Julia Markus focuses in particular on the American Charlotte Cushman, the most famous English-speaking actress of her day, and on the Scottish Jane Welsh Carlyle, a brilliant London hostess who gave up private ambition to become the wife of her friend Thomas Carlyle.
Charlotte Cushman became an international star on the New York and London stage, and her Romeo and Hamlet were sensations. An independent woman with shrewd business sense who made her own fortune and supported her entire family, she dressed like a man from the waist up and had a succession of female lovers, each one of whom she planned to live with for life, each of whom she 'married.'
Jane Welsh Carlyle, literary hostess, unparalleled letter writer and chronicler of her times--who, after a passionate youthful love affair, resolved to marry genius or not at all--became the wife of the revered and lionized philosopher Thomas Carlyle, a difficult, demanding man with whom she had a sexless marriage.
Interweaving the worlds of Charlotte Cushman and Jane Carlyle--the worlds of expatriate Rome, literary London, New York, and St. Louis--Markus gathers together a number of interrelated and renowned women who were relegated in the public eye to the position of Virgin Queen (no matter how much married) or Old Maid, but who were, in fact, privately leading vibrant, independent, sexual lives. Among them: Matilda Hays, translator of George Sand; Harriet Hosmer, who resolved to become the world's first professional woman sculptor; and Emma Stebbins, whom Cushman 'married' and who created the Bethesda Fountain in New York's Central Park. Here, too, are the people who sought the friendship of Cushman and Carlyle, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Mann, Elizabeth Peabody, President Lincoln's Secretary of State William H. Seward, Geraldine Jewsbury, and Rosa Bonheur.
Making use of letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and journals of the day, many of them overlooked and unpublished, Julia Markus rediscovers lives forgotten in the shadows of convention and shows how these remarkable women--seemingly separated by nationality, class, and sexual inclination--met, formed alliances, and influenced one another, forging changes in themselves and in their time.
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A Home in Rome
Something new under the Roman sun: a household of unmarried women. Independent women they were called in 1852. The famous American actress Charlotte Cushman, always paterfamilias, leased the house on the Corso and filled it with her friends. The actress was thirty-six years old at the time. Having raised herself and her family from poverty to riches, Charlotte was retiring from the stage. She came to the Eternal City with her companion, Matilda M. Hays, British translator of George Sand. Matilda was a few years younger and more feminine in appearance than Charlotte, though they both dressed like men from the waist up, wearing tight, lapeled bodices, handsome waistcoats, and elegant bow ties.
A third person in this party of 'jolly bachelors,' as they called themselves, was a young woman of twenty-two, short, chubby, and daring, who soon dressed like a man from the waist down as well as up. She rode her horse, 'scrambling about,' going anywhere in Rome and its countryside that she desired--alone.
Harriet Hosmer was her name; 'Hattie' she was called. Hattie's hair was cropped, and when she joked around or talked seriously about the art of sculpture, she pushed her fingers through it like a boy. The popular British actress Fanny Kemble, who knew Hattie since she was a child, worried that Hattie's 'peculiarities,' as she phrased it, might be held against her genius. But not in Rome. Or in Florence, where residents such as the Brownings fell in love with that fun-loving, free-spirited American. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who found Hattie strange at first, soon found her pure, pure, pure.
Three other independent women joined them on the Corso, justifying Charlotte's friends' joking remark that the actress was never seen with less than six people in tow.
Charlotte took care of the household expenses, her fortune recently increased by a long and profitable 'farewell tour' in America. She had been absent from her homeland for five years, during which time her spectacular success on the British stage turned her into a legend. Cushmania marked her return. In New York and Philadelphia the actress had trouble wending her way into her dressing room through the crowds that lined the streets to greet her, to touch her. She was escorted through the throng by Sallie Mercer. Sallie, part of the Cushman mystique, was with her in Rome. She was Charlotte's prompter, her skilled dresser, her housekeeper--her 'right hand' Charlotte called her.
Charlotte had hired the bright, outspoken, literate Sallie in Philadelphia when Sallie was only fourteen and Charlotte at twenty-eight was about to try her luck abroad for the first time. Charlotte always had an instinct for the right people. She saw Sallie's intelligence and determination in the high cast of her forehead, in the brown sheen of her skin.
'Sallie,' she'd write, and then list a complicated set of instructions for
the girl--people's houses to go to, what to say, messages to deliver and return--signed 'Charlotte.' Though Sallie's mother objected, Sallie was eager to accompany Charlotte to London--and since then hardly ever left her side.
In Rome, the slim, strong-minded Sallie Mercer did not dress like a man from the waist up. But being a Negress, not a slave in bondage, but a free American Negress, had its own exotic appeal among the expatriates, and among the Romans who were known even then for their live-and-let-live enjoyment of novelty, their finely honed sense of irony, and their ability unabashedly to stare.
William Wetmore Story, the aspiring sculptor who was at the head of the English and American expatriate community in Rome, entered the household of emancipated women, as they were slyly called. He arrived to pay his respects to the only male among them, Hattie Hosmer's father, whom he knew from Boston days.
William Wetmore, a lawyer who wrote a definitive work on Contracts, was supposed to return to New England after sculpting a memorial statue of his father, the deceased Supreme Court judge, Justice Joseph Story. But he was actually in the process of giving up law--and Boston--and devoting his life--and his inheritance--to sculpture and poetry--from the vantage point of the piano nobile of the Palazzo Barberini. Already he was the poet Robert Browning's best friend.
Hattie called out to her father, 'You have a visitor.'
Dr. Hosmer entered rather meekly. Being there in Rome among these jolly bachelors was not his idea.
A year and a half before, Hattie insisted on going from Watertown, Massachusetts, into Boston to see Charlotte Cushman play Hamlet and it changed her life.
Hattie was overwhelmed by Cushman's portrayal of the Danish prince, and with her usual aplomb, went backstage--where Charlotte immedi-
ately took to her. Hattie told her straight out that she planned to be a sculptor. No matter that there were no professional women sculptors at the time. It was even a peculiar choice for an American man. Most Americans believed all those naked statues were better left to the ancients and the Europeans.
Harvard did not admit women and Dr. Hosmer could not persuade the medical school to allow his daughter to study anatomy there. So Hattie traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, where she was able to study anatomy and lived with the family of her best friend Cornelia Crow--Cornie. Even the way she traveled was brimmed with fun. Leaving St. Louis with her certificate of proficiency in anatomy in hand, she smoked a peace pipe with a Dakota chief in Lansing. She beat the boys in a race up an unnamed bluff four hundred feet above the Mississippi. It became--and remains--Mount Hosmer.
Hattie's youthful determination reminded Charlotte of her own.
If Hattie wanted to be a sculptor, she had to go to Rome. It was the center of the art world, according to the best tables in Boston. Charlotte had never been there, but she and Matilda Hays might be going next autumn. Would Hattie join them?
She might be going to Rome! Hattie wrote to her friend Cornie in St. Louis, 'Isn't it strange how we meet people in this world and become attached to them in so short a time?'
Months later, Charlotte went to Watertown to persuade Dr. Hosmer to allow his daughter to travel, but Charlotte did not win him over. Only when word came from St. Louis that the wealthy businessman Wayman Crow, Cornie's father, would sponsor Hattie did the doctor agree--reluctantly.
Charlotte thought Dr. Hosmer cheap, could not imagine a father not giving his daughter what she wanted when he had the wherewithal. Look at all she did for her family, her belongings she called them. Born and bred in Boston, she left school at the age of thirteen to help her mother run a boardinghouse outside of Boston, after her elderly father went bankrupt in West Indian trade. Elkanah Cushman, who began his working life as a hairdresser, hadn't even the business sense to put paper between him and his partner. Young Charlotte, the oldest child, dreamed of saving her family. There were the music lessons she paid for by becoming an indentured servant. She whose family boasted Mayflower roots. Then the successful debut in Boston on the opera stage, followed by the disaster in New Orleans where her voice deserted her and the critics on the Bee and the Pecayune panned her. She did not give in, she turned to acting, tutored by one in the company.
By the age of nineteen, with only a few months of professional training which aimed at getting below the surface of her Unitarian-girl reserve, Charlotte found her calling and made her acclaimed debut as Lady Macbeth. Her Lady Macbeth was a young, ambitious, energetic unsexed force, possessed with one mad desire, ready to peril all that was high and holy to attain her ends. The same newspapers that had humiliated her now extolled her. And every adversity since then, every attempt of her enemies to thwart her, she turned from defeat to advantage through talent and brute determination. Never for herself, she made sure everyone knew. All she did, all she had ever done, was done to support her belongings, her mother and her younger siblings. For them she had become an actress. It made her almost respectable.
Dr. Hosmer, with only one belonging spared him by God--his wife and other children all died of tuberculosis--held his purse shut, until wealthy Wayman Crow opened his. That was how Charlotte saw it, but the doctor was fearful as well as parsimonious. He had raised his daughter to a rigorous outdoor life to save her from the dreaded illness. He gave her a spirited horse, a dog, a gun. A boathouse. Their Watertown home had gardens that reached down to the Charles River. Young Hattie rowed and swam in the summer, ice-skated in the winter. Unheard-of activities for girls. Of course she adapted to the boy's regime of exercise and hard play like a duck to water. Hattie was a handful with her wild pranks and her wit and her 'peculiarities.'
As a child she was unruly at school, coming home with notes of reprimand pinned to her back. She ran off to Boston at night; once she uncoupled a railroad car hoping the engine would go on its merry way, leaving all the passengers behind. Her father had to pay for that one.
The frugal doctor warned beneficent Wayman Crow that reckless spending was Hattie's incurable disease. Open a purse and she emptied it.
Because of her wild streak, Dr. Hosmer was almost forced to send his daughter to Mrs. Charles Sedgwick's home school for girls in Lenox, Massachusetts. Mrs. Sedgwick was known for her way with difficult cases. Hattie soon became the wittiest girl, the life of the party. Away from her father, she had the most wonderful time. And she met Cornie Crow, who
became her roommate there.
'Come, Hattie, do give us some fun tonight!' Cornie remembered the actress Fanny Kemble saying.
Mrs. Kemble kept a cottage in Lenox and would read Shakespeare to the girls when she was in town. On Saturdays the girls were invited to her 'Perch,' where they would play charades or put on amateur theatricals or sing and dance, Kemble accompanying them on piano.
Always a punster, Hattie composed doggerel. One was a mixture of English and French. It convulsed them at the Perch when Hattie became an Anglo-Frenchman, energetically reciting to his lady love:
L'amour sublime que j'ai pour vous.
Oh Arabelle! je ne puis pas dire
L'amour pour vous, si fort, si fier.
For all the trouble Hattie caused him, his daughter was all the doctor had and he feared lest anything befall her. He brought her to Rome personally, and she repaid him in her usual irrepressible manner, this time by insisting the household of women call him 'Elizabeth.' You have to be one of us, she told him, to live with us.
William Wetmore Story, his artist's beret in his hand, his other hand quizzically stroking his well-kempt yet luxuriant beard, was visibly surprised at Dr. Hosmer's compliance with the house rule. It was 'Elizabeth' this, 'Elizabeth' that, all through the whole visit. Were the women playing with Story well? Story thought Dr. Hosmer almost fou in his concern for his daughter, while he wasn't quite sure Hattie cared for the good doctor at all. And that Elizabeth nonsense!
Story might have provoked Charlotte Cushman on that visit. For she was giving Hattie this opportunity in Rome, not he. Charlotte was already entertaining the delightful British and American expatriate community and expected to use her connections to find Hattie a teacher. But W. W. Story looked at the girl's two daguerreotypes of her one sculpture bust, and he introduced Hattie to the renowned British neoclassical sculptor, John Gibson. Hattie charmed her fellow bachelor on the spot. Though Gibson rarely took any students, Hattie became his first and only female student--and dear friend. Gibson even gave her a hallowed studio to work out of--it once belonged to the great master of their Sublime art, Antonio Canova.
After that, 'Elizabeth' fled from Rome as fast as he could, leaving Hattie to her friends and to what turned out to be her destiny.
Charlotte took to the city immediately, just as Hattie had. Italy was not yet a nation, but it was a state of mind. One could be oneself there under the bluest of skies, buoyed by the best of exchange rates. Charlotte entertained. The winter society in Rome was of the finest, such a grand combination of dedicated artists and wealthy travelers. She had her portrait painted by William Page, called 'the American Titian,' and he succeeded in rendering her flat, blunt, no-nonsense face with its broad forehead, dent of a nose, and wide jaw with some adherence to truth--Charlotte was Yankee plain. Page caught the glint of sadness in her gray-blue eyes.
Nobody knew what she suffered. Her first year of retirement from the stage should have been heaven. But not unusual in her history, the reward of her labors was a living hell. Charlotte's companion Matilda and young Hattie were making love, flirting outrageously, as was Hattie's wont, right in front of Charlotte's eyes. And then an old flame of Matilda's, one Miss B. who thought Charlotte had stolen Matilda from her some years back, arrived in Rome.
Charlotte Cushman and Matilda Hays had what was termed a 'female marriage.' In the privacy of their love and under the eyes of God they pledged their troth. When Elizabeth Barrett Browning met the women on their way to Rome, she was confused by the arrangement and wrote back home to her sister that Charlotte and Matilda 'made vows of celibacy and of eternal attachment to each other--they live together, dress alike. It is a female marriage.' She had never heard of such a thing, she told a friend, who answered, 'Oh, it is by no means uncommon.'
In Charlotte and Matilda's case, it had never been a stable marriage, and now it was coming apart, no matter Charlotte's constant efforts to keep it intact. The whole two-and-a-half-year 'farewell tour' of America was a way of having some privacy, an ocean separating the women from Charlotte's disapproving mother. Charlotte resettled her socially conscious mother in London, close to brother Charlie and within traveling distance of Liverpool, where Charlotte's beautiful sister Susan--her mother's favorite--lived. The divorced Susan left the stage, where she was in Charlotte's shadow, and remarried into British society, just as their mother wished. Matilda replaced Susan on the stage, and played opposite Charlotte in the British provinces. But that new career was short-lived and Matilda resumed her literary life and her translations of George Sand--work she could do while keeping house for Charlotte.
During Charlotte's American tour, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow noticed the vague sense of sadness that enveloped Matilda, as well as her bitterness, one that he intuited came from disappointment. Charlotte's companion had not quite found her niche and had the earmarks of a dissatisfied wife.
Returning to England, what was to keep the couple there during the winter--the disapproving look in Charlotte's mother's eyes?
It was always the same. No matter how hard Charlotte worked, no matter how high she raised her family, no matter how much money she invested wisely--she, unlike her now deceased father, had excellent business sense--she could not please her mother. Mary Eliza always considered her overinfluenced by strangers and particularly by her girlfriends. Her mother felt she spent too much on them, money that should be spent on her belongings.
Concerning Matilda, Charlotte's mother might have been closer to the mark than she usually was. Matilda seemed to have Charlotte on a string. Charlotte knew it herself. She had never asked for the relationship, yet once it happened, she grew morbidly dependent on her spouse.
Before Matilda entered her life, Charlotte had been with another English woman, Eliza Cook. That was eight years before, when Charlotte traveled abroad for the first time, to improve her fortunes by a six-month exposure to the British stage. However, for the first five months in London, 'we lived on a mutton-chop a day,' Charlotte's right hand, the young Sallie Mercer, remembered. 'And I always bought the baker's dozen of muffins for the sake of the extra one and we ate them all, no matter how stale they were. We never suffered from want of appetite in those days.'
It was only by clever horse-trading that Charlotte seized her opportunity. The devious Philadelphian actor Edwin Forrest arrived in London and wanted her to play opposite him in Othello. 'I cannot begin with Emilia,' she told the small, shifty stage manager J. M. Maddox, who had earlier rejected her from his Princess Theatre. Suddenly Maddox wanted her to debut in a role that would in no way demonstrate her range. It showed much about her business sense that although she had given herself six months in England and time was running out, the twenty-eight-year-old realized that the wrong start in London would be worse than no start at all. The only way she would play Emilia, she told Maddox, was if he gave her her own London debut the night before, in a play of her own choosing.
That was ludicrous, Maddox replied.
'She's not good-looking.'
He didn't say that to Charlotte, but to a British critic who responded,
'You're a fool, Maddox.'
Charlotte responded by showing Maddox she could act. Before leaving his office the second time, she stopped at the door, turned to him, and said, 'I know I have enemies in this country!' Then she threw herself down on her knees, clenched her fist, and cried, 'So help me! I'll defeat them!'
Had she made a fool of herself, she wondered early the next morning in the London flat she shared with Sallie. Why had she done it? she asked the girl. Her big scene was not going to budge Maddox.
Sallie was looking out the window. She turned to Charlotte with a big reassuring smile on her face and motioned her over. Below them, chilled, was Maddox, pacing the street, his collar turned up, knowing it was still too early to call.
'He is anxious,' Charlotte said. And then, without missing a beat, she told Sallie, 'I can make my own terms.'
For her British debut at the Princess Theatre, she chose the role of the betrayed wife Bianca in Henry Hart Milman's melodrama Fazio, just as British Fanny Kemble chose Bianca for her American debut.
The passion Charlotte Cushman brought to the role of the betrayed wife made the American a sensational discovery in a city ever ready to glamorize the new. After the act in which she threw herself down into a broken heap in front of her husband's beautiful mistress, the small audience got up on the benches and waved handkerchiefs, while the previously dismissive cast applauded her as she went through the greenroom to her dressing room.
'You've got 'em,' Sallie cried as she dressed her for the next act. 'You've got 'em.'
The reviews in the London papers were ecstatic. Maddox sent them to her. 'I was never more delighted,' he wrote. Before her performance, when she complained about the flimsy sets and cheap costumes, he asked her what had she expected, to set the town on fire?
Charlotte was never one to brag--or even talk about her acting. She was stating the unadorned truth when she wrote home to her mother, 'All of my successes put together since I have been upon the stage would not come up to my success in London.' Everyone who was anyone wanted to meet her. She was invited to every important breakfast and dinner in town. Within a year, there would be only one attraction that outdrew her at the box office--P. T. Barnum's presentation of another American, Tom Thumb.
Eliza Cook, herself a fine, independent, self-educated woman, a poet, illustrator, journalist, saw Charlotte in her London debut as Bianca. She was so swept away that she sent the actress a poem:
I did not deem thou could'st awake the sob
Of choking fulness and convulsive start
But thy pale madness, and thy gasping woe
That breathed the torture of Bianca's pain
Oh never would my bosom ask to know
Such sad and bitter sympathy again!
When the two women met, they recognized each other immediately. Eliza described that knowledge in a poem subtle enough for careful Charlotte
to keep with her memorabilia:
There are sealed pages in my heart
traced with illumined hand,
That none can see, and if they did
oh who would understand?
But thou, by some strange sympathy
hast thrown a searching look:
And read at sight the hardest scroll
embossed within the book.
Though they read each other's 'hardest scroll' with that first searching look, mannish Eliza was not really Charlotte's type. Charlotte, sailing to England for the first time, had given her desserts, which she was too upset to eat anyway, to a tall lady in a cabin near her, one with a beautiful face who reminded her of Rosalie Sully, the lovely daughter of the Philadelphian portrait painter Thomas Sully.
Charlotte had moved her acting headquarters from New York to Philadelphia at the age of twenty-four, to manage the Walnut Theatre and to act in it and the Chestnut Theatre. It was hoped that under her management, theatre in Philadelphia would become a respectable cultural activity, a place fit for the family.
The Cushmans were Unitarians, and one Sunday at church in the city of brotherly love, the pew owner next to them abruptly gathered up his wife and children and conspicuously left the service because he wouldn't have his family sit near an actress. Charlotte had her work cut out for her.
The portrait painter Thomas Sully, on the other hand, welcomed Charlotte and her family into his spacious four-story brick house on Chestnut Street and introduced them to his wife and daughters, Blanche and Rosalie. Rosalie was two years younger than Charlotte, and the actress was struck by her beauty, her grace, her gentle, shy nature. Rosalie was a painter in her own right--a painter of miniatures, as her uncle had been
before her. The two began to see each other every day.
Thomas Sully painted Charlotte's portrait. You made my unfortunate mug beautiful, she told him. He had in fact taken liberties with her blunt, no-nonsense face, turning her as softly pretty as one of his daughters. For shy Rosalie she was indeed the siren's call.
Before she left the States, on a hot July evening outside of Philadelphia, Charlotte put a ring on gentle Rosalie's finger and they swore eternal love. They considered themselves married--just like Romeo and Juliet, only without the benefit of a sympathetic friar. Her daybook for July 1844 was filled with her love of Rosalie, squeezed in among her business accounts. On various days: Clover Hill with Rose--Saw Rose in morning--Slept with Rose--Burned letters.
Rumor was driving Charlotte from Philadelphia. Before she fell in love with Rosalie, she was with another Philadelphian, Anne Hampton Brewster, a brilliant and cultured young woman with exquisite literary and musical tastes. Anne was educated by her mother. Her father had abandoned the family to live with his mistress and illegitimate children. Anne continued her studies at home, while her older brother was sent to Princeton, the first time the siblings were separated. Burnt-faced Ben, Anne's brother was called, terribly disfigured as he was since the age of five when his clothes caught on fire. As a man he compensated for his deformity with clothing out of a storybook. Tall sheer white beaver hats, velvet vests, light-colored pants, white alligator spats, patent leather British shoes. He was quite a dandy--and once he charmed a woman past his face--quite a lover. Burnt-faced Ben, profligate in his ways, became a powerful Philadelphia lawyer and later President Chester Arthur's attorney general. For many years he lived with his sister, keeping tight hold on the purse strings and keeping Anne, who adored him, dependent on his largesse.
He had no use for Charlotte Cushman. Tyrannical by nature and jealous to maintain his sister's undivided attention, he openly deplored Charlotte and Anne's love. He told everyone who would listen that Charlotte's friendship for his sister was unnatural; he no longer allowed Charlotte's daily visits to their house. It did not help that Charlotte's Romeo, a breeches part she played with great success in New York, puzzled Philadelphia, to say the least.
Charlotte was made much more welcome in the Sully household. How many hours had she and Rosalie spent upstairs on the sofa in the back room. Our sofa, Rosalie called it. And then they had Charlotte's spot at Clover Hill for privacy.
Eventually, like Romeo fleeing Verona, after secretly marrying Rosalie, Charlotte fled Philadelphia. The things people said about her there were untrue, she wrote to her mother. She knew her safety was in flight. She would return vindicated with money enough to support not only her family but an independent life with Rosalie.
Her success in London was so unprecedented that she called for her family to join her. 'I am doing well, and I hope my star may continue in the ascendant,' she wrote home to her mother. 'I have given myself five years more, and I think at the end of that time I will have $50,000 to retire upon; that will, if well invested, give us a comfortable home for the rest of our lives, and a quiet corner in some respectable graveyard.'
Perhaps if Rosalie had more courage, she was always so self-effacing, so shy, she would have come too. Rosalie wrote to Charlotte that she was not even brave enough to ask for her father's portrait of Charlotte to be put on her bedroom wall, now that it was returned to them for safekeeping. She hadn't dared call out for them not to place it in the picture gallery. 'No no, I want it in my room.' She labeled herself a fool. Not only that, she was forbidden to write to Charlotte anymore.
Rosalie never lied by word or action, she told Charlotte. All the actress
would have to do to ascertain that 'I am as fondly yours as I was the 6th of July last' was to find out through others that Rosalie still wore Charlotte's ring. She would never take it off.
'Dear Dear Charlotte my grief is too deep for expression . . . never never question my love for you. I am unalterably yours for ever.' She often threw herself on their sofa 'alone and heartbroken, praying for death to end my misery.'
That couldn't have made Charlotte feel too easy about herself. She had already broken her vows with Rosalie and taken up with a lovely woman in London, Louisa Oakley. Squeezed into her daybook for 1845: wrote to L.O--note from L.O--went with Miss Oakley to hear Easter Service--L.O. slept with me.
But L.O. left her for a man, brother Charlie remembered. Charlotte's blond brother, less than two years younger than Charlotte, had already arrived in London, as tall and handsome as any British aristocrat. (All of Charlotte's siblings were swans, she the only duckling.) Charlotte used a form of blackmail to have her mother send him first, telling her mother she could make a fortune in England but was perhaps too homesick to remain. Couldn't Charlie come out by the packet from Philadelphia on the twenty-fifth of March or the eighth of April? (She kept a sharp eye on the shipping news.) 'He will have no need of getting anything, for I can furnish him when he comes. So send him as he is--as fast as he will come.'
Charlie arrived in April in time to witness Eliza Cook, who really overwhelmed Charlotte with poems and letters, take L.O.'s place. Charlie thought Eliza the superior woman, if not such an attractive one. And he knew of course his sister was not one to be alone.
As Charlotte planned to tour the provinces with Eliza Cook, she tapped into her own experience of longing, exile, and frustration. She passed through the pain of her own frailties and Rosalie's innocent faith, to the virile, boyish, impulsive lover.
Charlotte wanted to play Romeo again--but not that season. She would wait for her beautiful younger sister Susan to arrive to play Juliet before she dared it in England.
She asked Charlie to speak to her manager Maddox to tell him she would
not play Romeo as he requested. Her run at the Princess had been extended through June, but after her tour of the provinces that summer she secretly planned to seek another theatre. In the meantime, she'd do any of her other roles for Maddox--except Meg Merrilies. It was a character role. Charlotte portrayed Meg as a brutally withered, almost demonic old Gypsy queen who had once been the loving baby nurse of a highborn Scottish child. Through Charlotte's interpretation, Meg became the best moment in the melodramatic stage version of Sir Walter Scott's Guy Mannering. The long stick the witch-like hag leaned on became a valued trophy; one exists in the room Edwin Booth died in--the New York Players Club today.
But Edwin Booth's father warned Charlotte about character roles. In
America, she played Nancy Sikes in Oliver Twist. Actors supplied their own costumes in those days, and for Nancy Sikes Charlotte had gone to the slums of lower Manhattan, the notorious Five Points, to pick her rags, rusty old key, and attitude out of the garbage there. So doing she turned a minor role--meant to insult her--into a sensation. 'No! No! It is a great part, Charlotte--one of your best; and you made it; but never act it in London,' the elder Booth told her. 'It will give you a vulgar dash you will never get over.'
Well, Meg Merrilies could be considered a Gypsy Nancy Sikes. Charlotte always caused a gasp in the audience when she swooped onstage as the frightening hag of a Gypsy, and ovations when the curtain fell and Charlotte dramatically took her bows, shedding her disguise, revealing herself as a young woman. Definitely 'a vulgar dash.'
Charlie muddled her instructions (as her male relatives would all through her life) and came back having given Maddox his sister's word that she'd play Meg in London and on tour that summer in the provinces.
What could she do, but the same as when that malicious New York manager had first assigned her the role of Nancy Sikes. 'It was midwinter,' she recalled for Eliza Cook. 'My bread had to be earned. I dared not refuse.' Instead, she held back her anger. 'I meant to get the better of my enemy. What he designed for my mortification should be my triumph.'
She would do what she always did when her hands were tied. Do the best that she could. Turn around defeat. She riveted London with her Meg Merrilies. Eliza Cook was thrilled and drew a lively caricature to immortalize the moment. Charlotte as Meg, in her hermit-like rags, on the Scottish plain. A long branch in her withered left hand, bracing her. But Meg's face is young, pencil lines of radiance spark round her head and her cheeks puff up as she blows her own trumpet. The scroll descending from her horn lists the journals that have lauded her and the writers as well. Eliza Cook's name heads the list. The caption reads: 'Yankee Hanging out her Banner.'
When Susan Cushman arrived, the sisters brushed up on their unbowdlerized Shakespeare. 'American Indians' they were called by jealous London players--not without wit. Fourteen American Indians from the Northwest Territory had recently landed in England to be stared at for profit. Why not two more?
The sisters ignored the antagonism of their fellow players and took their unique Romeo and Juliet to the provinces to try it out. Sallie Mercer assisted as Charlotte's dresser, and Eliza Cook, of course, came along. In Manchester the play went well, but in Scotland, in Edinburgh, people were shocked to watch two sisters making love. That famous phrenologist George Combe (Fanny Kemble's nephew) wrote to Charlotte expressing his--and his neighbors'--concern.
Two sisters? Charlotte questioned in reply, with maidenly confusion and hurt. How could that be improper in any way? Did not such casting banish the very idea of impropriety? It would be different if Susan were making love to a man. What a strange idea--'entirely new to me'--Mr. Combe was forcing her to entertain. Why, she was only doing her duty, playing Romeo in order to give her sister the appropriate showcase for a respectable British debut as Juliet.
When Combe kept peppering his letters to Mrs. Kemble with questions about Charlotte Cushman's virtue, Kemble told him she knew no more about Miss Cushman's private character than she did of the man in the moon. Why didn't the phrenologist read Miss Cushman's skull if he was so interested, she finally complained to a friend.
In London, despite her fears of a breeches part tarnishing her British triumph, Charlotte took the plunge. After all, as she told them in Edinburgh, she wasn't the first woman to play Romeo.