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How to Suppress Women’s Lesbian Identity

Monday, February 26, 2018 - 07:00

When I decided to blog a few books on Charlotte Cushman in support of doing a podcast on her, my online searches suggested two titles that fell in the “definitive” category: Merrill’s 2000 book that I blogged last week, and Leach’s 1970 one that I’m blogging today. I hadn’t quite realized that they’d be such an object lesson in ways to approach the sexuality of 19th century queer women. Merrill unabashedly tackles the evidence for Cushman’s romantic and erotic relationships with other women and the ways she self-conciously managed her public reputation around them, as well as how shifts in public reception for same-sex relationships contributed to a significant erasure of Cushman’s rightful place in stage history. Leach, writing 30 years earlier, takes a far more “traditional” approach to the lives of 19th century women in “romantic friendships”. At almost every turn, Cushman’s lovers are turned into “friends”, the emotional chaos of her personal life is converted to concerns about finances and professional jealousies, and when evidence of Cushman’s intense emotional relationships with women is impossible to ignore, Leach hurries past with no analysis or discussion. In contrast, Leach fastens onto every scrap of evidence for Cushman’s interactions with men, converting an unnamed man that she spurned early in her career to a life-long romantic wound who was solely responsible for her remaining unmarried and regularly referring to Cushman’s life as “loveless” and “lonely”. And yet both biographers had exactly the same set of documentation available to work from.

One explanation, of course, is the times they were writing in (keeping in mind that Leach’s 1970 publication reflects research and composition done well before that date). He wrote at an era before “gay liberation” when a laudatory biographer would consider it a duty to “protect the reputation” of his subject. But also when myths about the nature of 19th century women’s sexuality largely stood unchallenged. (Keep in mind that Lillian Faderman’s 1981 work also failed to challenge them substantially.) Merrill was writing in the midst of a renaissance of historic research into queer women’s history: when Helena Whitbread’s work with Anne Lister’s diaries had exploded the myth that pre-20th century women were incapable of a self-conscious lesbian identity and when there was no longer a pall of stigma attached to identifying your research topic as other than heterosexual.

When digging for historic evidence for queer sexuality, it can be important to keep this sort of contrast in mind. Historians are never objective. They have their own biases and filters and their own agenda regarding how they want to present their topic. And while that doesn’t mean that you can’t trust anyone, it certainly means that no books should ever be taken as the final word on a subject.

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Full citation: 

Leach, Joseph. 1970. Bright Particular Star: The Life and Times of Charlotte Cushman. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Publication summary: 

A biography of 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman that does its best to avoid recognizing her romantic relationships with women.

Leach’s biography of Charlotte Cushman takes a detailed “gossip column” type of approach, working in detail through all her travels, performances, and social interactions. He attributes motivations, emotions, and reactions both to Cushman and to those around her, dramatizing and fictionalizing the bare facts drawn from letters, diaries, and newspaper accounts. This can leave a seriously mistaken impression of what the evidence is behind his assertions.

I selected this book to blog as part of the context for a podcast on Cushman, seeing it as a complement to Merrill’s When Romeo was a Woman, but having read both, I find that Leach’s work is of very little value to the purpose of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. He does his best to suppress or dismiss the evidence for Cushman’s romantic and erotic relationships with women, going through startling contortions in some cases. As my blog of Merrill’s work has covered the basics of Cushman’s career, my summary of Leach’s book is going to be largely confined to commentary on that process of suppression and dismissal. So the following discussion will focus specifically on the ways in which Leach “spins” the evidence with regard to Cushman’s interpersonal relationships. This will not in any way give a balanced picture of what his book covers, but it best serves the overall purpose of the Project. This entry on Leach’s book is best understood after having read Merrill’s to provide the framework that I’m commenting on.

The description of Cushman’s girlhood emphasizes her rough-and-tumble play. He notes Cushman’s reaction to her sister Susan’s “more feminine beauty” as being to move further from the feminine ideal and become a comic performer. He traces her interest in theater directly to seeing the English actor Macready in New York (rather than to her early success in amateur theatricals). Leach spotlights personal attentions from two men (Charley Wiggin and Charles Spalding) but asserts that a supposed engagement to Spaulding was nixed by his family’s reaction to Cushman’s wild behavior. When Spaulding died in an accident, Leach asserts that Cushman was too young to “mourn the loss of a lover”, taking it as given that they had had a romantic attachment. He asserts that Cushman avoided marriage in order to focus on her career rather than from general disinterest.

Cushman’s assertive and ambitious actions with regard to her early stage career (demanding particular roles, seeking good billing) is attributed to her inexperience in the thater world rather than to self-confidence. Leach puts a strong emphasis on a supposed close brush with “romance” with an unnamed man in Albany. (A man that Cushman’s memoirs refer to as having made improper advances.) In the context of Cushman’s sister Susan marrying, becoming a mother, and being abandoned by her much older husband, Leach notes of Cushman that “her career left little time or inclination to ponder the good of any romance.” He presents Cushman as being unhappy at her lack of conventional beauty and jealous of Susan on that point.

With regard to Cushman’s early emotional attachments to women, Leach glosses over her courtship of Fanny Kemble as simple friendship. Also labeled “friendship” were her visits with Annie Brewster, which he describes as “to relieve the mounting tedium” by reading to each other and taking joy in literature. This “interest” in Brewster is quickly supplanted (with no mention of Brewster’s family’s qualms about the nature of the relationship) by her introduction to Rosalie Sully. He says they shared “an intuitional understanding” and “profound attachment”, but notes that Cushman referred to Rosalie as “beloved” without discussion of what that might mean. Leach notes that Cushman’s diary and Rosalie’s letters “suggest an affectionate regard between them that was not universally approved” but dismisses this concern noting that similar sentiments were expressed in other contemporary female correspondence that “sound no less oddly romantic to a later age.” [Note: that is, Leach is saying that we modern people would find the language “oddly romantic” but that we aren’t to take it as such.]

Before leaving for England, Cushman gives Rosalie a ring and a bracelet “pledging...eternal fidelity.” This is not directly commented on. Leach notes Cushman’s diary entries on the voyage about hoping to become successful enough to have Rosalie “with me always”, also without comment.

The following extended quote from the book, describing Cushman’s reception by English women, specifically including Eliza Cook (who would become Cushman’s partner for a time) is a prime example of how Leach de-sexualizes the context of Cushman’s relationships:

“Like Annie Brewster and Rosalie Sully, young women in England found in Charlotte a strong attraction. The magnetism that audiences applauded carried over into her social relationships with women her age who came to ‘kneel’ at her feet. If none could define the quality, few doubted her force and self-possession, her manner that clearly announced, ‘I know what I’m doing.’ For Victorian girls such a young woman held unique interest, a kind of wish fulfillment.”

Leach notes that rumors around Cushman’s “friendship” with Eliza Cook reached Rosalie and caused her unhappiness without touching on the type of “friendship” that such an expectation of exclusiveness implied. He provides extensive quotations from Geraldine Jewsbury’s letters to Cushman that concern rumors about her “friendships” where Jewsbury advises her to cling to “worthy” friends and ignore gossip. The book dances around naming what those rumors would have been and why they would be concerning. He discusses Cushman’s friendship with Jewsbury’s romantic friend Jane Carlyle but places much more emphasis on Cushman’s interactions with Jane's husband, historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle. (In comparison with Merrill’s book, there is much more emphasis in Leach’s on Cushman’s friendships with prominent men, as opposed to the women that formed Cushman’s close social circle.)

Leach introduces Matilda Hays as “an intimate, a spirit as freely capable of friendship as Roslie Sully.” He notes the development into a “deep attachment” and comments by Cushman’s associates calling her relationship with Hays a “female marriage”. This is about as close as Leach comes to acknowledging Cushman’s orientation, but there is no direct recognition or discussion of it.

Leach opines that, in comparison to Cushman’s supposed male suitors, that her same-sex bonds “could scarcely offer the intimate rewards of marriage” but “supplied a release at last from loneliness.” [Note: this is the point where I almost threw the book across the room.] He focuses more strongly on Cushman’s family’s skepticism about her relationships with women. There is a through-line in the narrative where he regularly mentions how Cushman’s mother (whom she was supporting by this point) disapproved of her female friends.

The relationship with Hays is framed as being Cushman mentoring her as an apprentice actress. He refers to Hays as “the girl”, in order to undermine the impression that they interacted as equals, then notes Hays’ shift from performer to “confidante and companion” supplying “a sense of home” for Cushman.

Leach depicts a supposed romantic attraction to actor Conrad Clarke, suggesting that Cushman had grown bored with Hays. He describes the motivation as “deep inside her [Cushman], a woman’s heart lay sleeping” and that Clarke crated “a softening” in her demeanor. He then dramatizes a confrontation in which Clarke’s wife confronts Cushman and accuses her of coming between them, and suggests that Cushman was emotionally devastated by this deceit resulting in her dismissing Clarke from her presence.

When describing the household that developed in Rome, the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, like Hays before her, is referred to in the narrative as a “girl”. I interpret this as Leach trying to downplay the perception of a romantic context by framing the interactions as more mentorship or maternalism. Perhaps Leach had a sincere aversion to acknowledging Cushman’s potentially problematic attraction to significantly younger women. He depicts Cushman’s relationship to Hosmer as entirely one of professional mentorship and patronage with no suggestion of any other emotion besides Hosmer’s hero-worship of the actress and Cushman’s “mothering instinct” in return.

The stormy consequences of the attraction between Hays and Hosmer is presented as simply “an attachment” and Leach seems genuinely confused why their friendship should disturb Cushman, suggesting that she simply resented not being the center of attention and became bored by their distraction. Cushman drags Hays off to England with her and when Hays returns alone to Rome, Leach says that Cushman felt “more loneliness than sadness” leaving aside the question of romantic jealousy. The tentative reunion with Hays, when she returned to England from Rome, doesn’t overtly discuss the emotional context. Leach suggests that Cushman felt sorry for Hays for not having the same level of career expectations as the other women in her circle and that was why she’d kept her around as a companion. (This ignores the straightforward evidence for Hays’ own career.) When Hays makes her final departure, the author says, “the friendship...had come at last to mean little” and makes no reference at all to her demand for “palimony” for having put Cushman’s career over her own. Leach consistently portrays Hays as having little talent of any type and not having been worthy of Cushman’s support. Perhaps this is how he excuses Cushman’s rather shabby treatment of her.

When Emma Stebbins arrives in Rome, Cushman’s interest is once again framed as artistic patronage. Her accompanying Cushman on a return trip to the States goes unremarked, and he quickly moves on to her initial meeting with Emma Crow. [Note: for the remainder of the biography, Leach does his best to entirely ignore the presence of Stebbins in Cushman’s life and accompanying her on her travels. She is mentioned only rarely as if of no importance.]

At the very beginning of their relationship, Leach highlights the age difference between Cushman and Crow and projects that Crow will later “wonder that she ever declared so fervent a love for an old woman.” He describes Cushman as feeling complete with the two Emmas having “cast loneliness and grief behind her.” He believes that Cushman never intended or expected Crow and Cushman’s nephew (and adopted son) Ned to fall in love (in contrast with Merrill’s position that Cushman engineered the marriage as a blind) and that she was bewildered by Stebbins’ flashes of hostility toward Crow (ignoring Cushman's direct discussion of it in her letters to Crow). He suggests that when Crow returned to the States after visiting in Rome, Cushman had more regret that Ned was leaving than that Crow was. Only when the marriage between Emma Crow and Ned Cushman is in progress does Leach finally suggest that its purpose, in Cushman’s eyes, was to create a permanent legal place for Crow in her own life and family.

When Crow has experienced her miscarriage and Cushman is writing to her to comfort her, Leach quotes Cushman recalling that she once had been “called upon to bear the very hardest thing that can come to a woman.” For unspecified reasons Leach assumes that this passage is referring to “the abortive romance in Albany” early in Cushman’s life, to a man man never even named in her writings, to whom Leach attributes Cushman’s aversion to marriage.

When Emma and Ned are arranging to move to Rome, Leach notes Cushman’s careful explanation to Emma about her loyal devotion to Stebbins while giving no context as to why such an assurance should be necessary. When the couple arrived in Rome to augment Cushman’s household, Leach treats Hosmer’s decision to move out as an expression of ingratitude for Cushman’s patronage, as if that had been their only interaction.

During Cushman’s various trans-Atlantic voyages that followed, although Stebbins was a regular traveling companion, Leach barely notes her presence, focusing instead on the people that Cushman visited and her performances. This continues even though, when Cushman’s cancer becomes a major reason for her to return to the U.S., Stebbins accompanies her to the detriment of her own career. The entire focus of the book at this point is on Cushman’s continued correspondence with Emma Crow. As death approaches, this emphasis continues while Stebbins’ constant attention and presence warrant only passing mentions.

At the end, the focus is on Emma and Ned’s efforts to be at Cushman’s bedside and not on the continued support that Stebbins continued to provide.

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