The Michaelian
the michaelian

issue one: june 2009

When Chris White argued in 1992 that because of the “plurality of ways” Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper understood love between women, their love must be read as physical as well as emotional, she offered an important reframing of the work of Michael Field at the very moment critical attention was beginning to focus on them.  Lillian Faderman had described the Michael Field relationship as a “romantic friendship”—an emotional but likely non-genital same-sex relationship.  Emma Donoghue argued instead that Bradley and Cooper were part of a “transitional lesbian generation,” too late to accept the innocence of romantic friendship, but too early to be marked by the sexological paradigms of sexual inversion.  For White and critics that followed, part of the power of Field’s work is to be found in its erotic possibilities—not simply in Bradley and Cooper’s representation of a same-sex relationship at the Foucauldian moment of sexological naming, but also in the various languages they use to name it—maternal, matrimonial, mythic, Sapphic—and the slippages among them. 1

But the slippage between the romantic and the erotic, between friends and lovers—were they or weren’t they? did they or didn’t they?—both enables and troubles our interpretations, particularly in light of their own anxieties about “fleshly love,” their fears that a male couple they counted as friends (Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon) might follow too closely in the footsteps of Oscar Wilde, and their 1907 conversion to Catholicism and related decision to be physically chaste without giving up their intense romantic devotion to one another.  Frederick S. Roden returns us to this question—lovers or friends—in his 2007 essay “Michael Field, John Gray, and Marc-Andre Raffalovich: Reinventing Romantic Friendship in Modernity,” included in the 2007 collection Catholic Figure, Queer Narratives, edited by Roden with Lowelll Gallagher and Patricia Juliana Smith.  Using archival materials to examine the Bradley-Cooper and Gray-Raffalovich relationships, Roden asks, “To what degree is ‘romantic friendship’ possible in an age where the modern homosexual exists as a subject?  Can a couple be both ‘romantic friends’ and self-aware homosexual partners?  Could a same-sex relationship be transformed from active homosexuality into chaste, socially acceptable romantic friendship?”  And if so, Roden asks further, why?

The ten essays in Catholic Figures, Queer Narratives survey a range of authors, concentrating on late nineteenth and early twentieth century British writers, though a few move to America and France.  Most of the essays in the collection offer close readings of particular texts, exploring the specific representations of the relation of Catholicism to queer sexualities—and the cultural, political, spiritual, and sometimes personal ramifications.  Roden’s essay will be of most interest to Field scholars; it is also one of the best in the collection—assiduous in its analysis of archival texts, and rich with implications not only for Field studies, but also for our own contemporary understandings of sexuality, religion, and friendship.

Bradley and Cooper, like Gray and Raffalovich, may have decided to be physically chaste after conversion, as Roden acknowledges, but sexual chastity does not equal the loss of a romantic relationship.  If anything, as Roden’s essay demonstrates, their “romantic friendships” remain relationships of inseparable love and companionship, whether the erotic is disavowed or displaced.  Though Roden admits that we tend to read their conversions—perhaps especially Gray’s—as an attempt to sanitize the homosexual past, he asks:  “Did modern sexology effect a perception, or performance to the world, of a romantic friendship that concealed (if not revealed) a separate homosexual life that was never renounced?” 

Critical to Roden’s analysis is a reconsideration of the word “friend,” based in the recent work of Alan Bray and Martha Vicinus.  In the introduction to the collection, Roden examines the work of early twentieth century dissident Catholic theologian George Tyrrell (including his correspondence with Raffalovich), finding there a proto-theology of friendship as a profound relationship that exceeds the reproductive imperatives of modern Catholic theology.  Roden offers careful readings of correspondence between Gray and Bradley and between Gray and Raffalovich, from the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library and the archives of English Dominicans at the National Library of Scotland.  Through his reading, Roden proposes a new understanding of the “romantic friendships” of these two couples.  These are not friendships in our current understanding of the word, nor are they romantic friendships as the term has functioned in criticism.  They are, Roden argues, self-conscious recreations of romantic friendship for a particular cultural moment, spiritual friendship reimagined as romantic friendship.

Three essays in the collection offer fundamental arguments about Catholicism and homosexuality that help to contextualize Field’s creation of a queer space within and through Catholic discourse.  Drawing on the work of Ellis Hanson and Patrick O’Malley, as well as Roden, Richard Dellamora argues in his elegant essay on Radclyffe Hall:  “Catholic theology, iconography, ritual, and devotion have provided a space in which late Victorian and early Modernist sexual dissidents could imagine themselves, so to speak, into existence.”  (Ellis Hanson’s foundational 1997 Decadence and Catholicism is an important critical antecedent to this collection, registered in repeated citation; strangely absent from this essay and from the book is Joanna Glasgow’s earlier work on Radclyffe Hall’s conversion to Catholicism.) 2  Dellamora goes on to offer a compelling reading of the centrality of the iconography of the suffering Christ and the eucharist to Oscar Wilde, John Bloxam, and Radclyffe Hall. 

George E. Haggerty’s  “The Horrors of Catholicism: Religion and Sexuality in Gothic Fiction,” focuses on the late eighteenth century in order to demonstrate—in a claim that effectively echoes throughout the collection—that sexuality and religion are “inextricably bound in the cultural imagination,” and more specifically that transgressive sexuality was repeatedly linked in literature and culture to Catholicism, even in the work of presumably pro-Catholic writers.   Thomas Lawrence Long, in “Queer Converts: Peculiar Pleasures and Subtle Antinomianism,” considers the cultural valences of Catholicism in the lives and literature of queer Catholic converts of the nineteenth century.  He argues that conversion to Catholicism could signal a repudiation of cultural norms, including mainstream erotic norms—suggesting as well that the emphasis on exterior practices made room for ambiguity and contradiction by obviating a Protestant focus on interior selves.

Six of the nine essays are close readings of novels—some more convincing than others—that examine Catholic figures (characters, rituals, tropes) in the narratives.  Susan E. Hill examines feminized priests and female outsiders in the work of Willa Cather, while Patricia Juliana Smith suggests that Matthew O’Connor in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood is a camp priest, whose performative discourse can be read as supercilious or profoundly subversive.  Francesca Coppa’s essay on Evelyn Waugh locates a double-bind in the literary figures of temporality and Catholicism that govern Brideshead Revisisted, finding a counter-narrative of queer nostalgia that undermines the novel’s theological narrative.  Similarly, in one of the book’s most sophisticated essays, Patrick R. O’Malley explores the tropes of confession in the work of James Joyce, locating in his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man an erotics of nostalgia in the trace of Oscar Wilde, a desire for a “sexual aesthetic of necessary indirection that allows the play of homoerotics and Catholicism.”  

Two essays have additional though marginal relevance to Field scholars.  Ruth Vanita offers a fascinating analysis of Madeleine: One of Love’s Jansenists, a 1919 novel by Hope Mirrlees, the longtime companion of classicist Jane Harrison.  (Harrison attended Newnham with Katharine Bradley; like Bradley and Cooper, Mirrlees later converted to Catholicism.)  The novel’s protagonist finds precedents for her love of another woman in both ancient Greece and historical Catholicism.  Surveying the work of Julien Green, and the rigid dualism that animated his spirituality, Thomas J. D. Armbrecht offers a conversion narrative that is ultimately depressing: though Green probably broadened understanding of homosexuality through his novels, he decided that his conversion to Catholicism required a reticence about (if not outright disavowal) of the homoerotic themes in his earlier life and work, and chastity, which for him also meant the impossibility of relationship with another man.  The combination of Sapphic and Catholic in the Mirrless novel will no doubt have resonance for Field scholars, but Green’s tale—his decision to forego both sex and relationship—amplifies the importance of Bradley and Cooper’s decision.

Ed Madden
University of South Carolina

1 See Chris White, “’Poets and lovers evermore’: the poetry and journals of Michael Field,” in Sexual Sameness: Texual Differences in Lesbian and Gay Writing, ed. Joseph Bristow (London: Routledge, 1992), 26-43; Lilian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (London: The Women’s Press, 1985); Emma Donoghue, Poems Between Women: Four Centuries of Love, Romantic Friendship, and Desire (New York: Columbia UP, 1997); and Donoghue, We Are Michael Field (Bath: Absolute Press, 1998).
2 See Ellis Hanson, Decadence and Catholicism (Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1997); Patrick O’Malley, Catholicism, Sexual Deviance, and Victorian Gothic Culture (New York: Cambridge UP, 2006); and Frederick S. Roden, Same-Sex  Desire in Victorian Religious Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).  See also Joanna Glasgow, “What’s a Nice Lesbian Like You Doing in the Church of Torquemada? Radclyffe Hall and Other Catholic Converts,” Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions, eds. Karla Jay and Joanna Glasgow (New York: New York UP, 1990), 241-254.