MICHAEL FIELD AND FIN-DE-SIECLE CULTURE & SOCIETY
The Journals, 1868-1914, and Correspondence of Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper from the British Library, London
The “binary star” – as Browning called them - that was ‘Michael Field’, shone brightly from the first appearance of their play Callirrhoe in 1884 to their deaths in 1913/14. Katharine Harris Bradley (1846-1914) and her niece, Edith Emma Cooper (1862-1913), collaborated in writing verse and drama and were “closer married” than many of their heterosexual friends. They were familiar figures in the art world and were close friends with Berenson and Ruskin. Robert Browning was the first to acclaim their “genius” in poetry and they were widely published in periodicals. Collected volumes of poetry included Bellerophon, Underneath the Bough, Long Ago, Sight and Song, Poems of Adoration and Mystic Trees. They also wrote 27 dramas, mainly based on legends and historical figures, many of which explore the relationship between love and death.
Given the range of their interests and the wealth of their connections, they are ideally situated to illuminate many aspects of late Victorian and early Modernist culture. Their diaries and letters are both voluminous and clearly written – yet they have remained inaccessible to most scholars until now. There is much on:
Death – which assumed a central role in Victorian culture following the death of Prince Albert in 1861 – is a recurring theme in their diaries and their works. They do not merely note the passing of Arnold, Browning, Whitman and Tennyson – they describe ritual and remembrance with descriptions of funerals, clippings from the press and poems written for the occasion. They explore their feelings and record the reactions of others. The same attention is provided for the deaths of family members and favourite dogs. The death of Queen Victoria provokes an outpouring of reflections on the importance of the Queen and the character of the Victorian Age.
Sex – the 1880s and 1890s were a time of sexual experimentation and scandal. Their own same-sex relationship changed over time from that of artistic collaborators in the style of Beaumont of Fletcher, to that of soul mates and lovers, and is beautifully described in the diaries and letters. There is also much on their homosexual and bisexual friends and acquaintances such as Ricketts and Shannon, J A Symonds, Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas.
Religion – there is much on spirituality in the diaries, from accounts of dreams featuring the deceased, to contemplation of the importance of mystery. Their own conversion from Paganism to Catholicism is described and their correspondence with John Gray and Ruskin explores the importance of vows, the attraction of mystery, and the role of religion in human life.
Art – there are many first-hand accounts of galleries visited and exhibitions attended in Britain, France and Italy. There are anecdotes of Millais and Rossetti, Walter Pater and Vernon Lee, and discussions of aestheticism. Correspondence with Bernard Berenson in London, Florence and America explores issues of taste and value.
Literature – French and English writing is examined in detail, from George Meredith to Paul Verlaine. They list the books they read and give their reactions. There is a wonderful description of their visit to the bookseller to purchase a Yellow Book which “is full of cleverness such as one expects to find in those who dwell below light + hope + love + aspiration”. Contemporary theatre is well documented, including the reception of their works. Early correspondence with Browning discusses their identity and the evolution of their writing, giving a fascinating glimpse into the role of a literary mentor.
There are also subversive ideas about the “great illusion” of the Victorian age and issues such as education, the franchise, free trade unions, class, science and imperialism. Dr Marion Thain provides a detailed introduction to the diaries and letters, setting these in context. A brief listing of the key subjects and events covered by the diaries has also been supplied to help readers.