The Michaelian
the michaelian

issue one: june 2009

In 2004, Margaret D. Stetz and Mark Samuels Lasner organized the first conference dedicated to the study of “‘Michael Field’ and Their World” at the University of Delaware.  At that time, academic interest in Michael Field was just emerging.  Three years later, this published collection of conference papers publicly recognizes the depth and breadth of Michael Field’s canon, career, and collaboration, as well as the wide array of critical perspectives on those topics.  The collection is arranged in four sections (Biography, Contexts: Literary and Cultural Worlds, Thematics: Sexuality and Religion, Translations: Textuality and Genre); however, the sections are not clearly marked by dividing pages or headers.  This fluidity from one topic to another represents, as Stetz and co-editor Cheryl A. Wilson suggest, “many voices in conversation – sometimes overlapping, sometimes answering one another directly or indirectly” (8), keeping in the spirit of the way Michael Field, or Katharine Bradley and niece Edith Cooper, worked and lived. 

As the first essay in the collection, Rachel Morley’s journey to writing a “creative biography” of Michael Field lays the groundwork for this book; in her research on Michael Field, she confronts the personal and professional conflicts (and desires) that arise with biographically resurrecting a subject.  Later in the collection, María DeGuzmán’s essay, a transcript of the artistic, yet scholarly presentation featured during the conference, recalls the creativity found in Morley’s biographical study in revealing the connections between Baruch Spinoza’s logic and the “oneness of two” in Bradley and Cooper’s construction of Michael Field.  J.J. Pionke also invokes Morley’s auto/biographical exploration; Pionke provides a chronicle of the pair’s gender experimentation with multiple pseudonyms, from Bradley and Cooper’s early days as Arran & Isla Leigh and the height of their career as Michael Field to their later writings as Anonymous.  Additionally, Pionke uses her own experience with nicknames to illustrate the power in “[n]aming oneself” (26).  Holly Laird takes up Pionke’s discussion about constructed identity by introducing Bradley and Cooper’s lesser-known, late-stage persona, “the Author of Borgia,” as an important, intriguing strategy the two women employed to revive their dying career.  Sharon Bickle brings attention to a lesser-known collection of “Michael Field” letters held by the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.  The letters, Bickle argues, uncover new information about the development of Bradley and Cooper’s personal relationship and literary collaboration.  Bickle points to the letters as the site where “Bradley and Cooper first negotiate their roles as poets, as collaborators, as lovers, as ‘Husband’ and ‘Wife’”(42) and demonstrates how they add more dimension to the biographical picture provided by the British Library’s vast collection of Michael Field papers alone. 

The last essay in the Biography section by Joseph Bristow easily invites the next grouping of essays:  Contexts: Literary and Cultural Worlds.  Bristow details “the indecisions, revisions, and subtractions” (53) which differentiate the original and subsequently revised editions of the poetic volume Underneath the Bough (1893) and untangles “disorderly history” (58) of the volume’s creative evolution.  Rhian E. Williams adds to Bristow’s Underneath the Bough conversation by suggesting that the “Prologue,” a verse which has been labeled a manifesto for Bradley and Cooper’s authorship, situates Michael Field inside Shakespeare’s lyrical and cultural tradition.  Shakespeare then, Williams asserts, becomes a space of female and/or lesbian desire. Ed Madden also discusses how Field transforms literary convention with the poem “LII” from Long Ago (1889); in “LII,” Field offers a new version of the mythical Tiresias, a deviation from the Tiresias portrayed by poetic powerhouses including Tennyson, Arnold, and Swinburne.  Madden argues that Field uses Tiresias to show “sexual dissidence and sexual pleasure as a source of creative power” (87). 

Three authors position themselves just outside Bradley and Cooper’s work and relationship in order to operate from a new, wider angle.  Kit Andrews draws attention to the ways in which a close study of Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean sheds light on the complexity of Michael Field’s work pre- and post- Bradley and Cooper’s Catholic conversions.  In the same vein, Valerie Fehlbaum shows how the close study of sisters Ella and Marion Hepworth Dixon, prolific writers at the time of Michael Field, can illuminate the professional restrictions of Bradley and Cooper’s world from a new perspective.  Linda K. Hughes also looks at the career of Michael Field through an outside member of “their world”: Louise Chandler Moulton.  Because of her influence on the transatlantic literary scene, the American Moulton was instrumental in promoting Michael Field, particularly at her popular literary salons, through her journalistic efforts, and by whispering praise for Field into the ears of editorial acquaintances. 

Rounding out the essays in the Contexts section, Richard Dellamora makes a solid case for Field’s Long Ago as an influence on future works such as Radclyffe Hall’s  The Forgotten Island (1915) and The Well of Loneliness (1928), specifically because of its expression of “Sapphic desire” (128).  Dellamora’s essay slides into Thematics: Sexuality and Religion and Elizabeth Primamore’s argument about how the construct of Michael Field as a “dandy-androgyne,” inspired by male aesthetes, serves as a pre-cursor to the twentieth century “modern female dandy-writer” (137).  Brooke Cameron reconsiders Field’s “intersubjective” (147) gender play by delving into the poetic Sight and Song (1892) and focusing on the unique way in which Field transfers power from the Subject of the Gaze to the Object of the Gaze, from the Observer to the Observed.

Frederick Roden continues Dellamora’s conversation by marking Field’s work as the inaugural point for a “continuum of modern lesbian Catholicism” and demands attention for Michael Field as a “religious writer” (157).   Taking cues from both Roden and Cameron, Dinah Ward analyzes three poems from Sight and Song to show how Michael Field made Catholic homosexuality visible through St. Sebastian.  Both Chris Snodgrass and Camille Cauti dig even deeper into the paradoxical nature of Field’s Catholicism, shifting focus to the dynamic nature of Field’s Classical/pagan/Catholic style.  Snodgrass provides a welcome discussion of some of Field’s plays, which are rarely studied, and holds them up as a conflation of Bradley and Cooper’s “Classical and Christian sensibilities” (175).  Cauti turns to Field’s post-conversion poetry to track the way in which Bradley and Cooper’s early neoclassical/pagan notions of sacrifice become the “feminized, fertile, erotic” image of a “sacrificed Christ” (181).  Diana Maltz’s essay caps the section on Sexuality and Religion, yet fits more alongside Morley’s and Pionke’s work; Maltz’s detail is sensuous and lively as she describes Bradley’s involvement with philanthropy, charts her epistolary relationship with Ruskin, and circles Bradley’s interest in social reform.   

The final essays in the collection unite through the theme of translation.  While Julie Wise hones in on Michael Field’s translation as critical mode as exemplified in Sight and Song, Nicholas Frankel reads Sight and Song through the “concrete” way Field “translated” paintings into poetry (212) and suggests that their technique anticipates the future style of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and H.D.  Marion Thain showcases an understudied poetic text, Wild Honey from Various Thyme (1908) and shows how the “discourse of bees” (223), or what she calls Apian Aestheticism, has political, economic, and aesthetic meaning which bridged the fin de siècle Victorians with the early Modernists.  Ana Vadillo closes the book with a reflective look at how Bradley and Cooper played history against modernity in Field’s plays.  Vadillo is one of the few scholars investigating Field’s “outmoded dramas” (241), the perfect term for plays sadly “left to decay, to rust” (238) in the name of progress.        

Because this collection represents the shorter form of the conference paper genre, several essays remain on the superficial level and do not fully meet the challenge of the proffered thesis gauntlet.  However, the queries posed by this entire collection generously invite more criticism and analysis, as well as predict the exciting directions of future Michael Field study.  This book also serves to educate those unfamiliar with Michael Field and the women behind the pseudonym, as well as motivating those scholars more knowledgeable about Field to challenge particular arguments, fill in gaps, and approach texts and/or topics as yet untouched.  After three years, Michael Field study is steadily rising in popularity, yet the field, much like this collection, still centers primarily on their poetry and biography, rather than on their dramas, short fiction, or correspondence.  By publishing papers from a conference devoted to celebrating the impact of Michael Field on “their world,” Stetz and Wilson succeed in generating “many voices in conversation” guaranteed to further chime in on the many voices and texts of Michael Field.

Michelle Lee
University of Texas at Austin