Chains of Love and Beauty: The Diary of Michael Field 
by Carolyn Dever.
Princeton, 261 pp., £30, July 2022, 978 0 691 20344 7
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There​ is no entry for Michael Field in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The search function directs you first to ‘Bradley, Katharine Harris’ and then to ‘Cooper, Edith Emma’. Click on the second name, however, and you aren’t taken to a biography of Cooper but back to her aunt, Bradley. These convoluted preliminaries seem appropriate for two women whose identities were entangled in various forms of aspiration, impersonation, interdependence and disguise. Stevie Smith, herself an odd bird passionately attached to a maternal aunt (though not in quite the same way), called them ‘that odd amalgam of aunt and niece’. ‘Amalgam’ nicely captures the competing elements that came to be known as a singular author, Michael Field.

Bradley was born in 1846, the second daughter of a wealthy Birmingham tobacco manufacturer; her sister, Emma, was eleven years her senior. In the early 1860s, Bradley and her widowed mother joined the household of Emma and her husband, James Cooper. Edith, the Coopers’ daughter, had been born in 1862; three years later, following the birth of another girl, Emma withdrew into a shadowy life of invalidism. The 18-year-old Bradley – strong, confident and hungry for responsibility – took care of her eldest niece, eventually becoming her legal guardian. Bradley and Cooper spent the rest of their lives together. Having no need to work or marry for money, they devoted themselves to travel, study and art. (Amy, the second Cooper daughter, seems to have been of little interest to her sister or aunt, who routinely dismissed her as second-rate.)

In 1875 Bradley published her first book, a volume of lyrics titled The New Minnesinger, under the gender-neutral but female-leaning pseudonym of Arran Leigh (the name, as well as the poetry, revealed the influence of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh). Celebrating the love of women and girls, this collection, a mixture of original compositions and translations, is full of sunlight and flowers. It is also prefaced by a sonnet in which the author addresses her 13-year-old niece in terms that are decidedly creepy. Professing silence about a forbidden love that she is simultaneously announcing to the public, Bradley dedicates her poem ‘To E.C.’:

My deep need of thy love, its mast’ring power, 
I scarce can fathom, thou wilt never know;
My lighter passions into rhythm may glow;
This is forever voiceless. Could the flower
Open its petall’d thought, and praise the dower
Of sunlight, or the fresh gift of the dew,
The bounteous air that daily round it blew,
Blessing unweariedly in sun and shower,
Methinks would miss its praises: so I drink
My life of thee; and put to poet’s use
Whatever crosses it of strange or fair.
Thou hast fore-fashioned all I do and think;
And to my seeming it were words’ abuse
To boast a wealth of which I am the heir.

‘A wealth of which I am the heir’: since Cooper was truly a family inheritance, Bradley could afford to wait for the flower to open. (In time, Cooper clearly understood what this ‘voiceless’ yet prolifically expressive love was all about, and came to share it.) For the next six years, Bradley and Cooper continued to live with Cooper’s parents; they studied together, slept in the same bed and began to collaborate. In 1881, when Cooper was twenty, they published Bellerophôn, a five-act verse tragedy set in ancient Argos and Lycia, coupled with eleven intensely erotic mythological poems. On the title page they identified themselves as Arran and Isla Leigh, perhaps masquerading as husband and wife, perhaps as siblings, perhaps as parent and child. The book was poorly reviewed; the combination of startlingly bold, hybrid material with co-authorship of an uncertain nature seems to have predetermined its reception as incoherent.

So it was as a single person, Michael Field, that Bradley and Cooper chose to publish their next two verse tragedies, Callirhoë (also inspired by Greek myth) and Fair Rosamund (set in 12th-century Woodstock and London), in one volume in 1884. This decision was vindicated when the plays met with immediate success; both were widely praised as the products of a fresh, accomplished and distinctive talent. Gerard Manley Hopkins thought the author might be Irish, observing to Robert Bridges in 1885 that ‘Field is a common, Michael a very common, Irish name.’ Bradley triumphantly reported that at least one reader was convinced that Field must be ‘a Bristol man’. Privately, the authors called themselves ‘Michael’ (Bradley) and ‘Field’ (Cooper), as well as many other pet names, most of which were masculine.

Robert Browning, to whom Cooper had discreetly sent Callirhoë and Fair Rosamund, expressed his admiration for the genius and beauty he discerned in them. In response, Cooper admitted that she and Bradley were the authors. Shortly thereafter, Browning seems to have unintentionally blown the gaff on the identity they had adopted as their ‘happy union’ and ‘shelter’. They were distraught to be revealed as two people (‘utter ruin to us’) and, more specifically, as two women: ‘the report of lady-authorship,’ Bradley wrote, ‘will dwarf & enfeeble our work at every turn … And we have many things to say the world will not tolerate from a woman’s lips.’

But what did they want to say? In conversation with Oscar Wilde, Bradley and Cooper agreed that ‘the whole problem of life turns on pleasure,’ a credo or supposition partly justified by their writings. Their forbiddingly large and varied body of work – the 28 dramas and nine volumes of poetry published to largely negative press in their lifetimes, as well as the draft plays and verse that emerged posthumously alongside ten thousand pages of shared manuscript journals – is fired by a passionate, joyous desire to quarry and remake the past. Bradley and Cooper repeatedly plot a course from old to new, whether adapting Greek myth to English lyric, Elizabethan archaisms to historic drama, or Romantic and Victorian prose forms to proto-modernist experiments. Themselves representative of two generations, they also lived into the 20th century, something which they consciously sought to reflect: ‘we trust to unite two centuries,’ Cooper proclaimed in 1901.

Their books were designed to capture the authors’ delicate apprehensions of beauty and to be beautiful objects in themselves; they are, among other things, the products of wealth, frankly enjoyed. ‘We just note, Michael & I to one another that it is enviable to have Artists to provide us with our books, our jewels & our pictures,’ Cooper remarked in their shared diary. If they saw something they liked, they assumed it was theirs for the taking. Logan Pearsall Smith remembered Bradley and Cooper visiting his sister’s home and admiring a picture by Charles Condor hanging on a wall. Since they thought the work ‘expressed in a way they felt unique the inspiration of their life’, they swiftly concluded that it ‘belonged to them; and when they left the cottage they took it with them and hung it in their Richmond home. They perpetrated this appropriation in pious obedience to that law of possession, which, inscribed in Heaven, if not on earth, decrees that objects of beauty belong to those who love them most.’ You wonder whether they asked Smith’s sister exactly how much she loved the painting.

The rapt connection with pictures was always there. Among the most strikingly inventive of Michael Field’s published works is Sight and Song, a volume of 31 poems that appeared in 1892. This was not the authors’ first or last attempt at ekphrastic writing; the opening poem of Bellerophôn, ‘Adônis and Aphrodîtê’, is based on Titian’s painting of the same name, and the diary contains numerous descriptions and analyses of visual art, some of which later formed the basis for poetry. But Sight and Song is a powerfully original and sustained effort ‘to translate into verse what the lines and colours of certain chosen pictures sing in themselves’. Yeats was unimpressed by what he described as its ‘guide-book’ element – leading us around a gallery, as it were, and explaining its contents – and he sounded what was by now a familiar dismissive note when he referred to Bradley and Cooper as ‘the two ladies who hide themselves behind the pen name of Michael Field’. But he also had to admit that Sight and Song was ‘interesting’ and ‘suggestive’.

The book’s opening appraisal of the Mona Lisa’s eyes as ‘Historic, side-long, implicating’ (revised from a prose description of them as ‘sidelong, historical, implicating’) captures brilliantly the kind of ‘strange’ or ‘ironical’ female look to which these two acquisitive viewers were attracted. They recognised it in Botticelli’s Venus; they also embodied it in the vantage points they adopted towards their chosen pictures, presenting themselves as detached from – yet made uneasy by – the beautiful depictions of martyrdom (‘Saint Sebastian’) and violation (‘A Pen Drawing of Leda’) they were describing. Their ideal seems to be the peripheral, coolly inscrutable figure of the stone Venus who appears at the end of their poem about Watteau’s L’Embarquement pour Cythère: left ‘by herself’ when the rest of the party has gone, she is both magnificent and irrelevant, ‘Ironical above that wide, embrowning plain’.

Works and Days, the title Bradley and Cooper gave to their diary, is a different sort of creation altogether: messy, inchoate, unpublished in its entirety and perhaps unpublishable, at least in physical form (it is in the process of being transcribed and digitised by a team of scholars from Dartmouth and King’s College London). Carolyn Dever’s Chains of Love and Beauty, the work of two decades, is the first critical book to focus on this enormous manuscript – which she admits is ‘by turns thrilling, boring and impossible; indeed, sometimes all three at once’. Many sections of Works and Days are rushed or incomplete, perhaps preparatory or left over. It is a ‘Lumber-Room’ of sorts, to borrow the title of an essay Bradley wrote in 1890: ‘a many-nooked attic in an old-fashioned farmhouse, where two rosy-cheeked children played in winter on a floor strewn with store fruit and ripening damsons’.

The diary provides some wonderfully incisive remarks on the people it documents: George Meredith’s hands, surreptitiously examined in a train carriage, are ‘folded, determinedly observant’; Herbert Spencer ‘speaks like a man whose every sentence is connected with a general principle’; Vernon Lee ‘is like a museum, rather untidily arranged’; Yeats has ‘a smile like an atmosphere’. Dever argues with some ingenuity that we should regard Works and Days as a novel, but she also concedes, with good humour, that this approach quite possibly makes ‘no sense’. Bradley and Cooper did not write novels; nor, it seems, did they read many. There is something counterintuitive about trying to assimilate the works of these playwright-poet-diarists to one of the few forms in which they appear to have been uninterested. There are incidents in Works and Days that might have come from, or been transplanted into, a Victorian novel (episodes of illness and grief, experiences of death, painful and abortive love affairs, embarrassing encounters, accidents and coincidences), but the shape of the text as a whole is not recognisably novelistic. It seems made to be selected and quoted from, to be anthologised, as it often has been, rather than enjoyed or endured as a continuous document.

In a recent interview, Dever said that Works and Days ‘challenged every category of literary analysis for me. What is an author? What is a pronoun? What is a poem? What is a poet? What is a novel? What is domesticity? What is queerness? What is incest? What is fame and fortune? What is wealth? What is conservatism? How does one author comprising two people negotiate power and desire?’ Some of these questions are harder to answer than others. I think I know what incest is, and it seems pretty clear that someone is committing it if she embarks on a sexual relationship with her sister’s daughter. That female homosexuality was not legally recognised in this period may have allowed contemporaries of Bradley and Cooper to brush off their unusual degree of intimacy while the latter was still a girl – although it certainly disturbed Cooper’s mother, as it might now disturb us. If Bradley had been an uncle, it seems unlikely that the affair would be understood as anything other than grooming and abuse. This can’t only be put down to the fact that, in such a case, there would be a risk of pregnancy. And yet, as Dever observes, critics eager to celebrate Bradley and Cooper as queer, edgy, groundbreaking types have proved reluctant to address these matters. In an endnote, she quotes the critic Kate Thomas making the same point: ‘Incest hides in plain view.’

Reading about Bradley moving into her semi-incapacitated sister’s household and taking charge of her infant niece’s life and mind, and eventually (we assume) of her body, is an unsettling experience. It’s not that the relationship necessarily became sexual at a very early stage in Cooper’s life; we cannot know when it might have begun. Some critics still dispute whether Cooper and Bradley actually were lesbians, as opposed to enjoying something frequently referred to as ‘romantic friendship’ (whatever that means). The delicate but supercharged homoeroticism of their work strongly indicates more than merely amicable relations, however (as do certain references in the diary).

Most troubling, perhaps, is the fact that the younger woman was indeed bound in ‘chains of love and beauty’. The ‘Michael Field’ moniker was not an identity from which there was ever a possibility of permanent escape. Bradley may have chosen this fate, but did Cooper? The claustrophobic impression created by much of her work is suggestive. Her entries in the diary, as well as her poems, often involve images of luxurious, silken entrapment and confinement in cells of various kinds, what she described in 1908 as ‘the gorgeous prison-palace’. The two women insisted that after composing together they did not know who had written which lines. In fact, they also wrote separately from each other, and had discrete authorial identities; each at times felt strongly attracted to men and openly reported their feelings in the diary. They seem to have adopted and cast off different styles, genres, roles and genders with unworried speed, invoking the language of desire to describe many kinds of relationship, whether with men, women or animals.

The weirdest aspect of Bradley and Cooper’s life was their passionate devotion to their dog, Whym Chow. This ‘wolf with civilisation’s softness, an oriental with husky passion’ came to symbolise the women’s love for each other. He was their beloved child as well as a hardened killer. When he tore Rudyard Kipling’s rabbit to shreds, Bradley was horribly turned-on: ‘the incident has made a man of him.’ On his death in 1906, they commemorated him with an outpouring of poems gathered in Whym Chow: Flame of Love (1914), bound in russet suede to mimic the colour of his fur. It was published a year after Cooper died of cancer and shortly before Bradley’s death from the same disease.

Some of these mystical, fiery, ecstatic doggy poems – also celebrating the women’s embrace of Catholicism in the wake of their pet’s death – are judged so ‘ludicrous’ by two recent (and sympathetic) editors as to be necessarily omitted from a modern selection of Michael Field’s works. Whym Chow is rapturously hailed by turns as a child, a king, a mythological hero, a ‘lovely fellow-lover’ and an ‘Eastern Prince from fuming China hoary,/That on thy orient rug celestial lay/Thy coat a web of treasure manifold!’ John Ruskin had rounded on Bradley for her adoration of dogs as early as 1877 (at that time, she had renounced God in favour of a Skye terrier): ‘It’s so ineffably ridiculous! … I scarcely know how to deal with you – you are too stupid! … I love dogs fifty times better than you do – that’s another of your stupid misunderstandings.’ Calling the Whym Chow collection ‘almost a parody of itself’ or ‘camp’, as the critics Marion Thain and Ana Parejo Vadillo have done, cannot quite explain or account for its peculiarity.

On 28 January 1898, the day Whym Chow arrived in their lives, Bradley attributed ‘our new love of animals’ to ‘a desire to get into another kingdom’ and the need for ‘a companionship we can determine’. Perhaps it was another example of the ‘ironical’ viewpoint evident much earlier in the career of Michael Field. If so, it hadn’t aged well. There is no direct reference to the intensely spiritual and erotic ‘Trinity’ comprising Bradley, Cooper and Whym Chow in the ODNB, which closes its entry on ‘Bradley, Katharine Harris (pseud. Michael Field)’ with averted eyes and the sober verdict, in which dogs may or may not be included, that many of Field’s lyrics are ‘fine, especially the more passionate love poems’.

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