812 West Poplar Street, Griffin, Georgia
Surviving letters between two white Georgia women, Rebecca Alice Baldy (born 1835) and Josephine "Joe" Varner, suggest that southern women too formed romantic friendships, although these likely differed from those of women in the more urban and industrial region of the country. Baldy and Varner met in college in the 1850s. Baldy, from a once-wealthy family that had run into hard times in the 1860s, scraped out a living as a teacher. She dreamed of running a school with Varner, who worked in her family's hotel, but this was never to be. Baldy wrote Varner in 1870: “I am only a woman like yourself, yet you never had, & never can have a more devoted, sincere & constant lover than you have in me; and mine, my dear, is a love that will never tire. Do you know that if you only touch me, or speak to me there is not a nerve or fibre in my body that does not respond with a thrill of delight? . . . You remember the morning you came in the parlor . . . and, taking my head in your arms, you bent down with such a smile & such a look! and gave me the sweetest kiss any body could imagine I was quite happy." But perhaps because Varner did not reciprocate Baldy's love with the same intensity, the two women lived out their lives apart, Baldy struggling to make ends meet.
Rebecca Alice Baldy was the daughter of William H. Baldy (1808, South Carolina - 1856, Georgia), son of Stephen Baldy (born 1770) and Mary Hamilton (born 1764), and Eliza Jane Polhill (born 1810, Newington, Effingham County, Georgia).
Alice Baldy, a middle-aged schoolteacher from Griffin, Georgia, often daydreamed about her desire to set up a home and school with her much loved friend Josephine Varner. Her ultimate goal was to live with her sisters and with Josie in a sororal group, and to share in the running of their own school, which would enable them to support their families while sharing a home together. Her "isolated dream" spilled onto the pages in several of her letters to Josephine Varner and in doing so revealed much about the romantic friendships that some women in the nineteenth century shared. "I want so much to get our school underway—yours and Mary J's and mine—Amanda and Mary J would keep domestic affairs straight—and you and I could manage quite a number of children. I look forward to that as the happiness in store for me."
Alice Baldy's life had not been easy—her father, William H. Baldy, a wealthy plantation owner, died in 1856 when she was twenty-one years old; two of her brothers were dead, her sister Mary Jane was losing her sight, and her mother's health was rapidly failing. To make matters worse, the family had financial difficulties, after losing much of its wealth in the years following their father's death, which propelled Alice into the workplace as a teacher in order to support her family. This must have been especially hard for Alice as she had grown up in a wealthy plantation-class family in Burke's County, Georgia. In the 1860s, the Baldy family was living in Griffin, Georgia, just west of Indian Springs, in a house forever in need of repairs, which would serve as their home into the 20th century.
By the time the Civil War began, Alice was already twenty-five years old, still unmarried, with a family who suddenly relied on her work as a teacher and the income that she provided. It is set within this challenging backdrop that the friendship between Alice and Josephine Varner was cultivated and sustained in excess of two decades. Having first met several years earlier at La Grange College (which they attended together with Miss Joe's only sister, Amanda), the pair seem to have a lot in common; they had each lost their father, they were single, and they taught for a living (although Miss Joe later became the proprietress of the family hotel, the Varner House). Both women maintained close bonds with their families, but they also recognized the importance of friendship in their daily lives: "the love of my friends is a world of comfort to me," Joe confessed in her journal in December 1866. "Indeed I commit a daily sin in longing to see them and not being contended with my lot in life."' The dissatisfaction that bubbled underneath the surface of Miss Joe's diary entries reveals a latent frustration with not being able to do more in life, perhaps constrained by her gender. It was in this vein that Joe reflected in February 1867 how "friends make the charm of life to me," while admitting, "I have such rebellious feelings." Joe rarely vocalized these feelings of discontentment in public but buried them in her diary. It is feasible that she discussed such matters in her letters to Alice Baldy, but as the letters have been destroyed, it is difficult to say with any degree of certainly what secrets were hidden inside them.
The friendship shared between these two mature women warrants attention, not only in its own right, but as a means of providing a deeper insight into the form and function of female friendship in the nineteenth-century American South. The nature and longevity of their friendship went far beyond the short-lived "crush" commonly associated with girlhood or the transitionary stage of youth particularly apparent in all-girls' boarding schools. The Baldy and Varner friendship while established in youth endured for several years, well into adulthood, until the women were in their forties, when the letters either stopped or have since been lost or destroyed. Either way their friendship represented a long-lasting and passionate attachment that stands out because both women never married. In the letters that remain from Alice Baldy to Joe Varner it is clear that the primary goal, for Alice at least, was for them to establish a permanent home together. Their relationship was evidently infused with a strong physical chemistry, and several of Alice's letters refer to their tender embraces and physical connection: "laying your cheek on mine" and her longing to "kiss" Josephine's lips, mimicking the language of heterosexual love. The effusive outpouring of emotion in Alice's letters to Joe forms a stark contrast to the frigid detachment of heterosexual love that existed between men and women at that time. Alice implores, "I will never love [another] human being more than I do you—I want you every day to sew and read and talk with me—every night I want you with me that I may wake you with a kiss—that I may always make you happy and that you would always love me. Will you always love me Josie, even when I am old? Will you promise to be with me as much as you can, as long as I live? Let us promise to each other to be as much together as we possibly can as long as we both live."' Their relationship was passionate by nature; Alice's words ooze sensuality; she even admitted in a letter to Joe, "Do you know that if you touch me, or speak to me there is not a nerve or fibre in my body that does not respond with a thrill of delight," thus accentuating the physical nature of her attraction. While we do not have a written response from Joe (as she made Alice destroy the letters), the fact that Joe kept Alice's letters for all her years suggests that the relationship was important to her.
In 1864 Alice Baldy was teaching in Athens. By 1869 she operated a small school by herself in Indian Springs. Apparently, the academic year of 1868-1869 was her last or only year to teach in Indian Springs. On January 31, 1870, Alice wrote to Josie from her new teaching position in a Dr. Ellis' household outside Griffin. From there she moved to Effingham County, her mother's birthplace down in the Savannah River Basin, where her physical health as well as her spirit suffered considerably. In 1872 Alice wrote to her mother, requesting that she have Alice's bed moved to an upstairs room in preparation for Miss Joe's visit with her in Griffin. The next year, she wrote to her brother Eddie that she had visited Indian Springs out of season. Nearly 10 years later, Alice wrote to her brother that she had left her place at Captain Stallings' the previous Fall, as his millpond was so sickly they were always ill. She taught the fall-term in Effingham at Mr Chris Foy's. In a contract for 1883-1884 in Greenville, Florida, she was paid $40 and board per month. In 1887 she took a position in Lorane, Georgia, near Griffin, where she shared a room and bed with the widow Sarah Johnston.
Ultimately Alice's longed-for dream of sharing a permanent home with Joe never reached fruition, yet the fact that she hoped that it would raises key points about the form and function of female friendship in the American South, as well as the changing nature of female friendship as the century progressed.
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