Yes, I know it's supposed to be "Gullah Wednesday." I'll get that post up later today. But first I need to finish off this question about the themes that run through The Road to Frogmore. I had hoped to do this yesterday, but Lions Club business kept getting in the way -- a meeting about the venue for the 2014 State Convention and a trip to Arkansas so my PDG husband could do an installation.
Readers did not provide much feedback from yesterday's post. I'm assuming that means that people more or less expect that a Civil War novel will have to deal with racial issues. Of course it does, and the revelation that even the staunchest abolitionist was not 100% color blind is not particularly shocking.
But there is another issue that lies beneath my entire story, one that deals with gender roles. Laura Towne had a friend, Ellen Murray. They were (take your pick): best friends, life-long companions, partners, intimate friends, soul mates. All those terms have been applied to these two women, who left their families and fled to South Carolina to establish their own household and work together toward a common cause. They lived together for 40 years, remaining faithful to one another to the exclusion of all others, until death parted them.
I have been unable to find any overt mention of a sexual relationship between the two women, but given the repressive nature of 19th-century mores, that is not surprising. Married couples don't often talk about sex in the 1860s either. But there are intense emotional moments. Laura fears that Ellen will not be able to join her and literally faints with relief when Ellen actually arrives. The two greet each other with restraint and then "cavort with glee" when they are finally alone. Laura is at one spot struck dumb by Ellen's fragile beauty. Ellen believes her purpose in life is to take care of Laura. The crisis points in Laura's story frequently have to do with with Ellen. Changes in their relationship send their story off in new directions. It is simply impossible to talk about one without talking about both.
The relationship has gone undefined by historians. I suspect that is at least in part because of our own societal disagreements about same-sex marriages and partnerships. In the 19th century, there was an accepted family structure known as a "Boston marriage." Even gender studies expects disagree about the exact nature of the relationship, but it always seems to involve two unrelated women living together as husband and wife, thus forming a family unit. Is this what was going on between Laura and Ellen?
Can I ignore it in this book? I don't think I can. I don't want to get into a whole discussion about "otherness" here. However, if Laura and Ellen are a part of a gender-based minority -- if they experience discrimination because of their affection for one another -- then that may help explain why they choose to build their life together in the isolation of the Sea Islands rather than the urban settings of their upbringings. Their experience may also give them an empathy for the problems faced by the freed slaves.
Will my readers be disturbed? What do you think?