Priscilla Cushman, the actress who makes an appearance at the Warm Springs Hotel in That Bright Land, is based in part on the thespian sisters, Charlotte and Susan Cushman. Priscilla’s biography in the novel draws on that of Charlotte in particular, who loved playing male characters, and whose voice was of a remarkable compass and richness, with a full contralto register.
While Susan, the younger sister, died young and in time came to be known primarily as Charlotte’s younger sibling, the elder Cushman led a remarkable career both in her public life as an actress and in her private life as an expatriate, lesbian artist. She favored men’s clothing and highly dramatic relationships.
Charlotte was also famous for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth, which is recreated in the novel for the pleasure of Jacob Ballard in the Laurel Suite at the Warm Springs Hotel.
It is historically impossible for either Charlotte or Susan to have been in Warm Spring, North Carolina in the summer of 1866; Susan had died in 1859 and Charlotte was busy cutting a wide professional and personal swath across the capitals of Europe and North America.
Even so, it is intriguing to imagine what might have occurred if Charlotte and Susan’s cousin Priscilla somehow lost her way and ended up in the Southern mountains.
Perhaps she would have met Jacob Ballard….
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