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.