Posted on:Wednesday 29th April, 2020
Queer icons Michael Field—the lesbian niece-aunt writing duo who self-identified as ‘poets and lovers’—were for a time a little fannish about Paul Verlaine. I want to be clear that I don’t use the word ‘fannish’ in any derogatory way. Rather, I want to convey the enthusiasm, thoroughness, and voraciousness with which they pursued their French contemporary’s works and anything they could find written about him, even when such works were few and far between, published only in another language, and had to be ordered from abroad. Fannish, too, was the way they sought to share their enthusiasm with other like-minded readers, such as their correspondent Alice Trusted, who already shared their interest in French literature and ‘maiden love’.
I do realize that for some readers, my tale of Katherine Bradley (1846-1914) and Edith Cooper’s (1862-1913) enthusiasm for Paul Verlaine might not have constituted the most interesting revelation of the preceding paragraph. I have been fannish about Michael Field for over twenty years, and interest in them has been increasing steadily throughout that time. However, despite frequent short explainer blogs, the queer Victorian woman poet fandom is one of those, shall we say, smaller fandoms. Emma Donoghue’s fine 1998 biography We Are Michael Field notwithstanding, ‘the Michaels’ have lacked the pop appeal of fellow queer literati such as their acquaintance Oscar Wilde or their contemporaries Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. No pioneering punk rockers named themselves after Edith Cooper; Bob Dylan has never referenced their love in a song. Stephen Fry has not played Katherine Bradley in a major biopic (yet).
This comparative invisibility, at once cultivated by hiding their true identity and railed against with regard to their literary legacy, did stand Bradley and Cooper in good stead in terms of their private life. As aunt and niece, they were able to live together in open affection, call each other ‘Beloved’ and ‘Love’ (as well as ‘Michael’ and ‘Henry’; ‘Puss’, ‘Spouse’, and any number of other pet names), sleep in the same bed, and publish fairly explicit erotic lesbian verse, all without anyone batting an eye except those who would recognize in them a ‘kindred spirt’, as they would put it. Compared to the more cautious euphemisms employed by the gay male couples in their circle, ‘spinsters’ could hide in plain sight.
The ins and outs of this life together are chronicled in meticulous detail in their shared journal Works and Days, the 30 volumes of which, now newly online, are physically housed in the British Library, as had been their dream. This dream reflected the profound seriousness with which Bradley and Cooper took Michael Field’s literary pursuits. After having received rave reviews for the early verse drama and first volume of poetry of a new and exciting male poet, as two single women collaborating—a secret spilled by the likes of Robert Browning and William Butler Yeats—Michael Field excited interest more in the vein of amused, condescending curiosity. That a writer of genius referred to a man writing alone was an all but unquestioned orthodoxy of the day. Bradley and Cooper recognized the prejudices against women—indeed, they shared them, reading few female writers themselves, and socializing mostly with men.
Certainly their friendship with Alice Trusted was an exception to this rule (as was their absolute artistic and intellectual as well as romantic fascination with each other). It was to Alice—another unmarried woman of whom not much is remembered beyond these letters—that they introduced their 1892 project Sight and Song, as ‘a delicate little volume in the style of Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes’. Over the course of several letters, they laid out their vision of a book of poems not so much inspired by, but translated from paintings, ultimately published that year by Elkin Matthews (‘The Elk’, as they called him) and John Lane at The Bodley Head. If their engagement with Verlaine culminated in this multiply transformative work, it had been shared and discussed in their correspondence with their friend throughout the preceding year. These letters make clear that Michael Field read Verlaine intently, but by no means uncritically. In fact, they prefer the theory to the poems, and their own theoretical introduction to their book acknowledges this debt to Verlaine.
For his part, Verlaine had been inspired in Fêtes galantes by the paintings of Antoine Watteau, a taste Bradley and Cooper shared and a project they undertook themselves. In basing their own creative project on Watteau, Michael Field and Verlaine join the ranks of Gérard de Nerval, Charles Baudelaire, and Théophile Gautier, among others. All were sometime members of the Watteau ‘fandom’ that rose up in England during the Regency and took flight in France during the second Empire. Like many fans, these writers were moved to offer commentary or new creative works in response to a shared body of existing works (in Michael Field’s case, ‘L’Embarquement pour Cythère’ and ‘L’Indifférent’.) However, a pantheon of nineteenth-century poets that includes Nerval, Baudelaire, and Verlaine did not then and does not now naturally turn to include Michael Field and their collaborative, discursive creations. The addition of three English ‘spinsters’ to this company is not the story of nineteenth-century poetry that is generally told, as Michael Field knew perfectly well at the time.
Nonetheless, in this correspondence with their dear friend and in their own diary and commonplace book Works and Days—a curated, chronological collection of memorabilia, correspondence, journals, critical reactions, and their developing work for publication—'the Michaels’ worked out their own theory and practice of visual and verbal poetics, in conversation with women, paintings, and French poets and critics. The better-known men who shared these interests, however, also worked collaboratively (and erotically, see Verlaine and Rimbaud’s ‘Sonnet du trou du cul’), fannishly (see Baudelaire on Poe), and even more ‘derivatively’ (again see Baudelaire on Poe, drawing word-for-word from American critics), but this is not the story usually told about their work. Part of my conceit in describing all these activities in terms of fandom is that the creative endeavors of queer women writing collaboratively, transformatively, enthusiastically, and sometimes erotically are dismissed to this day, often by means of the rhetoric of fannishness, whereas men’s long engagement with similar processes are effaced and their lone genius emphasized.
Department of English
University of Utah
Sight and Song, beautifully annotated and presented with the images that inspired the poems under the direction of Sarah Kersch. Hosted at Dickinson College. https://michaelfield.dickinson.edu/book/sight-and-song
Works and Days, The Diaries of Michael Field Online Edition, a broadly collaborative project headed by Marion Thain, https://mf.dev.cdhsc.org/home
Fêtes galantes online as audiobook through Librivox https://archive.org/details/fetes_galantes_jc/fetesgalantes_01_verlaine.mp3
Text of 1891 2nd edition, https://archive.org/details/ftesgalantes00verl/page/3/mode/2up
Micheline Walker’s blog on Verlaine and Watteau, https://michelinewalker.com/2014/08/01/fetes-galantes-watteau-verlaine/
Sonnet du Trou de Cul, https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Sonnet_du_Trou_du_Cul_(Hombres)