Victorian Literature Michael Field
by
Rhian Williams
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0149

Introduction

“Michael Field” is the pseudonym shared by the writers, aunt and niece, and likely lovers Katharine Bradley (b. 1846) and Edith Cooper (b. 1862). Bradley was the first to publish poetry, as “Arran Leigh,” in 1875, but in 1881 she and Cooper published the play Bellerophôn, using the joint sobriquet “Arran and Isla Leigh.” From 1884 onward they published as Michael Field, even when their identity as two women became known. Daughters of the wealthy merchant class of England’s Midlands, they associated with figures such as Robert Browning and John Ruskin, and with leading aesthetes at the end of the Victorian period, many of whom remembered them vividly and often fondly, but their work was dismissed in the critical press. Yet they continued writing industriously, publishing a total of twenty-seven verse dramas and nine volumes of poetry, the last published posthumously (Cooper died of cancer in 1913, Bradley followed, by the same cause, in 1914). Early enthusiasm for a pagan-type Hellenism, and Dionysian bacchanal, gave way to Christian spirituality, confirmed by their 1907 conversion to Catholicism (although there are manifold continuities in how they conceived these perspectives). They received sporadic attention across the 20th century, but critical recovery of their fascinating oeuvre began intensely with broader efforts to recover Victorian women’s writing from the 1990s onward. From the outset, their lifestyles garnered as much attention as their publications—appropriately, given that their commitment to Paterian aesthetic principles determined that they would “live” their art. But the lushly erotic tenor of their love poetry especially, together with the (often frank) intimations, in their journals and letters, of a physical relationship, has also made them important subjects for studying the history of lesbian relationships and theorizing lesbian identity. Their extensive and materially diverse journals are kept at the British Library and vividly document a period of British and European aesthetic culture from the perspective of shrewd, if extravagant, observers. Their enthusiasm for fashion and interiors also fueled their passion for elaborately decorative books, and their beautiful editions present intriguing opportunities (and challenges) for textual editing. Critical recovery demonstrates the significant “intersectionality” of Field’s writing as their approaches to the past, temporality, art, visuality, lyricism, and drama generate reconsideration—or “queering”—of conventional perspectives on intertextuality, sexuality, feminism, theology, aestheticism, and collaboration. Although their journalism has received scant critical attention, they published essays and poems in periodicals such as The Academy, The Contemporary Review, and The Art Review.

Editions

Michael Field took the presentation of their texts seriously, often working with designer friends, especially Charles Ricketts, on volumes with decorative covers and different colored inks. Perhaps most striking is Whym Chow: Flame of Love (1914), a collection dedicated to their Chow dog, complete with a russet-colored suede cover to match his coat. They published in small runs with firms such as George Bell Sons, the “aesthetic” publishers Elkin Mathews and John Lane at the Bodley Head, or the Ballantyne Press. Few of these delicate artifacts remain, and none of their plays or poetry collections have been produced as modern scholarly editions. Some feel for the material quality of these objects can be gained from the facsimile editions published by Woodstock Books (see Field 1993). Anthologies such as Leighton and Reynolds 1995, by including generous selections of their poetry together with vibrant critical discussion, have been vital to Field’s increasing prominence within Victorian studies. Still, it was not until Thain and Vadillo 2009 that Field’s work was afforded comprehensive modern editorial apparatus. Field’s drama has not fared well (Thain and Vadillo do not include any). The plays are now available electronically through the subscription service Literature Online (or Chadwyck-Healey’s English Drama database), but otherwise scholars must track down first editions held in libraries. Field were also notable and innovative diarists and letter writers—the British Library holds the thirty volumes of journals, self-titled Works and Days, that they kept jointly from 1888 until Bradley’s death. They directed their literary executor, T. D. C. Sturge Moore, to open these volumes and choose from them for publication in 1929. His 1933 edition, while highly selective, has enabled much critical discussion. However, the journals are slowly becoming accessible in their entirety—first through the microfilm facsimile introduced by Thain 2003, and latterly through scanned pages available online through the Victorian Lives and Letters Consortium. Field’s correspondence appears in extracts in Sturge Moore 1933 and in Thain and Vadillo 2009, but Bickle’s edition of the letters they wrote between them (Bickle 2008) is the first to provide a systematically curated, edited collection. Finally, advances in digital technology have allowed the production of Field’s Sight and Song—a collection of “ekphrastic” poems, each written in response to a specific painting that the women viewed at various European art galleries during tours around the late 1880s—to be staged online (see Kersh 2015).

  • Bickle, Sharon, ed. The Fowl and the Pussycat: Love Letters of Michael Field, 1876–1909. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2008.

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    Although styled as a “unique record of a premodern same-sex romance,” this meticulously edited collection of letters between the two women gives valuable insight into their intellectual and literary collaboration (before their journal took over from 1888), as well as the cultural milieu of these late Victorian “female urban flaneurs.” Fulsome editorial notes, bibliography and illustrations.

  • Field, Michael. Works and Days. In Victorian Lives and Letters Consortium.

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    Marion Thain heads a team within the Victorian Lives and Letters Consortium working on interactive, digital editions of Michael Field’s journals. Photographs of all diary pages are freely available, although not tagged or dated, and thus difficult to navigate. Scholars are invited to contribute notes as this vital project continues.

  • Field, Michael. Sight and Song (1892) and Underneath the Bough (1893). Oxford: Woodstock Books, 1993.

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    Excellent facsimile print edition of both collections, bound together.

  • Kersh, Sarah E., ed. The Poems of Michael Field, 2015.

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    Innovative, digitally annotated edition of Sight and Song. Each poem presented alongside high-quality images of the painting that inspired it. Explicitly designed to be a teaching tool, this is a useful capturing and updating of the collection’s original “ekphrastic” method. Also includes unannotated electronic editions of Long Ago and Underneath the Bough.

  • Leighton, Angela, and Margaret Reynolds, eds. Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

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    Lively and crisp introductory headnote—covering several critical angles—advocates paying more attention to the early work inspired by “hedonistic paganism” than the “repentant” Catholic writing. Prints forty-six lyrics from across their poetic output. Leighton’s introduction to the anthology marks Field out as innovatively reframing the paradigms of Victorian women’s writing.

  • Literature Online.

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    Requires subscription. Provides an electronic edition of every poem and play. Poems are listed in order of appearance within collections, and then alphabetically by collection; however, each poem appears on a separate page, and cannot be searched by collection title. Useful for studying individual poems, but difficult to see them in context.

  • Sturge Moore, Thomas D. C., ed. Works and Days: From the Journal of Michael Field. London: Murray, 1933.

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    Selected letters and extracts from the unpublished journals, compiled for publication in 1929 according to Michael Field’s instructions. Introductory material details Field’s notably “aesthetic” domestic interiors. Lightly glossed; no formal editorial apparatus; selections grouped around literary figures—Browning, Wilde—or key events rather than chronologically. Key selection while access to the unpublished materials remains limited.

  • Thain, Marion, ed. Michael Field and Fin-de-Siècle Culture and Society: The Journals, 1868–1914, and Correspondence of Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper from the British Library London. Marlborough, UK: Adam Matthew, 2003.

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    Microfilm (thirteen reels) facsimile copy of thirty volumes of diary material and eight volumes of correspondence held at the British Library. The unwieldy apparatus is limiting, but while the journals are unpublished it provides important access. Thain’s detailed introduction reflects on the life writing as genre and on Field’s correspondence with significant literary figures. Introduction available online.

  • Thain, Marion, and Ana Parejo Vadillo, eds. Michael Field, the Poet: Published and Manuscript Materials. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Editions, 2009.

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    Selections from each poetry collection published as Michael Field (no plays), with headnotes. Selections from journals and of letters with key interlocutors from across the women’s lives, including some received correspondence. Editorial notes illuminate references and record material features of Field’s complex published and manuscript material. Extensive scholarly introduction.

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