(Katherine Harris Bradley)


Michael Field

Chosen by:
Dr Sharon Bickle is a Post-doctoral Fellow in the Centre for Women's Studies and Gender Research. She has written articles on Michael Field for Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film and Life-Writing Annual, as well as an essay in the recent collection, Michael Field and Their World (2007). Her edition of Michael Field's letters, The Fowl and the Pussycat: Love Letters of Michael Field is forthcoming from University of Virginia Press in 2008.

Field, Michael

The tragic Mary / by Michael Field. (London : G. Bell & Sons, 1890) [Michael Field was the pen-name of Katharine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper]

Michael Field

Your Queen is a splendid creature, a live woman to her finger-tips. I feel the warmth of her breath as I listen to her. Oscar Wilde, letter to Michael Field, 26 Aug. 1890.

The Tragic Mary (1890) is Michael Field's reinterpretation of the life of Mary, Queen of Scots; a popular subject for dramatization in the nineteenth-century. Critics have consistently overlooked Michael Field's historical verse dramas, often dismissing them as "static, cumbersome, and ornate closet dramas" (Madden, 63). However; as with many of Field's plays, closer examination reveals a complex gender politics at work, as well as a pervasive same-sex eroticism between the Queen and her beloved waiting women, the Maries. In the play, the Queen's relationship with her circle of women sustains her in her struggles with her husbands: brutal men interested only in political power. Vicki Taft has commented that the personal is political in this play as the Maries' nurturing represents direct political intervention by restoring the Queen as political agent (277).

As well as a play, The Tragic Mary is part of the material culture of the 1890s. Published by George Bell and decorated with a cover commissioned from Selwyn Image, Oscar Wilde called the book one of the "two beautiful books (in appearance) of the century" (Field, Works and Days, 139). He nevertheless declared an intention to surpass it and make its authors "very unhappy." The book was displayed in the 1890 Arts and Crafts Exhibition where it caught the eye of Charles Ricketts--leading to his Vale Press publishing several Michael Field works in finely printed, highly decorated limited editions. As an aesthetic artwork in its own right, the book circulated amongst a small circle of connoisseurs alongside Wilde's The Sphinx (1894) and John Gray's Silverpoints (1893), helping to redefine book production as an expressive art (Bristow, Fin-de-Siecle Poem, 16).

The lives, the writings, the relationship and the cultural milieu of the late-Victorian collaborative partnership of Michael Field have become an emerging area of interest for scholars over the last decade. At the centre of this debate is their lyric verse, particularly Sight and Song (1892) and Long Ago (1889), and the ways in which the multiple voices in their poetry open up spaces through which to explore lesbian textuality and to redefine the female object of poetry in terms of an intersubjective agency. Kate Thomas has recently noted that scholars consistently highlight the lesbian nature of this life-long love relationship at the expense of its incestuous foundation, as Bradley and Cooper were aunt and niece. Incest, she suggests, is a topic "so politely avoided that it is something of an elephant in the maiden-auntly parlour" (Thomas, 327).

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