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The Forgotten, Scandalous Lesbian Writing Duo of the Victorian Era

The lovers known as poet and playwright "Michael Field" kept their identity — and their romance — a mystery. Here's why.

The Forgotten Scandalous Lesbian Writing Duo of the Victorian Era
Illustration by Greta Kotz

In 1884, a new issue of The Spectator, a prominent British magazine that had previously panned Charles Dickens's Bleak House, heralded the arrival of a new poet and playwright. The Spectator was delivered by a breathless horseman to the elite and bohemian artistic circles of Victorian England as soon as it was available. It proclaimed that Michael Field had "the ring of a new voice, which is likely to be heard far and wide among the English-speaking people." Field saved that glowing review of Fair Rosamund, as well as every other bulletin heralding the six-shilling verse play's triumphant arrival in 1884.

Critics proclaimed Michael Field the next Shakespeare — without any idea of who Michael Field was. The mystery fed his ego, and there was no greater sustenance than an unexpected letter from Robert Browning. The era's preeminent writer flattered and praised Field in earnest, but not without an agenda. He was the only one who had the gumption to ask Michael Field directly about his identity. The rest of London's artistic circles seemed content to speculate among themselves, but not Browning, who procured the debut playwright's address.

But could Field trust Browning with his true self? Yes, Browning promised by post. The prospect of intimacy with a literary titan like Browning was intoxicating to Field and outweighed the obvious risk of telling a stranger his secret. And so Browning became the second person, after Field's publisher, to learn the true identity of the new literary phenomena.

His name wasn't Michael Field. He wasn't a man. He wasn't a woman, either. He was two women: a pair of lovers named Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper.

The collaboration must never be made public, Edith wrote, for it would end Michael Field's promising career. It was not just a matter of literary secrecy, but of reputation. If the writer's gender was discovered, "Michael" risked total dismissal by the literary gatekeepers, the arbiters of taste who still viewed women writers as an exception. If Michael were revealed to be two people, it would prove disastrous. Writers who paired up to publish were thought of as amateurs; they were not gifted enough to go it alone.

But Browning, who knew well the obstacles facing female writers, as husband to the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, violated Edith and Katherine's request for "strict secrecy." The pair learned they had been outed when the London literary magazine The Athenaeum referred to Michael Field as "she."

Katherine wrote to Browning, who was no doubt the rumor monger: "We have many things to say that the world will not tolerate from a woman's lips." George Eliot, the legendary female author of Middlemarch, had proven that a male pseudonym lent authority and high seriousness. And that's how Edith and Katherine regarded themselves — as real Poets, which they spelled, always, with a capital "P."

And yet, few remember these vainglorious spinsters who, because of inherited wealth and an inconsistently permissive society, were able to write and love with unprecedented abandon. They were minor literary figures in the Victorian era, just as Alice Mitchell, the subject of my first book, was a minor murderer in the Victorian era, and yet they add such depth and complexity to the fin de siècle, sapphic Zeitgeist — one that, while overlooked by mainstream historians, seems to consist of one astonishing tale after another.

And there's something far more to shocking to the "Michael Field" secret, too, another part, but that came much later.

***

It all began on January 12, 1862. Katherine, then fifteen, cradled Edith, her newborn niece, in her arms. Lissie, Katherine's older sister, would recover from Edith's birth, but after the birth of her second daughter, Amy, Lissie was never quite right again. She was feeble and grew dependent on Katherine and their mother, Emma, who wasn't in good health herself.

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Grief was the first literary art Katherine was determined to master. She did not turn away when a foal was stillborn at her mother's country cottage, a terrible experience that left an enduring impression. "I cannot bear the children about always," she wrote in her diary. Katherine's life would soon be motherless, and, if she could avoid it, it would always remain childless. She seemed totally exhausted by the demands she saw placed on women with families and knew it would surely put an end to the wanderlust and intellectual curiosity burning inside her.

It was not necessarily maternal feelings, then, that drew Katherine to her eldest niece. It was just a preference, there from the beginning, obvious to everyone. Young Edith was ambitious in her studies, mature in her behavior, and independent, but for all her quiet charms, she was not enough to tempt Katherine to stay in their hometown of Birmingham's "dust & ashes." When her mother died, Katherine lit out for France.

The recently orphaned 22-year-old simultaneously wallowed in her pain, writing, "Oh to be at the bottom of the Seine," and embraced her first real taste of independence, almost 300 miles away from home, in Paris. She studied at the Collège de France and reveled in her new life. Katherine was thrilled by new prospects in Paris and spent hours contemplating their unqualified potential.

And yet she was struck by overwhelming homesickness. By 1873, she was at Lissie's side once again, living with her family. Katherine devoted herself to "teaching the chicks" and writing poetry, but this time, she did not keep her thoughts hidden in a personal diary.

In 1875, at the age of 29, Katherine became a published author. She sent a collection of poems, The New Minnesinger, by "Arran Leigh," a pen name inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, to every man she knew. The book, whose subjects ranged widely from primroses to Goethe, was received well enough to encourage her to pursue writing further and to live on her own, choices that were rare for women of the time, even if they had means.

All the while, Katherine's favorite niece was at home, growing taller and more learned than her aunt. By adolescence, Edith was translating Virgil and writing poetry. We know little more about her youth, and even less about when or how her relationship with Katherine changed.

I can vaguely pinpoint their romance's start somewhere around 1876. That's the year Katherine, then 30, wrote fourteen-year-old Edith a Christmas poem whose lines suggests their relationship was in transition, from doting aunt and beloved niece to a romantic coupling.

From Fowl to Fowlet;
From Owl to Owlet;
From Loving to Lover;
From Bard to his Brother;
From Arran Leigh
     To the Voice to Be.

From the hand of "Own"
To the dearest Known;
From the Bird-All-Wise
To the Light of his eyes;
From Friend unto Frien
     After Life shall end.

From then on, Katharine and Edith were only "aunt" and "niece" in letters to their family and friends. To each other, they were "my Love" and "my Beloved," separated only by geography. Katherine, of age and means and with the most modest of literary success under a pen name, traveled as she pleased, while Edith, stuck at home by virtue of age and vulnerable to illnesses common and indeterminate, waited eagerly for her letters. Edith began writing letters as if they were diary entries, in sections marked "later," "later at night," and "after breakfast." In those quiet hours, she communed with Katherine as well. "You always sleep with me in effigy — for your portrait lies under my pillow and I kiss it."

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Whether their family knew that a niece was kissing a portrait of her aunt every night or not, and what moved her to do so, is unclear, but the Bradley-Coopers weren't completely in the dark, as I discovered in the archives of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. Not that Edith, with her weak constitution, could have kept up with Katherine's travels, but in her most robust months, the family may have been making efforts to keep the two women apart.

In April of 1885, Edith wrote to Katherine, "my own loving Deare," with sorry news, referring to herself with one of the nicknames her Aunt had bestowed on her: "The Parents won't lend you the Pussy — they think ill would befall the lavender fur." Katherine, a healthy, parentless adult, was free to wander the world, but Edith, still young, prone to illness, and with two concerned parents, was not. Katherine, in her reply, perhaps to demonstrate her ire, refers to her sister not by their relation but by her role as gatekeeper to Edith, writing, "Mother must have a heart of stone if after this she Keeps you from me. What is it to me to be in the woods without my Pretty swinging on the bough?"

By August, Katherine was addressing her as "Sweet Wife" and "My Pretty Spouse," and Edith seemed to rise to the title. She had turned sixteen and was finally well enough to venture away from home. She enrolled in classes at the University of Bristol and made a home in Stoke Bishop. It wasn't long before Katherine began to visit, which must have seemed, to the outside world, rather proper: a spinster aunt of means chaperoning her niece.

Intimacy between two women — which could include kissing, or sharing a bed — was perfectly acceptable. Women in Cambridge would "prop" each other, meaning use each other's last names, and words like lesbian and categories like "gay" did not yet exist in the mainstream. It was not uncommon for same-sex literary couples, like author Willa Cather and her lifelong partner, editor Edith Lewis, to openly live together; many other creative couples did so without drawing too much suspicion or interest. Of course, few of these couples were relations.

And the truth would have been shocking — if not incomprehensible. Incest was certainly taboo, but that taboo existed alongside counternarratives; first cousins were marrying in the Protestant church and in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. As London School of Economics centennial professor Adam Kuper argues, the leading bourgeois clans' "preference for marriages within the family circle was a crucial factor in their success."

But Katherine and Edith were, of course, women. A union between them was fundamentally impossible in the eyes of the church and the law. So was the idea of a woman's committing incest, an exclusion that, in this case, allowed them great opportunity.

***

Katherine often joined Edith for lectures on the classics and philosophy, where they, like the academy itself, favored men. They read the Elizabethan playwrights, Gustave Flaubert, Dante Rossetti, and his sister, Christina. Considered Elizabeth Barrett Browning's rival for best female poet of the era, Christina Rossetti was one of the few women they read. In her "Goblin Market," a narrative poem, one character, Lizzie, tells her sister, Laura, to lick juices off her body. For Katherine and Edith, Rosetti's unchaste work was a foreshadowing of what they would do as Michael Field.

They became suffragettes, eschewing corsets and hoop skirts for tight-clinging frocks. They saw themselves as maenads, the female followers of Dionysus, but what was true on the page was true in life. Katherine and Edith preferred to read men, just as they preferred the company of men, although the feeling was not always reciprocated. Men did not find their vernacular, which often included casual use of archaic language, very attractive or ladylike, and the intensity of their intimacy was off-putting.

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Some days, they drove each other mad. In 1891, Katherine wrote to a male correspondent that "[Edith] and I have nearly killed one another with vain and cruel reproaches over the Romuald scene. We are left with wasted eyes, reconciled hearts, and a humorous sense of the folly of alienation."

But such strife was the exception. Katherine and Edith's art was essential to their love, and their love was central to their art. The arrangement, in their minds, made them superior to even the most acclaimed literary couples — including Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Katherine and Edith were also without many of the same financial concerns as writers like the Brownings. Success was integral to their ego, but not to their pocketbook, which was padded by their family's tobacco fortune. Thus they could indulge the most romanticized artistic process. If the family home in Bristol inhibited their love and work, she and Edith would simply get up and go. Their works, which ultimately numbered eight books of poetry, 27 plays, and countless journals and letters, would always be published one way or another.

But that was only half the battle. The women also wanted to control their persona, which often proved difficult. Katherine took to her diary to complain about the carelessness with which others treated their open secret, penning a particularly seething entry following a party where the hostess had, without warning, introduced them as Michael Field. With utter disgust, she described how a crowd of "fashionable women" pummeled them with compliments until she could take it no more. "I laid a master-hand on the hostess," she recalled, and ordered her to introduce them by their Christian names, not their professional pseudonym. There wasn't one instance during which they were exposed that led to a waning in critical success, but they alternately complained, just a year after their debut, about a lack of opportunity, a lack of reviews for their work, and a lack of understanding. Their style seemed tired, and though they sometimes considered modernizing, they never did. Stephania, an 1892 play, was privately described as one "only pure-minded elderly mid-Victorian virgins could have imagined." Wait 50 years, Browning assured them, and all will change. But patience was not their favored virtue, and, as we know now, it made no difference. "Within a decade of Michael Field's debut, reviewers were referring to the writer as "she," damaging their reputation and ensuring that their prestige would dwindle, their work would get reviewed less often and favorably, and their egos would suffer — as would, ultimately, their legacy.

***

The couple left for Paris, then Milan, Florence, Verona, Bologna, Pisa, and Genoa in search of inspiration, but their travels came to an abrupt end with Edith was struck with scarlet fever. She spent weeks in a hospital, plagued by fever dreams and an obsessive, "pious nurse stuffed in four layers of stockings." Katherine raged about everything they had to offer, from the wine they served to the hospital room she paced. Edith eventually recovered, and both were much improved by the critical reception to Sight and Song, a collection of poetry inspired by the oil paintings of the Italian Masters. The Academy called it most Keatsian thing since Keats and the only thing more romantic than a Romantic poet.

They celebrated at a friend's home, where they fell in with Bernard Berenson, a fashionable art historian whom they hoped to trail through exhibition halls and galleries. Berenson, a Harvard-educated son of Jewish immigrants who toured Europe under American patronage, had felled many in their circle, whether they were married or otherwise engaged, but his hold on Edith was as unexpected as it was substantial. She seemed to take a step, at least in their diary, away from Katherine and toward Berenson, writing "he and I" rather than "we and him."

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Berenson was 25 to Edith's 28, and he threatened everything that was Michael Field. "O Henry, Henry, my boy, let us cleave to art," Katherine wrote in their diary, to which Edith answered, "Let us not fear." Despite his searing intellectual and androgynous charms, Berenson could never compare with what Edith had with Katherine. It was the only love she had ever known, and she was not so foolish as to believe it could be easily replicated — which was, in its own bizarre way, correct. That they were able to sustain a same-sex relationship for decades, let alone an incestuous one, was indeed unlikely, and certainly, had it been discovered, it would have been deemed perverse and treated as such. "We kiss & are complete," Edith wrote of Katherine, admiring the "radiance from her face," but she just couldn't seem to let the idea of Berenson go. Katherine certainly expressed pointed resentment: "I have seen my fertile land become a desert through him."

But for the most part, she seemed to take Edith's feelings in stride, and they did little to weaken her own. Once, when she was due in London to see a play, Katherine went to kiss Edith, whose delicate features were framed by a fox collar. Katherine was so moved by her beautiful love, she decided she could not leave. They sometimes quarreled, as couples do, and the solution was a walk, a holiday or a trip, and sometimes gifts, including a red silk bodice Katherine bought Edith in the city. Edith eventually gave up her obsession, for Katherine's sake, and Berenson, easily distracted, didn't put up a fight.

***

Katherine and Edith passed for spinsters when the 1901 Census came calling. Though they had their ups and downs with Oscar Wilde — "There is no charm in his elephantine body tightly stuffed into his clothes," Edith once wrote after he barely acknowledged them at a party — they also thought of him when they passed as acceptable members of society. Women could live together and rouse little suspicion, but Wilde had sued the marquess of Queensbury for libel over a calling card that said "For Oscar Wilde posing Sodomite [sic]." At the trial, Wilde's own lawyer asked him about suggestive letters he had written, which he claimed were works of art.

Queensbury was acquitted, but Wilde was soon back in court, accused of sodomy and gross indecency. Michael Field's poems and plays — Katherine and Edith's art — as well as their letters and diaries, were rife with the kind of eroticism that got Wilde sentenced, in 1895, to two years' hard labor. This fate was unlikely for a woman, but other forms of imprisonment, like asylums, were within the realm of possibility.

Living relatively undetected was a priority, but Katherine and Edith seemed more concerned with the luxury of privacy than the safety of it. They were overjoyed when Edith's sister Amy, at 34, was finally married at the local church, in no small part because it ensured there was little chance they would be saddled with a third wheel; their family was prone to illness, and she was the only immediate living relation left. They played the role well for Amy, receiving wedding guests after the Catholic ceremony, gifting the newlyweds an antique silver teapot, and joyously seeing their "quiet little bride," their last obligation, off. Now their days were their own, to be spent entertaining and writing, even though critics had taken to ignoring their works.

For the eight years that followed, they were content with each other and Whym, a dog they considered a "symbol of our perfect union." Whym was not long for such weighty passion, and when he died, they could find no solace in words or friends. He had been a physical communion of their love for each other, which they saw, essentially, as Christ-like, describing his "wondrous fur" as offering a "loved confessional." To fill the void he left behind, they turned to an obvious (given their background) but unlikely (given everything else) substitute: the Catholic church.

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It was considered in vogue for Victorian women artists to turn to Catholicism, and it was all the more popular, through the twentieth century, for lesbians to convert, including Radclyffe Hall, who wrote The Well of Loneliness, a radical lesbian novel, and Gertrude Stein's partner, Alice B. Toklas. The church offered a family, showmanship, and formality, and even a woman, the Virgin Mary, to whom they could (chastely) devote themselves.

Edith was baptized in April of 1907, and Katherine followed in May. (Not to be left out, Amy, Edith's sister, also converted from Dublin.) They may have continued their "secret sins," as Edith called them, but otherwise, they seemed wholly given over to the church. Instead of writing, they spent their days agonizing over Catholic doctrine. Their holidays were no longer spent at the beach but at religious retreats, and though they despised nuns, as they did any group of women, they became Dominican tertiaries in 1910.

***

In 1911, at 49, Edith was diagnosed with cancer. She rose to the occasion, blaming her "great, flagrant sinning" for her disease. "Finally," biographer Emma Donoghue wrote, "a tragedy worthy of [Edith's] talents." The couple got an Elkhound dog with worms and other ailments, and slept together on the floor. Katherine had once read Wordsworth to her ailing sister; now she read it to that sister's ailing daughter.

"When the pain is very bad, Michael takes me in her arms, & the vital warmth of her being is of such power the pain goes to sleep," wrote Edith. She refused morphine, opting instead for Trypsin, which extended her life but did not save her from the unpleasantness of dying. Still, she was able to enjoy a fickle new car, and on New Year's Eve in 1912, she wrote twenty nearly inscrutable pages summarizing the year. Katherine's wretchedness is clearly expressed in poetry.

     OH. WHAT CAN DEATH HAVE TO DO.
     WITH A CURVE THAT IS DRAWN SO FINE
     WITH A CURVE THAT IS DRAWN AS TRUE
     AS THE MOUNTAIN'S CRESCENT LINE?...
     LET ME BE HID WHERE THE DUST FALLS FINE!

Edith's last words, on December 13, 1913, were "Not yet, not yet." She did not know that Katherine had been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier in the year. As if on cue, her lifelong partner began to hemorrhage at Edith's funeral. Edith was gone, but Katherine continued to write to her. She told her that the woman hired to nurse her was "not a pretty little nun, Hennie." Convinced that she was present, Katherine asked Edith to "show me how you love me now."

***

They had hoped the British Library would preserve their papers and tasked Tommy Sturge Moore, whom Yeats described as "one of the most exquisite poets writing in England," as their executor, with the task of placing them there. Moore succeeded, but neither he, nor the British Library, saved Michael Fields from relative literary obscurity. The reason is as familiar to us as it was to Katherine and Edith: men found these women, these spinsters, these collaborators, easy to forget. They became footnotes in books on Oscar Wilde and Robert Browning and other Great Literary Men, mere afterthoughts in liberal-arts classes on same-sex literary couples during the Victorian era.

This is not their fault, nor a judgment of their work. Women writers have proven particularly easy to consign to oblivion, whether or not the quality of their work merited it. Katherine and Edith may not have produced plays and poems that appeal to modern audiences, but their story might. Donoghue's fine attempt to resurrect the pair in 1998 didn't quite take, but as the number of women scholars continues to grow, so do Michael Field's chances.

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In her last year, Katherine was focused on leaving their literary house in good order, publishing Edith's early works and a limited edition of their collaboration. She quarreled with Berenson, who was upset to learn that Michael Field's executor was his sworn enemy and demanded authority over any of their journal entries that mentioned him. (Instead, he was simply excluded from publication, which meant scholars tended to exclude him, too, convenient for those uninterested in their relationships with men.)

But as the year progressed, Katherine grew tired. She put down her pen and spent her final days in a cottage in Staffordshire, listening to news of the First World War. When she had enough strength, she was wheeled to Mass. That was the plan on September 26, 1914, when Katherine collapsed while being readied for church by a nurse, her body sinking to the ground while her soul drifted off to find Edith's.

Alexis Coe is the author of Alice+Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis.

Recommended reading:

Bickle, Sharon, ed. The Fowl and the Pussycat: Love Letters of Michael Field.

Donoghue, Emma. We Are Michael Field.

Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers.

Prins, Yopie. Victorian Sappho.

Thain, Marion and Ana Parejo Vadillo. Michael Field, The Poetry: published Manuscript Materials.

Kuper, Adam. Incest and Influence.