Other than my fairly rigid schedule of LHMP posts and the Bingo series, my blog spreadsheet tells me I haven't posted much in the last couple of weeks. Sometimes all the overlapping deadlines and commitments conspire to knock out the time I'd normally spend brainstorming blogs. In the present case, it's been a combination of scrambling to get some LHMP material together, all of my investigations at work going from "waiting on someone else to do something" to "you need to get this turned around right now," and spending half of last week serving my jury duty--the first time in my life I've actually been selected for a trial that went to completion. The jury duty was a fascinating experience. I was satisfied with our verdict, though left angry by some of the events we needed to rule on. And I was unprepared for how exhausting it was to alternate between waiting around for things to happen with paying very intense concentration to the testimony. Most exhausting was the hour or so spent in deliberations (especially since I sort of volunteered/was volunteered to be foreman). I've blogged in detail about the experience on my Dreamwidth account, but I'm afraid it's only accessible if we're mutuals there. (I don't lock Dreamwidth posts very often, but I wanted a layer of privacy for some of what I was talking about.)
So since I don't have new and interesting thoughts to post here today, I figured I'd cheerlead about some recent and upcoming stuff, just as a reminder:
This biography falls outside the Project’s pre-20th century scope, but I already owned the book and since I featured an interview about a show based on Carstairs’ life on the podcast, it felt like a good excuse to cover it in the blog. The shifting experiences and receptions of Carstairs’s same-sex relationships over her lifetime provide something of a tour through 20th century lesbian history, though of course Carstairs herself was insulated to an astounding degree by her wealth and connections. Carstairs was definintely gender non-conforming and adopted a number of masculine-coded attributes, including a preference for the name Joe. However there seems sufficient evidence in her own writings to conclude that she did not consider herself transgender, and so I have followed the book's lead in using female pronouns.
And not to put too fine a point on it, Carstairs was not exactly a socially and politically progressive icon. While many aspects of her transgressive life appear glamorous, and while she did embrace some improvements with regard to social and economic conditions for “her people” in the Bahamas, she was solidly imperialist, colonialist, racist, and classist and when she was able to, she ordered the lives of those around her in a manner that was autocratic and sometimes cruel. But she is a part of lesbian history as much as more palatable icons are.
Summerscale, Kate. 1997. The Queen of Whale Cay. Viking, New York. ISBN 0-670-88018-3
Marion “Joe” Carstairs was born in 1900, heir to a fortune, courtesy of her grandfather’s involvement in Standard Oil, and became famous in the 1920s as a motorboat racer and celebrity. She dropped out of general notice in 1934 when she bought an island in the Bahamas and moved there to found something of a private kingdom where she entertained her fellow celebrities, such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, as well as a long string of female lovers such as Marlene Dietrich. She was know for eccentricities such as favoring masculine clothing and for her mascot, a doll named “Lord Todd Wadley” that she treated as something of an alter ego.
[Note: Like many eccentrics of her class and era, she was conservative in politics and unrepentantly imperialist, as well as embodying the racist and colonialist attitudes of white British culture of the time. While the author of this book tends to report these attitudes without comment, I have omitted some of the more offensive elements in my summary and so feel the need to point it out more explicitly.]
[Second note: I feel the need to embrace the possibility that, if born in a later age, Carstairs might have had a trans identity. Certainly she falls on the trans-masculine spectrum. But the information in the biography seems to me to fall solidly on the female and lesbian side, so I have followed the author in doing so.]
By the time of Carstairs’ death at age 93, she was essentially forgotten, both in her exploits and her scandals. The author of this biography was assigned to write her obituary for The Daily Telegraph and uncovered a story that she thought warranted more research and a full history. That story came from old newspaper clippings, friends and lovers still around to be interviewed, and a series of tape recordings that Carstairs made in the 1970s for an abortive project of having her autobiography ghost-written. The tapes are especially revealing, showing a woman who did very little self-reflection or analysis of her own life and motivations. She was; she did; but the whys and wherefores she dismissed as unimportant.
Although her inherited wealth made Carstairs’ transgressive life possible, she worked hard to dissociate herself from her parents, choosing her own gender-neutral nickname at an early age (before eventually choosing “Joe”), and later claiming she didn’t even know her father’s given name--though he left the marriage shortly after Carstairs’ birth, so this might be forgiven. That father was British and was the connection that brought her from the company of American oil barons to London society. Her mother remarried a series of Englishmen, but Carstairs had little affection for her half-siblings. She describes her youth: “I was never a little girl. I came out of the womb queer,” and told stories of a rough and tumble adventurousness. Her mother in turn seems to have had little interest in her, except for a possessive jealousy that led to interfering with any emotional attachments Carstairs tried to make with other adults in her childhood.
Carstairs developed an early fascination with boats. Even by her own account she was a violent and unmanageable child, leading to her being put into an American boarding school in order to separate her from her half-siblings at age 11. It was during this period that she gravitated toward masculine clothing and the company of other girls who did so. She had crushes on her school-fellows, though she claimed they never progressed to sexual encounters at the time.
During World War I, she developed an ambition to become a doctor and her grandmother arranged--over her mother’s objections--for Carstairs to go to France as an ambulance driver. During this period in Paris she discovered the joys of sex with a fellow ambulance driver, among other women. Dolly Wilde, the niece of Oscar Wilde, was one of her lovers and part of Natalie Barney’s circle in Paris, but Carstairs was only on the periphery of that glittering crowd. It was Dolly who taught Carstairs how to invent her own public persona.
In 1918, Carstairs had a break with her mother over her lesbianism, and though Carstairs tells it that she told her mother what do do with her threats of disinheritance, shortly afterward she married a childhood friend Count Jacques de Pret, most likely to avoid losing her inheritance. The two parted immediately after the marriage and both took pains to note that it was never consummated.
After WWI, Carstairs took her love of motor vehicles to supporting the British anti-Republican activities in Ireland, where she again fell in love with a number of like-minded unconventional women. Then in 1919 it was back to France to help with post-war cleanup. All this was hard physical work with a certain amount of danger. The nature of the work required maasculine-style dress and it often attracted women who transgressed traditional gender roles. (This chapter of the book includes extensive repetition of a slur used for the Chinese laborers they were working beside, as well as quoting some very racist commentary. I note this for the sake of full representation but decline to repeat any of it.)
Shortly after being demobilized in 1920, Carstairs’ grandmother--and champion--died in New York. Carstairs played at being poor while waiting several years for the will to be settled, though in fact trust funds gave her an extremely comfortable income. She and her army friends set up an all-female chauffeur business in London, perhaps to prolong the sense of transgressive freedom they had during the war. Their clientele was extremely varied and included tours and international travel as well as local service. [Reading the details, I kept imaging a tv historical sit-com revolving around the company and its activities!] Despite devoting herself to the driving service as a business, Carstairs had an estate in Hampshire. And in 1924 when both her mother’s and grandmother’s wills were finally settled, Carstairs became extremely wealthy. She commissioned “the best motorboat money could buy” and set out on the next stage of her life.
The state of the art in motorboats at the time were hydroplanes--very fast, but unstable and fragile. Boats were as likely to be destroyed in the race as to win. Carstairs took on a full time boat mechanic named Joe (they had fun with the name coincidence) who would be one of the many associates she “looked after” financially life-long. Then she began winning races, not consistently, but regularly, expressing an addiction to the thrill and hazard of the speed.
Carstairs attracted a regular flock of girlfriends, from high society women to showgirls. This was typical of the racing celebrities, though Carstairs’ relationships were less openly discussed by the press than her male compatriots’ were. In 1925, while on holiday with her “secretary” Ruth Baldwin (who seems from the evidence to have been the deepest love of her life), Carstairs received from her as a present the doll that would become her mascot and icon. She had an aversion to the idea of children in her life, but the doll, “Lord Todd Wadley” becomes something of a child substitute.
The 1920s (sometimes called “the lost generation” in Britain) was an era of theatricality and abandon. The fashion for androgyny that also produced the “flapper” style, manifested in Carstairs and others in gender-bending and cross-gender clothing styles. The war had produced a gender imbalance due to massive male casualties which lessened the pressure on women to stick to a traditionally feminine role in society. Carstairs acknowledged that she “looked like a boy” during that era, but disclaimed a butch or transgender identity, saying, “I was not a stomper.” Carstairs had many friends and lovers among the theatrical set, including Gwen Farrar for whom her first racing boat was named. Among the well-known actresses within her circle was Tallulah Bankhead.
Having taken all the major speedboat competitions in the light 1.5L engine class, Carstairs turned her sights on the unlimited-power Harmsworth trophy, a competition where the wealth to build large fast boats was key. After several failed boats and spectacular mid-race catastrophies, she eventually gave up on that ambition, saying that the sport was just too expensive.
By then--the late 1920s--public attitudes toward lesbians had turned from amused tolerance to condemnation. Lesbianism was attributed to athleticism (as opposed to the reverse!) among other causes, leading to disapproval of women in active pursuits like racing. The press coverage of Carstairs’ life and exploits became more biting, and in 1931 she set off on a round-the-world voyage to escape the gossip and would thereafter spend only visits in Britain. Initially bouncing between London and New York, her relationship with Ruth--always quite open in terms of fidelity--soured and they parted ways. Carstairs built and lived on a sequence of luxury yachts and then, in 1934, bought Whale Cay, a small island in the Bahamas, where she would reign like a queen.
The population of the Bahamas in 1930 was over 80% black, with most of the white population concentrated in the capital of Nassau. Carstairs’ Whale Cay was inhabited when she bought it by a black couple who tended the lighthouse--and that was all. Several previous owners had tried business ventures there that failed. Carstairs set to work building roads and a home. She complained that the local population (“the natives,” she wrote) didn’t like work and had to be taught the construction and road building skills she needed. But her building project attracted local labor and also brought in a company store where they could spend their wages. Carstairs’ Spanish style mansion was complete in 1936. In addition to the mansion and store, Carstairs rebuilt the lighthouse and built a power plant, radio staion, schoolhouse, and museum, as well as supporting agriculture on the island and experiments with a fish cannery. She bought several more small islands nearby for more agriculture, and dredged out a harbor on Whale Cay.
On Whale Cay she had the power and control over her life and socializing that had become difficult in England. She could entertain guests or eject the unwanted. She dispensed an idiosyncratic form of local justice to her employees and their families and was fond of crude and sometimes terrifying practical jokes inflicted on her guests or chance visitors.
In 1934, Carstairs’ longtime partner Ruth Baldwin died of a drug overdose in England. Carstairs built a church in her memory on Whale Cay, with memorial services held for her annually. A startling number of Carstairs’ close friends from the ‘20s and ‘30s died relatively young in the years around 1940, with drugs and alcohol playing a significant part.
The descriptions of Carstairs’ dictatorial rule over “her people”are a bit stomach-turning. She wanted to help the local people “better themselves” but her rhetoric was steeped in racism and paternalistic colonialism. Except for the rather circular cash economy of the island, she might as well have owned the inhabitants outright. Conversely, her racism toward Bahamians didn’t preclude having the occasional black girlfriend among her theatrical friends, including Blanche Dunne and Mabel Mercer. And in some of her Bahamian political activism as well as visits to the American South, she could take overtly anti-racist stands. A complex woman. Her combative and dictatorial approach undermined her own efforts for local social reform and by 1941 when World War II caused large shifts in the Bahamian economy, she had both made enemies of the white elite and lost the momentum, of her social improvement projects among the black population. Although Carstairs tried to support the war effort, both personally and by the offer of some of her ships, no good fit for her efforts could be found.
The author of the biography goes off on two chapters of extended metaphor, viewing Carstairs as a Peter Pan figure, and then as being in the tradion of Carribbean pirates.
Carstairs had a rather tempestuous affair with Marlene Dietrich in the late 1930s. After it broke up, Carstairs began emerging more into society again. She did some sea rescue work and brought her ships into use for local commercial transport in place of vessels that had been conscripted for the war. In the mid 1940s, Carstairs decided to take up flying and proposed building a small-plane airport near Miami that was never approved. [Note: In her wealth, eccentricities, and love for fast vehicles, Carstairs keeps reminding me a bit of Howard Hughes, although unlike Hughes the wealth was entirely inherited rather than a product of eccentric genius.]
Through the 1950s she had a series of long-term girlfriends, but in the late 1950s, age began catching up with her, with arthritis in her legs and other ailments. By the 1960s, her rule on Whale Cay was being challenged by the black residents who were increasingly disinclined to behave like subjects. When she sold Whale Cay in 1975, she claimed it was due to increased drug trafficking, but it seems likely that the way of life she as accustomed to had become untenable.
Carstairs lived in Florida until 1990, with summers in the northeast, always near the sea. She still maintained many personal connections, though often through the medium of financial support of people who had once been close to her or helpful to her. She had a distrust of people she couldn’t bind with money. In 1978, saying she “had it with these fucking women” she invited a man she’d met on Long Island to move in as her hired companion and friend, and he stayed with her until her death.
The emotional center of Carstairs’ life had increasingly become her mascot Todd Wadley and other dolls. Like many eccentric rich people, she made a habit of regularly changing her will toward the end of life, shifting her bequests according to her shifting relationships with friends and relatives. After a long decline, Carstairs fell into a coma in December 1993, a few weeks short of her 94th birthday, and died later that same night. The doll, Todd Wadley, was cremated with her and their ashes, combined with those of Ruth Baldwin, were entombed over the sea on Long Island.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 20a - On the Shelf for March 2018 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/03/03 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2018.
It’s been a busy month here at the Lesbian Historic Motif Project and I’m really excited about the things we have coming up to share with you, not just this month but in the year to come.
The Fiction Project
If you’ve been following along on the blog, you’ll already know the lineup for the podcast fiction project. When I finished the first read-though of submissions, I knew immediately that I had a problem: there were just too many good stories that I wanted to buy. Fortunately, I could solve this with an executive decision. Rather than buying two stories for a half-year trial run of the fiction project, I just went ahead and bought four to cover all the "fifth Saturday" episodes for the entire year. That will also give me more data to see whether and how I want to extend the fiction project in the future.
I haven't decided on the order of appearance for the whole season yet, but here are the selections in chronological order of setting:
I'm especially happy that after I'd identified the best stories I'd received, I found I also had a broad variety of time-periods, cultures, and types of story. We have young love and love returned to late in life. We have adventure and quiet friendship. We have women who transgress gender norms and those who find love within conventional structures. We have happy endings, bittersweet ones, and stories where the eventual end is yet unknown. I'm so excited to be able to bring these stories to my podcast listeners!
At the time I’m recording this, I’m still sorting out which story will debut the series at the end of the month. But I’m sure you’ll enjoy all of them, no matter which one comes first.
Publications on the Blog
I have a number of different approaches to choosing which publications to cover in the blog. Sometimes I try to pick ones that relate to the theme of that month’s podcast, like when I did my month-long special on Sappho and her poetry last year. I’ve done a little of that this past month with two biographies of actress Charlotte Cushman. One by Lisa Merrill, published in 2000, looks very specifically at how Cushman felt about her relationships with women and how she carefully managed the way they affected her public reputation. The second biography, by Joseph Leach and published in 1970, makes a strong contrast as well as an interesting case study in how historians and biographers have actively worked to erase queerness from the subjects of their study. When I chose these books to blog, it wasn’t so much to have a coordinated theme this time, but because I needed to read them to put the podcast together. I’m starting the March blogs off with another coordinated publication: a biography of speedboat racer and lesbian celebrity “Joe” Carstairs, which ties in with the interview at the end of this show.
Sometimes I’ll choose publications for the blog simply because something came to my attention and I wanted to read the material anyway. That was the case with the three linguistics-related articles that started off last month’s blogs. I was a little disappointed by the one by Mary-Jo Bonnet on the chronology of words for lesbians in French because gaps in her data undermine some of her key conclusions. The other vocabulary-related article by Randy P. Connor was interesting in part for having an extensive vocabulary list of terms used for both male and female homosexuals in pre-modern France. And I was really delighted with Diane Watt’s close examination of the phrase “clipping and kissing” as used in 16th century English, and how it was used in an English translation of the story of Yde and Olive to indiacate sexual activity between the two women. I’m going to digress for a moment of academic fangirl squee, because a couple weeks ago Professor Watt tweeted a link to my blog in connection with a different publication of hers that I’d included. And--oh man!--nothing quite like the panic of realizing that someone’s actually paying attention to what you’re saying about their work.
Getting back to how I choose articles. Sometimes I’ll line up a small group of publications from my to-do list that have a related theme, like when I had a group of three books on sexuality in the middle ages that I covered last fall. Sometimes I’ll just wander into the library in my house and grab something at random that I haven’t covered yet. But sometimes timing and logistics pushes me in a particular direction. Covering a substantial book in a single blog, like I did for the Cushman biographies, takes up a big chunk of time. So for the next couple months I’m going to focus on journal articles instead, and try to line up a few months’ worth to give me a bit of a breathing space.
So just to let you in on a bit of my process in how I do this: I spent Last Saturday in the Cal Berkeley library with a spreadsheet of call numbers and a cell phone app that turns photos directly to pdfs. I started out with a list of 70 articles to try to track down and made my way through about 50 of them before I ran out of time. From those 50, I ended up with 28 photocopied articles, plus 8 books that I identified as being useful enough that I went online and bought them. (Although I really wish there was a non-Amazon site that aggregated second-hand book listings conveniently.) The rest of the items that I worked through on my list either weren’t on the shelf or were available only in electronic form.
Such a variety of options gives me the chance to pick a few to start with that coordinate with this month’s essay, which is an adaptation of a blog I wrote on the theme of falling in love with cross-dressing women in historic literature. So I’ll fill out the rest of the March blog spots with Caroline Gonda’s “Lesbian Narrative in the Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu”, Kristina Straub’s “The Guilty Pleasures of Female Theatrical Cross-Dressing and the Autobiography of Charlotte Charke”, and Ad Putter’s “Transvestite Knights in Medieval Life and History” which is particularly intersting as it discusses positive portrayals of men cross-dressing as women in medieval literature.
As I mentioned, this month’s essay will be an adaptation of a blog I wrote a couple years ago on the use of gender disguise in historic literature as a way of creating a context for same-sex attraction and how various different texts handled the consequences of that attraction. I’ll be adding some further analysis of how the gender disguise trope in historic literature creates a site of intersection for both lesbian motifs and transgender motifs and how it can point out some of the inherent problems with modern identity groups trying to lay exclusive claim to people or works in the past that existed within an entirely different set of models for gender and sexuality.
This month’s author guest will be fantasy and science fiction writer Elizabeth Bear, in celebration of the release of her second Karen Memory book, an alternate history steam-punk adventure featuring lesbian protagonists. Elizabeth is a wonderfully entertaining guest and you should go out and read Karen Memory now so that you’ll be ready for Stone Mad when it comes out later in the month. More details on that are coming up in the next segment where I talk about forthcoming books.
I’d also like to congratulate last month’s guest, Ellen Klages. The novella we talked about, “Passing Strange” has been nominated as a finalist for the Nebula award. The Nebulas are a set of awards voted on by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America organization. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the members of that organization find it the most brilliant novella of the year, like I did. (I know that as a SFWA member, I’ll certainly be voting for it.)
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Let’s talk about some new historical and historically-inspired books coming out this month. Because there are so few lesbian historical books overall, I cast a fairly wide net in this ongoing segment and indicate whether a book is purely historical, is set in real-world history with fantastical elements, or is historically inspired but set in an alternate history or alternate world.
Of course, the first book to mention is the one our featured author will be talking about, the steampunk alt-historical Stone Mad by Elizabeth Bear, coming out from Tor.com. Here’s the blurb:
“Readers met the irrepressible Karen Memory in Elizabeth Bear’s 2015 novel Karen Memory, and fell in love with her steampunk Victorian Pacific Northwest city, and her down-to-earth story-telling voice. Now Karen is back with Stone Mad, a new story about spiritualists, magicians, con-men, and an angry lost tommy-knocker―a magical creature who generally lives in the deep gold mines of Alaska, but has been kidnapped and brought to Rapid City. Karen and Priya are out for a night on the town, celebrating the purchase of their own little ranch and Karen’s retirement from the Hotel Ma Cherie, when they meet the Arcadia Sisters, spiritualists who unexpectedly stir up the tommy-knocker in the basement. The ensuing show could bring down the house, if Karen didn’t rush in to rescue everyone she can.”
In the purely historical category we have The Northwoods by Jane Hoppen coming out from Bold Strokes Books. It’s a historical romance with the fairly popular setting of the American frontier in the mid 19th century, involving a cross-dressing woman passing as a man. The blurb says:
“In 1853 Wisconsin, Evelyn Bauer’s husband dies and, to support her children and their farm, she must disguise herself as him and work the logging camp for the winter. Sarah Bell has lost her partner Abigail to pneumonia. When she’s offered a job as a cook's helper at the logging camp, she has little choice but to go. The two women secretly forge a friendship as they struggle to survive the harsh environment. As Evelyn’s and Sarah’s feelings grow, tension silently builds and their unspoken passion will either force them apart or bind them together forever.”
A book that looks like it may stray over the line a teensy bit from history into alternate history is Free to Love by Ali Spooner and Annette Mori from Affinity Rainbow Publications. This is a pair of intertwined stories set in the Carribbean. The date isn’t clear from the blurb, but it looks like either the later 18th century or early 19th century
Ali Spooner’s contribution is The Chandler’s Daughter. “Captain Hillary Blythe loves sailing the Atlantic Coast on her journeys to deliver goods. Appalled by the growth of slave trade, vowing to find a way to help her thoughts turn to piracy frequently. Will helping those enslaved jeopardize her life, and the life she hopes to have with the Chandler’s Daughter?”
The other story by Annette Mori is Forbidden Love. “When Captain Blythe brings a small group of rescued slaves to a mission on Antigua, life for Elizabeth Allen changes forever. Elizabeth feels an instant connection to Kia, one of the young women. A devout Christian, Elizabeth struggles to align her feeling for Kia and her devotion to the church. Will Elizabeth allow the forbidden love she feels for Kia, or will faith over-rule her heart?”
The fourth book I found this month is more of a fictionalized biography: Undiscovered Country: A Novel Inspired by the Lives of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. It’s written by Kelly O’Connor McNees and published by Pegasus Books. Here’s the blurb: “In 1932, New York City, top reporter Lorena “Hick” Hickok starts each day with a front page byline―and finishes it swigging bourbon and planning her next big scoop. But an assignment to cover FDR’s campaign—and write a feature on his wife, Eleanor—turns Hick’s hard-won independent life on its ear. Soon her work, and the secret entanglement with the new first lady, will take her from New York and Washington to Scotts Run, West Virginia, where impoverished coal miners’ families wait in fear that the New Deal’s promised hope will pass them by. Together, Eleanor and Hick imagine how the new town of Arthurdale could change the fate of hundreds of lives. But doing what is right does not come cheap, and Hick will pay in ways she never could have imagined. Undiscovered Country artfully mixes fact and fiction to portray the intense relationship between this unlikely pair. Inspired by the historical record, including the more than three thousand letters Hick and Eleanor exchanged over a span of thirty years, McNees tells this story through Hick’s tough, tender, and unforgettable voice. A remarkable portrait of Depression-era America, this novel tells the poignant story of how a love that was forced to remain hidden nevertheless changed history.”
Remember that I can only include forthcoming books in this regular segment if I know they exist. So if you have or know of an upcoming book that might fall in the category of lesbian historical fiction, let me know so I can check it out.
Instead of the usual Ask Sappho segment in this podcast, I have a short interview with composer and artist Phoebe Legere about her off-Broadway musical about the life of Marion “Joe” Carstairs, an heiress, celebrity, and speedboat racer, whose life spans most of the 20th century and traces the changing experience of lesbian identity throughout that period. Phoebe Legere seems quite a colorful character herself and is very excited about the topic of her one-woman show. At the end of the interview there will be information about when and where the show will be performed and a special deal for our listeners.
Interview with Phoebe Legere
[Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find time to transcribe the interview before posting this. If I’m able to do so in the future, I’ll add it to this transcript.]
* * *
And that wraps up this month’s look at what’s on the shelf. I hope you’re looking forward to this month’s podcast features as much as I am!
Notes and Links
Publications on the Blog
New and Forthcoming Books
Musical about Marion “Joe” Carstairs
This time the theme for the current Lesbian Book Bingo square is "Women of Color". See my first post in this series for information about the Bingo challenge and to find the start of my series of mini-stories on the themes of the bingo squares. I'm doing a mini-story for each square, with the added challenge of placing them all in a historic setting and linking all the stories together loosely as a single narrative.
I'm going to be a little blunt here: the lesbian fiction community is many wonderful things, but one thing it is not is racially diverse, both in terms of characters and authors. In the last couple of years, there has been more acknowledgement of this state of affairs, and organizations like the Golden Crown Literary Society have taken steps to seek out speakers to address the issue so that at least the conversation can begin. It isn't enough for established authors to include non-white characters in their work. Good representation has to begin with supporting authors who are working with a deep inside knowledge of the lives and cultures they're writing about. And I'm delighted to see that the list of suggested books for this square are overwhelmingly Own Voices with respect to culture/ethnicity (to the best of my knowledge and research).
That's particularly important in contemporary novels, but in my own field of historical fiction, lesbian fiction has produced some cringe-worthy cases of fetishization of non-white characters. It's something I struggle with calling out, because the historical field is so small to begin with. But if you're playing the Lesbian Book Bingo challenge, I'd like to urge you to choose a book for this square written by a non-white author. (In my list of "what squares are the Alpennia books good for" I've already requested that people not use Mother of Souls to fill this square for just this reason.)
Here are some books I've enjoyed in the last few years with female same-sex attraction (whether they use the word "lesbian" or not) involving non-white characters that are own-voices in some cultural/ethnic aspect:
In my mini-story series, I've fallen into a pattern of overlapping the introduction of new characters with references to the established ones. So you may have guessed which character in "Three White Doves" is going to rise the the fore in this one. Originally I was going to make her girlfriend be simply a dresser at the Paris Opera (which is setting things up for the next story), but when I was looking for inspirational images, I came across one of a set of engravings of opera dancers from the late 17th century, and one of them struck me as looking black. And I found a hand-colored version of the same engraving that gave the impression even more strongly. It may have been a chance trick of how the art was photographed, and I couldn't find any further information on the individual that would support or contradict the impression. But I took it as a sign from my muse.
For the first couple stories in this series, I just went with inspiration, but now I'm putting together a spreadsheet to track the upcoming bingo square themes and figure out how I'll keep weaving my characters in and out of each others' lives. I never can keep anything simple!
A Girl Can Dream (Lesbian Book Bingo 2018 - Women of Color)
“Marie, where’s your brother? Madame will be wanting you upstairs. La Maupin is coming to visit.”
I gave the footman a saucy look but crammed the last bite of cake into my mouth and rose hurriedly from the table. Charles had sneaked off for a quick nap in the room we shared and I poked him in the ribs before lifting my striped silk turban off the stand that protected its feathers. I leaned toward the mirror to check as I tucked my hair in all around then reached for the coat.
“Up, up! Madame wants us. That opera singer is here.”
Charles wasn’t really my brother—that is, maybe he was, who could say? But everyone called us twins since as far back as I could remember, toddling around Tante Jeanne’s market stall. I don’t think Tante Jeanne was really our aunt either, but I think family is something you do, not something you are. And until Charles started getting his growth a year back, we’d always looked like two peas in a pod: the same height, the same wide cheekbones, the same coloring.
That was how Tante Jeanne convinced Madame to hire us both when she was looking for a little black page boy. All the fashionable ladies had one. Well, Madame would have two: a boy and a girl. They’d wanted to dress me up like a boy too at first, but I’d have none of that, so they’d put me in a scarlet riding habit with gold braid to go with Charles’ scarlet coat and breeches, and matching gold-striped turbans with peacock feathers to top it off. Together we waited on Madame when she was entertaining guests and followed after her carrying her things at balls and the opera.
He rolled off the bed, yawning and scrubbing his hand across his face. At least he’d had the sense to shave earlier—there’d be no time now. He was getting too old to play the page boy and we both knew the day was coming when we’d have to find other work, either in Madame’s house or somewhere else.
We barely managed to be dressed and tidy and standing in place at either side of the door to Madame’s boudoir when one of the footmen arrived escorting La Maupin. The scandalous opera singer was dressed in skirts today, looking quite like any other fine lady, except that she always moved like she was on stage with broad gestures and the energy of a cat.
Charles and I bowed and opened the doors with precise timing to let her through. There was no change in her expression but I knew she appreciated a good performance, whether she was on stage or not. Charles followed to announce her and I took the tray from a maid who’d slipped in from a side door to the antechamber and brought it in to set it on the table beside Madame’s bed.
“Thank you Marie, Charles, you may go. See that we aren’t disturbed.”
We bowed again, closed the doors with exact precision, and then looked at each other with broad grins and tried not to laugh out loud.
“They’ll be singing duets before long!” Charles whispered.
But my mind had gone elsewhere already, because if La Maupin was here, then Lisette would be waiting downstairs.
“Charles, sweetest of brothers, most darling of—”
“What do you want, Marie?”
“You know she won’t want anything for hours. We don’t both have to stay…”
He sighed. “Yes, Marie. I’ll keep watch.”
I kissed him hurriedly on the cheek. “You’re an angel.” Then rushed back to our room to change.
Swapping the red satin and feathered turban for a plain gown and kerchief was the work of a few minutes. The livery was designed to go on quickly and easily, for one never knew when we might be wanted. I’d almost slipped out the door to the yard when Madame’s housekeeper saw me.
“Where do you think you’re going, Marie?”
I ducked my head because sauciness wouldn’t work with her. “Madame said she doesn’t want to be disturbed for hours and hours, and Charles is kicking his heels in the antechamber in case she needs anything. And I need to take this off to Tante Jeanne.”
I held up the little purse I’d slipped into my pocket. We always sent part of our wages to her and I kept it for an excuse when I wanted to be out and about.
“Very well,” she said. “But no dawdling.”
Lisette was leaning against the wall by the stables waiting. I ran to her and took her face in my hands in for a long, slow kiss, then set back just to look at her. Lisette had the most beautiful eyelashes I’d ever seen—and I loved having the chance to see them up close like that, the way they curled up and tickled when I kissed her. I loved the sweep of the darker freckles across the top of her nose, even though she hated them and tried everything she could to take them off. And most of all I loved her red, sweet lips like the plumpest of cherries stolen straight from the tree. I tasted them again.
Lisette laced her fingers through mine and nodded toward the stable door. “It’s more private in there.”
I wrinkled my nose. Some day I wanted to kiss Lisette all over without having to think of horses. “I told the housekeeper I was taking my pay to Tante Jeanne. But we can walk as slow as you please and still be back before La Maupin finishes with Madame.”
We both giggled imagining that. La Maupin was notorious for her lovers, both women and men, and each one was the greatest love of her life to hear them tell. Lisette knew better, being La Maupin’s dresser at the opera house. When the opera singer went swaggering about town in men’s clothing, she went alone. But when she was playing the role of fashionable lady, she needed someone to fill out the part of lady’s maid and Lisette was glad to play it.
We twined our arms around each other’s waists and set off down the street toward the river where Tante Jeanne had her market stall. Lisette had to slow her pace to mine. She was all a dancer’s step and spring. Her every movement made me think of the feel of those muscular legs wrapping around me.
As if she’d heard my thoughts, Lisette said, “I’m going to dance tomorrow! Toinette twisted her foot and La Maupin told them I knew all the dances and they should give me a chance.”
“Oh, Lisette!” I knew she always learned all the chorus steps and practiced alongside the opera dancers every time she could, but she’d only once danced on the stage before and that was just for rehearsals. I teased, “You’ll be famous soon and forget all about me. You’ll have rich lovers sending you bonbons and flowers.”
“When I have rich lovers I’ll buy bonbons and flowers for you,” she said and squeezed my waist even more tightly. “Just you see.”
We came out into the market and threaded our way through the crowds to where Tante Jeanne sold eggs and chickens. When I thought back, I knew that Tante Jeanne was growing older. Every year her face was more weathered and had more lines, but it was like the way your favorite leather gloves got softer and darker and more closely fitting the longer you wore them. Her eyes got all bright when she saw us and we both kissed her cheek as if Lisette was a daughter too.
“You make the day brighter, mes petites.” But then her voice turned mock-scolding. “And where is my boy Charles! Why doesn’t he come to see me like you do?”
“You know Charles came last month. He’s waiting on Madame and we couldn’t both get away.” I carefully took the little purse out of my pocket and slipped it into her hand so no one else would see. You had to be careful letting people know if you had money. Jeanne slipped it into her own pocked under her apron and I knew it would go into her hidden box later. Something to keep her some day when her joints grew too stiff to sit in the market all day.
But it seemed like no more than a few minutes of telling her stories of Madame and her guests, or Lisette telling tales on the other opera dancers, before I knew it was time to be getting back.
We wound back through the cobbled streets again, arms still wrapped around each other’s waist to hoard up the feel of our bodies moving so closely together. And then we were in the yard and I gave Lisette one last chaste kiss because one of the grooms was in the yard and I didn’t want him to think we were doing it for him.
“I wish I could come see you dance,” I said. “Not just waiting on Madame, but to see you.”
Lisette sighed and laid her head on my shoulder briefly. “Maybe some day I will have a really rich lover and I can take you away from all this. Oh Marie, I want you with me always.”
We both knew that wouldn’t happen. But a girl can dream.
(copyright 2018 Heather Rose Jones, all rights reserved)
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.
Leach, Joseph. 1970. Bright Particular Star: The Life and Times of Charlotte Cushman. Yale University Press, New Haven.
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.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 19d - Charlotte Cushman
(Originally aired 2018/02/24 - listen here)
Let’s start this out by all agreeing that the world desperately needs a Charlotte Cushman mini-series. A lovely costume-drama soap opera that covers the entirety of her professional life, expanding to her larger social circles. It would have the glamour of the stage, the excitement of international travel, the intrigue of social politics in an era when feminist activism was grappling with problems ranging from “is it possible for a skilled female artist to compete for commissions on an footing equal to men?” to “if I divorce my husband I may never see my children again!” And most of all, it would tackle the complex, hazardous ambiguities of being women who loved women in a society that preferred to pretend such a thing didn’t exist and which gave the women involved no clear model for communicating and establishing their relationships.
And yet they persisted.
I had been seeing references to Charlotte Cushman in a number of general works on lesbian history, but it wasn’t until I was blogging the book Improper Bostonians that I realized I needed to follow up on her in more detail. Although Boston was only one of Cushman’s many homes, in entry after entry of queer Bostonians of the 19th century, her name kept coming up as a friend, as a lover, as the person who introduced two women who then became a couple, as an artistic patron. Many of those descriptions made reference to Cushman’s household and social circle in Rome. I started building this image of complex network of women loving and supporting each other in their professional endeavors. I confess it felt a bit like the milieu I’ve been constructing for my characters in the Alpennia novels. So I went online to hunt down some references on Cushman’s life to do this podcast.
Let’s start with a brief overview of Cushman’s professional career, and then I’ll circle back to talk about her relationships and friendships and how they influenced the shape of her life, including biographies of some of the women whose lives she influenced.
Charlotte Cushman was the greatest American actress of the 19th century, quite possibly the greatest actress of the English-speaking world in her day. And that greatness came about in equal parts from an innate dramatic flair, a lot of dedicated hard work to study her craft from the best models available, the outright economic drive to support not only herself but her entire family, and the gift of a physicality that didn’t align with the standards for conventional femininity and therefore drove her to create memorable character interpretations for roles in ways not expected for actresses.
Charlotte Cushman was born in 1816 in Boston, Massachusetts. On her mother’s side she came from at least two generations of strong-willed, independent women. Her father’s family was a classic American pedigree tracing back to the Mayflower and the early Puritans. What we know of her early years includes an active physical childhood--she later described herself as a “tomboy,” using that word in a very similiar sense to what it had in my own childhood, noting that she embraced it as a description even though others used it as a way to try to constrain and control independent-minded women. She also showed an early flair for the dramatic, doing comic imitations of her parents’ guests and performing in amateur theatricals, including an early interest in “trouser roles,” that is, playing male characters.
Whe Charlotte was 13, in a short period her father suffered massive business losses and then died, leaving the family destitute. So at age 14, she began performing professionally to help support her mother and younger siblings. Initially, she trained to sing opera, forcing a natural contralto voice into the soprano range required for the conventional leading female roles. Whether this did indeed damage her voice, as the story was put out, or it was simply decided that she would never make a success by aspiring to traditionally feminine performance, she rapidly switched to dramatic acting and achieved her first major critical success with a portrayal of Lady Macbeth as a forceful, domineering figure in contrast to the usual softer interpretation of the role at that time. She would bring a similar approach to other roles that became her iconic crowd favorites, such as Meg Merrilees (a terrifying but benevolent old crone) in the play Guy Mannering and Nancy Sykes in Oliver Twist (to which she brought something of a proto-“method acting” approach, going into a New York’ slum neighborhood to study the women there. But Lady Macbeth was her official professional debut and her first triumph. She was 19 years old at the time.
During several years of stock roles in New York she developed a critical following and began playing the trouser roles that would be the other half of her signature style. It was not at all uncommon for women to play male roles on stage in the 19th century. In some cases, as in operatic trouser roles, the purpose was to bring the experience of a seasoned performer to portray a young man more believably than a male actor of a similar age could. But there was also the titillation factor, bleeding over from music hall culture, of creating an excuse for a woman to wear clothing that exposed the shape of her legs on stage. The latter was definitely not one of Cushman’s motivations. She made it a lifelong crusade to make the theater a more respectable profession and environment, and when she spent a stint as the manager of the Walnut St theater in Philadelphia in her late 20s, she was one of a number of woman managers who tried to change theater-going culture to be more family friendly and treated as a formal social event.
Cushman’s most famous male role was as Romeo, which she debuted playing opposite her sister Susan who has been enticed into a theatrical career primarily for that purpose. In later years, Cushman would give plausible motivation for this potentially transgressive performance by saying that she had played Romeo in order to give her sister the best co-star for her Juliet. But it’s clear from the written record that this story was created after the fact.
The reception of Cushman’s Romeo is an excellent place to pause and discuss some of the oddities of 19th century attitudes toward sex and romance. To vastly oversimplify, two principles were accepted with little examination. First, that all personal interactions between men and women were inherently sexualized. Platonic friendship between the sexes was considered next to impossible. Unmarried women in unchaperoned contact with men were suspected of being compromised. Married women had somewhat more latitude. The second principle was that romance was a good and noble thing and had nothing inherently to do with sex. Women were encouraged to experience and practice romance, but due to principle number 1, it might be a good idea if unmarried women practiced their romance with other women where there was no chance of the corrupting presence of sex.
As we’ll see later, the starting presumption that there was no potential for sexual activity between women had its limits, but this polite social fiction was part of the essential foundation of the concept of Romantic Friendship between women. Women who expressed undying devotion to each other, who kissed and embraced freely, who wrote letters full of passionate longing to be with the beloved, who considered it their highest aspiration to live happily ever after in quiet retirement with their female friend...these things were considered to be part of the ideal model of womanhood. Such experiences were considered to be part of practice and preparation for turning such devotion to a husband, but of course it wouldn’t do at all for respecrtable young women to “practice” by experiencing such feelings toward a man. And the significant gender segregation of society, even after marriage, meant that women’s opportunities for forming close emotional bonds were primarily with other women.
From the modern point of view, this creates a significant level of confusion. Were these women participating in homoerotic relationships or was this simply the performance of non-sexual friendship in modes that later became inextricably merged with sexual desire? The legacy of the 20th century medicalization of sexuality makes it hard for us to imagine that such relationships might at the same time be socially accepted and unselfconsciously sexual. The answer is something more complicated than those two positions, and the internal details of Charlotte Cushman’s life, as expressed in her memoirs and correspondence, help to explore those nuances.
But for now, we were talking about how attitudes toward sexuality affected the reception of Cushman’s Romeo. One theater reviewer, after seeing the role, suggested that Romeo should only be played by a woman, because two women together could best portray passionate love “without suggesting vice.” That is, a clear distinction was made between elevated, pure romantic passion (which was considered acceptable between women, and was considered the purest distillation of the ideals of romantic love) and sexual desire (which not only was popularly considered to be only possible between man and woman, but was considered to be inescapably present between man and woman). This attitude held that a man playing Romeo inescapably led the viewer to contemplate sex (that is, vice) as the outcome of love, whereas a woman playing Romeo ruled out the possibility of sex (according to the official party line) and therefore allowed the focus to be on romantic love.
Female theater goers responded enthusiastically to Cushman’s Romeo, even as she continued well into her 40s when even a woman could no longer sustain the visual illusion of being a teenage boy. Female fans responded to the performance in unmistakably erotic ways, and Cushman used the role as a context for flirtations, including ones that developed into something much more. But I get ahead of myself.
Among the important professional contacts that Cushman made during her early career were British actress Fanny Kemble, who had married an American, and British actor William Charles Macready. Macready was a man of enormous ego and difficult personality, but he inspired Cushman to study his techniques in order to bring a systematic improvement to her own performances. And she was able to attribute to Macready the idea of making a performance tour in England (just in case anyone thought it was a presumptuous idea for a young actress to have on her own, though in fact she’d been considering it long before she met Macready).
At age 28, Charlotte Cushman, armed with a collection of letters of introduction and reference, and accompanied only by her newly hired black maid Sallie Mercer, made the voyage to Great Britain and the next stage of her career.
At various points in Cushman’s career, she made bold decisions and demands that came out of a desire never to accept second best, never to settle for less than she thought she was worth. This attitude led her to decline contracts that couldn’t promise her starring roles and to demand equal billing and equivalent pay to actors with more established careers. Although Macready was one of her most significant contacts in England, Cushman had already locked horns with him a few times during his American tour. While he was impressed with her professionalism and talent, he was deeply uneasy about working with someone who had the potential to overshadow his own performances. He never entirely forgave her for the times when American critics praised her performances over his when they shared the stage.
So when Cushman arrived in London and Macready was only willing to offer her supporting roles in his company, she declined and spent her time establishing social contacts and making friends, especially among a wide circle of intellectual and creative women, authors, artists, publishers, radicals, social reformers. Creative women in 19th century society struggled for success, acceptance, and the ability to do their work in the face of stereotypes of appropriate female behavior. Women were typically each other’s strongest supporters, crossing boundaries of class, religion, and even race. These circles included novelist Geraldine Jewsbury and her romantic friend Jane Carlyle, poet and publisher Eliza Cook (more on her later), political radical and feminist Matilda Hays (more on her too later), and many others.
Cushman got her first foot in the door in a London theater company by virtue of walking into the manager’s office and, when he initially turned her down, putting on a spontaneous over-the-top melodramatic melt-down, then dusting off her (metaphorical) hands and telling him, “That’s what I’m offering you.” As a result, she was able to insist on debuting in a starring role rather than a supporting part and moved from success to success from there on out. British audiences were wary of American actors, considering them unworthy of touching the great English playwrights, as well as being generally uncouth and uncultured. But the flip side was that there was an image of Americans as representing “manly vigor”. This wasn’t necessarily a plus for American men, who often clashed with the British ideal of emotional control. But in Cushman’s case, it meant that her brashness and assertiveness could be chalked up to her being an American rather than being thought unwomanly.
Cushman was pronounced a brilliant success in her London debut in Fazio and then agreed to play opposite American actor Edwin Forrest, though her own abilities were considered vastly superior to his. Cushman’s Lady Macbeth and other “strong female” roles delighted everyone in the English audiences except her male co-stars, who often felt both physically and theatrically overshadowed by her. Cushman was particularly well received by female viewers for these features of her performance. Her style wasn’t merely a direct outgrowth of her personality--she had been deliberately studying interpretation and delivery with prominent British actors on tour in the States, and this paid off in a delivery that British audiences found acceptable when other American actors were judged incapable of properly portraying iconic roles (such as those of Shakespeare) on the British stage.
After 5 years of performing on English, Scottish, and Irish stages, during which time she brought her mother and siblings over to share and support her success, Cushman returned to the States to reprise her success there. Three years later, at age 36, she decided she was in a comfortable enough financial position to retire from the stage and selected Rome as the setting for her retirement. There were a number of reasons for this choice, but largely it was the intersection of a very cheap cost of living and the presence of a substantial British and American expat community. Cushman’s retirement wasn’t to last particularly long--the loved she thrill of being on stage and the center of attention--but the reasons for that were tied up with her romantic life, so it’s time to circle back and begin talking about that.
As mentioned previously, in early and mid 19th century culture, both in America and Britain, it was considered completely normal and expected for women--both unmarried and married--to have passionate romantic attachments to other women that were expressed in language and behavior that modern people would have no hesitation in considering homoerotic. Charlotte Cushman was born in Boston, the flashpoint of this culture that gave rise to the concept of the Boston Marriage, two women sharing their lives together in a way that was functionally indistinguishable from a heterosexual marriage...except for the part where society chose to believe that a sexual component was not only not present but was unthinkable and impossible.
Given that, what sort of evidence would distinguish whether a relationship between two women was a non-sexual exclusive platonic friendship or whether it was a lesbian relationship “hiding in plain sight”? I’m going to start off by staking out a position that it doesn’t matter. If two women engaged in an intense emotional bond that inspired them to exhange rings, make formal vows of exclusivity, to write letters expressing desire for the other’s physical presence and that recorded their kisses and embraces and longing to sleep in the same bed. If those two women discussed the goal of setting up housekeeping together and worked to achieve that goal. And--to touch on less positive aspects--if they experienced jealousy and depression when those ideals of fidelity and exclusivity appeared to be violated to a degree that would seem odd for platonic friends. If two women are in a relationship with all these features, why would the nature of that relationship undergo a cataclysmic conceptual change just because they were or were not touching each other’s genitals?
As I laid out in my podcast on archetypes of asexual lesbianism, the official social understanding of Boston Marriages were that they were non-sexual and they flourished in part because that archetype made them acceptable within the framework of 19th century society. But the map is not the territory. There is plentiful evidence that Romantic Friendship encompassed the whole gamut of sexual potential from those that were asexual by preference, to those where sexual desire may have been felt but sublimated into non-genital expressions, to those that embraced genital sexuality. And unless we have unambiguous comentary on that aspect from the women themselves in contexts where they felt safe to express themselves, there is no way of concluding what part genital expression had in any particular relationship. So with that said, I’m not going to focus on what evidence there may or may not have been for specific sexual practices in Cushman’s life. I’m going to focus on public behaviors and on the discussion of those public behaviors in her private correspondence to identify her relationships as being romantic in nature as we, today, understand the term.
It’s worth pointing out that Cushman never expressed any regret at not marrying a man, she is known to have had proposals of marriage that she emphatically rejected, and although she sometimes opined that she considered marriage incompatible with a professional career, there’s no evidence that she was ever seriously tempted to try the experiment.
Cushman’s writings make clear that she and her circle of women friends were constantly analyzing and negotiating how public they could be in their relationships, undermining the idea that they perceived their love as “innocent”. While the specifics of what “not innocent” would involve are never directly touched on, it’s clear that they were well aware that certain types of behavior would be considered to risk moving a relationship from permitted to forbidden. And when those relationships required the acceptance and permission of family members, there are cases where those family members were uncomfortable enough with the nature of the relationship to step in and bring pressure to bear.
This was the case with Cushman’s earliest known romance. While managing the Walnut St Theater in Philadelphia around 1842, Charlotte became acquainted with Anne Brewster, a writer who would much later become a European correspondent for various American newspapers. With Anne Brewster, Cushman shared a love of literature and poetry. They would spend time together either in Anne’s parents’ house or at the separate residence Charlotte had established apart from her mother and siblings. They read to each other and discussed favorite texts. In her diaries, Anne described their love as “pure and elevated” though her language was often strongly sensual. But Anne’s brother was suspicious enough of the nature of their relationship to demand that Anne break it off. Cushman’s diary references to Anne are less intense than Anne’s writings about the relationship, or at least more circumspect, but this was a continuing feature of Cushman’s curation of her written record. The most revealing information about Cushman’s relationships usually comes from records that she had no control over to edit or destroy.
Shortly after, Cushman set out on what can only be called a campaign of courtship of actress and mentor Fanny Kemble. Kemble was British but had married an American southerner whose family business was thoroughly enmeshed in the economy of slavery--a fact that Kemble despised. Combined with her husband’s disdain for her profession on stage and his sexual infidelities, Kemble came to a breaking point and was looking for legal evidence that would allow her to divorce him without losing custody of her children. Charlotte showered Fanny with gifts and invitations, motivated by a mix of star-struck idolization and desire, and was overjoyed at Kemble’s reception of her. Cushman longed to be Kemble’s savior and to help her achieve the divorce she wanted, promising to do everything she could to help procure it. Her inability to fulfil this promise revealed the one-sidedness of Kemble’s interest in her and they had a bitter falling out.
Rosalie Sully came into Cushman’s life after Cushman commissioned a portrait from Rosalie’s father, a well-known society painter. (This, or another portrait from the same source, ended up in the possession of Anne Brewster.) Rosalie differed from Cushman’s previous relationships in returning her devotion in equal measure. Cushman’s diary notes with delight the occasions on which they “slept together”, and though this was probably not a euphemism for sex specifically, it was clearly a meaningful emotional step in their relationship. (That is, I’m not saying that they were not involved sexually at the time, but that the phrase “sleep together” was unlikely to be a direct reference to sex, and simply literally meant sharing a bed overnight.)
One of the major bars to Charlotte establishing a household with Rosalie, as they both desired, was finances. Rosalie was dependent on her parents for support and Charlotte--already supporting her own extended family--wasn’t yet able to take on another dependent, even though such an arrangement would give social sanction to their relationship. In spite of this, Cushman viewed her bond with Rosalie as a marriage, having given her a ring and used the specific word “marriage” in relation to it in her diary. At the same time, Rosalie’s family approved of and supported the relationship. When Cushman made the decision to travel to England for the sake of her career, Rosalie and her father accompanied her to New York to see her off. Cushman’s shipboard diary recounts her erotic dreams of Rosalie and she writes about their devoted bond and looks forward to being reunited. Cushman later destroyed her correspondence with Rosalie, but the reflections in her diary entries on the voyage to England document their intense emotional and physical relationship.
The intensity of that relationship did not survive the separation. What was originally intended to be perhaps a half-year tour turned into 5 years on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The emotional nature of their correspondence had cooled by the time Charlotte took up with poet Eliza Cook in England, though she was never particularly careful about concluding one romance before embarking on another.
Eliza Cook was a poet, author, publisher, and political activist participating in the Chartist movement, a working-class movement for political reform in Britain. She supported political and sexual freedom for women, and believed in the ideology of self-improvement through education, for which she used the term "levelling up." She and Cushman established a romantic relationship that may have been doomed by the difference in their interests. Cushman seems to have had no particular interest in politics or direct reform movements, though she certainly believed in improving the ability of women to maintain professional careers on an equal footing with men.
Cushman’s intimate friendships were rarely exclusive, and her correspondence from this time often shows an awareness that letters sent and received might not be entirely private. (Although it speaks to a slightly earlier age, think about all the contexts in the novels of Jane Austen when even the most personal of letters are expected to be shared aloud or passed around, even before the primary recipient knows what they contain.) Cushman would caution her correspondants that the contents of their letters must be circumspect and within the bounds allowed to romantic friendship. Among the letters from Geraldine Jewsbury--who briefly transferred her affections to Cushman from her life-long relationship with Jane Carlyle--there are circumspect cautions not to pay attention to public gossip about her relationships as long as her “friends” were chosen for their virtuous qualities. This sort of correspondence shows how the women in these circles understood (and misunderstood) and negotiated the nature of their emotional relationships.
In the summer of 1847, Rosalie Sully died. The news struck Cushman badly and within the same timeframe her relationship with Eliza Cook was fading. Her next long-term relationship was with radical author and feminist Matilda Hays. When Cushman first arrived in England, she had received support and assistance from her circle of female friends. Now her rising success meant she could support them in turn. Hays was one of the beneficiaries of that support. Their contemporary Elizabeth Barrett Browning commented on their relationship writing, "I understand that she (Cushman) and Miss Hays have made vows of celibacy and of eternal attachment to each other -- they live together, dress alike... it is a female marriage." Their “dressing alike” included wearing matching tailored shirts and jackets. It was something of a fashion among the feminist set to wear masculine-styled garments and accessories. Like many of Cushman’s lovers, Hays was a writer and publisher as well as a political activist. In later life she translated the works of George Sand. She also had a brief stint as an actress while she was living with Cushman, though this doesn’t seem to have been a significant interest.
In 1849 when Cushman returned to America, Matilda Hays came with her. But in the summer of 1850, Cushman received word that Eliza Cook, her previous girlfriend, was deathly ill in England and she immediately returned there, which caused quite a stir in the press. Perhaps an emergency trans-Atlantic trip to what she believed to be a deathbed was one of those things that fell outside the normal bounds of romantic friendship. After being assured that Cook was not at death’s door (although she would never entirely recover), Cushman returned to her U.S. tour. One interesting side issue I noticed in Cushman’s life is how many trans-Atlantic journeys she made, often on short notice and only for brief stays. Although such voyages were never trivial at the time, they seem to have been far more common than one might think.
While in Boston, Cushman and Hays befriended a 21-year-old sculptor named Harriet Hosmer and formed an immediate attachment. As Cushman and Hays planned a retirement to Rome with several other close friends, they invited Hosmer to join them. The theme of sculpture will show up a lot from here on in. That struck me as an interesting coincidence when I was first tracing Cushman’s social circle, but the explanation is even simpler than the likelihood that making friends with one sculptor will lead to befriending others. Rome was the place to go to study classical sculpture and to find teachers and patrons to further one’s own art. Among the sculptors residing in Rome in the mid-19th century were a startling number of women, and Charlotte Cushman seems to have befriended most of them.
Harriet --or Hattie--Hosmer was a fascinating woman in her own right. Her father, a physician, had responded to the tragic death of his wife and Hattie’s three siblings by deciding the best way to protect Hattie’s health was for her to have an active, physical education and, in essence, to be raised as a boy. Whether one falls on the nature or nurture side of gender expression, Hattie thrived under the program and was frequently commented on as being gender non-conforming later in life. Observers in Rome described her in language such as “the funniest little creature, not at all coarse, rough or slangy, but like a little boy” and “[I had] never seen anything as innocent as Hatty, nor so very queer.” This is an interesting early use of the word “queer” in a context that was very clearly talking about gender expression, though the word had a much broader application at the time as well.
Hosmer had studied anatomy under her physician father and had an early talent for modeling. A family friend, Wayman Crow, encouraged her and became a patron of her ambitions to become a sculptor. (Hosmer also had a romantic friendship with Wayman’s daughter Cornelia, and another Crow daughter will become relevant later.) To move from modeling in clay to working in marble, Hosmer needed to study in an atmosphere like Rome, and Cushman’s invitation provided the ideal opportunity. Initially, her father accompanied her, but he soon decided he could place his confidence in Cushman to look out for her. Hosmer would later be considered the most distinguished female sculptor in19th century America and the first professional female sculptor. But all that comes later. (Also later was a 25-year devoted relationship with Louisa Barring, Lady Ashburton. Although I’m primarily focusing on the romantic relationships in immediate proximity to Cushman, pretty much all of the women discussed here had multiple romantic relationships with women throughout their lifetimes.)
In any event, Charlotte Cushman, Matilda Hays, and a collection of friends including Hattie Hosmer and writer Grace Greenwood set up housekeeping in Rome near the Spanish Steps in the midst of a vibrant expat community of intellectuals and artists. Cushman’s female-centered household evidently caused a bit of a stir, perhaps amplified by her forceful personality and assertive promotion of her friends’ professional careers. Somewhat to Cushman’s disquiet, perhaps not simply because she was used to being an unrivaled center of attention, Hays and Hosmer developed an increasingly close relationship. This relationship may have been part of the impetus for Cushman to return to the English stage the next spring, taking Hays away with her, although Cushman would repeatedly go though a cycle of “retiring” and the returning to the stage so the domestic tensions may not have been the only motivation.
The seeds of Cushman’s Roman colony remained, including Hosmer and Greenwood and adding Virginia Vaughan and novelist Isa Blagden, as well as their extended network of artistic friends. A growing tension between Hays and Cushman in England resolved with Hays returning to Rome to be with Hosmer. Cushman threw herself back into performing.
Hays became increasingly unhappy separated from Cushman and returned to England after four months to apologize and take up their relationship again, though it was cooler now. Cushman’s correspondence with her closest friends about these romantic upheavals urged caution and circumspection regarding revealing the details publicly. Clearly she felt there was something in it that might draw disapproval. There was much she explicitly declined to commit to writing.
Cushman and Hays settled into a home in London together for the next two years before returning to Rome. There, their relationship would be irretrievably damaged by the introduction of American sculptor Emma Stebbins to their circle. Stebbins was middle aged, wealthy, and a “lady artist.” She had come to Rome to study sculpture, as Hosmer had, and she was immediately entranced by Cushman.
Among much coming and going of old and new friends, Cushman and Stebbins began spending a lot of time together while Cushman and Hays were increasingly apart. This time, Hays was the jealous one. They argued and fought. It was when Hays finally brought their conflict into the open before witnesses that Cushman made the final break. Hays had violated the veil of silence and deniability over the nature of their relationship.
When Hays left Rome, she initiated a “palimony” suit against Cushman, claiming that she’d set her own literary pursuits aside to support Cushman’s career. Cushman gave her a monetary settlement and shortly after was living with Stebbins. Hays returned to London, writing and publishing in support of women’s rights. She later fictionalized her relationship with Cushman in unflattering terms in a bitter novel titled Adrienne Hope.
In Stebbins’ company, Cushman became somewhat more staid. She began dressing more conventionally and assumed the persona of matriarch of her little community, addressing Hosmer as “dear child.” The relationships between the women in Cushman’s household were variously romantic, erotic, platonic, and professional, and the language they employed to describe their relations sometimes muddies the water, refering to themselves now as bachelors and old maids, other times as wives and married partners (and those not always aligning with the actual established partnerships).
Stebbins and Hosmer bonded over their shared interest in sculpture, even as Stebbins and Cushman emulated a traditional middle class marriage. The context of Cushman’s circle brought together other female couples such as Frances Power Cobbe and sculptor Mary Lloyd, as well as women and couples challenging gender norms, such as George Sand and Rosa Bonheur. Cushman had a specific interest in supporting women sculptors. In addition to Hosmer and Stebbings, there was cameo artist Margaret Foley and much later, toward the end of their time in Rome, sculptor Edmonia Lewis.
Although Lewis was never one of Cushman’s lovers she’s worth spending some time on (especially if we’re planning for our sprawling mini-series production). Edmonia Lewis was born of a black father and a bi-racial Ojibwe and black mother. Although orphaned by age 9, when Edmonia was 15 her brother raised funds to send her to Oberlin College. And although she functionally completed the program for a degree, a series of racially-charged incidents resulted in her being denied a diploma. After leaving college, she moved to Boston to study to become a sculptor. Her work was often overtly political and reflective of her ethnic heritages, and as a black woman she faced more than the usual barriers to her studies, though she also received support from a number of abolitionist organizations. It was that support that enabled her to to to Rome to study in 1866 where she gained the patronage of both Cushman and Stebbins, who worked to gain her recognition and clients. It’s clear, though that Lewis was always on the fringes of the artistic community and her later supporters expressed bitter disappointment at how little practical help Cushman had provided. Though, in fairness, their time in Rome only overlapped by 3 years and came at a time when Cushman had other worries taking her attention.
Some of Lewis’s most famous and iconic works include “Forever Free” commemorating the emancipation of enslaved blacks after the Civil War, “Hagar” using the Biblical figure as an allegory of the experience of black mothers in the United States, and “The Old Arrow-Maker and his Daughter” inspired by her Native American heritage, as well as several pieces inspired by Longfellow’s poem Hiawatha.
Several of my sources speculated on whether Lewis engaged in romantic relationships with women like many of those in her larger social circle. I can’t find any direct evidence for specific close friendships, though she never married or had any known romantic relationships with men either.
But as I say, Edmonia Lewis entered Cushman’s social circle quite late in her various stints in Rome. Let’s circle back to the point when Cushman and Stebbins first took up together in 1857. During that same year, Cushman decided to make another tour in America. Although Stebbins had a somewhat negative opinion of the stage as a profession, she seems to have accepted that Cushman needed regular infusions of adulation and fame. She seems not to have needed the money quite as much, but Cushman’s fame was such that her performances were always profitable. Stebbins remained in New York when Cushman traveled to performances in Chicago and St. Louis. And this is when Cushman’s personal life gets really complicated. Despite the relationship with Emma Stebbins being relatively new, Charlotte was hopelessly susceptible to the attractions of passionate female fans. And so a second Emma came into her life. This will make references to the players potentially confusing, so from here on out, Emma Stebbins will be referred to as Stebbins, while Emma Crow will be simply Emma.
While playing in St. Louis, Cushman stopped to do some financial consultation with Wayman Crow, the patron of Hattie Hosmer, whom Cushman intended to employ as her financial advisor. During that visit, Crow’s 18 year old daughter Emma saw Cushman playing her Romeo and sparks flew. Charlotte Cushman was 42 years old at this point, but Emma described her in her memoir as “the incarnation of the ideal lover.” That may give you some concept of how successfully Cushman inhabited her roles on stage.
Emma spent all the time she could in Cushman’s presence for the next two weeks she was in St. Louis, although she received little attention in return. But by Cushman’s departure, she was calling Emma her “little lover” and began a voluminous correspondence with her that would continue for the next 18 years. Cushman expected that Emma’s initial infatuation would soon fade, but that didn’t happen. Emma was consistently the more assertive one in pursuing their romance, while Charlotte dithered between loving the passionate attention and worrying about the hazards of such a relationship, as well as its potential to wound Stebbins deeply.
Throughout the years, Emma kept all Cushman’s letters to her, despite the latter’s requests to burn them, though Emma’s own side of the correspondence is lost due to Cushman’s ruthless curation of her legacy. Cushman offered a constant stream of assurances of love, endearments, and descriptions of kisses and caresses. She stopped in St. Louis on her return from her tour specifically to see Emma again. Their letters had been growing increasingly passionate, but Cushman felt the need to have a serious talk with Emma about the nature of those passions and about Cushman’s existing emotional commitments. She made no bones about the nature of her relationshp with Stebbins, calling it a marriage and referring to the ring she wore in token of it.
Emma wanted to join Cushman in her hotel room during that visit and sleep with her during her stay. Cushman suggested that it would be more socially acceptable for her to visit the Crow house and join Emma there. This is just one example of the careful negotiation of the expectations and limits of romantic friendship. The allowance it provided covered much, but not everything.
To condense down a great deal of complications, Cushman simultaneously wanted to bring Emma into her life but had no intention of leaving Stebbins and was also worried about appearances. It’s unclear just why she felt that inviting Emma to join them in Rome would present a greater potential scandal than any of her other romantic friendships. It’s possible that she felt that Emma was incapable of being discreet. It’s possible that she expected another round of public jealousies and fights such as the ones that had heralded the transition from Matilda Hays to Emma Stebbins. It’s possible that Cushman felt some unease herself over taking a lover half her age.
The solution she came up with was that Emma would marry her nephew Ned Cushman. Ned was the son of her sister Susan whom she had adopted some years previous. The original idea seems to have been that Ned would be no more than a beard--a plausible excuse for Charlotte to have a public legal relationship to Emma. But once matters had proceded as far as the wedding, it was clear that that was a non-starter. Whatever opinion Emma had regarding the marriage at the beginning, it wasn’t going to be an in-name-only affair. And although Charlotte’s correspondence with Emma continued to be fairly passionate for the rest of her life, by the time they next met, on the occasion of Emma’s miscarriage of her first child, their public relationship appears to have settled into that of mother and daughter.
There was a great deal of soap-opera style coming and going in the years that followed. Hattie Hosmer left Cushman’s household, possibly out of growing professional jealousies with Stebbins. Cushman and Stebbins made regular trans-Atlantic visits, either for Cushman’s performances or in relation to Stebbins’ sculpture installations. (Two of her most famous works are a bronze of Horace Mann at the State House in Boston, and the statue “Angel of the Waters” in New York’s Central Park.) But for the most part their life seems to have settled into a comfortable accommodation of their various interests.
In 1869, twelve years after Cushman and Stebbins became a couple (and the same length of time after Emma Crow came into their lives) Cushman was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite treatments, including surgery, the cancer persisted and her health began a long gradual decline, though she would continue to live for 7 more years. Cushman decided to move back to the States permanently, giving up her other homes in Rome and England to settle in Boston. She threw herself back into performing on the stage until declining health led her to shift to doing recitations rather than full productions. In 1874 she began a series of “farewell performances” including a sequence of retirement galas concluding in the middle of the following year. That winter her condition worsened and in February 1876 she died with Stebbins at her side, as well as being joined at the very last by Emma and Ned.
The question of what happened to Charlotte Cushman’s fame and legacy after her death is another complicated question. Her immediate legacy looked secure. At the time of her death, her independence from men, her female friendships, and her androgyny were all seen as postive virtues. But public opinion regarding those same traits shifted as the attitude toward autonomous “masculine” women became pathologized. In Cushman’s era, the gender segregation of society meant that her all-female household went unremarked. The popular myth that women were incapable of sexual passion meant that their love must be “innocent,” that is, non-sexual. Women were lauded and encouraged in having intense same-sex friendships, especially if they were unmarried. At the same time, dangerous erotic passion was othered by being associated with working-class women, with passing women, and with non-European women.
Private writings such as Cushman’s letters and memoirs demonstrate that even so-called “respectable” women could be aware of their erotic feelings and might employ complex strategies to avoid breaking that willing suspension of disbelief on the part of society. These social framings created a space in which women could love each other, within boundaries that were constantly self-policed and negotiated.
Stebbins undertook a memoir of Cushman’s life “lest unworthy and careless hands undertake it.” She continued Cushman’s work of shaping her public image very consciously. But having filtered out the more hazardous aspects of Cushman’s life, the result was meager. Cushman’s various lovers were demoted to “devoted friends” or omitted entirely. This self-censored result sheds a different, inside light on the alleged acceptability of romantic friendships. This same sanitization of 19th century women’s same-sex romances can be seen in a biography of Cushman published in 1970 that I also cover in the blog.
Even toward the end of Cushman’s life and definitely after her death, attitudes were turning against independent unmarried women and especially against “mannish” women. With the rise of the late 19th century sexologists, characteristics that had been praised became seen as deviant. Descriptions of Cushman shifted in tone, aligning with this reframing. The absence of men in her life was translated into an absence of love, and her lovers were entirely erased from the record. Like other female couples of the day, such as Cushman’s friends Geraldine Jewsbury and Jane Carlyle, their passion was edited out of their biographies, lest post-Freudian readers view it as “morbid.” Later theater critics began to describe Cushman as ridiculous and monstrous--in clear contradiction to the contemporary reception of her work. And thus, the most famous actress of the 19th century, a celebrity known throughout the English speaking world, and the core of a thriving community of women artists and intellectuals, faded in the historic record to the point where she must be “discovered” rather than being part of our common cultural knowledge.
But oh my what a dramatic mini-series she would make! Don’t you agree?
I think people are quite aware of my opinion that the world needs more great lesbian Regency romances. Rose Fox has written a delightful novelette to this end that's freely available at Archive of Our Own. Here's the summary from the site: "Lady Darby's niece is a scandalous tribade. So is Lady Montgomery's daughter. And who ever heard of a society mama who could resist the chance to matchmake?"
Fox has captured the light-hearted, witty tone of the Regency genre perfectly, following the young women's progression from awkward arranged introduction to attraction to misunderstandings to reconciliation and concluding with a historically-appropriate happy ending. The matchmaking ladies are, perhaps, surprisingly openminded and frank with each other about how to solve the potential social disaster of a visiting cross-dresssing American neice but the premise is far more plausible than the number of handsome young unmarried dukes running around in the straight Regency world.
The romance is "sweet" in the non-explicit sense and the story's conclusion adds a charming bonus pay-off. This novelette is a quick read--but not so quick that it didn't have a chance to meet my "treadmill test" (10% past my regular workout goal in order to finish reading). Highly recommended.
I love getting reader questions as blog prompts, and given the sort of people I hang out with, I get some really fascinating ones! Here's a question that Riia sent in for the blog. I've known Riia through the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) for a very long time and have been following her professional travels and adventures from Alaska to California to Tasmania (am I remembering that correctly?) to Italy to Sweden doing research with lasers and garnets (among other things). She broke her rule about "I'm only reading novels in Swedish because I need the practice" in order to start the Alpennia series. And she was curious about the following (edited slightly for clarity):
The bit in Mother of Souls where they notice the fluctus from some of the panes of stained glass made me wonder if the difference between the glass that has it and the glass that does not is measurable with other tools than a sensitive person. My new research project will be using the geochemistry of steatite to try to determine where people were getting their kitchen tools from during the Viking age. One of the tools I am considering using for this project is Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIR), an entirely non-destructive analytical technique which measures the reflectance of light off of an object. It can be used to distinguish between compositionally different yet visually similar materials. It is being increasingly used in archaeology, and on my recent trip to Umeå to meet with colleagues there, they showed me how they were able to distinguish between different types of quartzite and different types of quartz just by effectively taking photos of the rocks while shining a light on them. They haven't published that study yet, but the attached paper is from their applying the technique to studying rock paintings.
So now I can't help but wonder how early people started playing with the earliest forms Near Infrared analysis. I guess much too late for your books, I would think that it is more like Marie Curie's time period before science starts experimenting with that kind of thing.
On the other hand, it could be interesting to read a story about a couple of modern day girls who study at the university that the Tanifrit Academy grows into, one of whom is hard science and using NIR in her research, the other of whom is studying things that would have been more of interest to Margerit, and who has been reading some of Margerit's preserved writings/notes who decide to apply NIR to the window glass Margerit wrote about (assuming that it survives the revolution that is looming, and then a couple of World Wars, which could happen, depending on the course of battles, fire, etc.).
I love it! And that would make a great fan-fic idea! I don't plan to write anything in Alpennia past the lifetimes of the major characters. (I have this weird superstition about fictional characters that if you don't write their deaths, then they're alive forever. It's one of the things I hated about Tolkien's appendices. Everyone dies eventually so now they've always been dead.) But I wouldn't at all mind other people playing with the idea.
So would it work? There's a constant tension in the Alpennian stories between mechanist ideas, the notion that mysteries--or whatever similar phenomenon one is considering in a non-Christian/religious context--can be analyzed down to a mechanical and scientific set of principles, and a more, well, mystical understanding of the underlying fantasy elements. As an author, I try to aim for an agnostic approach within the stories themselves. Some characters view what they're doing from an entirely mechanical point of view (though the intervention of divine powers may be part of the mechanism), while others view what they're doing from an entirely mystical viewpoint. And within the story there are enough confounding factors that no single definitive answer emerges.
But for me, as the author, from an external point of view, in order for the story to be fantasy rather than a type of science fiction, there has to be a non-rational, non-causal underpinning. And for my world-building to work within a large scale the way I need it to, there must be a clearly subjective aspect to any sort of mystical talents. There's a certain amount that can be analyzed and translated into rules and logical structures, but there will always be a point at which those rules and structures must be translated through...well, I'd say "a human talent", but it isn't simply a matter of specific magical people. There are also non-corporeal forces in the world that can provide that bridge between mystical cause and effect.
Here are some examples of the underlying "rules" I've set up that may help illustrate what I'm trying to say.
In Daughter of Mystery, Margerit and Barbara have some conversations about historical linguistics, and why the words used in mysteries are affected by the interaction of the specific vocabulary and the saint being invoked. While the specific historic semantics and the societal context in which language is associated with particular saints for particular purposes can be traced and utilized, the fact that those associations have an actaul effect on whether the mystery "works" or not operates on a non-rational plane. It just is.
In The Mystic Marriage, when Antuniet and Margerit are fiddling with the specific orientation of the alchemical furnace to get the alignment right for a specific formula, Margerit's talent for visions means that she can sense intuitively when the alignment is right, while Antuniet's weaker ability can only recognize it when it happens, and Anna has no talent for vision at all. Anna can use the resulting calculations and rules to create successful alchemical processes, but it's unlikely that she could ever develop new formulas on her own, even with a detailed experimental record of "what works." In a context like this your NIR question is similar to a question of whether scientific instrumentation could substitute for Margerit's vision to guide purely experimental manipulations to that point where it clicks and "works."
In a future story, there will be a character who has a talent for "seeing ghosts." That is, she can perceive (and interact with) intangible remnants of dead people. And there will be a clear implication that those intangible remnants have the ability to produce effects in the "real" world. She understands what she's seeing as "ghosts" because of the social framework she's operating in and because of the specific experiences and entitites she's interacted with. But at some point her talent will intersect with Margerit's talent for visions and it will come out that this person can "see" manifestations of saints at work during mysteries, even (although this is at the authorial-knowledge level) if those saints were never actually living people. But she doesn't have visions of fluctus or the other types of mystical perception we've been introduced to. It's specifically in the context of...I'd say "embodied" personality, except embodiment is definitely not what we're talking about here! And the entities that she senses have an existence outside of her perception of them, even if few other people perceive them in the exact way she does. It isn't a matter of a literal afterlife, and she isn't seeing "souls" (although she and Margerit will have some interesting theological debates about that).
I see the original question as having two sides. One is: within my understanding of the world I've built, is it possible for a purely mechanical instrument to detect the types of mystical effects that I call fluctus as a substitute for how talented human beings detect them? The second is: if that is possible, could a person who has no inherent mystical talent use the results of those instruments to create mystical effects? Similarly to how Anna can produce alchemical gems by following formulas. (To be sure, we don't actually know that Anna has no mystical talent at all, simply that she doesn't seen visions or perceive fluctus in any other noticeable way. But let's work on the assumption that she has no mystical talent at all.)
I think my answer is that somewhere in the process, there must be an introduction of the numinous. It may be in the design of the process, as in the alchemy formulas. It may be in the execution of the process, as with nonsense charms that can be made to work anyway by someone with the right talent. It may be in the amplification of the process by the participation of a community that includes a sufficient presence of trace mystical talent, as is the case with many of the traditional church mysteries. With specific regard to Near-infrared Spectroscopy and similar instruments, I think that they could work if a talented person were involved somewhere in the process. So, for example, someone with a very weak talent for visions might be able to use them to enhance that talent. Or a mystically talented engineer might be able to build an NIR device that could detect fluctus even when used by a non-talented technician. (But then another engineer without that talent might build a device from the same exact specifications that wouldn't work the same way.)
From a world-building and story-structure point of view, the magic of Alpennia only works if it's not entirely mechanical. Otherwise it would have been possible for talented people over the ages to create a sustainable body of knowledge and experimental work that would survive shifts in personnel. The basic shape of history, society, and technology can only function in the way I've set it up if the unpredicatability and instability of individual talent undermines the potential to build that sustainable knowledge-base. Margerit is going to try, and she will succeed to some extent precisely because--at some level--she recognizes that the key is being able to identify talented people in a systematic fashion. But magico-technological progress that relies on trusting an "invisible" talent that is distributed randomly with regard to social and political power structures has a really hard mountain to climb. That's one of the escape hatches for "why isn't the world of Alpennia a lot more different from our own than it is?" It's the same reason that aristocracies and hereditary oligarchies aren't sustainable in the long run: because the characteristics that put people in power in the first place are not inheritable in a direct sense, so the structures of power/knowledge/ability are left in the hands of people who don't have the skill to use them but have an investment in retaining those structures even when they no longer have the ability itself.
I've dropped a few hints that there have been many ups and downs in the history of effective systematic use of magic in my fictional world. If I ever write my "real story of Tanfrit" I may explore one of those "ups" in the context of the intersection of craft guilds and mystery guilds. But at the same time, as with the mystical stained glass, I've indicated that the "downs" in that history can leave all manner of clearly magical artifacts and practices scattered around where knowledge of how they were made or used has been lost.
But now I would like to read that fan-fic about the NIR lab at Tanfrit University analyzing the magical glass.
I’ve chosen two biographies of Charlotte Cushman to synchronize with the podcast about her. The one in this entry directly engages with Cushman’s same-sex desires and relationships and examines how she curated her own reputation with regard to her personal life, as well as examining how changing attitudes toward same-sex relations after Cushman’s death may have contributed to a deliberate erasure of her legacy. The second biography that I’ll be covering next week is a more conventional, conservative approach that can be seen to participate in that erasure (at least as far as her personal life is concerned).
Merrill, Lisa. 2000. When Romeo was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and her Circle of Female Spectators. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. ISBN 978-0-472-08749-5
A biography of 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman that particularly examines her romantic relationships with women.
At the height of her career, Charlotte Cushman was considered America’s greatest actress. She was a celebrity throughout the English-speaking world, though contemporary sources reflect contrasting views of her. As a woman who had no romantic entanglements with men, she could be viewed as “pure” and a model of propriety in an occupation (acting) that had a reputation of impropriety. But to early feminists, she was a model of the economically independent woman who claimed male privilege along with playing male roles on the stage. Her physical appearance was both praised and derided for not being conventionally “feminine”.
Cushman curated her own image, both in public and via private letters and diaries--even in how she staged photographs taken of her. Her performance on the boundary of gender was only one aspect of how she communicated how she wished to be seen, as well as negotiating her same-sex desires. Her private correspondence helps draw back the curtain from assumptions about the nature of 19th century “romantic friendships” between women.
But as a performer, another facet is how her spectators attributed meaning to her presentation, and used the act of viewing her performances to engage with their own potential lesbian desires. Similarly, her depiction on stage of strong women, in the context of her own life, became a lens for public attitudes toward changing gender roles. Interestingly, European reactions to her often attributed her transgressive presentation to national character (as an American) rather than to gender.
Chapter 1: Crossings
The biography opens at a crucial turning in Cushman’s life: her first voyage to Europe to perform on the British stage. (The next chapter will step back to review her life from the beginning.) In 1844, at age 28, Cushman traveled to Britain for her first non-U.S. performances. In her diary from this period, she writes of how she misses her lover, the painter Rosalie Sully. While Rosalie was dependent on her parents and living in their home, Cushman had become the supporter of her family, not someone supported. Cushman’s experience as a lesbian was not only in terms of the women she loved, but in her “opting out” of the conventional path of marriage or partnership with a man.
The trip to Britain was a significant step, even in a career that had already made Cushman both a lead actress and manager of Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater. Playing opposite British tragedian William Charles Macready inspired her and helped give her connections for an English tour that she felt was essential to her continued career. But while on ship, depression and self-doubt rose. She not only wanted professional acclaim, but the security to live life her own way. Money was one bar to being able to share a household with Rosalie, even though such a household would give social sanction to their relationship.
Though British actors were lauded in the U.S., career success in the other direction was hampered by social prejudices. Americans saw the British as “high culture” while the British considered Americans to be impetuous, direct, and unrefined. One advantage Cushman had was that her forceful personality that was considered “masculine" at home was merely considered “American” abroad. Paradoxically, male Americans in Britain might be considered boorish and uncouth, but Cushman’s assertive personality was considered admirably full of masculine vigor. But Cushman also had to contend with greater social prejudice against actresses in Britain than at home.
Merrill compares the intense physicality of Cushman’s writing about Rosalie in her diaries to Faderman’s assertion that Romantic Friendships (expressly including Cushman’s) were non-sexual. Paradoxically, Cushman’s fame for playing male romantic roles was combined with a reputation for good moral character (because of a lack of male lovers). Romantic friendship gave her an accepted context for her relationships with women, but her own writings make it clear those relationships were erotic. [Note: Merril mistakenly accepts the position that the term and concept “lesbian” didn’t exist before the late 19th century rise of the sexologists, suggesting that without language for it, Cushman and her circle would have no sense of self-identity as women who loved women.]
Cushman’s writings make clear that she and her circle of women friends were constantly analyzing and negotiating how public they could be in their relationships, undermining the idea that they perceived their love as “innocent”. Cushman viewed her bond with Rosalie as a marriage, having given her a ring and used the specific word “marriage” in relation to it in her diary. The diary recounts her erotic dreams of Rosalie and she writes about their devoted bond and looks forward to being reunited.
Alas, Cushman’s British tour would last much longer than the original six month plan, and Rosalie would die before she returned.
Chapter 2: The Hero in the Family and on the Stage
Having begun at the crucial start of Cushman’s British tour, the biography now circles back to her youth and beginnings.
In her own memoir, Cushman notes that she was a “tomboy,” using that word, and notes how the term was used to constrain independent-minded women, though she embraced it. Cushman’s writings both private and public show a process of creating a narrative about her life, identity, desires, and career. She selectively and deliberately created several different personas to manage different aspects of her life. Cushman came from two generations of strong-willed, independent women. She was tall and not conventionally pretty. Her father--a generation older than her mother--had family connections with the Mayflower and early Puritans, which gave her a cachet of the archetypal American pedigree, as well as softening British prejudices against actresses. Cushman elaborated on her “tomboy” origins, noting her intellectual and physical interests, and she showed an early dramatic flair. When she was still a child, her father suffered business losses and functionally abandoned the family. Her maternal uncle encouraged her interest in theater. She excelled in amateur theatricals, including her signature “trouser roles” playing male parts.
The family’s financial situation gave Cushman the narrative framework for the social acceptability of her theatrical career. At age 14, she began performing professionally to help support the family and attracted patrons and teachers by her talent. At first, she trained for the opera. The official story became that her voice was strained by being forced to sing soprano parts with a contralto voice, but this can be seen as a metaphor and excuse for her unsuitability for “traditionally feminine” roles. Her initial reviews were negative for singing roles, but more positive for dramatic parts, and she reached a turning point in the role of Lady Macbeth, playing her as a forceful domineering figure. Spending several years in stock roles in New York, she seized the attention of the critics who helped propel her to success. Her appearance in trouser roles was especially popular. She turned a talent for poetry into a cross-promotional opportunity, using published poems to draw attention to her performance and establish her as a more cultured lady, not simply an actress.
During these early years, she several times had to contend with male patrons who wanted to derail her career toward something more refined (such as literature) or toward marriage. Her rejection of one of these patrons was fastened onto by later biographers as “explaining” her decision to remain unmarried, and her emotional disinterest in male suitors. [Note: this is extremely common in conservative biographies of unmarried professional women. Biographers will sometimes go to great lengths to dig up a potential failed heterosexual romance in order to explain a lack of interest in marriage. In Cushman’s case, the man that biographers chose for this was never even mentioned by name in her memoirs. Just a passing reference to her rejecting someone whose intentions turned out to be “not honorable.”]
In the later 1830s, Cushman played many male roles, which were clearly more memorable than her equally competent performance in female roles. The popularity of actresses in male roles is sometimes attributed to the male audience’s eagerness for the sight of a woman’s legs, but Cushman was equally popular with female spectators in these roles.
Part of Cushman’s legend was a series of key roles that--as framed by her--she fell into or had thrust upon her, but which she then turned into iconic, powerful performances. These included Nancy Sykes in Oliver Twist, to which she applied a proto-“method” acting approach, studying people in a New York slum to prepare. Rather than focus on glamorous and feminine roles, she used unattractive, unfeminine roles to display her acting prowess.
By the early 1840s, Cushman was the sole support of an extended family and able to demand better terms for her contracts, even in a weakening theatrical market.
Chapter 3: “Is Such Love Wrong?”
This chapter looks at the background of Cushman’s romantic relationships during her early career. She took over as manager (and leading actress) of the Walnut St. Theater in Philadelphia in 1842 and declared her intention to make it a “respectable and cultivated” place. Her intent was to avoid the more dubious reputation of theater and attract a more cultured audience. This represented a turning point in Cushman’s deliberate construction of her public image.
She wasn’t the only female theater manager of that time. Women managers used the myth of “female respectability” to change the middle class reception of the entertainment. They encouraged treating performances as a formal social event, with appropriate dress and attending as families. Cushman’s romantic disinterest in men helped her image as an icon of respectability and morals.
Despite her busy life, Cushman had the time for deep friendships, infatuations, and at least one love affair with a woman in Philadelphia. Because she socialized predominantly with women--as was normal for women of her class at the time--her life was viewed as following conventional norms. Before her intense mutual love affair with Rosalie Sully, she had other close relationships (not necessarily erotic), most notably with writer Anne Brewster and actress Fanny Kemble. (As noted later, the relationship with Kemble seems to have been more hero-worship, and Kemble became increasingly uncomfortable with Cushman’s attention.) Her ability to engage in these relationships was aided by her decision to establish a separate household from the one where she was supporting her extended family.
With Anne Brewster, Cushman shared a love of literature and poetry. They read to each other and discussed favorite texts. Anne described their love as “pure and elevated” though her language was often strongly sensual. But Anne’s brother was suspicious enough of the nature of their relationship to demand that Anne break it off. Cushman’s diary references to Anne are less intense than Anne’s writings about the relationship, or at least more circumspect. Cushman’s interactions with Fanny Kemble were different in part because Kemble had been something of a mentor to Cushman early in her career.
A general economic downturn led to Cushman resigning as manager at the Walnut, but a new opportunity came in the form of an invitation from prominent English actor William Charles Macready to play opposite him on a U.S. tour. Cushman and Macready had a turbulent and variable professional relationship. She impressed him at first both professionally and personally--in part by flattering his ego--and her desire to impress him drove her to improve her performances and acting style. He provided both a role model and some direct coaching. But at various times in their long association, he was affronted by Cushman’s attitude that she should have equal standing with him in performances and decisions. He was also jealous of how the friendly New York critics responded to Cushman’s performances, and he became less enthusiastic about working with someone who could be a rival to him in reputation. Their increasingly prickly relationship resulted in Macready declining to include Cushman in his tour of the American South. Cushman instead toured New England and was struck by the contrast in professionalism from what she had become accustomed to in New York and Philadelphia.
Returning to Philadelphia, Cushman became increasingly occupied with paying court to Fanny Kemble, who was finding her marriage to a wealthy American Southerner unhappy. Cushman showered Fanny with gifts and invitations and was overjoyed at Kemble’s reception of her. There was a mix of both idolization and desire. The sources of Kemble’s marital discomforts were multiple. Kemble’s husband was hostile to her professional interests, and his family’s participation in slavery-based businesses appalled her. In addition, he was regularly unfaithful. Cushman longed to be Kemble’s savior and to help her achieve the divorce she wanted without losing custody of her children. Cushman’s inability to provide this function revealed the one-sidedness of Kemble’s interest in her and they had a bitter falling out.
Rosalie Sully came into Cushman’s life after Cushman commissioned a portrait from Rosalie’s father. Rosalie differed from Cushman’s previous relationships in returning her devotion in equal measure. Cushman’s diary notes the occasions on which they “slept together” with delight, and though this was probably not a euphemism for sex specifically, it was clearly a meaningful emotional step in their relationship. (That is, not saying that they were not involved sexually at the time, but that the phrase “sleep together” was unlikely to be a direct reference to sex, and simply literally meant sharing a bed overnight.) Cushman later destroyed her correspondence with Rosalie, but the reflections in her diary entries on the voyage to England indicate an intense emotional and physical relationship.
Cushman performed with Macready again on his return to New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, and she sometimes attributed to him the idea of touring England (though she had been discussing the idea in her correspondence for years). She had a common pattern of creating official stories for some of her professional decisions that might otherwise be viewed negatively. So claiming that Macready was the one who had encouraged her international tour was in line with this myth-making.
Rosalie’s family seems to have been entirely supportive of her relationship with Cushman. Her father came with her to New York to see Cushman off on her voyage, not knowing when they might see each other again.
Chapter 4: Embodying Strong (-minded) Women
This chapter looks at the reception of Cushman’s signature roles and how that reception was associated with social attitudes toward strong women and toward her American identity.
On arriving in London, Cushman declined an invitation to join Macready’s company as he refused to offer her leading roles, already having a leading lady in the company. She struggled to find an entrance to British theater (despite a wealth of letters of recommendation and introduction), largely due to not being considered conventionally pretty enough for the leading female roles. She convinced one theater manager to give her a chance by putting on a spontaneously melodramatic performance in his office. Once she’d gotten a foot through the door, she was able to set her own terms to debut as a star rather than co-star in a performance of Fazio. She played on the British perception of Americans of both genders as representing “masculine vigor” and used melodrama as the vehicle to show off her talents and forceful performance style.
Cushman was pronounced a brilliant success in her debut and then agreed to play opposite American actor Edwin Forrest, though her own abilities were judged vastly superior to his. Cushman’s Lady Macbeth and other “strong female” roles delighted everyone except her male co-stars, who often felt both physically and theatrically overshadowed. Cushman was particularly well received by female viewers for these features. Her performance wasn’t merely a direct outgrowth of her personality--she had been deliberately studying interpretation and delivery with prominent British actors on tour in the States, and this paid off in a style of delivery acceptable to British audiences while other American actors were judged incapable of properly portraying iconic words (such as Shakespeare) on the British stage.
The chapter continues with a survey of Cushman’s most iconic female roles: Meg Merrilies in Guy Mannering, Queen Katherine in Henry VIII, in addition to Lady MacBeth.
Chapter 5: Wearing the Breeches
This chapter looks at Cushman’s male roles on stage and how she used them as personas for flirting with women offstage.
Comments on Cushman’s performance as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet point up some of the moral contradictions of the times. One reviewer, after seeing her, suggested that Romeo should only be played by a woman, because two women together could best portray passionate love “without suggesting vice.” That is, a clear distinction was made between elevated, pure romantic passion (which was considered acceptable between women, and was considered the purest distillation of the ideals of romantic love) and sexual desire (which was not only popularly considered to be only possible between man and woman, but was considered to be inescapably present between man and woman). This attitude held that a man playing Romeo inescapably led the viewer to contemplate sex (vice) as the outcome of love, whereas a woman playing Romeo ruled out the possibility of sex (according to the official party line) and therefore allowed the focus to be on romantic love. This is the same philosophy that allowed women’s Romantic Friendships to flourish and be praised, as long as it was possible to pretend that there was no “vice” involved.
Women playing male roles on stage was normal at the time, though not necessarily common. The popularity of “trouser roles” was in part that they could be played to titillate male audiences with the display of a female body in revealing masculine clothing. But Cushman played the role as a desiring, rather than desired, figure. To prepare for debuting her Romeo in England, she sent for her mother and her sister Susan so that she could play opposite Susan as Juliet, as she had in the States. One of Cushman’s official fictions was that she played Romeo only to give her sister a supportive co-star for her Juliet. This would provide a plausible excuse if her performance were seen as too transgressive. (Never mind that Susan had been pulled into acting only to perform with Charlotte.) The creation of this official narrative was urged by some of Cushman’s friends and supporters. Cushman was not the only actress of the era who worked self-consciously to create an image of respectability to counter the general bad moral reputation of the profession. And trouser roles were a crucial point of contention due to the way they potentially sexualized actresses.
Audiences loved Cushman’s Romeo and praised her “manly passion.” Romeo was the role that pushed her from American curiosity to mistress of the English stage. One critic--perhaps in all innocence--lauded her performance as “Sapphic,” referring to the association of Sappho’s poetry with the sensation of love as a physically overwhelming experience (without necessarily meaning to evoke same-sex erotics).
Just as the conventions of the times saw the expression of passion between women as acceptably “chaste,” Cushman was able to use that framing to express her desire for women offstage as well as on. She began adding masculine touches to her ordinary wardrobe (which did lead to some speculations about her personal life). Other women in her social circle were similarly adopting masculine touches that represented their emancipation from traditional feminine constraints. (We aren’t talking about complete cross-dressing here, but things like masculine tailoring, or masculine hats.)
Cushman’s performance (both on stage and off) was a code that could be deciphered by other women with similar desires. And there were men who found her presentation unsettling specifically for that gender-crossing, calling her performance “unsexed,” “epicene,” “monstrous,” and “a perversion.” These reactions came more from American critics. British critics tended to see her “masculine” performance as simply “American.” Other stereotypes came into play that affected the reception of her Romeo, such as Romeo’s “Italian passion” being viewed as best depicted by a woman based on British stereotypes of Italian men as being unrestrained and too demonstrative (in a feminine fashion). (British ideals of masculinity leaned toward hyper-control over emotional display, which was another factor in considering American masculinity to be “uncouth”.)
Throughout Cushman’s career, female fans would write to her of their passionate response to her performances, expressing sensual and near-erotic fantasies involving her, including jealousy of her leading ladies. She discussed these responses in letters to her female partners, including addressing the possibility that those partners might be jealous of her costars and fans. (And, as we will late see, her partners had some valid concerns about the attractions of star-struck female fans!) In addition to Romeo, two other notable male roles that Cushman played were Hamlet (obviously in the play of the same name) and Cardinal Woolsey in Henry VIII. Cardinal Woolsey was not one of the traditional “trouser roles” (in contrast to Hamlet), and because Cushman was equally famed for her Queen Katherine in the same play, it was a striking choice.
Chapter 6: Scribbling Circles and Strange Sympathies
This chapter discusses Cushman’s reception in England by a community of cultured women, including many who shared intimate relationships, and looks at specifically female views of her life and work.
As soon as she arrived in England, Cushman gathered friends and supporters from a set of artists, writers, and intellectual women. Their correspondence shows a network of friends and lovers who worked each other’s lives into their art. Creative women in 19th century society struggled for success, acceptance, and the ability to do their work in the face of stereotypes of appropriate female behavior. Women were typically each other’s strongest supporters. These were not just upper class intellectual women, but also radicals and reformers.
Cushman benefitted greatly from the support of these women, both emotionally and socially. They showered her with laudatory poetry and invited her to social events. Among the notable members of this circle were the poet Eliza Cook, with whom Cushman developed a passionate relationship. (During this period, Cushman’s correspondence with Rosalie Sully back home appears to have cooled significantly, though Cushman wasn’t always careful throughout her life about breaking off one relationship before starting another.)
Cushman’s intimate friendships were rarely exclusive, and her correspondence often shows an awareness that letters sent and received might not be entirely private and that the contents must be circumspect within the bounds allowed to romantic friendship. Another close friend was Geraldine Jewsbury, who for a while transferred her affections to Cushman from Jane Carlyle (wife of historian Thomas Carlyle--there was an even wider web of ties and jealousies involved). The correspondence among women like this shows how they understood (and misunderstood) and negotiated the nature of their emotional relationships.
In the summer of 1847, Rosalie Sully died. The news struck Cushman badly and within the same timeframe her relationship with Eliza Cook was fading. Having been assisted by her circle of female friends, Cushman’s rising success meant she could support them in turn. Radical author and feminist Matilda Hays was a beneficiary of Cushman’s support and became her lover. Contemporaries such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning referred to their relationship as a marriage, though confidently asserting that they were celibate. Cushman and Hays were noted for dressing identically, wearing masculine-influenced fashions.
Hays returned with Cushman to the U.S. in 1849. In contrast to the British admiration for her “American” forcefulness, Americans now started saying she was too Anglicized in her performance style. That return also brought a renewed relationship with Anne Brewster. But in the summer of 1850, Cushman received word that Eliza Cook was deathly ill in England and immediately returned there, which caused quite a stir in the press. After being assured that Cook was not at death’s door (though she would never entirely recover), Cushman returned to her U.S. tour. [Note: one interesting side issue I noticed in Cushman’s life is how many trans-Atlantic journeys she made, often on short notice and for only brief stays. Although such voyages were never trivial at the time, they were far more common than one might think.]
While in Boston, Cushman and Hays befriended 21-year-old sculptor Harriet Hosmer and formed an immediate attachment. As Cushman and Hays planned a retirement to Italy with other close friends, they invited Hosmer to join them.
Chapter 7: Building a Community
This chapter talks about Cushman’s circle of friends and lovers in Rome, where she was establishing a second home (or rather, a third one, perhaps).
Cushman arrived in Rome in 1852 with her partner Matilda Hays and her personal assistant Sallie Mercer, as well as several female friends, including journalist Grace Greenwood and sculptor Harriet Hosmer (who brought a friend and also her father as chaperone).
A brief note about Sallie Mercer. Cushman first hired the young African American woman as a maid to accompany her on her initial voyage to England. Mercer continued in Cushman’s employ until Cushman’s death, increasing in responsibilities and scope until the title “personal assistant” in the modern sense is the best description for her. (She had far more power and responsibility than “housekeeper” would imply.) Descriptions and photographs of Cushman’s social entertainments in Rome show Mercer as a participant, not only as a servant. One gets the impression that Mercer’s story would be fascinating on its own. She was perhaps the one constant presence in Cushman’s life and accompanied her on all her travels. On those occasions when they were in the U.S. and Mercer took leave to visit her family, Cushman often comments on how essential she was to the smooth running of the household. I feel a little guilty about not mentioning the book’s regular references to Mercer, but she doesn’t directly figure in either the theatrical or romantic arcs of Cushman’s life.
Rome was a popular destination for both English and American travelers and expatriates, due to the combination of the ability to live well on a small budget and the city’s function as a place to study art and sculpture. Certain other American expats in Rome took unsettled notice of the woman-centered, emancipated community that Cushman and her friends were building. There seems to have been a sort of “taking sides” between those who welcomed her and those who disapproved of her. Cushman’s circle became a magnet for other independent and creative women and her forthright activities to promote the careers of her artistic friends contributed to some of the reaction.
Cushman and her immediate circle shared a house in an expat community in the neighborhood of the Spanish Steps. In Italy, the expectations of feminine convention could be abandoned to some degree. Hatty Hosmer delighted in her independence and freedom, supported somewhat unusually by her father. This paternal congeniality was attributed by contemporaries to the fact that the entire rest of the family had died of illness, and Mr. Hosmer felt that allowing Hatty free rein for her active and tomboyish impulses was a way to build up her physical resilience. But his support went even further than unconventional physicality, for he supported her in her sculpting interests. He was comfortable enough with Cushman that he returned to the States, leaving Hatty in her care. Hatty found a teacher for her sculpture career, which, assisted by Cushner’s professional and personal support, began to take off.
Somewhat to Cushman’s disquiet, perhaps not only because she was used to being an unrivaled center of attention, Hays and Hosmer developed an increasingly close relationship. This may have been part of the impetus for Cushman to return to the English stage the next spring, taking Hays with her, though Cushman would repeatedly go though a cycle of “retiring” and then returning to the stage.
The seeds of Cushman’s Roman colony remained, including Hosmer and Greenwood and adding Virginia Vaughan and novelist Isa Blagden, as well as their extended network of artistic friends. Hosmer had had passionate female friendships in her past, including a now-married childhood friend Cornelia Crow, whose father was one of Hosmer’s patrons. (Remember the name Crow. Another of his daughters becomes relevant later.) So it isn’t entirely startling that the growing tension between Hays and Cushman resolved with Hays returning to Rome to be with Hosmer. Cushman threw herself back into performing. Observers commenting on Hays and Hosmer often praised the two in masculine-coded language, much as they did for Cushman herself. Hosmer seems to have been regularly described as “queer” (using that word) in reference to her gender presentation: “the funniest little creature, not at all coarse, rough or slangy, but like a little boy” and “[I had] never seen anything as innocent as Hatty, nor so very queer.” In comparison, reactions to Cushman from her female admirers ranged from the clearly erotic to hero worship to admiration.
Hays became increasingly unhappy away from Cushman and returned to England after four months to apologize and take up their relationship again, though it was cooler now. Cushman’s correspondence with her closest friends about these romantic upheavals urged caution and circumspection regarding revealing the details publicly. Clearly she felt there was something in it that might draw disapproval. There was much she explicitly declined to commit to writing.
Cushman and Hays settled into a home in London together for the next two years before returning to Rome. There, their relationship would be irretrievably damaged by the introduction of American sculptor Emma Stebbins to their circle. Among much coming and going of old and new friends, Cushman and Stebbins began spending a lot of time together and Cushman and Hays were increasingly apart. This time, Hays was the jealous one. They argued and fought. It was when Hays brought their conflict into the open before witnesses that Cushman made the final break. Hays had violated the veil of silence and deniability over the nature of their relationship.
When Hays left Rome, she initiated a “palimony” suit against Cushman, claiming that she’d set her own literary career aside to support Cushman’s career. Cushman gave her a monetary settlement and shortly after was living with Stebbins. Hays returned to London, writing and publishing in support of women’s rights. She later fictionalized her relationship with Cushman in unflattering terms in a bitter novel, Adrienne Hope.
Stebbins was middle aged, wealthy, and a “lady artist.” She had come to Rome to study sculpture, as Hosmer had, and she was immediately entranced by Cushman. In Stebbins’ company, Cushman became somewhat more staid. She began dressing more conventionally and assumed the persona of matriarch of her little community, addressing Hosmer as “dear child.” (It's interesting that Cushman's relationship with Hosmer seems to have survived the drama around Hays.) The relationships between the women in Cushman’s household were variously romantic, erotic, platonic, and professional, and the language they employed to describe their relations sometimes muddies the water, refering to themselves as bachelors and old maids, other times as wives and married partners (and not always aligning those terms with their established partnerships).
Stebbins and Hosmer bonded over their shared interest in sculpture, even as Stebbins and Cushman emulated a traditional middle class marriage. The context of Cushman’s circle brought together other female couples such as Frances Power Cobbe and sculptor Mary Lloyd, as well as women and couples challenging gender norms, such as George Sand and Rosa Bonheur. Cushman had a specific interest in supporting women sculptors. In addition to Hosmer and Stebbings, there was cameo artist Margaret Foley and sculptor Edmonia Lewis who had black and Native American heritage. Lewis’s work was often overtly political and reflective of her ethnic heritages, and as a black woman she faced more than the usual barriers to her studies. Both Cushman and Stebbins worked to gain her recognition and clients.
One fly in the ointment of Cushman and Stebbins’ relationship was the disdain that Stebbins (like Hays before her) had for the stage as a profession. And in the midst of this, Cushman began planning a return to the American stage, partly for financial reasons and partly simply because she missed the adulation and fame.
Chapter 8: The Sapphic Family
This chapter covers the period in Cushman’s life when things really got complicated.
In 1857, after five years abroad, Cushman returned again to the States. Stebbins and Sallie Mercer came with her, though various friends had warned Cushman that Stebbins might find a cool reception in the American circles that hadn’t previously met her. (But recall that Stebbins herself was American and had wealthy relatives in Boston.) Cushman’s reputation is seen in the success of her professional activities during this tour, even in the uncertain economy.
Stebbins remained in New York when Cushman traveled to performances in Chicago and St. Louis. In the latter location, while consulting with Wayman Crow, the patron of Hatty Hosmer, whom Cushman intended to employ as her financial advisor, she met his daughter Emma Crow and sparks immediately flew. Emma was 18 and described the 42 year old Cushman in her memoir as “the incarnation of the ideal lover” in her role as Romeo.
[Note: I know I’m being inconsistent in whether I refer to individuals by given name or surname. As there are going to be two Emmas in Cushman’s life from here on, and as Emma Crow’s father will also be a continuing figure, I’m going to refer to Emma Crow as “Emma” to distinguish from Mr. Crow and from Emma Stebbins, whom I’ve been calling “Stebbins.”]
Emma spent all the time she could in Cushman’s presence for the two weeks she was in St. Louis, although she received little attention in return. But by Cushman’s departure, she was calling Emma “little lover” and began a voluminous correspondence with her that would continue for the next 18 years. Cushman expected that Emma’s infatuation would soon fade, but that was not the case, and Emma was consistently the more assertive in pursuing their romance. Emma kept all Cushman’s letters to her, despite the latter’s requests to burn them, though her own side of the correspondence is lost due to Cushman’s ruthless curation of her legacy. Cushman offered a constant stream of assurances of love, endearments, and descriptions of kisses and caresses. Cushman stopped in St. Louis again on her return from her tour specifically to see Emma again. Their letters had been growing increasingly passionate, but Cushman felt the need to have a serious talk with Emma about the nature of those passions and about Cushman’s existing emotional commitments.
Emma wanted to join Cushman in her hotel room and sleep with her during her stay. Cushman suggested that it would be more socially acceptable for her to visit the Crow house and join Emma there. This is just one example of the careful negotiation of the expectations and limits of romantic friendship. The allowance it provided covered much, but not everything. That same careful negotiation is seen when Hosmer, in a letter to Emma’s father (and her patron) spoke approvingly of Cushman and Emma being “lovers” while only a few months later Hosmer was expressing jealousy of the relationship and indicated to Crow that if Emma accepted Cushman’s invitation to join them in Rome, she would take responsibility for keeping a eye on them. In one passage she suggests to Emma that if she “kept on as she was” (implied: with Cushman) she might never get a husband, citing her own example, though there’s no indication that Hosmer actually wanted a husband and she regularly expressed the position that marriage to a man was incompatible with an artistic career for a woman.
Cushman echoed this opinion of marriage in a letter to Emma, while referring to her relationship with Stebbins with the word “marriage” and mentioning the ring she wore as a token of it. At the same time, she indicated to Emma that she wouldn’t abide rivals for Emma’s affections. Cushman’s letters to Emma increasingly dealt with how to frame and balance both relationships. She repeatedly urged Emma (in vain) to burn her letters, lest they fall into hostile hands. (The letters were eventually donated to the Library of Congress after both their deaths and are a major source of information about the details of Cushman’s personal life during this period.)
Cushman returned to Europe with Stebbins in 1858. She wrote to Emma’s parents suggesting that Emma and her sister (a different sister from the one Hosmer had been involved with) come for an extended visit in Rome, dancing around assurances that Hosmer (who was framed as something of an adopted daughter of the Crows) would watch over their reputations. Stebbins may have been expressing unease at this prospect. In one letter to Emma, Cushman playfully suggests that Stebbins may have failed to mail Cushman’s last letter to her. But Cushman seemed determined to maintain both relationships.
Shortly before Emma and her sister came to Rome, Cushman’s sister Susan (the one who had played Juliet to her Romeo) died unexpectedly. Some time before, Cushman had adopted Susan’s son Ned (by the husband who had deserted her around the time of the birth) and this shift in family dynamics may have given Cushman a new idea. Emma and Ned should marry, giving a veil of respectability to Emma’s presence in the household. The original notion seems to have been for the marriage to be in name only, though that fell by the wayside.
Cushman’s letters increase their cautions to be discreet, both in writing and in public. Although Emma appears to have been the initiator in their relationship, Cushman knew she would be blamed more if the public decided there was something improper between them. Ned would provide a useful “beard” not only to the general public, but perhaps to Stebbins. Ned, for his part, seems to have been attracted to Emma, while Emma agreed to the marriage but was still focused on Cushman. Wayman Crow had concerns about these plans for his daughter but they primarily concerned Ned’s lack of a profession and his immaturity. (Ned was entirely supported by Cushman.) In the end, it came together. The whole group returned to the States late in 1860 to prepare, and Cushman did some performances as well. Wayman Crow had become her investment manager, to further tie the families together.
Ned and Emma married in April 1861, scheduled around Cushman’s performance schedule, which in turn was arranged around Stebbins’ professional needs. The married couple settled in Boston while Cushman toured New England to perform. Cushman had now begun referring to Emma as her “daughter” as well as “my little lover,” showing the complexity of roles between them. Cushman’s correspondence to Emma was now being actively self-censored to avoid potentially damaging interpretations if others read the letters. Cushman reluctantly left Emma behind in the U.S. to establish the marriage when she returned to Rome with Stebbins, acknowledging that it would be emotionally hard for her to be present during that stage of the marriage.
Emma became pregnant shortly and Cushman’s letters framed the child as hers and Emma’s, noting that it would bear her surname, and discussing the benefits of a gender-neutral upbringing for children as ideal. Their letters continued to express erotic desire, but Cushman regularly cautioned about causing Stebbins pain or attracting social disapproval. For these reasons, they put off a reunion. Stebbins was working on a commemorative sculpture of Horace Mann, Hosmer was working on a similar monumental project, and Cushman did not feel free to travel to the U.S. under those circumstances. Unfortunately, Emma had a miscarriage. She traveled to England for a brief stay to recover where Cushman joined her.
Emma and Ned wanted to return from Boston to St. Louis, but by now the Civil War had started and Cushman was concerned for their safety. Against Stebbins’ wishes, Cushman accompanied them back to the States to visit and do some charity performances for the Sanitary Commission before returning to Rome. In Rome, Cushman’s household was shifting. Hosmer had moved into her own house, perhaps being too much in professional competition with Stebbins for comfort. (They were sometimes competing for the same sculpture commissions and Cushman was forthright in preferentially championing Stebbins’ career.) Cushman was working on arrangements to have Emma and Ned join her in Rome. One significant question was a job for Ned and Cushman pulled strings with her personal friend, Secretary of State Seward, to appoint Ned as the American Consul in Rome--a position that was primarily symbolic.
Emma was pregnant again and it was decided that she (and Ned) should join Cushman in London for the birth. Cushman would be present to support Emma during the birth of all four of her sons. The plans moved forward after that and Emma and Ned moved into Cushman’s house in Rome as he took up the position of Consul. The continuing difficulty was to reassure Stebbins of her secure place in the extended family--being the only member of the new household configuration with no official legal tie to Cushman.
One form that reassurance took was for Cushman and Stebbins (and Sallie Mercer, as always) to travel to the States together, leaving the married couple in Rome. There are some hints during this time that the erotic passion between Cushman and Stebbins had declined from what it once had been, though the romantic attraction and loyalty were still strong. Emma gave Cushman that erotic charge, but Cushman had no intention of leaving Stebbins and Emma had flashes of jealousy over that loyalty. At the same time, Emma expressed some regrets over the choice to marry Ned, as it had created a barrier between her and Cushman.
In the midst of all this, in 1869, Cushman was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite treatments, including surgery, the cancer persisted and her health began a long gradual decline. (She would live for 7 more years.) Cushman decided to return to the States with Stebbins to convalesce after the surgery. Rome had lost its attraction due to the tension between the two Emmas and the disintegration of her friendship with Hosmer. When Seward resigned, Ned lost his job as Consul and the family moved back to St. Louis, ending the Cushman presence in Rome.
Cushman and Stebbins moved into the Stebbins family home in Boston. (Sallie Mercer was still with them and there seems to have been some awkwardness over her position, now that Cushman no longer had a household for her to preside over.) Cushman even returned reluctantly to the stage, playing Queen Katherine against Edwin Booth, as well as in other signature roles. Her growing ill health led her to switch to doing dramatic readings rather than full stage performances beginning in 1871. In 1874 she began a series of “farewell performances” accompanied by a sequence of retirement galas, concluding in June 1875.
That winter her condition worsened and in February 1876 she died, with Stebbins at her side.
Chapter 9: The Backlash and Beyond
This chapter discusses Cushman’s post-death legacy and how public views of her changed with the rise of the sexologists and increased focus on “morbid” relationships between women.
Cushman was mourned as a national celebrity. At the time, she was perhaps the most famous woman of the English-speaking world. [Note: One might argue that Queen Victoria had an edge on her, but I’ll allow Merrill her hyperbole.] Eulogies of Cushman noted the respectability she brought to the acting profession, her “purity” (i.e., lack of male attachments), her lack of radical religious or political causes. She was praised for not being a suffragist, though she had worked hard in her own way to give women the right to economic independence. Her lack of connections to men, combined with her divergence from the feminine ideal of the day was framed positively, calling her “complete in nature” combining male and female virtues. People attributed to her “character” the pure and devoted friendship she inspired in so many women.
At the time of her death, her independence from men, her female friendships, and her androgyny were all seen as postive virtues. Those same traits were viewed differently as the attitude toward autonomous “masculine” women became pathologized. In Cushman’s era, the gender segregation of society meant that her all-female household went unremarked. The popular myth that women were incapable of sexual passion meant that their love must be “innocent,” i.e., non-sexual. Women were lauded and encouraged in having intense same-sex friendships, especially if they were unmarried. At the same time, dangerous erotic passion was attributed to working-class women, passing women, and non-European women.
Private writings such as Cushman’s letters and memoirs demonstrate that even so-called “respectable” women could be aware of their erotic feelings and might employ complex strategies to avoid breaking that willing suspension of disbelief on the part of society. These social framings created a space in which women could love each other, within boundaries that were constantly watched and negotiated.
Stebbins undertook a memoir of Cushman’s life “lest unworthy and careless hands undertake it.” She continued Cushman’s work of shaping her public image very consciously. Having filtered out the more hazardous aspects of Cushman’s life, the result was meager. Cushman’s various lovers were demoted to “devoted friends” or omitted entirely. This self-censored result sheds a different light on the alleged acceptability of romantic friendships.
Even toward the end of Cushman’s life--and definitely after her death--attitudes were turning against independent unmarried women and especially against “mannish” women. With the rise of the late 19th century sexologists, characteristics that had been praised became seen as deviant. Descriptions of Cushman shifted in tone, aligning with this reframing. The absence of men in her life was called an absence of love, and her lovers were entirely erased from the record. Like other female partners of the day, such as Cushman’s friends Geraldine Jewsbury and Jane Carlyle, the passion was edited out of their biographies, lest post-Freudian readers view it as “morbid.” Later theater critics began to describe Cushman as ridiculous and monstrous--in clear contradiction to the contemporary reception of her work. And thus, the most famous actress of the 19th century, a celebrity known throughout the English speaking world, and the core of a thriving community of women artists and intellectuals, faded in the historic record.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 19c - Book Appreciation with Ellen Klages
(Originally aired 2018/02/17 - listen here)
Ellen Klages returns to the podcast to talk about some favorite lesbian historical stories.
No transcript is available for this podcast.