- The Michael Fields
"Michael Field" is the pseudonym used by the lesbian (the terms remains contested, although most critics accept it) aunt and niece partnership of Katharine Bradley (1846–1914) and Edith Cooper (1862–1913), aesthetes, dog lovers, and converts to Catholicism, not to mention coauthors of Elizabethan-inspired lyrics and verse dramas. These biographical details alone would explain the resurgence of interest in the poets, even absent the fine quality of much of their work. Yet it is hard to know where to begin when contemplating such a tantalizing list of particulars. The contributors to this volume—the first compilation to be directed exclusively to the writings of the pair—have chosen to explore a sometimes mazelike variety of avenues.
Michael Field and Their World grew out of a 2004 conference on the Michael Fields (as the editors choose to designate the couple), and this genealogy has consequences for the collection. For example, while "world" may imply the kind of breadth one would associate with an introduction to the poets and their place in fin-de-siècle society, the book lacks the organizational control of a real introduction. It is loosely divided into four sections: "Biography," "Contexts: Literary and Cultural Worlds," "Thematics: Sexuality and Religion," and "Translations: Textuality and Genre." But these groupings do not really represent a progression from background to an overview of the work. Thus many of the early biographical pieces assume a knowledge of and interest in the poetry that a real newcomer to the poets could not be expected to possess, while the later, more literary critical essays often focus on [End Page 228] rather narrow aspects of the poets' oeuvre. While the editors clearly hope that the collection will have crossover appeal to a broad range of readers—for example, people interested in gender identity, conversion, and dogs—few if any readers will find all the essays of interest, as Stetz and Wilson acknowledge. Nevertheless, if viewed as an initial attempt to define some of the issues that will occupy scholars and students of the poets and their lives, the collection can indeed be seen as productively "ground-breaking."
And in fact, some of the stronger essays in the collection point to future research possibilities. Thus Sharon Bickle ("Rethinking Michael Field: The Case for the Bodleian Letters") provides a convincing account of the biased perspective that current scholarship has fallen into as a result of a privileging of the Fields' much-cited joint journal, Works and Days, over the information that can be gleaned from the Bodleian's holding of letters between the women. Because the letters preserve the individual voices of the women in a manner that the jointly produced and less-private journal (which they intended to become part of their literary legacy) attempts to occlude, they reveal more clearly "how their collaboration operated, as opposed to the way it was presented to others." Or Linda K. Hughes ("Reluctant Lions: Michael Field and the Transatlantic Literary Salon of Louise Chandler Moulton") shows how considering the Fields' interaction with an American's literary salon in London can open a window onto transatlantic literary negotiations. Or Frederick S. Rhoden ("Michael Field and the Challenges of Writing a Lesbian Catholicism") uses the Fields' decision to convert to suggest that for all its "anti-feminism," the Catholic Church's relative lack of interest in lesbianism allowed for "the creation of an imaginative space" for their form of desire. He argues the need to recover the Fields as religious writers working at a [End Page 229] time when questions about the relationship between sexuality and religion were particularly vexed.
But perhaps the most compelling area for thought suggested by the collection concerns the Fields' complex negotiation with the literary past. Joseph Bristow's careful account in "Michael Field's Lyrical Aestheticism: Underneath the Bough" of the "disorderly history" of the publication, in various versions, of the Fields' lyric collection of 1893 shows how the Elizabethan "song-book" was altered in response to critical pressures; Bristow does a lovely job...