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  • Another New Book on "Michael Field"
  • Stefanie Markovits
Marion Thain . "Michael Field": Poetry, Aestheticism and the Fin de Siècle. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. ix + 270 pp. $95.00

The steady trickle of publications about Katharine Bradley (1846–1914) and Edith Cooper (1862–1913), the aunt and niece partnership (artistic and personal) known as "Michael Field," has grown enough to make it no longer seem necessary to introduce them by the biographical details that—alongside a lyric and dramatic output of considerable quantity and quality—helped initiate the resurgence of interest in the pair. In 2007, the first collection of essays dedicated to their work appeared, Michael Field and Their World, edited by Margaret D. Stetz and Cheryl A. Wilson (see 51:2 [2008], 228–31). Now Marion Thain brings us a new addition with a monograph devoted to their writings. As much tribute as tributary, "Michael Field": Poetry, Aestheticism and the Fin de Siècle should be read as both an argument for and a step towards the insertion of Michael Field into the mainstream literary canon.

Part of this process involves reembedding this "odd couple" within a mostly male community of fin-de-siècle aestheticism, rather than viewing them primarily in relation to other (the implication is, more marginalized) women poets of the day. And while Thain makes good use of the wide range of essays that have been written on Michael Field in the past decade, she also does a lovely job at thickening the texture of her account with intelligent references, both primary and secondary, to [End Page 236] the wider literary culture of the era. The result is a volume that—much more so than last year's interesting but scattered collection, Michael Field and Their World—gives a picture of Michael Field's world.

The world that emerges is simultaneously a private biographical space and a public, historical space. And this dual perspective makes sense, because at the heart of Thain's book is the relationship between private and public history—that is to say, the intersection between issues of identity construction and of temporality. Thain thus focuses on two core paradoxes in Michael Field's oeuvre. The first is the collaborative paradox, by which two individuals merge into the singular identity of Michael Field. What makes this a paradox is the two-in-one effect of the couple's writing, the preservation of duality within the usually singular lyric voice. But to this much-discussed aspect of the poets' work, Thain adds an interesting temporal twist, what she describes as an "impossible desire to combine the diachronic with the synchronic," an effort to join an awareness and responsiveness to the inevitable flow of history with the desire to stop (or at least pause) time by isolating connections between temporally distinct moments. While this latter paradox becomes her core concern in the analyses that follow, it is almost always linked back to the issue of dual authorship.

The body of Thain's book describes the complex dance enacted in the poetry around these two distinct but interrelated paradoxes by considering, in chronological order, the concerns expressed by individual volumes of poetry. She begins, though, by way not of lyric but narrative: chapter one focuses on the diaries and dramas. Here the central concern for the relationship between public and private history is readily apparent. The fact that the couple's joint journal, Works and Days, was intended to become a part of their poetic legacy complicates its generically private status, while their public dramas, largely historical in nature, also consider time from the individual's perspective. Thain reads Works and Days as autobiography—that is, not as writing of the moment but as writing invested in narrative continuity, in an awareness of the links between then and now. She then offers a brief reading of Michael Field's historical drama In the Name of Time (written 1889– 1895) to demonstrate the writers' failed attempt to use the dramatic form to think about "the human relationship to time."

The reason for this failure is implied in the remainder of Thain's book: Michael Field used their collaborative voice to add the dialectical...


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pp. 236-239
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