Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6
A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).
II.A.4 Boston Marriage
* * *
If one had any doubts about the common perception of the phenomenon of unmarried women forming stable, long-term partnerships in the later 19th century in America, those doubts could be settled by the existence of the term “Boston marriage” for such partnerships. Unlike earlier Romantic Friendships, which often had to work around the marriage of one or both parties to a man, the women in Boston marriages were normally unmarried and independent, either through inheritance or a career. Similarly to those earlier female partnerships, the phenomenon was associated with intellectual women who often were social reformers. [Though one wonders whether there’s some selection bias in which partnerships left clear records by which they could be identified.]
Faderman is now willing to grant the possibility that some of these relationships included sexual relations, though it’s more an absence of her previous negative assumptions. (“Whether these unions sometimes or often included sex we will never know.”) She gives no specific argument for this change in evaluation, any more than she gave clear arguments for why earlier partnerships were assumed to be sexless.
Literary examples of Boston marriages, such as Henry James’s The Bostonians (1885) might touch on the competition between a female partnership and the opportunity for marriage to a man, though the male lead in The Bostonians “wins” by brute force and the woman that he wrenches away from her “Boston marriage” is clearly depicted as falling into tragedy. Whatever James intended to portray with the novel, 20th century critics later interpreted the female couple as lesbians and “perverse” and the heterosexual resolution to be preferable, even if the female partner is miserable in it. Henry James may have been inspired in his depiction of the women by his sister Alice’s close relationship with Katherine Loring--though they were never able to achieve a separate household together, due to Loring’s family commitments.
A more prototypical Boston marriage was that between the novelist Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields which spanned the last two decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. And here we can see the shift in attitudes towards such partnerships, for when Fields planned to publish a volume of Jewett’s letters after her death, she was urged to drastically edit the expressions of affection they contained, for fear of “all sorts of people reading them wrong.”
The last example in this chapter moves all the way into self-conscious denial. Author Willa Cather shared her life for forty years with Edith Lewis, but her fiction is devoid of loving supportive female friends, and the characters who are most thought to represent self-insertions of the author appear as men in her fiction. Cather was part of Jewett and Fields’s social circle but was born a quarter century later. Thus we see a chronology of the effects of this shift in attitude, though not yet the causes.