Michael Field, The Strangest Victorian Author You’ve Never Heard Of

The Banksy Of The 1880s

In the late 19th century, a mysterious poet burst onto the scene with an impressive debut verse drama. Soon enough, readers and critics flocked to praise the lyrical intensity of an up-and-coming writer named Michael Field. Though his name was relatively innocuous, Field hid a dramatic double life. The ingénue-poet was using a pseudonym. On top of that, he wasn’t a single man, but two women: Katharine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper.

The Truth Comes Out

For a time, the ruse worked. Michael Field was the critical darling of 1884 and 1885, with poems praised by respected periodicals like The Spectator. But by 1892, Robert Browning had spilled the beans and the secret was officially out. Sadly, newly harsh reviews proved that Bradley was right in thinking that the world couldn’t handle her poems if they came from “a woman’s lips.”

Family History

When Bradley’s older sister Emma fell ill, Bradley stepped in and became the legal guardian of her sister’s newborn daughter Edith Emma Cooper. After six happy years of Bradley mentoring young Cooper, a family tragedy led Bradley to take a step back from her duties. When Bradley was just 22 years old, her mother died. Left to grieve, she needed a distraction. She traveled to France, recovering from her sorrow with the lights of Paris and the shores of the Seine.

Terms of Endearment

Bradley, who was independently wealthy thanks to her family’s involvement in the tobacco trade, resumed her role as Cooper’s intellectual mentor. She encouraged the young woman to write poetry and translate Virgil-at the same time as the over-achieving Bradley published her own literary works, such as The New Minnesinger. Between the 1870s and the early 20th century, Bradley and Cooper struck up an intense romantic relationship and published an impressive oeuvre of 27 plays and eight books of poetry, all while finding time to form one of literary history’s stranger footnotes. The writers worshipped their little dog Whym-Chow with a pseudo-religious fervor, but that’s a story for another day.

Problematic Faves

This is not a popular representation. In articles on Field, critics either avoid the unseemly registers of Bradley and Cooper’s early relationship or equivocate its strangeness with other outdated romantic norms, like marriage between first cousins.

The Palatable Years

While the foundation of their relationship is unsavory, we do know that for the rest of their lives, Bradley and Cooper were inseparable. The women co-wrote a journal and claimed that they were so entwined that they couldn’t distinguish where one’s writing stopped and another’s started. They managed to get through rough patches, like Cooper’s passion for a male friend.

Michael Field in 2020

Like so many of history’s fascinating figures, Michael Field can’t be boiled down to a one-dimensional character sketch. All at once, Bradley and Cooper were brilliant writers, committed partners despite their meet-ugly, egotistical artists, and flawed, changeable people. Throughout their lives they switched religious affiliations from Anglican, to Roman Catholic, to atheist, and even to Pagan-and as I noted earlier, they worshipped their freaking dog.

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