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Margaret Stetz and Cheryl Wilson, eds. Michael Field and Their World. High Wycombe: Rivendale Press, 2007. ISBN 1904201083. Price: US$55.00/£30.00

  • Kristin Mahoney

…more information

  • Kristin Mahoney
    Western Washington University

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In the past twenty years, our understanding of fin-de-siècle aestheticism has been enlarged and enriched through the resuscitation of the literary reputation of late-Victorian women writers such as Amy Levy, Vernon Lee, and Michael Field. Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, the aunt and niece who “took hands and swore,/ Against the world, to be/ Poets and lovers evermore” and wrote collaboratively under the pseudonym “Michael Field,” have proven to be a particularly rich locus for recent scholarship. The fascinating decisions they made regarding the production of their work, their rich relationship to late-Victorian aesthetic theory, and the lush eroticism of their poetry have attracted diverse scholarly approaches and yielded a growing body of important criticism. Margaret Stetz and Cheryl Wilson’s recent collection, Michael Field and Their World, with its emphasis on the manner in which Cooper and Bradley engaged with the world around them, grounds this growing body of scholarship by situating the phenomenon of Michael Field within both a social and a textual world. The essays in this volume attend to the influences that underwrote Cooper and Bradley’s literary production, their self-consciousness about their position within a transitional literary moment, as well as their interest in socialism and their concerns about the commodification of the aesthetic. Rather than positing Cooper and Bradley as singular, strange, detached, and apolitical, the volume reads the authors as fundamentally collaborative. Cooper and Bradley collaborated with one another, certainly, but they were also writers who saw themselves as collaborating with literary tradition and the visual arts as well as conversing with the culture and politics of the period.

The breadth of approaches and texts included in this collection attests to the rich diversity of Michael Field’s oeuvre as well as their wide-ranging and sophisticated engagement with their world. As the editors themselves note, “in homage to the Michael Fields’ own desire to question and overthrow limiting labels of various sorts, the writers of these selections often touch upon many topics and approaches at once” (8). Cooper and Bradley’s creative re-imagining of Catholicism is revealed to be intimately tied up with their investigation of alternative sexual personae, and their fascination with the past is demonstrated to have played an integral role in their critique of modern materialism. The works in this volume indicate that Michael Field’s interest in history, aesthetics, and diverse religious traditions should be understood in relationship to the implicitly ethical and political choices that underwrote the personal lives of Cooper and Bradley and their chosen modes of literary production.

Recent scholarship on late-Victorian aestheticism has reconfigured our sense of the movement by foregrounding the aesthetes’ social-mindedness. Rather than retreating from ethical and political concerns, members of the Aesthetic and Decadent Movements in England actively engaged with a diverse set of public issues including the “Woman Question,” socialist reform, and sexual politics. In this sense, the attentiveness to Michael Field’s social, political, and economic concerns on display in Michael Field and Their World offers a window into the state of the field. Demonstrating how scholars of aestheticism and decadence have begun to attend to the social investments of the aesthetes, the essays in this volume read Michael Field’s literary output in light of Cooper and Bradley’s economic thinking, their unconventional and unique modes of gender and sexual identification, as well as their active engagement with religious discourse. Ana Vadillo’s essay on Michael Field’s historical plays, for example, reveals Cooper and Bradley to be engaging with contemporary issues, such as the rise of the New Woman, Social Darwinism, socialism, and the commodification of culture. Marion Thain shares Vadillo’s interest in the sophisticated manner in which Michael Field theorized and responded to the permeation of the aesthetic realm by economic principles in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In her essay on Wild Honey from Various Thyme (1908), Thain argues that the figure of the bee, an “archetypal [emblem] of both economies of production (the busy worker bee) and consumption (the gift of sweet honey),” allowed the poets to negotiate the complex relationship between the economic and the aesthetic at the fin de siècle (224). Diana Maltz examines Katharine Bradley’s interest in late-Victorian ethical socialism, revealing that, while Bradley did not go the route of the fin-de-siècle public activist, the ethical socialism of the late-nineteenth century informed her thinking in very real and profound ways.

Michael Field’s investment in rethinking categories of sexuality and gender is one of the most remarkable elements of the couple’s work, and the essays in this collection tease out the political implications of the love between Bradley and Cooper as well as the explicit and radical statements about the mutability of sexual identity in their work. Richard Dellamora’s essay on Long Ago (1890), for example, argues that Field “thinks of [sexual] dissidence in phenomenological, not ontological terms” (127). Positioning the collection within a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Sapphic tradition, Dellamora focuses on the complex and multiform manners in which desire is expressed by Field, as they employ “Sapphic phenomenology” in order to feel from multiple subject positions, to want from shifting identities and across shifting lines of gender. Brooke Cameron’s essay on Sight and Song (1892) teases out the gender politics of Field’s “translation” project, arguing that, as the poets translate works of art into poetry, they meditate on the gendered economy of the gaze and generate “a way to address the woman as Other without replicating the process of Othering” (147). Elizabeth Primamore further attests to the complexity of Michael Field’s understanding of gender identity by investigating the role of the figure of the dandy in the formation of the authorial persona of Michael Field. Dinah Ward shares Primamore’s focus on the utility of masculine figures to Field’s theorization of sexual and gender identity, arguing that Cooper and Bradley’s poems about St. Sebastian explore questions about the visibility of same-sex desire to a hostile world.

According to Frederick Roden, while Michael Field’s writing has now been successfully integrated into the canon, the significance of their investment in religion continues to be overlooked. Michael Field and Their World begins to address this gap in the scholarship, frequently by demonstrating how Bradley and Cooper’s complex thinking on gender informed their relationship to religion. Roden’s essay in the collection, for example, places Field within a continuum of modern lesbian Catholicism that includes writers such as Radclyffe Hall and Vita Sackville-West. Camille Cauti explores points of continuity between Field’s neoclassical paganism and the couple’s Catholicism by focusing on the persistent interest in sacrifice throughout their literary career, evident in their early poetry as well as in their post-conversion representations of a feminized Christ. Chris Snodgrass takes a different but related approach to the question of Field’s conversion by arguing that their post-conversion poetry continues to exhibit a worldview based in the principles of classical tragedy. All of these essays illuminate Field’s religious faith in extremely useful ways, demonstrating how the consideration of faith and sacrifice informed some of the most important works.

The other Michael Field that emerges from this collection is the Field who thought extensively about and purposefully wrote within tradition. Rhian Williams, for example, investigates Field’s borrowings from Shakespeare’s sonnets, arguing that the poets “[re-assimilate] a potentially exclusionary canon as a conduit for female expression” (69). Kit Andrews investigates the links between Field and Pater’s religious thinking, arguing that Field’s conversion is less cautious and more complete than Pater’s but was perhaps facilitated by his thinking in Marius the Epicurean. Linda Hughes extends our understanding of how to place Field within literary history by uncovering Cooper and Bradley’s relationship to the late nineteenth-century American woman writer, Louise Chandler Moulton. Focusing on Bradley and Cooper’s visits to Moulton’s salon provides insight into their position within fin-de-siècle literary culture as well the manner in which texts circulated within a transatlantic cultural milieu at the turn of the century. In addition, many of the essays in the collection grapple with questions of periodization, pointing to Field’s ties to both the Victorian and the Modern, their liminal position between two aesthetic moments. Nicholas Frankel argues that in Sight and Song, which predates both Imagism and Objectivism, “the lyric ‘I’ is replaced by a language spoken by the poem-object itself” (212). These essays cooperate then to position Field within literary history and strengthen our understanding of their ties to other writers and traditions.

Michael Field and Their World also helpfully points the way toward future directions in Field scholarship by introducing lesser-known texts into the developing canon of their works. Joseph Bristow’s essay, for example, indicates that attentiveness to the events surrounding the production and publication of the oft-neglected Underneath the Bough (1893) allows for unique insight into Field’s writing methods and the couple’s relationship to publishers and associates, such as John Miller Gray, who served as readers for their work. Holly Laird makes a case for increased attention to the plays, and Sharon Bickle calls for a rethinking of Michael Field in light of the overlooked letters of Bradley and Cooper held by the Bodleian Library at Oxford. There is, as these critics indicate, still much work to be done, but this collection will serve as a crucial foundation for future scholarship on Michael Field.

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