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.