relationships with other women, and British feminist circles, also chock full of female romantic partnerships.
The community of female sculptors studying and working in Rome that Cushman was deeply involved with also included Anne Whitney and Abby Adeline Manning. Whitney created a number of portrait sculptures of prominent historic and contemporary figures, many of which are featured in public locations in Boston and Washington DC. She was politically active in abolition and women’s rights, and many of her sculptures celebrated women in non-traditional positions of leadership. She and fellow artist Abby Adeline Manning shared their life for nearly 50 years, though Manning’s career evidently took second place to supporting Whitney’s. They were recognized as having a “Boston marriage”.
All it takes to open the floodgate of fascinating female couples in 19th century America is to utter the phrase “Boston marriage.” A Boston marriage was a recognized long-term domestic partnership between two unmarried women, typically of the educated middle class, that was understood to be a committed and romantic arrangement. The phrase was coined to recognize the phenomenon, and in turn the existence of a label for the phenomenon gave it legitimacy and substance.
The women in Boston marriages were often involved in higher education for women—an alternate name was “Wellesley marriages” in reference to the female couples among both the faculty and graduates of that women’s college. They tended to have progressive politics: women’s rights, abolition, support for immigrants. Here are just a brief sampling of some of the women of Boston who combined the personal and the political in their partnerships.
Writer and poet Sarah Orne Jewett was known for works depicting the coast of Maine. She was cited as a literary influence by Willa Cather. Jewett formed a friendship with Annie Fields, the wife of the publisher of the Atlantic Monthly. After Mr. Fields’ death, Sarah and Annie moved in together and shared the rest of their lives. Annie Fields was not merely the wife of a publisher, she was a writer herself, producing poetry, essays, and biographies of her contemporaries. And both before and after her husband’s death, she was the center of the literary community of Boston, supporting a network of connections between the prominent writers of the day.
Mary Woolley was an educator first and last, having been one of the first female students at Brown University (after considering Oxford) while simultaneously teaching at Wheaton Seminary. Within 4 years of beginning teaching at Wellesley College she was made a full professor. That was also the year she met Jeannette Marks, a student at Wellesley, 12 years her junior. Marks was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and engineering professor. She was 24 and just finishing her degree at Wellesley when she met Mary Woolley. The two hit it off and from there on their lives and careers ran in parallel. That same year, Woolley was offered a job heading the women’s college at Brown University and offered the presidency of Mount Holyoke College, a prominent women’s college. She chose the latter and after spending a couple years winding things up at Wellesley, became one of the youngest college presidents when she took over at Mount Holyoke. Meanwhile, Marks had finished her degree at Wellesley and then, while simultaneously completing her Masters degree there, became a professor of English at Mount Holyoke the same year that Woolley started as president there. The complexities of a two-academic-career household were simplified somewhat by Woolley’s ability to pull strings. Wooley’s philosophy of women’s education at Mount Holyoke was radical: she thought that education for women should be an end in itself, just as it was for men, and not viewed simply as a preparation for social service. She networked with other women’s colleges and worked to raise the academic standards at Mount Holyoke, both for faculty and students. She increased the college’s endowment ten-fold and greatly expanded the facilities. Both Marks and Woolley were active in progressive political causes, including women’s suffrage, pacifism, and racial equality. Over 36 years, Woolley made a significant mark on Mount Holyoke, but when she retired from the college presidency, the board of directors deliberately worked to reverse the “feminization” of the Mount Holyoke faculty and administration, despite the opposition of that faculty. The successor that the board chose to replace her was seen as a deliberate slap in the face. After Marks’ retirement 2 years later, they never returned to Mount Holyoke. They enjoyed their retirement together (aside from political activities) at the Marks family home in New York.
Ada Dwyer Russell was born into a newly-converted Mormon family in Utah in the 1860s but went to school in Boston. She took up the profession of actress, performing many roles in New York beginning around age 15, as well as touring in England and even Australia. She married late—at age 30—to a Boston actor, presumably met through their mutual profession, but the marriage lasted barely past the birth of their daughter the next year and they separated permanently after that. Why? The answer may come from the central romance of her life, with a woman she met in Boston, 17 years later when she was 49.
Amy Lowell was born into the Boston aristocracy, part of a talented and prominent family. But in her early years she considered herself a social outcast and had a reputation for being overly opinionated and outspoken. She was largely self-educated, a book collector and European traveler, and took up writing poetry, being inspired by Eleonora Duse. She was 38 when she met and fell in love with Ada Dwyer Russell and from then on, Ada was her muse and the subject of extensive erotic love poetry. Amy embraced free verse and became a major figure in the Imagist school, somewhat to the annoyance of Imagist founder Ezra Pound who felt that Lowell had horned in on his personal territory, especially when she published a three volume collection of Imagist poets.
Although Ada and Amy felt they had to hide the nature of their relationship, to the extent that they destroyed most of their correspondence, there is one fascinating angle on how that relationship was received. The year after the two women met, and before they moved in together for the rest of their lives, Ada Dwyer Russell’s father was asked to resign from the Mormon religion for telling people that same-sex sexual activity was not a sin. All is speculation, but could it be that Ada had earlier lesbian relationships that influenced her father’s opinions on this topic? Did his open-mindedness extend to welcoming Amy Lowell as his daughter’s spouse? Amy treated Ada’s daughter and grandchildren as her own, so whatever the family may have officially known, the two women were clearly loved and accepted as a couple.
Ada and Amy enjoyed 13 years together, including traveling to Europe during the most prolific time of Amy’s career. The year after Amy’s death from a stroke, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Do you want an all-American patriotic story? How about featuring Katharine Lee Bates, author of “America the Beautiful”? But she was much more than simply a songwriter. After studying at Oxford in England, she became a professor of English at Wellesley College. She was also a prolific author and speaker on social reform, with interests in feminism, racial relations, immigration, and poverty. After World War I she campaigned for America to join the League of Nations and was active in the peace movement. In her 30s, she was inspired to write the lyrics for “America the Beautiful” after a trip to the summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado.
Historians have debated the nature of the relationship between Bates and her life-long housemate Katharine Coman, given that the majority of their correspondence was destroyed by Bates. Note: destroying correspondence happens an awful lot among women who shared their lives with other women. Funny thing. But mostly the historians seem to be quibbling over the question of whether they had a sexual relationship. The few surviving letters speak of their love, and that Coman was a significant reason for Bates’s return to Wellesley after her stint at Oxford. What is certain is that they met in 1885, when they were in their mid-20s, lived together for 25 years, traveled together, and supported each other’s careers. Coman was a professor of history and political economy, founding the Wellesley Economics department and was as well-known and influential as Bates during their lifetimes.
There are so many interesting couples among the Boston marriages that I’m going to have to cut this short, but you can track down social workers Edith Guerrier and Edith Brown, writers Louise Imogen Guiney and Alice Brown who were involved in the Aesthetic artistic movement, and socialists and immigration activists Vida Scudder and Florence Converse.
Can we get a little diversity?
This has been an awfully white list, and the reasons for that are many, but have a lot to do with whose lives get recorded in detail. I previously did a podcast on a late 19th century Black couple, Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus, whose partnership was treated as a marriage by their friends and family. To fit them into the happily-ever-after mold you’d need to close the curtain before Addie decided to marry a man for the sake of security. But it could be done.
You could definitely build a happy story out of the entwined lives of playwright and teacher Mary Burrill, poet and playwright Angelina Weld Grimké, and Lucy Diggs Slowe, all prominent Black intellectuals in the era of the Harlem Renaissance, with lives centering around Washington D.C. Both Burrill and Grimké wrote works engaging with the Black experience in turn of the century America, but also touching more broadly on social issues important to women. They had an intensely romantic friendship in their youth. Sixteen year old Angelina wrote to Mary about her hope that Mary would become her wife. Their correspondence is filled with passion, yearning, and expressions of love that also found their way lifelong into Grimké’s poetry. But the two don’t seem to have found their way to a shared life. Mary Burrill, however bought a house together in DC with Lucy Diggs Slowe, the first Dean of Women at Howard University and they lived together until Slowe’s death. Slowe had attended Howard University—the most prominent of the historically Black colleges—as a student, and after a career developing educational institutions and programs in DC, she was tapped for the Dean position. Oh, and along the way she won the American Tennis Association’s first tournament and was the first American Black woman to win a major sports title. You think we could build an exciting and positive bio-pic from the lives of these three women?
But Wait, There’s More
There are a lot more stories that would make great happy-ending movies that I haven’t had time to go into, or that I’ve presented in previous podcasts. Look at how successful the Gentleman Jack series about Anne Lister is! And there have been treatments of the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, though nothing like what they deserve. While a bit complicated for a traditional romance happy ending, why don’t we have a major production celebrating Nathalie Barney, Romaine Brookes, and Rene Vivien and the rest of their circle in Paris?
If a film maker wants to start with a book to adapt, how about Emma Donoghue’s novel Life Mask about sculptor Anne Damer, ending with her definitely happy partnership with writer Mary Berry? Or Donoghue’s novel The Sealed Letter about the scandalous divorce trial that feminist publisher Emily Faithful got entangled in, before redeeming her reputation and finding her way to a long-term romantic partnership later in life. Want a story of long pining that is eventually rewarded? How about the lives of socialite Rose Cleveland (who served as first lady when her unmarried brother Grover was president) and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, which lasted through Evangeline’s marriage until fate allowed them to spend their later years together.
And why, oh why, have we never been given a big screen treatment of that most iconic of 18th century couples, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, the “Ladies of Llangollen,” whose adventures to elope together and life-long happy romance was celebrated by their contemporaries as the epitome of true love?
There is no reason to think that we can’t have happy movies about female couples in history. It certainly isn’t for a lack of source material. Go out there and demand more realism in our lesbian costume dramas—and realism means our share of happily ever afters!
A tour through the lives of some f/f couples in history who would make great “happily ever after” movies and tv shows
Find more information about the primary couples discussed in this show at the following links:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online