Before Michael Field: Katharine Bradley as "Arran Leigh"

Article excerpt

RECENT DECADES have seen a resurgence of critical interest in nineteenth-century women poets, many of whom had been neglected for much of the twentieth century. One of the more idiosyncratic yet accomplished voices to reemerge has been that of Michael Field. There have been very few poets quite like Michael Field, either at the fin de siecle or any other time. This young man (who would publish numerous verse dramas and nine volumes of lyric poetry) (1) was actually, in the words of Stevie Smith, "that odd amalgam of Aunt and Niece" Katharine Harris Bradley (1846-1914) and Edith Emma Cooper (1862-1913). (2) With the publication of the two closet dramas Callirhoe and Fair Rosamund in 1884, Michael Field made an immediate impact upon the literary scene. Every figure of note either wanted to meet "him" pretended to have done so, or at least had some opinion on this new presence. The poet A. Mary F. Robinson wrote flirtatious fan mail: "next Tuesday afternoon you would find me singularly alone as my mother & sister are gone for a few days to Wales; & no callers generally arrive till after four." (3) Even Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed his view, in somewhat cautionary tones, to Robert Bridges when he heard that the latter was to meet Michael Field: "He is a dramatist: nought which concerns the drama concerns not him, he thinks. It might indeed do him good to know that you had never heard of him ... Do be wise." (4)

However, the excitement did not last. It would be the aging Robert Browning (a confidant of Bradley and Cooper) who inadvertently revealed the dual, female authorship behind the public facade of Michael Field. Following this, all serious critical assessment of Bradley and Cooper's work evaporated, as Bradley lamented to Browning that "you are robbing us of real criticism, such as man gives man." (5) Initially, while explaining the functions of the Michael Field pseudonym to Browning, Edith Cooper stated, "the happy union of two in work and aspiration is sheltered and expressed by 'Michael Field" Please regard him as the author." To this Bradley added that revealing their dual authorship "would indeed be utter ruin to us; but the report of lady authorship will dwarf and enfeeble our work at every turn"' (6) Clearly, the male pseudonym worked on a number of levels: in one sense it was a mask, a means of evading prejudicial criticism based on gender; at the same time, "Michael Field" was not a mouthpiece but a separate entity in his own right. The act of writing and publishing verse drama and lyric poetry under the name Michael Field was a conceptual experiment, a work of performance art.

This idea is borne out when we consider that Bradley and Cooper kept the name long after their enterprise was uncovered. When Michael Field debuted as a lyric poet with Long Ago in 1889, there were few who did not recognize the truth. However, there was one other secret which remained hidden away. Long Ago might have been Michael Field's first collection of lyrics, but it was not Bradley and Cooper's. Michael Field's re-workings of Sappho's fragments is highly polished and uniquely unified in style. Yet such an accomplishment was the product of almost fifteen years' apprenticeship in crafting and publishing lyric poetry. Before Michael Field, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper had published under different names. In 1875 Bradley brought out The New Minnesinger as Arran Leigh, and in 1881 the two women together, as collaborators for the first time, had published Bellerophon as Arran and Isla Leigh. (7)

This formative stage in the lives and careers of Bradley and Cooper, the production of the Arran and Isla Leigh juvenilia, has so far elicited little commentary. There have been glancing references to the existence of this work in most critical overviews of Michael Field, but no sustained analysis of the poetry and its significance to the later poetic oeuvre of Michael Field. Two of the most eminent of Michael Field's recent critics and editors, Marion Thain and Ana Parejo Vadillo, avoid analysis of this work. …


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