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8 September 2008, 7:00 pm No Comments

Hidden History: Hidden History: The Lesbians of Michael Field (Part One)


This post was submitted by Philip Clark

Hidden History is my new Monday afternoon column for The New Gay. Each week, I’ll cover a different nook or cranny in the gay and lesbian past.

When you finish here, try The Lesbians of Michael Field (Part Two)

Michael Field was a writer of the Victorian and Edwardian era. He published eleven books of poetry and thirty plays, in addition to writing countless unfinished or unpublished works and massive, voluminous diaries.

All of these works are now out-of-print. Short of a poem or two popping up in an anthology, no one reads anything Field wrote anymore. No one has ever written a critical biography of him. Brief references to him in works about more-famous artistic friends—Oscar Wilde, George Meredith, and Charles Ricketts among them—are the only place most people will ever see the name of Michael Field.

All in all, Field seems to be just one more much-published and once-praised writer who, falling off the literary map, is now doomed to obscurity.

But wait: it gets more complicated.

Michael Field wasn’t a man.

Yes, the writer that The Spectator said “is likely to be heard far and wide among the English-speaking peoples,” the writer who helped resurrect the lyrics of Sappho in his book Long Ago, the writer befriended and praised as a poet by as large a legend as Robert Browning, was a woman writing under a male pseudonym. Not that odd of a thing, really. Nineteenth century prejudices against women writers made it awfully tempting to release work under a male name. And it could work wonders for a woman writer’s literary reputation: “Michael Field” got much more attention and much better reviews before it became common knowledge that the male name hid a female writer. Use of a male pseudonym was not all that rare: the celebrated and scandalous “George Eliot” (Mary Ann Evans) had just died around the time “Michael Field” began writing.

Well, wait again: it gets more complicated.

Michael Field was two women.

Katherine Bradley (often known as ‘Michael’) was described as “stout, emphatic, splendid and adventurous in talk,” and was sixteen years older than her partner. Edith Cooper (‘Field,’ or sometimes known as ‘Henry’) had a pale complexion and spent much of her life in generally frail health, but this unprepossessing appearance masked a skillful, versatile intellect. Both tended to be formidably formal in speech and dress, and their strength of mind and love of the classical world, lyric poetry, and verse drama made them a brilliant match for each other. A love match they definitely were: in addition to their shared literary work, evidence from their poetry and from the 28 volumes of co-written diaries they left behind show that Bradley and Cooper were each other’s emotional rock and sexual alliance as well. As Katherine wrote in the first six lines from her poem “Prologue”:

It was deep April, and the morn
Shakespeare was born;
The world was on us, pressing sore;
My love and I took hands and swore,
Against the world, to be
Poets and lovers evermore.

Cooper and Bradley stayed by each other’s side until their deaths from cancer, one year apart in 1913 and 1914.

Well, what of it? There have been many longtime lesbian couples, artistic couples included.

But wait one last time: it gets more complicated.

Katherine Bradley was Edith Cooper’s aunt.

Next week: In part two of “The Lesbians of Michael Field,” learn how two nice Victorian ladies can get away with an incestuous lesbian relationship, how “Michael Field” fits into the changing nature of gay and lesbian identity, and what did the couple’s chow dog have to do with it all anyway?

For Hidden History, I’ll write more about pornographers and poets, furies and faggots, books and bootleggers, singers and scandals. If you’ve got suggestions about people, places, and ideas I should cover, particularly if they have a D.C. connection, shoot me an e-mail: philip@thenewgay.net.

Next week: The Lesbians of Michael Field (Part Two)


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  • Steven said:

    Wow!

  • Zack said:

    Philip, I say this every week but your hidden histories are so great, and so important. It would be awesome to see you compile these some day and get them published. People outside of academic circles should be reading these.

  • Anonymous said:

    I’ll second that. I love my weekly history lesson.

  • Stephanie said:

    love it! it literally just kept getting better.