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  • Sister Acts:Victorian Porn, Lesbian Drag, and Queer Reproduction
  • Kiki Loveday (bio)

"It was Olga Nethersole in quite another atmosphere than the public sees her—a healthy, air-loving woman with a mentality strong enough and broad enough to grant her healthy views upon an unhealthy subject." This description of British actress-manager Olga Nethersole appeared in the Detroit News on January 1, 1900. In just a few short weeks, her theatrical production of Sapho would explode onto the national stage, making her the most famous actress in America and culminating in her arrest for public indecency.1 In the calm before the coming storm Nethersole is quoted as follows:

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Figure 1.

French Postcard, circa 1900, private collection.

First of all … we must bring ourselves to understand and admit that there [End Page 201] is good in everyone. This is true, I believe, of all that class of women who is held at arm's length. It is this one thing which makes these women what they are to literature and the drama. … For such women are human, they have hearts and souls and flesh and blood, and can suffer as much, if not more than their sisters whose lives extend but little beyond the home.2

What do we make of Nethersole's appeal to sisterhood in this preemptive defense of Sapho? What might this seemingly innocuous Victorian voice tell us about the meaning of Sapphic sisterhood in the era of cinema's so-called "birth"? In 1989, Teresa de Lauretis decried "the sweeping of lesbian sexuality … under the rug of sisterhood."3 Yet, in the second half of the nineteenth century, sisterhood was being aggressively mobilized by Olga Nethersole, and other artists, to make public lesbian meanings that radically challenged the patriarchal family and social structures of the Victorian Era. Nethersole's call for sisterhood in the passage above activated a broader lesbian discourse of Sapphic kinship that was a crucial component of lesbian culture at the time and that I contend is central to understanding the lesbian pleasures of the silent screen.

Consider the following mid-nineteenth-century Staffordshire figurine of the prototypical star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet. Modeled on an 1846 drawing of famed American actress Charlotte Cushman playing Romeo opposite her sister Susan as Juliet, these mass-produced artifacts ostensibly commemorate the Cushman sisters' performance.4 Lisa Merrill has persuasively read the figurines as a mark of Charlotte Cushman's iconicity and respectability. Merrill's groundbreaking work on Cushman certainly recognizes the sexual significance of what one critic in 1846 described as Cushman's "Sapphic Romeo."5 Merrill clearly points out that the figurine records "the complexity of two women performing as … romantic lovers."6 Yet, in her reading, this queer record is not just enabled by—but ultimately overdetermined by—the performers actual sisterhood that functions as evidence of Cushman's "respectability."7 Although not specifically tied to the Staffordshire figurine, film scholar Hilary Hallett's recent reading of Cushman as the most important foremother to the "Pickford revolution" (which brought film actresses to the forefront of the popular imagination) also hinges on notions of respectability, personal virtue, and moral character.8 Likewise, in her important volume Girls Will Be Boys, Laura Horak has connected the "cult following" for Cushman's Romeo to the hundreds of films featuring cross-dressed women produced during the silent era—and she too argues that such performances were "associated with wholesome entertainment."9

In contrast, I argue that rather than evincing Cushman's iconic respectability, the cross-dressed representation of Sapphic Sisterhood formally embodied in the figurine activates a "lurid," ripped-from-the-headlines meaning in the tradition [End Page 202]

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Figure 2.

(left). Staffordshire figurine, Charlotte and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet, circa 1852, private collection. Courtesy of Aldridges of Bath, Fine Art & Chattel Auctioneers.

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Figure 3.

(right). Staffordshire figurine, The Assassination of Marat by Charlotte Corde, circa 1794, private collection.

of Staffordshire pottery during this period.10 The popular trend of figurines embodying murderers and other scandalous personalities has been traced to the...


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