(Katherine Harris Bradley)


Field, Michael [Katherine Bradley (1846-1914) and Edith Cooper (1862-1913)]

Katherine Bradley and her niece Edith Cooper collaborated under the pseudonym "Michael Field" on a number of poetic dramas with historical and mythical subjects, one prose play, and eight volumes of verse. Sturge Moore has edited the women's journals and correspondence in Works and Days (1933).

As Mary Sturgeon, their biographer, relates, the women's being born into affluent Birmingham merchant families provided them access to the limited educational opportunities for the nineteenth-century British woman. In 1878, at University College at Bristol, where they advocated such causes as antivivisection and women's rights, they decided to live and write together.
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Sturgeon regards an untitled sonnet that they cowrote at this time, later published in Underneath the Bough (1893), a collection of their love lyrics to each other, as an exchange of marriage vows. Katherine would later record in the journals that, compared with the most famous literary couple of their day, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she as "Michael" and Edith as her beloved "Henry" were more closely wedded.

Their early dramatic collaborations, especially Callirrhoe (1884) and Brutus Ultor (1886), which portrays Brutus as a champion of women's rights, received critical acclaim, attracting the attention of Arthur Symons, Robert Browning, and the young W. B. Yeats, who avidly read them when he was seeking models for his own poetic drama.

Katherine admitted in an 1884 letter to Browning that the public was not ready to accept a passion for women's rights from women writers, thus the necessity for the pseudonym. What made the pseudonym even more necessary was their interest in portraying women's love for each other. For example, Canute the Great (1887) contains an explicit love scene between two women, while the poetry in Long Ago (1889), ostensibly in imitation of Sappho, celebrates lesbian love.

The women's work flourished in the 1890s. They presented Mary Stuart in The Tragic Mary (1890) as a politically exploited woman, an approach that Oscar Wilde found much more human than Swinburne's treatment of the character. Stephania, a Trialogue (1892), an early example of symbolist drama in England, attacks the decadent notion of harlotry as aesthetic. Attila, My Attila (1896), examines, with what we would today term "black humor," what happens when an aggressive, patrician woman of the fifth century, like the "New Woman" of the 1890s, meets the Hun.

A Question of Memory (1893), a departure from their usual approach of dealing with contemporary themes under the disguise of classical tragedy, and written in an innovative stream of consciousness prose, with a modern setting--the 1848 uprising in Hungary--ends with an intentionally shocking lovers' "triad." Two men and a woman decide to spend their lives together, an obvious correlative for their "Michael Field" relationship.

As a result of the negative reviews of this, their only publicly performed play, the women reverted to writing verse tragedies set in antiquity. On their conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1907, they began publishing volumes of devotional poetry.

Both those claiming the women as homoerotic celebrants of women's expanding prerogatives and those championing them as Catholic mystics must understand what conversion to Roman Catholicism represented for them and for contemporaries like Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas, Aubrey Beardsley, and others.

The conversion was an embrace of antirational and mystical aestheticism, a reaction against vulgar Victorian bourgeois values. That these women are so little known or read today measures the extent to which the values they rejected have prevailed.

David J. Moriarty

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