The Michaelian
the michaelian

issue one: june 2009

In Women's Literary Collaboration, Jill Ehnenn's primary interest is the collaborative partnership of Michael Field which she examines alongside the collaborations of Vernon Lee and Kit Anstruther-Thomson, Edith Somerville and Violet Ross, Elizabeth Robins and Florence Bell.  Ehnenn identifies her purpose in this book as "emphatically a project of canon recovery and expansion" (10).  As far as this applies to Michael Field's writing, she is only partially correct as studies of Field have passed this first flush of recovery; nevertheless, Ehnenn's work on the plays, A Question of Memory and The Tragic Mary crucially shifts scholarly attention from the well-travelled terrain of the lyric poetry onto their generally neglected dramas.  Whilst work on collaborative writing frequently considers Bradley and Cooper, Ehnenn's book is the first to place Michael Field at the centre of a study of women's collaborative writing, and is significant in locating women's collaborations of the late-Victorian period as sites of strategic resistance to the hetero-patriarchal norm.  In this sense, Ehnenn highlights the importance of negotiation--not just between collaborators--but in terms of the challenge collaboration represented to other (male/singular) writers and reviewers, the public, the audience and Victorian culture.  Indeed, I am struck by the way in which Ehnenn returns to the notion that these collaborations persistently refused to perform (as author-function and as text) in the way expected of them by their contemporary readers, instead offering radical new ways of interacting with common history and narratives, ways which were generally unappreciated by readers, critics and audiences. 

In her first chapter, Ehnenn not only presents a comprehensive review of the extant academic literature on collaboration, but also examines late nineteenth-century periodical commentary by Walter Besant and Brander Matthews.  Ehnenn highlights the dilemma faced by commentators who derided collaboration as a debased form of authorship; upholding the Romantic ideal of Wordsworth's solitary genius over "the Victorian valorization of industrial ideals and methods" (30).   This emphasises some of the ways in which the Victorian celebration of industrialization was frequently fraught with anxieties, particularly toward the end of the century.  Ehnenn then moves on to consider women's literary collaboration, and particularly the "disidentificationary" strategy (34-35) of Michael Field.  In producing Field, Ehnenn argues that Bradley and Cooper simultaneously reproduce a structure of (singular male) authorial identity that by its definition excludes them as authors.  At the same time, writing in collaboration offered women writers a sense of validation and support.  Ehnenn illustrates this vexed relationship between women writers and collaboration by examining Elizabeth Robin's Florentine Frame (1909), a short story in which male-female collaboration effectively renders female creativity invisible, and her unpublished novel White Violets, a story of mutually sustaining female collaboration.   

Michael Field scholars will already be familiar with part of the second chapter from Ehnenn's article in Victorian Poetry.1   In this chapter, Ehnenn focuses on the ekphrastic works of Vernon Lee and Kit Anstruther-Thomson's "Beauty and Ugliness" (1897) and Field's Sight and Song (1892).What is at issue here is the notion of possession in collaborative texts, and by extension, the assertion of female subjectivity in art and poetry through the subversion of the male gazeEhnenn uses Judith Butler's notion of citationality to suggest that these collaborative writers not only reframe works of canonical art, but produce a different--meaning both new and unsettling--response whose textual erotics subvert the heterosexual mainstream. At the centre of her argument is the problematic relationship between women, looking and the male gaze.  In regard to Sight and Song, this is not a new approach; indeed there are several excellent discussions of this text's visual aesthetics, notably by Ana Parejo Vadillo and Hilary Fraser.2   Vadillo's work highlights the way in which Field transforms the visual aesthetics of Pater and redefines the economy of the gaze in a way that extends the agency of the subject, but also importantly grants agency to the object.  Fraser examines Field's "binocular" gaze and the ways in which its visuality mediates or translates meaning in their poetry on canonical art, leading to a textual enactment of lesbian desire.  What Ehnenn adds to this debate is to refocus attention on the critique that Field's visual aesthetics offers to traditional readings, often by repositioning female or marginal figures at the centre of the text.  She argues that the Field and Lee/Anstruther-Thomson partnerships establish a transgressive aesthetics that both queers aesthetic traditions and asserts a more fluid relationship between looking and possessing.

The chapter that follows is, to my mind, one of the most successful in the book.  This is partly because it reaches beyond Field's lyric verse to their neglected and in my opinion under-rated verse drama, but also because of Ehnenn's skilful exploration of the dramatists use of performative silences.  Ehnenn compares Field's A Question of Memory (1893) to Elizabeth Robins and Florence Bell's Alan's Wife (1893)These plays were both considered 'failures' in performance, which Ehnenn argues convincingly is directly related to the way in which they offer protagonists (and authors) whose refusal to speak--refusal to perform--confounded audience expectations of what was possible for the dramatic medium.  In Alan's Wife, Jean refuses to speak about, to explain or repent, the killing of her child; in A Question of Memory Ferencz refuses to tell his captors the position of his regiment, though they kill his mother and sister for it.  Ehnenn comments that these silences are not passive, but are in themselves performative events, speech acts of refusal, that problematize and feminize (in Ferencz's case) the nature of heroism, and open up an alternative nonnarrative mode of expression that embraces multiple interpretations, and is contrary to the Victorian stage's stable world of narrative exposition.  In this way, Ehnenn reads these plays as avant garde experiments, foreshadowing the work of twentieth-century dramatists like Beckett.

Finally, Ehnenn considers Michael Field's use of history in their play on the life of Mary, Queen of Scots. The Tragic Mary (1890) is contrasted to Edith Somerville and Violet Martin's novel on the life of Charlotte Mullen, The Real Charlotte (1893)As Yopie Prins has also noted in regard to Long Ago, by appropriating an historical woman, Michael Field double their already doubled voice, performing and complicating the effects of multiple authorship.3  As in previous chapters, Ehnenn's purpose here is to call attention to the way in which these texts take issue with Victorian ideologies surrounding femininity, reconstructing in their place multi-faceted and often erotically-charged models of heroic womanhood.  Like the collaborative partnerships that produced them, Mary and Charlotte are palimpsests--there are no single visions, no seamlessly 'good' or 'bad' characters, but rather the characters provide a nexus for the layering of multiple historical and literary depictions.  In drawing together these characters with their collaborative authors, Ehnenn concludes that we should try and think about collaboration itself more queerly, less under the terms of an Authorship whose definition itself excludes such partnerships.     

In writing this book, Ehnenn set herself a difficult task. There is already an impressive body of critical literature associating Michael Field's transgressive collaborative practices with transgressive lesbian textuality, particularly with regard to lyric poetry such as Sight and Song.  In the early chapters of the book, I did wonder if Ehnenn could successfully distinguish her work from these other excellent critiques of Field's lyric poetry.  As the book progressed, and particularly as she left ‘the beaten track,’ it became clear that Ehnenn did have an important contribution to make to Michael Field studies, and that there were important thematic similarities between the work of Michael Field and other female literary collaborators.   While Ehnenn takes as her subject women's literary collaboration, she maintains a nice balance between the constructions of literary partnership and textual analysis of the works they produce.   More than that, she reads these collaborative structures alongside the textual strategies that the writers use in their texts to denaturalize or queer conventional understandings of women and of heterosexuality. 

Sharon Bickle
Monash University

1 Jill Ehnenn, "Looking Strategically: Feminist and Queer Aesthetics in Michael Field's Sight and Song" in Victorian Poetry 42.3 (Fall 2004): 213–47.
2 Ana I. Parejo Vadillo,  "Sight and Song: Transparent Translations and a Manifesto for the Observer," Victorian Poetry 38.1 (2000): 15–34;  Hilary Fraser,  "A Visual Field: Michael Field and the Gaze," Victorian Literature and Culture 34 (2006): 553–71.
3 See Yopie Prins, Victorian Sappho (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999).