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5 Books about Gay Life in the Gilded Age

By Kathryn Pritchett
July 25, 2023
Maude Adams and Louise Boynton

A successful story idea often originates by way of a detour. For example, while doing research for my first novel about homesteading polygamists in 19th century Utah, I discovered famous Gilded Age actress Maude Adams.

I learned that she was born in Salt Lake City and that she went on to be the original Peter Pan on Broadway. However, it wasn’t until I wrote a pandemic-induced second novel inspired by Adams’s story, that I also found out she was a closeted lesbian.

Maude was notoriously private as were many lesbians of the period. “Perhaps the most that can be realistically stated about a homosexual identity during the Gilded Age is that it was in the process of becoming,” writes Jay Hathaway, author of The Gilded Age Construction of Modern American Homophobia.

“Without fixed categories or a fixed vocabulary, desire could and did take many forms, some visible to the public others known only in private,” explains Martha Vicinus, author of Intimate Friends, Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928.

Maude rarely spoke about her relationships with women, but one can infer that women like Louise Boynton, her longtime secretary and the woman she’s buried next to, were more than employees or friends. In a 1913 Good Housekeeping profile, Boynton was described as “a companion who is consulted on every momentous question of costume or farm produce; who is present at the trial of every stage effect and is the companion of every country drive; a true helpmeet in the small things of life as well as in the large.” Secretary, companion, helpmeet. Louise was this and so much more to Maude.

Headstone - Maude Adams and Louise Boynton

Given the private nature of these relationships, and the limited vocabulary to describe them, I’ve found several books very helpful to understand Gay Life in the Gilded Age. Here are five favorites that informed my work-in-progress To See The Love-Light.

Between Women: Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England by Sharon Marcus (2007)
What was known as the Gilded Age in America was the late Victorian Era in England. Marcus examines the literature, memoirs, letters, domestic magazines, and political debates of the period to explore women’s relationships of the time. Women in Victorian England made jewelry from each other’s hair and wrote passionate poems to and about each other. Marcus insists they were not seen as “gender outlaws.” Rather, their friendships were accepted by society. (Maude Adams’s first significant love, actress Lillian Florence, was referred to by the press as her “special friend.”) Regarding, the evolving acceptance of same-sex attraction, Marcus writes, “In the past as in the present, marriage and family, gender and sexuality, are far more intricate, mobile, and malleable than we imagine them to be.”

The Gilded Age Construction of Modern American Homophobia by Jay Hathaway (2003)
This slim but dense volume gives a good historical overview of sexual orientation in America. For example, in 1642 Elizabeth Johnson was sentenced by a court in Massachusetts Bay because of “her unseemly practices betwixt her and another maid.” In the era of Whitman and Wilde, though homosexuality was expressed in literature and in urban communities, it was not accepted by the public. Hathaway concedes: “As the Gilded Age progressed, therefore, homosexuals were both silent and heard, private and public, unseen and seen.”

Inseparable by Simone de Beauvoir (2021)
This novel explores the bisexual author’s first love. It’s a quiet book, but the passion Sylvie feels for her childhood friend Andree—a stand-in for Beauvoir’s own friend ZaZa—is fierce. Though de Beauvoir was born a few years after the Gilded Age ended, her descriptions of an intense connection between two young girls—and the disapproval of at least one set of parents—illuminates expectations of the era. Her devotion to her friend and her despair at their separation describes what was often hidden in earlier works of fiction. The novel was deemed “too intimate” to be published during Beauvoir’s lifetime (she died in 1986).

Intimate Friends: Women who Loved Women 1778-1928 by Martha Vicinus (2004)
Throughout history women have had good reasons to keep their sexual relationships secret, writes scholar Vicinus. “Women wrote in code, wanted each other to conceal or burn letters, and used metaphors or allusion. Far better, most women felt, to remain quiet or to speak only to trustworthy allies.” (Maude Adams burned all her private papers before she died.) Through diaries, letters, and other archival sources, Vicinus introduces her readers to historical women and their passions as well as the metaphors they used to express erotic desire.

My Crystal Ball: Reminiscences by Elisabeth Marbury (1924)
This memoir not only details Marbury’s adventures with prominent literary and theatrical figures of the Gilded Age, but it also gives some insight into how a woman in a committed lesbian relationship would present herself to the public. Marbury described her long-term companion, interior designer Elsie De Wolfe, as “companion” and “sister.” She also justified not marrying because she’d never fallen in love with a “real man.” Marbury was instrumental in connecting Maude Adams with playwright James Barrie. He would go on to write many plays for Adams, including Peter Pan. Marbury also founded The Colony Club, one of the first women’s clubs in NYC, of which Maude Adams was a member.

Elisabeth Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe

What resources have shed light on intimate relationships in the eras you’re writing or reading about?

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