“Love and Beauty Their Prison”: Talking with Carolyn Dever on Michael Field

“The diary has challenged every category of literary analysis for me.”

Between 1875 and 1913, Katharine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper published more than 30 volumes of poems and verse drama under the name Michael Field. Bradley and Cooper were not just collaborators, however. They were also lovers and near relations. And “Michael Field” was not just a public pseudonym. Michael Field was also a shared identity of which Bradley and Cooper partook in their private life together and in the diary of that life they co-wrote, which they hoped would be published posthumously under the title Works and Days.

It was in 2002 that Carolyn Dever first encountered Michael Field’s diary, which runs to 29 volumes in the British Library, plus an additional volume at the Bodleian Library; a cumulative 10,000 pages. Dever, a widely renowned scholar of the Victorian novel, knew immediately that she would publish a book on the diaries someday. In the 20 years that followed, other commitments—including terms as dean of the College of Arts and Science at Vanderbilt University, as provost at Dartmouth College, and as the founding section editor for higher education at Public Books—absorbed Dever’s attention. But she continued her work on the diary, even as Michael Field acquired an ever larger audience of readers, captivated by the poetic oeuvre and by Bradley and Cooper’s existence as a same-sex domestic pair in Victorian England.

This year, Princeton University Press published the fruit of Dever’s long and inspired engagement with Michael Field. In the richly immersive Chains of Love and Beauty: The Diary of Michael Field, Dever weaves the history of Bradley and Cooper’s shared life with incisive reflections on some of the major questions the diary activates: questions about identity and family, about creativity and material existence, about faith and death, about modernity and the infinite forms of amorous attachment. Focusing on eight volumes of the diary covering years that were especially eventful for Michael Field, the book offers a uniquely intimate account of a unique intimacy. I had the good fortune to interview Dever about her book in spring 2022.

Douglas Mao (DM): Carolyn, your past work has focused on the genre of the novel. In Chains of Love and Beauty, you examine a diary coproduced by two writers known for their work as a poet. What first drew you to this unpublished text?


Carolyn Dever (CD): I had an idea for a book I was calling Queer Domesticities in my head. It was about the queerness embedded in Victorian ideas of home and family. A colleague, Yopie Prins, reminded me about Michael Field’s diary—surely this diary of a queer Victorian couple would offer a good example of queer domesticity.

So the next time I was in the British Library, I ordered up a couple of volumes at random. I opened them up, and within about ten minutes, I knew that this was the book that needed to be written. That was 20 years ago! The diary is that brilliant and that interesting.

Michael Field used this diary for nearly three decades to negotiate an intimate relationship between the two authors, using their two hands, two different handwritings on the page. The diary has challenged every category of literary analysis for me. What is an author? What is a pronoun? What is a poem? What is a poet? What is a novel? What is domesticity? What is queerness? What is incest? What is fame and fortune? What is wealth? What is conservatism? How does one author comprising two people negotiate power and desire? The category-breaking qualities of Michael Field are just dazzling to me.


DM: Nonacademic readers will definitely be gripped by the story, but presumably they’ll also experience some of the disorientation around familiar assumptions that you describe. Can you say more?


CD: Sure. We tend to think about Victorian England through stereotypes of home and family, especially female prudery. But Victorian ideas of domesticity are much more complex than we typically allow. Michael Field are an incestuous queer couple married to one another. Their offspring were volumes of poetry and plays. Their public persona was not two women but one man. And this text, which the two women wrote for posthumous publication, is Michael Field’s private diary.

Michael Field are attuned to the conventions of Victorian social identity and Victorian literature—but they take those ideas in unexpected directions. They force us to think more flexibly about gender, for example. Two female bodies, a single male voice. How does language bend to support the expression of different gender identities? What happens when the concept of authorship has to flex to include not only gender diversity but multiple voices?


DM: And partly what’s interesting about the case of Michael Field is that the male gender identity is not a physically performed, daily identity, but one that operated in the abstract. Edith and Katharine don’t exist in print in the way Michael Field does, and Michael Field doesn’t exist in real life in the way they do.


CD: But as the years went on, they almost always used male pronouns and male names to refer to one another. In the diary, they almost always speak of each other as “he.”


DM: What are some of the specific ways in which they prompt questions about gender identity? Is there a feature of the writing that especially made you think, “Oh yes, that’s something I hadn’t thought about before”?


CD: Really on the level of the sentence! It’s almost impossible to describe their subjectivity accurately. As I muse in the introduction, do you say “them”? Or “she”? “He” or “hes”?

For sure, the particular case of Michael Field challenges how we think about Victorian sexuality and Victorian literary representation. But the questions they raise are just as urgent today: as trans people reckon with gendered pronouns, for example, we can look to Michael Field as a figure who took pronoun challenges very seriously. They made poetry—literally!—in the gaps and contradictions of language. Michael Field are a powerful example found in an unexpected time and place.

And thus they stayed together—two women who were professionally one man, and who were always fascinated by alternative outlets for their desires.

DM: In forming their partnership, Bradley and Cooper defy heterosexual marriage in more ways than one, not only as a same-sex couple but also as aunt and niece. You describe the life they created as “centripetal.” And this resonates with their sense of isolation as described in the diaries. They wish to be more social outside the confines of their relationship, while simultaneously making choices that push them further within. I wonder if you could say more about that?


CD: Well, we could say lots of things about Victorian marriage. First, there were many ways of marrying within a family, of marrying centripetally, in British culture—cousin marriage is the obvious example. Second, the sexuality of men at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th was legislated very differently than the sexuality of women. As we know from Oscar Wilde, male homosexuality was criminalized. Female homosexuality was not criminalized—but heterosexually married women were all but erased as legal subjects. In a real sense, a marriage between two women, such as Michael Field’s, offered each of the women, and the two women together, truly unique social standing and mobility.

That said, as Martha Vicinus and others have pointed out, both Michael Field poets had strong attractions and affective attachments to men. Edith Cooper, the younger of the two Michael Field poets, was in love with Bernard Berenson for decades, quite openly in the diary. Quite visibly to her aunt and wife and lover. Vicinus argues the same is true for Katharine Bradley with Charles Ricketts, the painter and designer.

Michael Field stayed together through decades because together they were Michael Field: they were a poet. And for Michael Field the production of poetry was their gift to the world. It was their legacy. Even when they were right on the edge of other sexual or social opportunities that might break the Michael Field dyad apart, they always chose the poetry. And thus they stayed together—two women who were professionally one man, and who were always fascinated by alternative outlets for their desires.


DM: Another point you make quite beautifully in the book is that it seems the relationship can only function where there’s a third member in the mix. They become a little adrift when it’s not clear for whom they’re publicly or privately performing their dyad. So when the father/brother dies, there’s actually a question about what becomes of the couple.


CD: You’re right that they’re almost always in tense, often erotic relationships with somebody else, including Robert Browning, Bernard Berenson, Edith Cooper’s mother (Katharine Bradley’s sister, whom they called “the Beloved Mother-One”), Charles Ricketts, Charles Shannon. It was almost as if the act of being seen constituted them as a pair.

Yet the very fact that they shared one married name—Michael Field—was about creating three out of two—Katharine, Edith, Michael Field—not creating one out of two. If nobody else is seeing them at any given moment, they can write an account of their interior lives and reread it, look at it, and each of them can look at the other’s. It’s like a game, watching themselves be watched by others. These two women felt artistically unappreciated and isolated, ill socialized, like people did not get them. So the diary itself provides an audience, a witness. It’s their constant for nearly 30 years.

Their most transformative “third,” though, was their beloved dog, Whym Chow, who famously killed Rudyard Kipling’s pet bunny during an afternoon visit in 1902. Michael Field were secretly thrilled by the vanquishing of Kipling’s pet by their pet. But they attached themselves and their coupledom so strongly to their dog that when the dog suddenly died, it was as if they crumbled as an intimate couple. I would argue that this was their ultimate intimate triangle.


DM: Has encountering their love and grief for Whym Chow expanded your own sense of the relationship between humans and animals? Was this a revelation to you?


CD: The love that they had for Whym Chow was pure and good and unambivalent in ways that might be familiar to those of us who are animal lovers. Clearly Whym Chow himself was obnoxious and violent, so who knows? The heart wants what the heart wants. But, for me, the very sad story of Whym Chow’s death is less the death scene itself, though it is powerful. His death is the moment when Michael Field lose their intimacy. The two women and the poetic signature survive. But the erotic and emotional bond changes. On the pages of the diary itself, they begin to write in parallel, rather than in play with one another.

So, in other words, the dog’s death gives them the prompt to separate emotionally. It’s not cause and effect—Whym Chow died and they came apart. It’s that they were coming apart and Whym Chow died. As Katharine Bradley wrote in the 1906 diary,

But if our love is dying, let it die

As the rose shedding secretly,

Or, as a noble music’s pause.

Let it die with dignity.

DM: Counting Whym Chow’s, there were at least three deaths that changed their lives. I was really struck by one of the passages from the diary, wherein Katharine Bradley writes, “For death binds; it is Life that severs.” You write very movingly about their very particular understanding of how the dead remain with one. Could you say more about that understanding?


CD: Being good Victorians, they were preoccupied by death, and wrote about it almost daily. Their dead loved ones—mothers, fathers, canines—become more realized to them, more present in their physical absence, than they were in their physical presence. Michael Field kept their dead close. But it’s also a version of what they do with “Michael Field,” right? They have an idea, and that idea takes on a life of its own. It becomes a figure in the world that doesn’t exist bodily but exists very powerfully in the poets’ conception of existence.


DM: Would you say that Michael Field’s engagement with the dead was more intense than was usual for Victorians?


CD: Definitely Michael Field were a lot when it came to their daily, intimate relationship with their dead. But it’s a distinction of degree, not kind. They were of their moment in embracing the culture of mourning. And this became one more way of sealing themselves up hermetically within a family from which there is no escape, even in death. The book is called Chains of Love and Beauty for a reason—love and beauty their prison, which they’ve constructed around their own captive selves. This is a source of great ambivalence for them—their greatest fascination.

DM: Did you find yourself siding with one or the other over the course of writing? Where did you come out in the end?


CD: So you’re asking a question that Michael Field scholars talk about when we get by ourselves behind closed doors. Because everybody is on one team or the other.


DM: Wow.


CD: And if they say they’re not, they’re lying. I am definitely on team Edith. And it’s not only because her handwriting is far easier for me to read than Katharine’s. While Michael Field is renowned as a poet, Edith Cooper is also a brilliant prose writer. This becomes clear in a book of Michael Field’s collected short prose work that the scholars Sarah Parker and Alex Murray are publishing. It’s one of several books about Michael Field that have just come out or will soon come out.

When I teach the diary, my students tend to be on team Edith too, but for a very different reason. They’re deeply suspicious of the power dynamic between Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper. They feel that Katharine Bradley groomed Edith Cooper from a very young age for conscription into this structure of married authorship.

I take my students’ point about grooming seriously; it’s an important consideration for an incestuous relationship, especially between two people of different ages and generations. But Michael Field began to keep their diary relatively late, after they had begun to publish as Michael Field, and after they had formed their coupled identity. We don’t have the origin story of “Michael Field” the poet or the couple, but we do know that what we call “incest” was not a consideration for them, because Victorians equated incest and reproduction.

Further too, the story they write in the diary presents the niece, Edith Cooper, as the figure who commands more social capital than her aunt. It was Cooper, for example, who wielded prospects of infidelity almost constantly. That is not to say that the power asymmetry between Bradley and Cooper was not formative or abusive. It is to say that Edith Cooper used the diary to write a story of her own sexual agency at the limits of the Michael Field identity.


DM: You’re working on an edition of selections from the diaries. Will the ratio you’ve curated be about 50/50 between them?


CD: The edition is going to be about 140,000 words and that’s very generous. Thank you, Princeton University Press. But the diary itself is many times that number of words, about 10,000 pages of handwritten Victorian text. So it’s not as simple as Katharine Bradley gets 70,000 words and Edith Cooper gets her equal share. There are occasions when one of them takes ownership of a narrative in a way that the other one does not. And that’s why this diary is so very teachable as an experimental literary work. I hope our colleagues adopt this edition for their students because the nuances and the challenges of grappling with Michael Field on the page are illuminating.

I’ve been experiencing that illumination for 20 years. And I can tell you that the illumination continues!


DM: So that’s 50/50, Bradley/Cooper?


CD: Yes. All this does change one’s perspective on the actor Bradley Cooper.


DM: I’m glad you said that; I was holding back.


CD: Thank you.


DM: I can never see Bradley Cooper in the same way.


CD: Don’t put this in the interview.


This article was commissioned by Nicholas Damesicon

Featured Image: Courtesy of Carolyn Dever.