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  • “A Royal Lady [Re]born”: Balladry, Transport, and Transgression in Michael Field’s The Tragic Mary
  • Heather Bozant Witcher (bio)

When “Michael Field”—the pseudonym of Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper—visited Edinburgh in October 1889, they experienced a transportation into the city’s poetic past. Edinburgh, allegorized as a woman in the opening lines of the preface to their play The Tragic Mary (1890), fascinates the couple and draws them to her: “Beautiful for situation, happy in the way the light visits her, noble in natural outline, and favoured even in the rise and declivity of her streets, it is nevertheless as the repository of her Queen’s tragedy that Edinburgh fascinates us to herself.”1 Michael Field’s language of transport and suspension of volition as the city “fascinates” them and draws them toward its historically tragic queen are reminiscent of Walter Pater’s description of the collective contagion of dramatic form and has traces of eighteenth-century sentimental language and moral philosophy.2 The compulsory attraction that enables Michael Field’s impressions of Mary Stuart can best be described as an affective sympathetic bond. Adam Smith’s definition of sympathy as a “fellow-feeling” describes a process in which “passions upon some occasions, may seem to be transfused from one man to another, instantaneously, and antecedent to any knowledge of what excited them in the person principally concerned.”3 In tandem with this perspective, affect, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is understood as communal or circulating feeling. Sympathy was not just an emotional bond but a physiological force that came to mean something like feeling with, as well as for, another. And yet Smith also suggests elsewhere that certain sympathetic feeling “literally becomes” the feeling of the one who feels it, emphasizing the circulation of affects. This act of sympathy depends on the process of “transport”: Smith argues that readers “transport ourselves in fancy” to the scene of a particular book, in order to “sympathize . . . with the highest transports” of the characters’ feelings [End Page 495] (pp. 87–89). But, at the same time, “we feel ourselves naturally transported towards” other characters, scenes, and situations to move and feel with them, regardless of any will to do so (p. 88). By revisiting Mary Stuart’s relics, the couple becomes transported, using Smith’s terminology, to the past, fueled by their quest to write the Queen of Scot’s tragedy.

Gesturing toward the historical reawakening Michael Field dramatizes in The Tragic Mary, an awakening only possible through the closeness they share with Mary Stuart, the fictional ballads that the queen sings re-create nostalgic reveries that allow a transference of expressive emotion. Michael Field uses poetic drama—and, I suggest, experiments with ballad form—to assert their perception of aesthetic modernity and renewal, as Andrew Eastham has posited in his discussion of the couple’s first verse drama, Callirrhoë (1884).4 Drama—as a mimetic form—relies on, as Eastham argues, “the translation and transference of expressive energies,” and it is “essential to both Pater and Field’s Hellenist visions that the contagious and excessive energy of Dionysus provided the first impulse towards theatre” (p. 494). Beginning with Callirrhoë, Michael Field experimented with various formal boundaries in their verse dramas to refashion a longer, and notably masculine, tradition of drama—fifth-century Greek and Shakespearian. If Aristotle believed drama to be an imitation of action, and mimesis to be a showing (or representation) versus a narrative retelling of that action, Michael Field continues the formal history of drama by playing with voice, rhythm, and structure. I speculate that the couple experiments with ballad meter in The Tragic Mary to incorporate a social mimesis founded on female community and contagious transference, or transport. The analysis that follows considers the play from the perspective both of nineteenth-century approaches to the ballad form and verse drama. I first provide a brief overview of the drama’s preface and plot before my initial close reading of the queen’s first ballad, “She was a royal lady born.” This song illustrates ballad meter as an affective communal experience that enables expressions of female desire. I then return to a consideration of...


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pp. 495-516
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