This is not a love story ready-made for Hollywood. Rather, it is one more suited for a Shakespearean tragedy. Two newlyweds, on the day after their marriage, were separated by the call for troops in Mr. Lincoln’s War. As was true of so many Civil War couples, only one would survive the war. While you may be thinking to yourself that you’ve heard this story before (and perhaps many of you have), the tale of these two star-crossed lovers does not fit the typical narrative behind the vacant chair.
Francis Barlow and Arabella Griffith met in New York City shortly before the war. Francis, or Frank as his friends called him, graduated valedictorian of his class at Harvard before moving to New York to work as a lawyer and contributor for the New York Tribune. Arabella, nearly a decade older than Frank, moved to the city from rural New Jersey in 1846 to serve as a governess. She was not your average Victorian lady. Intelligent and bold, she soon affiliated herself with the high-class social circles of artists, politicians, and writers among New York elites. She even became good friends with George Templeton Strong, who described her as being “certainly the most brilliant, cultivated, easy, graceful, effective talker of womanhood.”
In the first episode of the new PBS series Mercy Street, nurse Anne Hastings is seen applying a plaster cast to a wounded soldier’s bare legs before a captivated audience of surgeons and hospital workers. This action seems trivial today, even unquestionable, but as the show progressed and more scenes portrayed this seemingly insignificant concept of touch, of intimacy between a female nurse and her male patients, its true magnitude became apparent.
Sex was not a popular topic of discussion in Civil War Era America; Victorian society shunned intimacy between men and women and regarded intercourse solely as a means of reproducing and building families, a convention that led to the establishment of separate spheres. Women were expected to remain pure and chaste, while men were responsible for fighting off their intrinsic sexual instincts (both of these standards are sexist, of course, but that’s a story for another blog post), and interactions between the genders were meant to be courteous and, frankly, prudish. The publication of The Scarlet Letter in 1850 did not help this case as women became more apprehensive and fearful of the reactions they might receive; no woman wanted to be the subject of public scorn. Continue reading “Sexual Healing: Nurses, Gender, and Victorian Era Intimacy”