In the course of my research for historical novels, I came across the subject of romantic friendships. That’s what makes research such fun. Sometimes you come across shocking or interesting topics. Romantic friendships are one of those topics.
From what I gather, romantic friendships are historically recorded in the 1700s. Marie Antoinette had them. Later, Abraham Lincoln did, too. He wrote Joshua Speed “passionate” letters. They slept in the same bed for 4 years in Springfield, Illinois, not uncommon for those days. When Speed married, Lincoln was depressed. Later, during the Civil War, Lincoln was found in bed with a Federal Army captain while his wife was out of town. Today historians debate whether Lincoln was gay, bi, or straight. Could this have been a romantic friendship? Possibly. We can’t judge yesterday’s standards with today’s morals. Times were different. People viewed life differently.
In the Civil War, women had romantic friendships. They hugged, kissed, and held hands. This wasn’t denounced as “lesbian acts.” The worst that was said about them was, “It looked downright foolish.” However, popular magazines gave advice on how to conduct a romantic friendship. Two rules of thumb: It had to be done indoors, and never before a gentleman caller. Best friends, cousins, teachers and students had these “affairs.” Most of them went on to marry. A diary found in Texas, dating from the Civil War, states that a teacher and her student couldn’t wait to sleep together. The teacher was married and preferred her student to her husband. The diary was amusing, to say the least. Not to mention, the poet Emily Dickinson had a romantic friendship with the woman who would become her sister-in-law.
Author Pearl S. Buck wrote about romantic friendships at her eastern college in the early 1900s. She said American women hugged and kissed, and “tore out each other’s hair with jealousy.” The majority were not lesbians; they were straight women who went on to marry. It was an accepted way of life.
Jane Addams of Hull House fame also had a romantic friendship with her best friend. The GBLT community is quick to point out that Jane was gay. Not so fast! Like many before her, Jane was engaged in a romantic friendship. Whether or not she was gay, cannot be proved unless we have definitive evidence, for romantic friendships were all the rage.
On a darker side, many prostitutes had romantic friendships with each other because some had never experienced love before. Many were runaways or castaways, leaving broken homes.
The British author Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited also writes about a romantic friendship between two men. That story takes place in the 1920s, about the time romantic friendships fell out of favor. Why? Times change.
When I lived in Italy in the early 1980s, Italian women walked down the street arm-in-arm. They kissed each other when they met. My daughter who lived in Florence last year said this was no longer the case.
In my novel The Preacher’s Daughters, Kathleen Sanderson and Dovile Gibson have a romantic friendship. The former is straight, the latter is gay. Are they in love? I’ll leave that for readers to decide. Finally, in my Civil War novel, Blood, Innocence and Glory, two cousins have a romantic encounter while they husbands are gone to war. Are they gay? Nope. They are straight as arrows, the talk of the town, great society beauties.
The great writing teacher Sol Stein said, Write about things people don’t like to talk about.
I have. It’s fun.by