Romantic Friendship in the 19th Century

I just recently finished the book "Cold Mountain", a book concerning several people in the South during the Civil War (as a side note, I found the storyline about the man kind of dull and overcooked - I am curious is me and my proclivities, or if other people felt this way?). Two of these people, Ada and Ruby, are women living in a little town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It's deep into the war, at the point when almost all men are engaged in the war, and the women are, as it were, left behind doing the work they've always done, plus the work, in their case, of running a farm. Ada is a former rich girl who has no idea how to do these practical things, Ruby is a sort of societal cast-off with an amazing (and let me say, deeply intriguing) drive to work, who moves in on equal terms with Ada, to co-run the large farm Ada has ended up with on her hands and let fall into disarray. The two grow extremely close, both of them, in many ways, teaching the other how to live an adult life, in different ways. This aspect of the book I found very moving. At one point after Ada (inevitably) finds the man, who was her fiance before he went off to war, there is a moving scene, understated, and sad, where Ruby tells Ada that she doesn't need to marry the man, that they can run the farm without him. Ada tells her that she knows, but the she wants the man. And Ruby smiles quietly, and sets up for them to have a bit of time alone together.

Reading the scene was the most powerful moment in the book, because I could feel how palpably Ruby wanted things to stay just as they were, particularly because Ruby, a child born in abject poverty and forced to shift for herself all her life really has no other moment in the whole book where she lets her guard so completely down. She is, in a very valid way, a woman deeply in love, who knows that their relationship won't stay the way it is.

But, and this is what was so powerful to me, when I say in love, I don't mean romantically, not at all. She is sad things are falling apart, but I never feel like she is jealous, per se, of the man, or that she is attracted to Ada in a physical way. The relationship is what we now call 'only platonic'. I think the 'only' in this is a sad reflection of our times.

Before the latter half of the 19th century, it was actually remarkably common for people to have deep, powerful friendships with people of the same sex. It's interesting, because historians read the artifacts of these friendships now, and the assumption is, frequently, that the relationship was homosexual. Abraham Lincoln is an excellent example. Lincoln and his friend, Joshua Speed, spent years sharing a bed, and remained lifelong friends, exchanging letters that, in many ways, feel more like what we think of as love letters than anything he ever exchanged with Mary Todd. Emily Dickinson's life-long devotion to her sister-in-law is another example, or Shakespeare's many poems written to an unknown man or men.

This is not to denigrate or disprove the many historians who suggest that some of these relationships were sublimated homosexual relationships, or even covers for actual physical relationships. I imagine this happened at the time. At the same time, I think that some of them WEREN'T romantic relationships. And I think that's wonderful (as a sidenote, I would suggest that some of the poems written about women by men, and vice-versa, may similarly have been the admiration between extremely close friends).

Such a relationship cannot exist easily anymore, of course. A man hugging a man now is a joke, a byword, something funny in movies because it's uncomfortable. IT's something we mock because it's frightening. I think this is tragic. Friendship has become something that must retain a certain distance and boundary. In some ways, this is perhaps healthy, and a sign of the increasing equality of the genders. A hundred years ago, men's and women's worlds were so seperate that they practically spoke different languages, and it must have been very difficult to communicate across that chasm on some levels. Perhaps in some ways, the romantic friendship was for some people a way of feeling parts of closeness and intimacy that society did not account for between men and women. At the same time, it leads one to wonder - we have to an extent fetishized sexual-romantic love to the point where we presume it is the power more binding than any other - after all, can you imagine a romcom about two people who loved each other deeply but without a hint of sex between them? And I think that in a sense this makes it difficult even within marriages - because the assumption in a marriage is that the romantic aspect of the relationship (in our newer conception of the word romantic) is the penultimate expression of closeness, and I would suggest that this is an illusion that does nto hold up long in many relationships. The friendship aspect of marriage - that one should marry their best friend, and foster that friendship throughout - becomes the sort of adorable side note, the humdrum, uninteresting part of the relationship (again, how many romcoms involve people who don't really like each other falling in love in spite of that?). To some extent one wonders if perhaps it would be easier to marry by choosing someone that they are close friends with, whatever the gender or appearance, and just letting sex follow on from that (I'm a bit biased since I fell in love over letters that had nothing to do with sex...). I don't know. I don't mean to make little of romantic, erotic love. It is what it is. But I think we've forgotten that we can care, deeply and powerfully and madly and beautifully, even foolishly sometimes, or jealously, or desperately, for someone without it being a call of hormones.


Aarti said...

I think your post is really beautifully written, Jason. I wonder if previously, this sort of relationship was not questioned as much because it was so common for people of the same sex to live together for many years at a time, and thus would very likely form deep and loving connections. Whereas now, people generally only live together long-term if they are married or romantically involved.

I think letters written in previous centuries were in general, far more passionate than anything we would write now. I don't think we are a generation of passionate outbursts- we're quite jaded and cynical, for the most part, and I think if I received a very passionate letter (or email or anything) from someone, I'd probably be very taken aback and frightened. I just finished reading a biography about a woman in the 19th century and the letters she exchanged with everyone- from her parents to her husband to her friends- were all just so EMOTIONAL that it must clearly have been quite common, but I don't know if people today would look at it in the same way.

Trapunto said...

I do generally find myself more interested in the party that stays put in books that switch narratives.

I'll have to think and come back for a real comment on the whole of this, Jason. Or not, since it is one of the subjects where I feel least qualified to speak in generalities.

Good point about people living together becoming close, Aarti! What you say about passionate letters makes me think of a one-woman show I saw about Eleanor Roosevelt, though. After the show the actress/researcher said that that part of the reason (in her view) Mrs. Roosevelt's letters were wrongly held up as proof of her homosexual relationship with Lorena Hickok was because it's hard for outsiders in time and class understand how much of the tone of emotional superlatives was stylistic element in communications between private-school-educated women of a certain income bracket in a certain time. (In essence, a fancy 19th century-style education for girls.) Or among people who sought to imitate that style in order to move in that class. And maybe liberal arts educated men to some extent as well? It's possible emotions weren't running any higher in the 19th and early 20th century than they do now, and the constant references to extreme feelings can be at least partly chalked up to a social ritual.

LifetimeReader said...

What a wonderful post! As I get older (I'm now in my early 40s), I think I am beginning to feel like what I have with my partner David is exactly that romantic relationship that people had then. We've been together twenty years and share that very simple love (with a lot gentle passion of the era which Aarti mentions). Yes, our relationship is also erotic--but not with that sharp divide between the physical and the emotional that we are almost coached to believe in now. The physical pleasure of holding hands, hugging, kissing--who is to say what it means? Is is sexual desire? Is it just a human expression of love? To say people of the past were gay or not doesn't quite get to the idea that they imagined the world of love with another lens entirely. What a thoughtful post. Thanks.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Aarti - I imagine what you say is true. 'Roommates' are generally a business arrangement more than anything - which is a shame. If I were single, I would rather have an assembled little 'family' sometimes, I think, so we can help each other, take care of each other, that sort of thing. WHEN I was single, I wouldn't have thought so, because I tend to want to go hide somewhere noone can see me, but in retrospect, it would be better for me, I imagine, sometimes.

Ms Trapunto - I think what you say has some validity - that being passionate was in part simply a matter of convention. But then, the same could be said of physical romantic relationships now. People who are courting are allowed to write passionate letters to each other, but these letters don't necessarily relate a depth of feeling as much as a personal ability to be florid worth words, often enough. But, then there are those who DO write love letters sincerely, and if it was taboo, they couldn't. I would think 19th century romantic friendships would be much the same.

Ms LifetimeReader - That's exactly what I mean - that particular expressions, both physical and verbal, are now restricted to physical desire. If I held hands with a friend at work, it would be inappropriate, no matter what their sex, for most people. The same was not necessarily true 150 years ago (I wonder if it was true between opposite sexes? Probably a moot point, since men and women weren't usually often friends, in that way.

Trish said...

Such a fascinating post, Jason, though I'd love to hear more what you thought of Cold Mountain--I book I found to be very moving and beautiful on so many levels.

I do think that changed times perhaps have a lot to do with the disconnect or reluctance to share the same types of relationships that occurred in previous generations. We are so much more focused on individuality and independence it seems that the closeness is someone lost. Or something. ;)

Love this thought, though... "But I think we've forgotten that we can care, deeply and powerfully and madly and beautifully, even foolishly sometimes, or jealously, or desperately, for someone without it being a call of hormones". Forgotten, yes.

Jeanne said...

Bravo! I've been struggling over some of this with my teenagers--they want to distance themselves from the emotional impact of close same-sex relationships by using names like "bromance," but at the same time, I think they're more accepting of those kind of relationships than previous generations were. Ever seen Hellman's play The Little Foxes?

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Trish - I did enjoy it. I though Ruby and Ada's side of the story really was very moving, and felt very strongly for them. The return from the war... I don't know. It was good, it was well written, and compelling. But I think it's a combination of just that the story felt so familiar, and that I don't relate to it as well. It's a flavor of angst that feels too foreign, I guess, and the book was written to experience it, not to describe it.

Ms Jeanne - I have never seen the Little Foxes - I make it to very few plays, movies, otherwise. I will have to look it up :).

Anna & Serena said...

I really enjoyed this novel when I read it the year it came out, and I gave my copy to Anna. I'm hoping that she reads it this year for the challenge.

We've got your review linked on the book reviews page and will be posting an excerpt on the main page at the end of February.

Thanks for participating.