The Michaelian
the michaelian

issue one: june 2009


In presenting his condolences for a bad review in 1888, Robert Browning counselled Bradley and Cooper to “wait fifty years” for the recognition he agreed was well deserved (W&D 20).  It has taken a little more than that, but certainly in the twenty-first century Michael Field Studies are flourishing, and we are seeing unprecedented levels of scholarly interest with the recent publication of works which focus solely or significantly on the Bradley-Cooper collaboration: Marion Thain's 'Michael Field': Poetry, Aestheticism and the Fin de Siècle (2007), Jill Ehnenn's Women's Literary Collaboration, Queerness and Late-Victorian Culture (2008), and my own The Fowl and the Pussycat: Love Letters of Michael Field, 1876-1909 (2008) -- as well as Broadview's new collection of Michael Field: The Poet (March 2009), a selection of poetry, life-writings and reviews edited by Ana Parejo Vadillo and Marion Thain.  Indeed, it is a timely moment for a refereed, scholarly, online journal dedicated to promoting cross-disciplinary studies of Michael Field and their considerable coterie of literary and artistic friends, as well as related aspects of fin-de-siècle culture and life. 

The Michaelian seeks to build upon the excellent recuperative work of late twentieth-century feminist and lesbian-feminist critics on Michael Field.  The editors see studies of the Fields as entering an exciting new post-recovery era in which to consolidate and complicate our understanding of the works and the lives, of Victorian sexuality and the articulation of lesbian/queer desire.  Further, the journal will seek to make an important contribution to debates surrounding literary and artistic identity and collaboration, and to enrich the field of Victorian Studies by considering how Bradley and Cooper interpreted and engaged with literary movements and important public debates. 

In a recent review, Martha Vicinus insightfully comments that it is now time to consider "qualitative issues" with regard to Michael Field's work (Victorian Studies 50.4, 689) in order to establish a stable corpus which will expand knowledge, awareness and even accessibility.  While substantially in agreement with Vicinus, I would argue that when the articles published over the last few years are taken together, an impressive body of work can already be perceived.  At the core of this are the lyrics of Long Ago and several poems from Sight and Song -- notably "The Sleeping Venus," "L'Indifference" and the Saint Sebastian poems -- which form an emerging Field 'canon.'  Indeed, the lack of a recognized body of work has led scholars to focus narrowly on a selective number of poems from a relatively small number of works.  What is missing is a unifying forum for scholarly discussion that extends discussion on 'core' texts and identifies and expands this small corpus.  It is just such a forum that this journal seeks to provide.  Indeed, in this first edition, our articles engage with understudied and neglected texts such as Whym Chow: Flame of Love and the prose poetry of "For that Moment Only"as well as the better know Sapphic lyrics of Long Ago. 

This inaugural issue of The Michaelian includes essays by both established and emerging scholars in Victorian Studies.  Jill Ehnenn's article is a thoughtful and well-researched examination of Bradley and Cooper's approach to mourning and to the genre of personal elegy.  She examines their elegiac poetry, including poems from Underneath the Bough,  the 'Longer Allegiance' sonnet cycle from Wild Honey which mourns the sudden death of Cooper's father and the book of poems dedicated to their dog, Whym Chow: Flame of Love.  In her discussion, she considers the literary tradition of personal elegy and the Victorian context, as well as psychoanalytic models of mourning.  This leads Ehnenn to divide Field's personal elegaic writings into two subjects: their family 'dead' and Whym Chow.  In analysing these two groups, Ehnenn finds Michael Field's approach to death ties them broadly into Victorian cultural practices for mourning the dead while paradoxically demonstrating the individuality of their response.  A particular delight, even for readers familiar with the Michael Field oeuvre is Ehnenn's close reading of “I laid her to sleep” a lyric that charmingly describes the way in which a squirrel, playing upon the grave mound, distracts the mourner from her intention to mourn.  With regard to the death of Whym Chow, Ehnenn finds that Field adopts an 'active mourning' strategy that complicates the boundaries between life and death, here and beyond, life and afterlife.  Ehnenn argues that 'active mourning' and its transgression of time and space can be read as a useful framework for queer elegy. 

Matthew Mitton engages for the first time with the unpublished prose poetry of "For this Moment Only."  His article provides a fascinating history of the prose poem in the Victorian period, describing the influence of Baudelaire and late-Victorian women writers such as Nora Hopper and Olive Schreiner, and culminating in the genre's catastrophic association with Oscar Wilde, after which the genre was abandoned until the twentieth-century.  Mitton then examines the prose poems of the two 'issues' of the manuscript text, demonstrating how many of the tropes common to the lyric poetry are developed--the presence of the pagan in the contemporary, engagement with artworks, women's position in the private sphere, and higher education for women.   Personally, I find the haunting atmospherics of "A Face seen in Ling," a prose poem describing finding an immobile woman, her body framed by the heather, particularly moving.  Mitton argues that Michael Field's prose poems represent a subversive crossing of boundaries between past and present and heterosexual and homosexual.  Indeed, the liminal nature of time and space in Field's writings is an important theme in many of the articles in this issue.  He also speculates that had "For this Moment Only" with its overt experimentation with form, been published, Michael Field may well have come to be seen as a more modernist, more avant garde writer than they are currently given credit for being, particularly after the prose poem form was picked up by important twentieth-century writers such as Samuel Beckett.

Also in this issue, Elizabeth Primamore revisits the Sapphic lyrics of Long Ago.  This volume has been central to scholarship on Michael Field and was at the centre of examinations of lesbian textuality and the effect of doubling on lyric subjectivity by notable critics such as Yopie Prins and Ruth Vanita.  In this article, Primamore examines the 'Sapphic Community' of late-nineteenth-century literary Britain, and in particular, Aestheticism's appropriation of the figure of the lesbian by Verlaine, Baudelaire and Swinburne--poets well known to Michael Field.  If male aesthetes invoked the lesbian as a 'predatory corrupter,' imbued with excessive sexuality and inherently shocking to bourgeoisie society, Primamore argues that Michael Field's Sappho anticipates the later Sapphic moderism of twentieth-century writers such as Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes.  While Yopie Prins argued that Field's Long Ago represented a significant nexus between women's study of Greek and their desire for poetic subjectivity within which a "feminine counterdiscourse" could be articulated, Primamore suggests that the lyrics also provided another counter discourse for exploring "the meaning of selfhood and authorship for the woman artist."  She goes on to examine the ways in which female homoeroticism catalyses female creativity, while heterosexuality binds and deters it.  In this way, Primamore asserts, Michael Field appropriates Aesthetic Hellenism as a means of authorizing the female poetic voice that is not unlike modernist female literary communities. 

Kirsty Bunting looks at Bradley and Cooper's seaside retreat of Rottingdean near Brighton as an important space within their 'conceptual, liberatory landscape.'  This is an interesting approach because until now, when Michael Field has been considered in terms of landscape it has always been in the context of urban Richmond and the carefully sculptured Aesthetic excess of The Paragon.  Rottingdean, however, was a site through which they could reconnect with Nature, with the Pagan, and with each other.  Bunting highlights the significance of Rottingdean within the Fields' personal mythology by examining three vignettes drawn from "Works and Days":  Bradley and Cooper's withdrawal to Rottingdean on the death of Whym Chow; their reconnection with each other there in the final days of Cooper's fatal illness; and Bradley's visit after the death of Cooper.  In each of these cases, being in Rottingdean enabled them to imaginatively reunite with the lost loved one on the downs or by the seashore.  In a sense, Rottingdean preserves, particularly for Bradley, a connection with their early Pagan selves even after their conversion to Catholicism.

Finally, Rachel Morley provides a fictocritical response to one of the most persistent questions in early considerations of Michael Field in "The Trial of Katharine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper: Poets versus Lovers."  Morley's imaginative engagement represents the often conflicting ways in which biographers and scholars have sought to represent the question of lesbian desire and lesbian sexuality.  In Morley’s article, traditional depictions of the relationship of Bradley and Cooper are represented by Thomas Sturge Moore, Mary Sturgeon and Ursula Bridge, while feminist reconfigurations of the love relationship are put forward principally by Jeanette Foster. Oscar Wilde as judge interposes the voice of queer activism with comments such as "Can love not speak its own name. . . Have I been effigised and martyrised for nothing?"  Bernard Berenson and Charles Ricketts point out the fictionalized nature of written lives as depicted in letters and diaries, while Bradley and Cooper look on in silence.  Ultimately, this is the conclusion toward which Morley's fictional engagement reaches: that all such representations are constructions, 'experiments in ideas' or 'marionettes and puppets.'  All of this culminates in declarations by Wilde and by the chorus that any interpretation of the past is a self-reflexive study of the concerns of the present.

The issue concludes with a series of reviews and announcements of publications of interest to Michael Field scholars.  These attest to the increasing vigour of Michael Field as a subject of interest to critics in many disciplines:  Victorian literature and culture, British social history, queer studies, and artistic collaboration.  For me, this continued growth of interest in Michael Field is extremely gratifying, for I can still remember the days when I first commenced my doctoral research on Michael Field when one could easily get through everything that had been recently written on Bradley and Cooper in a leisurely afternoon's reading.  This is no longer the case, and has not been for quite some time.  It is my fondest hope as editor of The Michaelian that this new interest is not merely a literary 'fad' and that this journal will be instrumental in seriously positioning Field as important voices within Victorian literature.