We're getting back to The Road to Frogmore
this week, starting with Laura's dearest friend and life-long companion, Ellen Murray. The relationship between the two is problematic, primarily because they lived 150 years ago and societal norms were much different then. Ever since the book came out, I have had people sidling up to me and whispering, "So, what do you think? Were they Lesbians?" My quick answer is "I don't know and I don't care."
But the question opens up a historical issue that at least deserves examination. For several centuries, and particularly in England, strong, independent women had chosen to form bonds with other women rather than to enter into marriage with a man picked for them by their families. In 1886, in his book The Bostonians, Henry James wrote of a relationship that he called "a Boston Marriage, " basing his descriptions on the real-life relationship his sister had with another woman. The two woman had a somewhat formalized agreement to live together as equal partners in a family relationship, relying on their own assets, not the financial support of a man.
The ties between Laura and Ellen seem to have been of this nature. They were both strong women, talented and educated, and they lived and worked in roles that more "properly" might have been taken by a man. Occasionally, as happens in the book, a man expressed his attraction to
one or the other of the women, only to be put off kindly with a "Not
interested, thank you." Ellen was an educator; Laura was a doctor. Neither had any desire to be a housewife or subservient to a man. They shared their responsibilities and the housework. When they traveled to South Carolina in 1862, they shared a common goal -- to bring education and medical care to people whose lives of slavery had not equipped them to live as freedmen. In the courses of their activities on St. Helena Island, they often ran afoul of the men in charge of the Army, or the tax office, or the administrators of confiscated plantations because their goals were not the same as the goals of those in authority.
Laura and Ellen referred to each other as friend, companion, partner, They lived together for over 40 years. At one point in their lives they adopted several orphaned black children. Their home lives were inseparable from their work activities. But what should I say when someone asks, "Were they Lesbians? That's not a term they would have used, so the question itself is anachronistic. Did they have a sexual relationship? Again, I don't know, and I really don't care. People in the mid-19th century seldom talked about their sex lives, and there is no reason to think Laura and Ellen would ever have done so.
The people who knew them best accepted them as a family unit. Laura and Ellen lived into their eighties, still devoted to one another. Their memorial headstones stand side by side in the cemetery of the Brick Church on St. Helena Island, although their families took their bodies home to be buried with their respective families. Their lives told a single story. Their accomplishments were pointed toward a single goal.
I remain convinced that without each other, neither of them would have been able to bring their dream of freedom and equality for the former slaves into reality.