Academic journal article Hecate

Living "Willfully": The Same-Sex Marriage Ceremony of "Michael Field" by the Smutt River

Academic journal article Hecate

Living "Willfully": The Same-Sex Marriage Ceremony of "Michael Field" by the Smutt River

Article excerpt

Willful parts: hands which are not handy. This book has been full of such parts, wayward parts: parts that will not budge, that refuse to participate, parts that keep coming up, when they are not even supposed to be. (Ahmed, Willful Subjects 194)

In Willful Subjects, Sara Ahmed explores the problematics of willfulness1: as a departure, a wayward part, a persistence, "a stray's philosophy" (16). She identifies something definingly queer, as well as raced and gendered, in the willful subject and reads a politics of willfulness that lies in "a refusal to cover over what is missing, a refusal to aspire to be whole" (184). As Ahmed notes, "A body can become a willful thing when it gets in the way of an action being completed. Or we can be more specific: a sore thumb is what sticks out, getting in the way" (43; original emphasis).

My aim here is to map willfulness through the lives of two late-Victorian women writers who "stick out": Katharine Bradley (1846-1914) and her niece, Edith Cooper (1862-1913)-the partnership in literature and love known as "Michael Field." In doing this, my purpose is not (or not only) to contribute to Ahmed's own willfulness archive, but rather to examine the disturbances created by and around Bradley and Cooper as a result of being willful and the uses that they make of willfulness in constructing the narrative of their lives and their art. Indeed, while Ahmed cautions against a turn toward willfulness (173), I argue that Bradley and Cooper develop the potential of willfulness as a productive narrative strategy, writing themselves both willfully and as willful subjects in their joint diaries, "Works and Days," and placing willful characters at the centre of their creative works. In this article, I illustrate the way Bradley and Cooper develop their own politics of willfulness through a close reading of Bradley and Cooper's same-sex marriage ceremony by the Smutt River in Switzerland in 1897.

Locating "Michael Field": a stray's philosophy

"Michael Field" was introduced to the literary world in May 1884 with the publication of the verse dramas: Callirrhoë/Fair Rosamund. This was not the first book produced by the collaboration of Bradley and her niece. Under the names, Arran and Isla Leigh, they had already published Bellerophôn in 1881. As "Michael Field," they published eight volumes of lyric poetry and seventeen historical verse dramas, in spite of the perception of a prejudice against the pseudonym (that did result in a short period of anonymous publication). Other dramas were published posthumously, making a total of twenty-seven. Despite waning popularity, Bradley and Cooper published as "Michael Field" until their deaths in 1913 and 1914.

What is possibly most remarkable about the verse dramas written by "Michael Field" is the way in which they often focus on strange and wayward protagonists. While it is true that numbered among their writings are plays about popular figures such as Mary Stuart (The Tragic Mary, 1890) and the eponymously titled Borgia (1905), they also devoted plays to the mad, stuttering king William Rufus (1885), the disobedient son starved to death in The Father's Tragedy (1885), and the Roman Princess Honoria's self-destructive passion for Attila the Hun (Attila, My Attila, 1896). The first published play by "Michael Field," Callirrhoë, features a loyal and loving daughter who comes to understand that her place is not in the town with the family who betrays her, but amongst the Maenads on the mountainside. That "Michael Field" subsequently took the Bacchic staff of the Maenads, the thyrsus pole, as the emblem for the covers of their works affirms Bradley and Cooper's devotion to what Ahmed calls a stray's philosophy.

Since the 1990s, a successful recovery project devoted to the works of "Michael Field," concerned primarily with their poetry, particularly Long Ago (1893) and Sight and Song (1892), has been underway. While critics are now beginning to turn to the verse dramas, many of these remain neglected. …

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