The English literary landscape of the late Victorian age is full of colourful and mysterious writers. The turbulent existential events of some, such as Oscar Wilde, are well known, while the memory of others, on the contrary, has been lost. This is the case, for example, of Katherine Bradley (1846-1914) and her niece Edith Cooper (1862-1913), two authors who, under the pseudonym of Michael Field, published thirty plays and eleven volumes of poems. Such was their passion that they continue to write even when the favour of critics, after an initial positive reception, turned into hostility. Their bond was also extraordinary from a sentimental point of view: they called themselves «poetesses and lovers», and for fifty years they were practically inseparable.
Unfortunately, with the exception of a couple of monographs, almost nothing has been written on the life and art of Bradley and Cooper. Their papers, kept in the British Library and partially published in the volume Works and Day (1933), have attracted the attention of very few scholars. That’s why the reader is more likely to find out about them by browsing the bio of some of their most famous friends – John Ruskin, Robert Browning, George Moore, Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, George Meredith, W. B. Yeats, Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon – having to be satisfied, in any case, only with quick hints.
Coming from a wealthy middle-class family, Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper saw their love blossom around 1878, when Bradley was thirty-two, exactly twice the age of her niece. Relieved of any economic worries, they decided to devote themselves completely to their common passion, which is literature, acting as one person. They adopted a masculine nom de plume to be more easily considered by critics, which was both an invocation to the strength of the archangel (Michael) and to the freedom of nature, with its immense fields (Field). However, it soon became known that two women were hiding behind the pseudonym.
While sharing a common artistic vision, Bradley and Cooper worked in separate rooms. Some of their plays were actually written by both of them, others only by one or the other. As for the poems, however, each wrote in complete autonomy, limiting itself to offering some advice to the companion; only in view of publication, the compositions were collected in a more or less significant order.
The preference for drama in verse – a genre in vogue in the 19th century, meant more for reading than for staging – condemned aunt and niece to always have a very small audience and often they themselves had to bear the costs of printing of their books. On the other hand, when they tried to chase the fashion of theatre in prose, like Ibsen, or to produce masques full of magical events, the results were decidedly mediocre. The real mistake they made was perhaps that of continuing to consider themselves primarily playwrights, preferring to ignore the fact that most readers and critics greatly preferred their poems.
Nonetheless, plays such as The Cup of Water (1887), Stephania (1892), Anna Ruina (1899), and Julia Domna (1903), in their mixture of history, politics, amorous passions and proto-feminism, show some inspiration, in particular they are excellent in analysing the difficult relationship between men and women.
On the poetic side, the best collections are Long Ago (1889), whose sensual lyrics echo those of Sappho, and Underneath the Boug (1893), with an unscrupulous use of free verse that anticipates the experiments of T. S. Eliot.
If their literary career was fluctuating, their relationship was also not without tension, further complicated by the confused sentimental tastes of the two who, in truth, preferred men to women (not surprisingly, the worst period of the couple occurred when Cooper fell madly in love with the art historian Bernard Berenson). After all, Bradley and her niece wallowed in contradictions: in the diary they kept in common, for example, their relationship is described in terms of a marriage, yet both were contrary to any form of union alternative to the traditional one. Also on the occasion of the Wilde scandal, while sympathizing with him, they did not miss an opportunity to reproach the Irish writer for the stupidity of having made public his scandalous behaviour. More generally, Bradley and Cooper were aware of the general decay of morals that was afflicting their age: they wrote that London in the late nineteenth century and late-imperial Rome were quite similar in «laxity, wealth and degeneration».
Before their conversion to Catholicism, which took place in the middle of the Edwardian age, their spiritual life had also been confused (Bradley used to define herself as «Christian, pagan, pantheist and other things I don’t know the name of»). Growing up in the Anglican faith and particularly sensitive to the cult of the dead, over the years the two women had adopted a paganism with picturesque features, perfectly represented by the altar dedicated to Dionysus that they had built in the garden.
In 1906, through Marc-André Raffalovich, they met the canon John Gray, a former decadent poet, and thanks to him they decided to become Catholic. The beauty of the Latin liturgy, the cult of the Madonna and the solitude in which they found themselves after the disappearance of their beloved dog Whym Chow were some of the probable reasons that led aunt and niece to a change of life, confirmed in 1910 by their entry into the Dominican Third Order, with a special dispensation to go to the theatre.
Helped in their spiritual journey by other valid priests, above all Father Vincent McNabb, Bradley and Cooper took the good habit of going to mass almost every day, often praying together: their relationship, now devoid of any sensual implications, was more balance than ever. The depth of their religious life is also testified by the collections Poems of Adoration (1912) and Mystic Trees (1913) as well as their latest theatrical text, almost a spiritual testament, Iphigenia in Arsacia, the story of a girl resurrected by Saint Matthew who, as a sign of gratitude, abandons her lover and definitively consecrates herself to God, becoming a nun.
A few weeks later cancer took away Edith Cooper and soon after Katherine Bradley. They were buried together in the graveyard of St Mary Magdalen’s church in Mortlake. Michael Field had ceased to exist on this earth, but the two women were sure that they would once again embrace each other in the afterlife.
Source: E. DONOGHUE, We Are Michael Field, Absolute Press, Bath, 1998.