Saturday, February 18, 2012

Why This Meme Matters - by Marc DiPaolo


British and American films about college professors tend to depict them stereotypically – as atheistic alcoholic egomaniacs with social anxiety disorder and an uncontrollable desire to have sex with their students. Independent American films such as Smart People and The Visitor sometimes present such characters sympathetically, if satirically, while mainstream films such as Good Will Hunting and Transformers 2 portray them negatively as deeply misguided if not outright evil people. Select action films like The Eiger Sanction and the Indiana Jones series have fun with the notion of professors leading an exclusively cerebral existence by suggesting that some college professors take their glasses off to scale mountains and kill Nazis. However, only in a very few cases are college professors film heroes when they are being courageous within their own profession. In these cases, audiences are expected to admire professors when they inspire in their students a love of learning, defy corporate toady administrators and reactionary parents, and insist on academic rigor and freedom of speech even when dealing with plagiarizing student quarterbacks and their caveman coaches. Some of these more heroic professors can be found in Higher Learning, The Male Animal, and The Absent-Minded Professor.

The guiding principal behind the stereotyping of male professors in films – indeed, sometimes the outright demonization of college professors in films – is that they are not “real” men. They are impotent, capable only of intellectual masturbation. Frequently divorced and childless, movie professors have produced nothing – no offspring and no hot, marketable products that can be bought and sold in our consumer culture. These men have never scored – in the stock market, on the football field, or in the bedroom with an age-appropriate sexual partner. In fact, as Transformers 2 illustrates, their one chance to prove themselves as real men is to get an impressionable, intellectual coed with daddy issues and a case of hero worship into bed.

While female professors are less frequently depicted on film than males, they tend to be sexually and emotionally frigid, like Emma Thompson in Wit, or paunchy, bitter lesbians like the female professor who was edited out of the film Smart People and can be found only in the deleted scenes. Barbara Streisand’s English professor heroine in The Mirror Has Two Faces is homely and single until she finds love with Jeff Bridges, a math professor who, unsurprisingly, wants a Platonic and sexless romance with her. Other married university couples on film, including Richard Burton and Eizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, are generally neither happy nor sexually healthy.

Also important to consider here is what conservative commentators think of professors. See this link to Conservapedia's definition of Professor Values to get a general idea and I'll meet you back here.

Aside from sex issues, why are movie professors such a depressed and defeated group? Usually it is because they are not only failures in their love lives, but failures as teachers and scholars as well. We are all familiar with the delightful phrase, “Those that can do and those that can’t teach.” Movie math professors are particularly guilty of underachievement and correct to be suffering from imposter syndrome. In Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon plays an angry young man who is also an unparalleled math genius. Damon’s character, Will, is offered prestigious and well-paying jobs at think tanks that his professor mentor can’t get because Will is the gifted mathematician and his professor is the pretender.

Meanwhile, Steve Carrell’s character in Little Miss Sunshine is sympathetic but absurd. When the male graduate student he adores chooses his academic rival as a lover instead of him, and when his status as America’s foremost Proust scholar is called into question, Carrell tries to kill himself. The suicide attempt is meant to seem humorous since the unrequited love is homosexual and since a man’s academic reputation – especially as a Proust scholar – is too unimportant to bother getting all that worked up about.

Other professors are depicted as unable to reach their students on any level – either intellectually or erotically. In Animal House, Donald Sutherland tries and fails to win over his class to a love of Paradise Lost. After his first overtures fail, Sutherland turns unexpectedly honest with them and himself. He admits that Milton is not an easy read, that his values don’t translate well to the present, and that his jokes are terrible. Nevertheless, Sutherland exhorts, that doesn’t absolve them of the intellectual responsibility of being aware of Milton or of the social responsibility of doing well in school. The students merely stare back at their unexpectedly frank professor, unwilling or unable to respond to the massive bone he has just thrown them. The bell rings and they all dash out of the classroom. Sutherland then calls after them plaintively, “Hey! We’re talking about my job here!”

In the British film Educating Rita, Michael Caine’s professor faces the opposite problem – students who feel that they know more about William Blake then he does, and that spend too much time reading and not enough time living life. They are also cerebral experts in literature without truly “feeling” what literature really means. Sitting drunk in class one day, Michael Caine dismisses Blake as a dead poet and tells his students, “Look! The sun is shining! You’re all young! Why don’t you go out and do something? Why don’t you go out and make love or something?” Here he is teaching them the ultimate lesson: Don’t be like me.

But what is it that professors do with all their spare time in these cushy, tenure-track positions that Bill Gates and the Wall Street Journal keep lobbying to abolish? Well, if you look at films such as The Visitor and Smart People, they are not doing much. In The Visitor we see a political science professor attend an arid conference on global poverty in a ritzy hotel in the East Village in Manhattan. He eats hotel food and wears a silly nametag, and is the only person at the conference who realizes that all the Power Point Presentations are too dull to stomach and what he should really be doing is exploring the wonders of the East Village.

In Smart People, Dennis Quaid plays a self-satisfied English professor who skips out on office hours, can’t remember the names of his majors, refuses to attend department meetings, mocks the scholarship published by his colleagues, and lobbies to become the chair of a department that he despises.

These professors lead empty lives and are bitter about it. They take their bitterness out on their young, virile students. In the film Wit, for example, Emma Thomspon makes snide remarks about football and humiliates a student athlete who has a poor grasp of the basic concepts of prosody. She also refuses to grant one student an extension on his paper’s due date so that he can attend his grandmother’s funeral. Smarmy and self-satisfied, she doesn’t believe that his grandmother has really died when – in fact … his grandmother has really died.

The African-American creative writing professor in the NC-17 film Storytelling regularly commits two appalling sins against his students. First, he has rough anal sex with his white female students as some form of race revenge against white privilege. Secondly, he publicly rips apart the sophomoric short stories his students submit to workshop – including confessional, autobiographical tales overflowing with the naked emotions of visibly fragile students.

Even Nicholas Cage’s science professor character in Knowing, who has a friendly relationship with his students and seems to have taught them a lot about science, arguably imposes upon the trust they put in him by articulating his atheist religious beliefs publicly. “I think shit just happens,” he says, primarily because he’s depressed that his wife is dead, not because of any real intellectual reasoning. Naturally, the science fiction parable will later demonstrate to the film viewer that the universe does indeed have order and that life has meaning, only that meaning is provided by aliens and not the Judeo-Christian deity. Still, these aliens are obvious stand-ins for the God of Adam and Eve. Like Hilary Swank’s skeptical professor in The Reaping and Virginia Madsen’s secular humanist graduate student in Candyman, Nicholas Cage is a fool; otherworldly forces humble him for his hubris and punish him for making his students doubt their existence.

While several professors in film occupy the role of villain, embittered movie professors often actually do have a reason to be bitter. In The Nutty Professor, Jerry Lewis’ Professor Kelp is, indeed, prejudiced against jocks, and he is rude to his athlete students. Still, his prejudice seems well-founded when a jock beats him up in front of the entire class for denying him permission to go to football practice.

In The Absent-Minded Professor, Fred MacMurray fails the son of a trustee member for not getting a single question on his exam right and adding insult to injury by misspelling the name of the college on the cover sheet. He offers the student the chance to retake the exam and the student refuses. When the failing grade sticks, MacMurray’s integrity as a professor endangers the college’s financial stability and the college basketball team’s winning record. After all, the boy is the basketball team’s star player and he has now been benched because of his GPA. Furthermore, his enraged father has just refused to grant the college any more multi-million dollar loans. MacMurray is glad that his supervisors reluctantly back him up when the administrators at a rival school, Routledge, pay “their basketball players more than their English teachers.”

In Ghostbusters, Bill Murray plays an academic fraud who seduces hot coeds, but the audience is asked to feel sympathy for him when he and fellow science professor Dan Akroyd are denied tenure and ejected from their cushy lab at Columbia University. Worried about his future, Dan Ackroyd says to Bill Murray, “Personally, I like the university. They gave us money and facilities. We didn’t have to produce anything. You never worked in the private sector. I have. They expect results.”

So how can professors who are so emasculated by being thinkers instead of doers in our productive, capitalist society ever feel good about themselves or triumph over adversity? One way is for them to be a professor only part of the time and to have a more “manly,” real job in the real world. For example, when they close their dusty books and leave their libraries behind, they can be secret agents, superheroes, or imperial adventurers. Indiana Jones is one of cinema’s most masculine college professors. He teaches archeology and proves his academic credentials by finding the most sought-after archeological discoveries of all time, including the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, and the alien artifacts the government is hiding at Area 51. Even more impressively, Jones has personally killed something like a hundred Nazis, Communists, and cultists on screen over the course of four films, and has bedded three gorgeous women.

Now, that’s a real man.

The same can be said of Clint Eastwood’s character in The Eiger Sanction. Eastwood plays a former U.S. Government assassin who now teaches college art history and appreciation. Like Indiana Jones, Eastwood is capable of murder, has turned down attractive students who have offered him sex in return for an A, and has even gotten applause from students even after he has mocked them to their faces for being philistines.

Other combat-hardened professor characters are less romanticized and more morally ambiguous, such as Dustin Hoffman’s antihero professor in Straw Dogs. At the beginning of the film, Hoffman makes the mistake of taking a sabbatical in rural England to find the peace and quiet to do research on solar radiation. Instead of a haven for academic research, Hoffman finds himself in an uninhabitable Darwinian battlefield. He butts heads with pubcrawlers who refuse to drink with him, country parsons who push religion on him, and hick construction workers who rape his wife. At the end of the film, Dustin Hoffman snaps and murders most of the hicks who have been giving him a hard time.

But not all movie professors need to be a hired gun or superhero or vigilante to be heroic – or “real men.” In fact, the most truly heroic college professors on film are not those that moonlight as superheroes, but those that do their jobs well – despite being underpaid, demonized by conservatives, put upon by dullard administrators, and menaced by jocks.

In the 1942 film The Male Animal, Henry Fonda plays an apolitical college professor who plans to read his English composition students a beautifully written speech on social justice by Italian immigrant Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Vanzetti, of Sacco and Vanzetti infamy, was a controversial figure because he was an anarchist who may have been wrongly convicted of murder and executed. While Vanzetti’s outspoken supporters included Albert Einstein, H.G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw, his left-wing views and ethnic background did not inspire empathy from most American conservatives then or now. In the film, the student newspaper condemns Henry Fonda for exposing impressionable minds to the writing of a socialist murderer and the conservative board of trustees threatens to fire him if he doesn’t pull the Vanzetti speech from the curriculum. Fonda gives an impassioned defense of academic freedom, standing firm against the demonization of immigrants and left-wing intellectuals, and for a complete, uncensored education for his students.

Laurence Fishburne plays another strikingly heroic professor in the film Higher Learning. A political scientist, Fishburne believes that a democracy can only thrive with an informed electorate, and he exhorts his politically ignorant students to keep up with current events, vote, be active participants in public debates, and think long and hard about their positions on controversial issues. He tells his students: “Your assignment for the semester is to formulate your own political ideology that will be dictated by your sex, background, social and economic status, personal experience, etc. etc. This course will be like anything else in life. It will be what you make of it. I will not be a baby sitter.”

Though he can be harsh at times, Fishburne’s character respects his students and genuinely wants them to learn to think for themselves. While his goals are political, he is seeking to empower his students, not humiliate or brainwash them. Outside of the classroom, his manifesto becomes more overt when students actively seek his advice. He tells two students, “Information is power. If you do not have information, you cannot seize power. You must work to be intellectually competitive.” One student insists that he often feels like just a pawn in a larger, rigged social game that he doesn’t want to bother participating in. However, Fishburne presses his point. “Used intelligently, a pawn can create a checkmate or become a very powerful player himself.”

The professors of The Male Animal and Higher Learning are role models who risk their own reputations and livelihood by giving their students access to an uncensored education. These professors live a life of the mind and are, first and foremost, readers, thinkers, and conversationalists, but they are not “unproductive.” They are producers of knowledge and of culture and they are the educators of future leaders. And they are, indeed, real men. These characters demonstrate that not all professors are drunken, misanthropic perverts. Professors like these are actually doing their jobs and doing their jobs well. Professors like these, in both the world of fiction and in the real world, should be thanked and supported, not stereotyped and demonized.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Arthur Machen’s Horror of Unemployment

In many ways, horror novelists are best understood by close-readings of their biographies, especially since their most frequently revisited “horrors” often have a corollary in their life stories. For example, it is no coincidence that Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous works concern the ghosts of beautiful young women forever haunting their bereaved lovers, since the author was traumatized in real life by the premature deaths of both his mother and his wife. In a similar fashion, Victorian, Anglo-Catholic author Arthur Machen populated his horror tales with his own personal demons, which included amoral scientists, secret societies, heartless women, and pagan gods. These fears were an outgrowth of his Catholic antagonism against scientists, which rebelled at the theories of Charles Darwin, and his childhood spent in the village of Caerleon-on-Usk in Wales, where the ghosts of Pagan gods seemed to live still among the ruins of Ancient Roman Britain. However, as frightened as Machen was of both scientific and supernatural forces, what seemed to concern him most was the evils of economic hardship and social class division. He, like his fictional characters, often found himself broke, unemployed, or exploited by unscrupulous mentors. These are exactly the kinds of fears a modern person can relate to, especially in light of the Great Recession, so now may well be the perfect time to read this accomplished, if obscure, horror novelist.

Many of Machen’s most respected works have been recently republished by Chaosium Inc. in a series of collected editions. Vol. 1, The Three Impostors and Other Stories, is a particularly strong book, and showcases the excellent title novella, as well as the delightfully atypical vampire tale The Great God Pan. The Three Impostors is an episodic book concerning a trio of assassins charged with recovering a gold coin from a man who has gone into hiding from the secret society he has robbed. The Great God Pan is about Helen Vaughan, the half-human daughter of the mythical god Pan, who was conceived in rape and who grew up to seduce, marry, and murder, a series of wealthy men. The plots of both books are fragmentary and as evocative of post-modern novels The Crying of Lot 49 and If on a winter’s night a traveler… as they are of classic Victorian Gothic works such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dracula.

Like other figures who objected to the utilitarian and anti-romantic impulses of the Victorian era – including ghost investigator William James and neo-pagans such as Michael Field – Machen developed an obsession with the notion of a spirit realm hidden behind (and influencing) reality as we understand it. However, while the Greco-Roman gods and forest sprites have sometimes inspired liberating, back-to-nature movements, feminists, and socialists prone to romanticizing bygone ages and aboriginals, Machen saw “the old religions” as uniformly frightening and dangerous. Hence his casting of “The Great God Pan” as a Satanic figure likely to enthrall, rape, or kill anyone who draws aside the curtain of the civilized world and behold him directly. Machen’s scientists are also figures of fear, since many of them “adopt” unsuspecting assistants, wards, or even subjects of secret experiments without deigning to explain their true motives, or treat their vulnerable charges with due respect and consideration. For example, the scientist in The Great God Pan adopts a poor young woman precisely so he can experiment on her, choosing to make an incision in her brain enabling her to directly apprehend the spirit world, without seeking her blessing for the procedure first. After all, like a “typical” ruthless scientist, he felt that he owned her, much as science claimed dominion over the natural order of the word.

These various evils – ruthless scientists, vampire women, pagans – all seen unconnected, but there is an extent to which all of them are related, to one degree or another, to Machen’s own financial misfortunes, and his belief that the world was a fundamentally unjust place in which he could not make an honest living, no matter how hard he tried. Unsure why things would not go his way, Machen turned to religious and supernatural explanations for his misfortunes, and blamed scientists like Darwin for stripping life of its meaning. Any world in which Machen could not pass an exam to get into the Royal College of Surgeons, or be paid properly for his translations of Casanova’s memoirs, was one which was likely controlled by dark forces, be they pagan gods or secret societies. In such a world, a man like Machen would be hard pressed to find a woman to love him, and (as The Doors have attested), women seem wicked when you’re unwanted. Nor could Machen feel at home anywhere, as the countryside, the suburbs, and the city have all failed to provide him with economic security or a sense of purpose.

How does all this show up in Machen’s work? Well, in some Machen tales, the protagonist signs up for a dream job, but gets a nightmare one instead, much like Sherlock Holmes’ duped clients Jabez Wilson and Violet Hunter. These characters arrive as innocents in an unfamiliar land, rudderless transports to a new city, country village, or continent, not knowing that they are about to be exploited, abandoned, or sacrificed by their supposedly benign “employer.” It is also unsurprising that The Great God Pan features a Black Widow villain who marries rich men, drains them of their money, kills them, and then moves on to the next rich man. Such a tale reads like the wish-fulfillment of a financially strapped author who wants revenge against the wealthy and consolation that he is not a target of gold-digging women.


Several other Machen tales involve a protagonist who has no fulfilling work to do and, consequently, is drawn by an inexplicable impulse to wander into a bad neighborhood at three a.m. only to witness a violent death or be almost killed himself. Why? Because a lack of proper purpose in life drove him to seek out extreme situations for his own diversion. Unemployment, extreme poverty, and boredom is the cause of the ruin of most Machen heroes. In a similar vein, several secondary characters are also of a type - they are "old college friends" of the hero who seemed carefree enough while at university but, within a few years of living in “the real world,” the friend in question is reduced to poverty and illness because of some inexplicable supernatural force. Machen sometimes identifies this force as Pan or some form of tentacle monster, but the real force is most certainly gambling debts, alcoholism, and unemployment.

That happened to some of my old college friends, too.

And I’ve been there myself. Which is why I kinda like this Machen fellow. I, for one, can relate to a horror story that is all about economic hardship and complete confusion as to what is actually causing it. Is it oil shortages? Wall Street evil? The expensive “war on terror”? Credit card companies? Or is it THE GREAT GOD PAN? According to Machen, it is Pan. And Charles Darwin. And the New Women who won't sleep with him. That’s not the conclusion that I would come to, but Machen seems pretty certain. And his stories sure are fun.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Sherlock Holmes Film: Fun, Familiar, Faithful?

Outside of Arthur Conan Doyle's original Sherlock Holmes stories, my favorite adventures and adaptations will likely always be the Jeremy Brett and Peter Cushing television shows, the book The West End Horror, and the Jack-the-Ripper yarn Murder by Decree. The new Sherlock Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie, is nowhere near as good as any of the above. However, the flick does easily trounce the appalling pastiches Without a Clue, Young Sherlock Holmes, LXG, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, the silent John Barrymore film, and many of the Basil Rathbone vehicles set in America. The Guy Ritchie film was fun. It has merits that have been overlooked in negative reviews (see Slate), and its flaws are not worth getting too upset over.

Overall, I enjoyed the Guy Ritchie movie more than I expected to, possibly because my expectations were in the cellar - the coming attraction made this new film appear to be another Van Helsing travesty, which had no script to speak of and in which the title character was functionally replaced by Soloman Kane. What I got, instead, was a film with something of a plot, several clever scenes of deduction, and some dialogue that was laugh-out-loud funny. Even the action scenes were reasonably good, as far as that sort of thing goes. The cast was solid. Rachel McAdams, Jude Law, and Mark Strong were all charismatic and attractive, even if they didn't feel "Doyle" enough. Robert Downey Jr. was very good as Holmes. He is an actor I have great respect for in general and he does well here. Still, it would have been nice if a genuine British actor had been cast in the part, so that there would be no issues about an "assumed" accent. How different would the film have been if Holmes had been played by Christopher Eccleston, David Morrissey, Robert Carlyle, Ralph Fiennes, or Liam Neeson? Would there be as much kung fu in it?


I suppose it is depressing to assert that, in these times, when Dante's Inferno has been turned into a video game in which Dante must rescue Beatrice from hell by hacking up demons, I am glad we can have a Holmes film that is even remotely faithful. As it is, I found myself impressed that the screen writers knew that Holmes locks up Watson's money (an obscure detail from "The Dancing Men"), and I liked seeing Holmes putting bullets in the wall of 221 B in the VR pattern. The film did change the circumstances under which Holmes first meets Mary Morstan, messing with "The Sign of Four," and that interfered with my suspension of disbelief more than anything else, oddly.


So, what will Victorianists think? Remembering how much Gwyneth Paltrow's Emma has been hated, I'm guessing many won't like it one bit. Certainly, most everyone will be bothered by something. Roger Ebert complained of Holmes making a mess of his quarters while in a drugged stupor, but that seems to me consistent with the Doyle stories (and Jeremy Brett). That false example aside, Ebert's main point, of course, is one I agree with - both Holmes and Watson don't seem to have any poise or gentle-manliness left at all. (But that is unsurprising since the recent Casino Royale stripped all of the polished veneer from James Bond in a similar fashion.) So Holmes and Watson are too much like a Victorian Batman and Robin, and Irene Adler has turned from a Lillie Langtry double into a Catwoman stand-in. Fortunately, she is less evil here than she was presented in the very mediocre Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars. I am not sure to what extent all this bothers me, as one viewing is rarely enough for me to be sure what I truly think of a film. Again, it all could have been a lot worse.


Believe it or not, my main problem with Sherlock Holmes is that the plot is not innovative enough, and too similar to other recent Holmes movies. We've just seen Holmes upset by Watson marrying (the excellent The Case of the Silk Stocking), we've seen attempts by villains to take over the British Empire (The Great Mouse Detective) and dangerous cultist villains (Young Sherlock Holmes). On the other hand, I don't remember ever having seen a solid dramatization of Holmes and Watson meeting for the first time in the fashion they did in "A Study in Scarlet," and wish the film would have portrayed that instead of focusing on the legendary partnership at its moment of greatest crisis.


As a side note, for those who are interested, this is yet another recent genre film that functionally casts the villain as George W. Bush. Lord Blackwood is trying to replace science with religion, take advantage of a divided America to found a new Empire, and is horrifying his father with the lengths to which he is willing to go to achieve these ends. And the secret society that runs the British Empire is meant to parallel the secret society that (supposedly?) runs America these days. So the film is really more about modern America than Victorian Britain, as many of you have suspected...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Thoughts On We Are Michael Field by Emma Donoghue

“At a time when many gay and lesbian activists are clamoring for the right to legal marriage, it is worth remembering that same-sex lovers have been forming life-long partnerships for centuries without any need of state or religious sanction” – Emma Donoghue. We Are Michael Field. Outlines Series. Bath: Absolute Press. 1998. p. 32


Americans tend to expect that the study of Victorian literature and history would be boring, because the British are “stodgy,” the Victorian era was “a long time ago,” and nothing that happened in the England of the late 1800s can have any relevance to the America of today, with its debates over socialism, gay rights, imperialism, and evolution. Amusingly enough, quite the reverse is true, as the British appear to be 100 years ahead of Americans in confronting all of these issues, and others. Indeed, it would behoove most Americans to read books by and about the key figures of the Victorian and Edwardian eras for clues as to how we might best wrestle with issues that seem new, urgent, and frightening, but which are really nothing new at all. These issues have all been discussed before, and infinitely more intelligently, than they are being addressed now on conservative talk radio, internet chat rooms, and 24-hour news channels. If one really wants to know what to think about contemporary issues one would do better to stop following “the news” – if there is such a thing as “the news” any more – and start reading one’s history.


For example, Emma Donoghue’s book We Are Michael Field is a biography of Victorian-era poets and lesbian lovers Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper. They published their plays and poems under the joint pseudonym of Michael Field, with some works being more Katherine’s, others more Edith’s, and some a truly collaborative effort. Since serious literature by women was too-often greeted condescendingly by male critics and the British readership, they kept their true identities secret during the early part of their career, until Robert Browning made the mistake of identifying them as a female writing team in a review. Their sales suffered in the years that followed, possible as a result of their “outing,” seeing a spike only when they published under yet another male pseudonym.


Katherine and Edith’s love was largely kept secret for much of their lives by virtue of the fact that they were aunt and niece, and the closeness of their relation is likely to raise a few eyebrows even today, though they themselves did not consider the relationship incestuous. They were largely self-educated, middle class women who were well-traveled, and who were friends with other bohemian figures of the era, including the gay couple Charles Shannon and Charles Ricketts (two artists Katherine and Edith regarded as their male counterparts), and art historian Bernard Berenson, who himself was involved in a forbidden romance with a married mother of two, Mary Costelloe. Edith and Katherine were also acquainted with other lesbian writers of the era, including Vernon Lee (Violet Paget), but didn’t feel the same kinship in such relationships that they did with Berenson and “the Charleses.” Following their conversion to Catholicism late in life, Katherine and Edith also met and befriended several Catholic priests and nuns who were secretly gays and lesbians – some of whom were celibate, some not.


Many modern-day literary critics would argue that Michael Field’s body of work was not judged fairly during its initial publication and is now ripe for reassessment. Certainly their poems – which concern their passionate love for one another, religious themes (both pagan and Catholic), meditations on art, and the deaths of their loved ones – are frequently excellent and imbued with a raw emotional power that remains beautiful and affecting. While some of Michael Field’s poems are over-the-top by today’s snarky, overmedicated standards, their raw emotional power and honesty can potentially stir empathy from readers, whether or not they have shared similar life experiences or had quite the same level of adoration for the family dog. And honestly, lesbian or not, anyone who has ever felt deep love should be able to relate to their work. Donoghue certainly feels their work needs reevaluation.


But Donoghue’s book is as much about the love between Edith and Katherine as it is about their poetry. Significantly, in addition to chronicling the several notable homosexual attractions within Michael Field’s circle, Donoghue begins her book with an account of an illegal heterosexual union. When Katherine’s father Charles married her mother, Emma Harris, on May 4, 1834, the union was not technically legally binding because, as a religious Dissenter, he had refused to pay an Anglican priest to perform the wedding ceremony. Donoghue affirms that everyone within the family’s immediate social circle regarded the marriage as bona fide, but the law did not. It would be another two years before nonconformist and register office weddings were legalized.


Donoghue’s book is replete with stories such as this. Time and again, the Michael Fields interact with couples who, like them, love anonymously, illegally, or at the risk of public scorn and legal retribution. Despite this, these couples are consistently portrayed as living in rewarding, passionate, life-long romances that were faithful in spirit (while allowing a measure of personal autonomy and the freedom to have the occasional dalliance with another romantic partner). Their relationships seem to shame the legal heterosexual unions of many modern Americans, who marry and divorce with ease and who could learn a lot about what “marriage” means from Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper. Their love was not a threat to the institution of marriage then, and the relationships of modern-day lesbians and gays are not a threat to marriage today. Frivolous unions, domestic violence, and soaring divorce rates are a threat to marriage.


I keep thinking about Katherine’s father Charles, who was a straight man denied a “legal,” heterosexual marriage because he would not marry as part of an Anglican service. He held his own wedding and married anyway. It seems a good thing that he didn’t wait two years for the law to come around and make his marriage “bona fide.” He married first and, in his own domestic, defiant way, prodded social progress forward by doing so. Such actions, taken way back in Victorian times, are instructive for modern Americans. Perhaps, until unjust legal initiatives such as California’s Proposition 8 are a thing of the past, those who wish to marry but are technically “not allowed” to can follow Charles’ example, and the examples of Katherine and Edith & Charles Shannon and Charles Ricketts:


Be in love. Be defiant. And let the law be damned.