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Inventing Michael Field

Can two women write like one man?

by Michelle Lee
Michael Field. Original artwork by Maggie Hill.Original artwork by Maggie Hill

Some 125 years ago, a new playwright named Michael Field created a buzz among London literati with the print debut of two blank-verse dramas in a single volume: the ancient Greek Callirrhoë and the English historical Fair Rosamund. Callirrhoë and Fair Rosamund announced the “ring of a new voice, which is likely to be heard far and wide among the English-speaking peoples,” according to the Spectator and other critics of the day.

While Michael Field was hailed by the press as a “poet of distinguished powers,” two women in Stoke Bishop, a suburb of Bristol, quietly celebrated the success of this “new voice.” They clipped the rave reviews from newspapers with enthusiasm and toasted the playwright’s good fortune. Katharine Bradley and her niece Edith Cooper had much invested in Michael Field’s welcome reception: they had invented him. United under the pseudonym Michael Field, Bradley and Cooper would go on to build a canon that includes more than 25 closet dramas and 11 volumes of poetry.

Collaboration was not new to the pair. Before creating the avatar of Michael Field in 1884, Bradley and Cooper had published a collection of poems that included an Ancient Greek–themed poetic drama, Bellerophôn, under the pseudonyms Arran and Isla Leigh. Bradley and Cooper attributed that book’s lack of success to the negative implications suggested by their collaborative moniker. To the Victorians, the center of authority resided in the individual, and thus a literary work, poetry especially, composed by two authors—specifically female authors—lost power in its division of authenticity, of personal truth. Bradley and Cooper saw the new persona of Michael Field as a way to both defy and adhere to that popular conception.

Bradley (1846–1914) and Cooper (1862–1913) adopted a male pseudonym in order to, as Bradley wrote in a letter to their mentor and friend Robert Browning, dismiss “drawing-room conventionalities” and say things “the world [would] not tolerate from a woman’s lips.” Through Michael Field, Bradley and Cooper believed they could access an exclusive realm of male privilege, grasping the power to say and write what they wished without being judged on their gender.

Their collaboration was not careful. They gave each other no space for benign questions or agreeable answers. They lived together, slept together, traveled together. They even wrote a journal together, filling a mass of scrapbooks currently housed in the British Library. Though Bradley and Cooper often wrote separately, they tended to finish each other’s half-written lines or scenes. Some scholars insist the two women were lovers; others simply dub their relationship “romantic.” In describing their own collaboration, Bradley once explained in a letter to social reformer and sexologist Havelock Ellis: “We cross and interlace like a company of dancing summer flies; if one begins a character, his companion seizes and possesses it; if one conceives a scene or situation, the other corrects, completes, or murderously cuts away.” The final image of the poem “A Girl,” included in Field’s collection of lyrics Underneath the Bough (1893), illustrates this writing relationship:

A Girl,
     Her soul a deep-wave pearl
Dim, lucent of all lovely mysteries;
     A face flowered for heart’s ease,
     A brow’s grace soft as seas
     Seen through faint forest-trees:
     A mouth, the lips apart,
Like aspen-leaflets trembling in the breeze
From her tempestuous heart.
Such: and our souls so knit,
I leave a page half-writ —
     The work begun
Will be to heaven’s conception done,
     If she come to it.

This “leav[ing] a page half-writ” gently captures the respect Bradley and Cooper had for each other’s ideas and opinions during the creative process, but does not quite describe the direct, often piercing interaction that occurred between the women during writing and revision. Often Bradley would have to smooth Cooper’s ruffled feathers and vice versa. Correspondence between them in the early days would, at times, crackle with indignance.

Unfortunately, Bradley and Cooper were “outed” by their confidant Browning, who inadvertently let it slip to a few members of their social circle that he knew the identity of the two talented women behind the pen, and the news traveled fast. Once Bradley and Cooper were discovered as supplying the voice of Michael Field, their private give-and-take on the literary battleground became imaginative fodder for the critical public as the lyrical lines supposedly written by a “man” became a matter of appropriation, dilution, and titillation. Which woman wrote which lines? Who really deserved the credit? Could either woman claim the genius? Michael Field’s poetry became a parlor game between “spinsters,” as a handful of literary reviewers came to identify them.

Although Bradley and Cooper frequently acknowledged in their personal writings the prejudice against women writers, they viewed the prejudice against collaborative creativity as their larger foe. In a journal entry dated July 21, 1891, Bradley recounts an evening that she and Cooper spent at the London literary salon of American poet and critic Louise Chandler Moulton. By this point, Bradley and Cooper were known by most in their literary coterie to be Michael Field, and after an encounter with the poet/novelist Thomas Hardy and man of letters Theodore Watts-Dunton, Bradley exclaimed with emphasis that “[b]oth these men found it inscrutable, incomprehensible, that two people could write poetry together.”

As Michael Field, Bradley and Cooper fought to show that two voices could project a seamless authority, best illustrated with Bradley’s valiant insistence to Browning that Michael Field spoke with a unified voice:

Spinoza with his fine grasp of unity says: “If two individuals of exactly the same nature are joined together, they make up a single individual, doubly stronger than each alone,” i.e., Edith and I make a veritable Michael.

Despite Bradley’s assertion, however, archival manuscripts and pages in their shared journal show the complications in their creative desire to be a “single individual.” Certainly, handwriting identifies certain poems as written by one woman or the other. Furthermore, as much as Bradley and Cooper publicly held fast to the idea that they had the “same nature,” the two women were vastly different: Cooper possessed a shy demeanor, aesthetic sensibility, and Charlotte Brontë-esque torment; Bradley had an arrogant vitality, earthy energy, and large ego. In their journal, one entry may feature a poem in one woman’s distinct penmanship, while a later entry may feature that same poem in the other woman’s hand. The transcription, at times edited, shifts ownership of the poem, changes the speaker, gives new identity to the subject. That poem suddenly projects a double voice, a double meaning. However, outside their journal, officially published behind the male identity Michael Field, the poem takes on a strong, singular tone, the voices of two quieted to a hum.

Further complicating this exchange and tangle of voices, in 1889 Bradley and Cooper as Michael Field published Long Ago, a volume of poetry that “completes” the fragments of Sappho’s poetry. This work rings with not one voice, or two or three, but four or more—for example, in this poem simply titled “XXI”:

Ye rosy-armed, pure Graces, come,
    Daughters of Zeus, be near!
Oh, wherefore have my lips been dumb
    So long in silence drear?

And why have I so cheerless been,
    So sorrowful and wild?
It was because ye were not seen,
    Because ye had not smiled.

Although his prayer the Muses bless,
    The poet doth require
That ye, in frolic gentleness,
    Should stand beside his lyre.

Ne’er will he mortal ear delight,
     Nor care-vex’d spirit ease;
Except he sing with ye in sight,
    Rose-flushed among the trees.

The communal nature of Michael Field’s poetry, as considered in the context of Bradley’s and Cooper’s devout Hellenism, recalls the ancient origins of the lyric form. In ancient Greece a lyric might be monodic, sung by a single performer, or choral, by a group of performers. The monodic lyric expressed a poet’s own thoughts and feelings to a private audience, while the choral lyric expressed the thoughts and feelings of a community. Michael Field’s poetry engaged both types of lyrics simultaneously and conveyed a variable “truth” in its composition: written by the pair of women, either woman independently, Michael Field, or a different speaker—or speakers—entirely.

This polyphonic poetic “voice” was partially Michael Field’s downfall, once Field’s identity was fully known throughout the women’s coterie. However, their collaboration, as radical and unconventional as it was, particularly in the face of the traditionally singular-voiced lyric poetry, was not the only reason for Field’s loss of literary favor. Although plays seem well suited to a blending of separate voices in their variety of characters and conflicts, Michael Field did not succeed as a dramatist either.

In particular, another impediment to Field’s literary career was Bradley and Cooper’s devotion to writing “out of time,” as indicated by a letter Bradley wrote to Cooper in early 1885 when her niece became disheartened about their critical reception:

Do not desert Shakespeare & the Elizabethans. These with the sobering influence of the great Greek dramatists, whom you ought to resolve at once to study, are the only masters for us. Every dramatic writer must be full of his Shakespeare, as every religious writer must be full of his Bible.

Because they were educated on the classics, Bradley and Cooper took literary tradition to heart and bowed to the poetic mastery of those “greats.” To their dismay, the combination of two women not only writing in verse that hearkened back to the 16th century, but also tackling subjects and plots that were considered inappropriate for women, proved lethal. Even Bernard Berenson, a Renaissance art historian and writer with whom they frequently socialized, criticized their closet drama Stephania (1892), about a former Roman empress who plots revenge on the new emperor who has murdered her husband:

The plot was of an indecency that only pure-minded elderly mid-Victorian virgins could have imagined and the blank verse and the rhetoric would have filled with horror and indignation the worst understudies of Beaumont and Fletcher.

Loosely based on Roman history from the 11th century, Stephania portrayed a strong, willful woman who brought about the ruin of Emperor Otto by playing the role of a courtesan and feeding into Otto’s vision of her as a femme fatale. She also challenged young Otto’s sexuality and complicated his struggle to define his masculinity. To critics, Stephania was exactly the sort of “indecency” that “elderly . . . virgins” should not “imagin[e]” and capped a string of dramas that focused on, and even challenged, issues of manhood.

Though Bradley and Cooper often discussed modernizing their style and worried about becoming too traditional and passé, they never bowed to critics, even when their readership dwindled to an intimate few. In their later years, when they converted to Catholicism, as was the trend among many of their circle, their lyric poetry and plays continued to echo with Shakespearean and mythological themes and never shied away from their virile power and a masculine tone. Michael Field was a literary figure whose “distinguished powers” went beyond building a canon of little-read, but beautifully printed, dramas and poetry to creating a transformative space for two women to speak in a multitude of voices, voices that could allow them to access worlds they could not enter, transcend gender boundaries, and experience a love and partnership that, to this day, defies a name.

Originally Published: January 27, 2010

COMMENTS (3)

On January 27, 2010 at 10:55pm Geneva Lorrain wrote:

This was a very interesting article about two women trying to break convention so they could express themselves creatively. I had questions that could not be answered but were in my mind: Oh, what would have happened if Browning had not outed them? Surely, he knew what it would do to their career when he let their secret out. Would their career been more successful in the closet, so to speak, then it was with the facts about them in the open? The article indicates that there were other reasons. We have all heard of George Sand, but I have never heard of Michael Field. Thank you so much for bringing it to our attention.

On January 28, 2010 at 3:49pm Peter Greene wrote:
It was an interesting article!
Especially given the foofaraw over on
Harriet, everyone all bent out of
gender about differential potential.

I see a potential horror element in this
future world we live towards: Could one
poet become several people,
through a process of hostile downloading?

Hm. I should possibly drink less coffee.

PG

On February 26, 2011 at 7:14am Claudia Lane wrote:
For those interested in learning
more about Michael Field, please
check out the work of Dr. Marion
Thain, a professor at The
University of Birmingham, UK. She
has written and/or edited several
books on Michael Field, delving
deeply into the diaries and letters
of the two women.

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Biography

Michelle S. Lee is an assistant professor of literature and composition at Daytona State College. She has published across genres, and one of her recent poems, "Floater," can be found in volume 19 of Tattoo Highway. An article on her creative relationship with Michael Field appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Text & Performance Quarterly.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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