Precious and Adored: April Book of the Month

Lesbian history isn’t something that we can take for granted. For centuries men have conspired to conceal and destroy all evidence of lesbian lives. So it’s always amazing when lesbian stories from the past are shared in the present – as Lizzie Erenhalt and Tilly Laskey have done in Precious and Adored. Their book lovingly excavates the relationship between Rose Cleveland, author and sister of President Grover Cleveland, and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, entrepreneur and socialite.

From the moment they met in 1890, these two women felt an instant connection. They were friends, lovers, traveling companions, and confidants until death. Even during Evangeline’s brief marriage to Bishop Henry Whipple, they maintained a passionate friendship. After the Bishop’s death, they moved to Italy together, forming a community of misfits and providing housing for women in need.

Both women were courageous, nursing people through the influenza epidemic of 1918. But Rose caught influenza whilst caring for a friend, and died that year. Evangeline remembered her as “my precious and adored friend”, a description which gives the book its title. And when Evangeline died just over a decade later, she chose to be buried beside Rose.

The love letters within Precious and Adored span two decades, four languages, and multiple continents. Although Evangeline’s letters to Rose remain lost, the letters Evangeline received are in the care of the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS). Back in 1969 they were donated by a descendant of Evangeline’s husband, Henry Whipple, as part of a collection of papers and artifacts relating to the Bishop. An ironic twist, given that Rose Cleveland – not Henry Whipple – was the great love of Evangeline’s life.

The curators and reference staff of MNHS separated Rose’s letters to Evangeline from the collection and kept them in a box that couldn’t be accessed by the public. The letters were considered objectionable because “they strongly suggested a lesbian relationship between the two women.” Yet again, lesbian erasure played a part in how history was constructed.

Only when an anonymous researcher stumbled across the letters in 1975 was this relationship brought to light. This researcher contacted the Gay Task Force of the American Library Association, and a historian wrote to MNHS asking for Rose’s letters to Evangeline to be made open to the public. Over 40 years later, the correspondence between Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Whipple finally receives the attention it deserves in Precious and Adored.

When we think of the late 1800s, passionate lesbian love isn’t the first thing that springs to mind. In the time of repressive Victorian morals, women were not thought of as sexual beings – especially not with one another. The letters showcased in Precious and Adored show just how false this belief was, giving voice to desire and affection.

As well as being a successful author and literary editor, Rose was prolific in writing words of devotion to Evangeline. Her love is strong and steadfast, with the power to move readers over a hundred years later.

When we think of the late 1800s, passionate lesbian love isn’t the first thing that springs to mind. In the time of repressive Victorian morals, women were not thought of as sexual beings – especially not with one another. The letters showcased in Precious and Adored show just how false this belief was, giving voice to desire and affection.

Precious and Adored is an interesting read – not dusty or dry in the way history books are often expected to be. Rose writes candidly about orgasms, details her adventures with the rich and famous, and unabashedly describes her passion for Evangeline. There are even references to a travel companion named – I kid you not – Pussy. It’s a lesbian romp.

However, Precious and Adored isn’t always comfortable reading. Rose’s letters begin with painful references to “the Jew doctor” and “a little Uncle Tom.” And when Rose writes about the people who were her servants, her words are coated in cruelty and entitlement. There are strong currents of racism and classism. For all the charitable work Rose did in her lifetime, descriptions of her lavish parties and extravagant spending can be alienating.

That being said, it is undeniable that Precious and Adored does vital work of documenting a suppressed lesbian history. The letters bring to life the love between two extraordinary women. Instead of being a footnote in her brother’s presidency, Rose is given the space to define herself, giving voice to a rich (and very gay) inner-life. Similarly, Evangeline is not defined by her marriage to Bishop Whipple, but lovingly rendered as a charismatic woman who lived on her own terms. It’s refreshing to read a history book where women aren’t understood in relation to the Great Men of History, but have their own stories – herstories – told.