- Michael Field and Queer Community at the Fin de Siècle
In their journal Works and Days, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, the aunt and niece who wrote together under the pseudonym “Michael Field,” record a visit to 20 Fitzroy Street, the home of Herbert Horne, editor of the Century Guild Hobby Horse, and the studio of the artist Selwyn Image. Within the same building, they note, “other Artists and Art-men dwell [End Page 35] in unity”: “The various storeys represent the arts from Architecture to Design—hence Selwyn Image has his place at the top of all the stairs and his walls are inhabitated [sic] by the great figure designs he makes for the stained-glass windows” (117). The trip to the headquarters of the Century Guild provided Bradley and Cooper an opportunity to speak as artists with other artists. They discussed their writing with Image, and “the flame in his eyes grew intent” (118). Before their departure, Image encouraged them to meet Horne, whom they describe in the journal as “almost beautiful,” “not a milk-sop, but a tea-sop—mild, effeminate, with an art aroma, a choiceness” (118). They examined Horne’s collection of woodcuts and a drawing of Walter Pater by Simeon Solomon. The pleasing visit led to future calls on what they refer to as “the Hobby Horse community” to discuss “lavender velvet curtains for [their] book-case” with Horne and attend a Dolmetsch concert (121, 189). In their accounts of the guild at Fitzroy Street, Michael Field express admiration for the fine collections and decorations, the “choiceness,” on display in the home, and they record delightful encounters with the many fascinating figures who “dwell in unity” there, such as the poet Lionel Johnson, whose “fabulous” feet are described as “tiny in girlish shoes and blue silk stockings” (122). This was a space where they might have animated and engaged conversation about their work and beautiful things. They were fascinated by this community in which “Art-men,” many of whom engaged in dissident forms of gender expression and displayed investments in same-sex desire, congregated.1 The Century Guild’s shared taste and shared sense of apartness from conventional modes of love and domesticity engendered a radical mode of affiliation, a dissident community that fostered artistic production, collaboration, and a bohemian lifestyle.
Michael Field’s avid interest in experimental models of affiliation and the concept of community, so evident in their response to the Century Guild, makes them a logical focus for an essay on queer community in the 1890s. Their biography and their journals register many of the most significant elements of fin-de-siècle thinking related to the concept of sexually dissident affiliation. In their contestation of individualism, their questioning of the boundary between human and non-human animals, and their desire to operate outside the lines of national identity and taste, they reflect the extent to which, at the turn of the century, an interest in sexual dissidence often contributed to the rethinking of how and why bonds were forged. As Leela Gandhi stresses in her discussion of Edward Carpenter’s anti-imperialism, the “distinctiveness” of fin-de-siècle homosexual politics “accrues less from dissident ‘sex acts’ and more from a radical reconfiguration of association, alliance, relationality, community” (36). During the 1890s, same-sex erotic investments opened out onto broader innovations in the realm of community, facilitating a wide range of utopian approaches to connection and kinship. In their own relationship and in the friendships they made with other authors, artists, and animals, Bradley and Cooper demonstrated an [End Page 36] avowed commitment to the reformulation of the concept of community that drew on, reflected, and contributed to the proliferation of novel theories and practices of affiliation at the turn of the century.
While heterosexual forms of affiliation often masqueraded as politically neutral models of conceptualizing “home” or “the family” during the Victorian period, same-sex alliances were more frequently understood as models of alliance that carried wider political implications. Edward Carpenter’s vision of comradeship, for example, which drew on Walt Whitman’s ideas about friendship and democracy, centred the possibility for a utopian...