Donna Parsons has kindly shared with us some beautiful photographs of The Bingham Hotel and the adjacent building believed to be 1, The Paragon, home of Michael Field.
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By James Diedrick (Agnes Scott College)
Writing to Mathilde Blind on 2 November 1895, Richard Garnett reported that an American friend had sent him an advance copy of Edmund Stedman’s poetry collection A Victorian Anthology 1847-1895. Garnett, Keeper of Printed Books in the British Library and a close friend of Blind’s, informs her that two poems from her 20-poem sequence “Love in Exile” (originally published in her 1889 volume The Ascent of Man) are included, along with two others from her 1881 collection The Prophecy of St. Oran and Other Poems (1881). He then adds: “You are in good company, between Michael Field and Louis Stevenson.”
More about the Stedman anthology shortly. Because this is a blog in advance and anticipation of the Michael Field Centennial conference, I want to begin by explaining how I became interested in late-century woman poets, and how I found myself in the “good company” of the many scholars who have sustained and guided my interest in these writers over the years. Like many American academics who did their graduate work in the 1970s, and who concentrated on the Victorian era, I was assigned Jerome Buckler’s 1973 anthology The Major Victorian Poets: Tennyson, Browning, Arnold in my single graduate course on Victorian poetry. The “Browning” in Buckler’s anthology is of course Robert, not Elizabeth Barrett, and aside from EBB and Christina Rossetti, I read few Victorian women poets during my graduate career (my dissertation focused on the novels of Dickens, Trollope and Eliot). When I began teaching, and regularly offered the 18th-19th century British literature survey course, I usually included these five poets on my reading list. Things changed, however, in 1997, when the editor of the Victorian Women Poets volume in the Dictionary of Literary Biography asked me to write an entry on one of the poets in the list of proposed entries and I chose Mathilde Blind, knowing only that she had written the first biography of George Eliot. Thus began a fifteen-year (and counting) project to help recover the career and work of Blind, and contribute to the re-mapping of the late-Victorian literary landscape.
My research was initially aided by the e-texts of Blind’s poetry at Indiana University’s Victorian Women Writers Project (launched by Perry Willett in 1995), and then by the manuscript holdings in the British Library (especially the letters exchanged between Blind and dozens of Victorian men and women of letters, most importantly her 26-year correspondence with Richard Garnett). Since the research and writing of this first essay, I have met, corresponded with and learned from a remarkable group of scholars, librarians, writers and even composers (in 2003 Trainer Fraser composed “Canticum,” a choral setting of three Blind sonnets). Among the many pleasures of this work has been my discovery of important, remarkable poetry by once mostly neglected or undervalued women poets— May Kendall, Amy Levy, Constance Naden, Edith Nesbit, Mary F. Robinson, Graham R. Tomson, Michael Field—and the many scholars of these poets in whose “good company” I have had the pleasure of working—Virginia Blain, Joseph Bristow, Linda Hughes, Ana Parejo Vadillo, Charles LaPorte, Margaret Stetz, Angela Thirlwell, Marion Thain, Martha Vicinus (to name a few).
The Stedman anthology—and specifically the poems by Blind and Michael Field he selected for inclusion—is one way to note how recent scholarship has influenced our thinking about these poets and their poetry. In addition to the Blind poems noted above, he includes the following Field poems: “The Burial of Robert Browning”; “Wind of Summer”; “The Dancers”; “Lettice”; “Earth to Earth”; “An Aeolian Harp”; “Iris”; and selections from the verse drama “Canute the Great.” With the exception of “Canute the Great,” most of the Field poems come from the 1893 edition of Underneath the Bough. Stedman might have favored Field’s 1889 collection Long Ago or their 1892 volume Sight and Song, just as he could have selected from Blind’s 1891 volume Dramas in Miniature. Feminist and queer studies in particular have illuminated the radical implications of these collections (both formal and ideological) in recent years.
To note one example of these implications: Blind and Field were central figures in London’s community of avant-garde women writers, and were united in their resistance to the patriarchal order. Blind attended many salons and outings with lesbian writers in the late 1880s and 1890s, from Vernon Lee to Michael Field, and spent several months in 1893 traveling and living with Mona Caird. Blind’s affinity with Field, Lee, Caird and other sexual noncomformists engendered poems whose ambiguously gendered speakers and “feminised sensory tableau” (to use Linda Hughes’ phrase) accommodate lesbian or bisexual readings, including “Scherzo,” published in Dramas in Miniature. The “queer aesthetics” of Sight and Song have been thoroughly analyzed, by Jill Ehnenn among others. (What Ehnenn says about the value of a “queer reading” of Sight and Song in her 2005 Victorian Poetry essay can also be applied to Blind: “. . . in negotiating the constraints of the sex/gender system of their time, women such as Michael Field anticipated feminist and queer strategies of seeing and being in the world that are only beginning to be explored today.”)
Stedman’s selections from the work of these women poets represent assumptions and preferences common among his male contemporaries. Arthur Symons, who took an active role in shaping Blind’s poetic legacy after her death, omitted all of her dramatic monologues from A Selection From the Poems of Mathilde Blind (1897). This editorial decision made it easier for Symons to misrepresent Blind in his introduction as “a poet, almost in spite of herself … it was direct, and not directed, emotion which gave her verse its share of that rapture without which poetry cannot exist.” Richard Garnett wrote a “Memoir” of Blind for The Poetical Works of Mathilde Blind (1900) that praises the person at the expense of the poems, which he asserts “are far from expressing the entire force and depth of her nature.” He goes on to claim that Blind’s best poems are her lyrics, a judgment rooted in a view he held of women poets more generally—at least throughout the nineteenth century. In his 1897 Dictionary of National Biography entry on Christina Rossetti, for instance, Garnett concludes that except for “Goblin Market” “she is, like most poetesses, purely subjective, and in no respect creative.”
By 1905, however, Garnett’s views seemed to have shifted, and the evidence for this returns us to Michael Field. In this year Garnett brought out an anonymous volume of 252 aphorisms on love titled De Flagello Myrteo—subtitled Thoughts and Fancies on Love—that simultaneously reflect his classical erudition, his pagan aestheticism, and his infatuation with Violet Neale, to whom he privately dedicated the volume. In the preface, itself aphoristic, Garnett says this about women poets: “Woman’s emotion was ever more intense than man’s, but until lately, with rare exceptions, her powers of expression have been unequal to his. Now she has learned to give it voice, and the poet is beginning to pale before the poetess.”
We know Garnett dedicated what he called “our book” to Neale from one of many letters he wrote her after his wife’s death in 1903. On 25 August 1905 he wrote her a letter addressed to “My Violet” which begins by recounting his visit to “Michael Field”:
After lunch we went to the ladies’ sitting room, where I saw our Book lying on the table. I took no notice, of course, but by and by one of the ladies picked it up and asked whether I had seen it? Yes. Did I know the authorship? Well, I said, in allusion to the title, I might possibly have some “thoughts” and “fancies” on the subject, and, after a little fencing, I confess that you never heard such a scream as they jointly gave. The information was evidently the greatest surprise to them: they assured me that the idea had never entered their minds. They had come to the conclusion, in fact, that it was the production of a woman! Although they admitted that one or two things, such as the Tiresias sentence, had rather staggered them. I told them with perfect sincerity that they had in my opinion thus paid one of the highest compliments in their power. The first surprise over, they congratulated me very warmly, and one of them read aloud some sentences which had struck her. . . . They had already shown the book to a friend who they thought might help them to discover the author, and they would show it to others. I enjoined the strictest discretion, which they promised.
Garnett adds that as a result of his visit “I have found out more about my friends than I ever knew before. Long as I have known them, I have never made out till now which was Miss Bradley and which was Miss Cooper.” (Garnett corresponded with Field in the 1880s and 90s, and presentation copies of two of their books appear in the Catalogue of the Library of Richard Garnett—Noontide Branches and Sight and Song).
While there are many interesting details in this letter, from Garnett’s report of the couple’s joint “scream” upon discovering Garnett is the author of the book to the conspiratorial agreement to maintain the mystery of the book’s authorship, I want to conclude with a few words on the Tiresias comment. The “Tiresias” sentence Bradley and Cooper are referring to is aphorism CXLVIII, which reads: “When Teiresias recovered his original sex after seven years, the women were in dismay: for, “of a surety,” they thought, “he has the key to all our bosoms.” “Fear not,” he said, “for in learning to receive love as a woman, I have forgotten how to make it as a man.” Garnett comments: “I do not think that ‘Michael Field’ meant anything more about the Tiresias thought than that it was unlikely to have occurred to a woman, which it certainly is.” But perhaps what “staggered” Bradley and Cooper was not the idea of a woman imagining a man forgetting his male heterosexual drives and desires. Perhaps it was the idea that a writer of Garnett’s adamantly heteronormative identity could imagine the complete erasure of such an identity from the mind of a male once he inhabits a female consciousness. Perhaps, too, it was the shock of recognition—of ideas they had explored and expressed in greater depth sixteen years earlier in a poem Garnett does not seem to know. In “LII” from Long Ago (1889), Michael Field imagines what happened when Tiresias found that “womanhood was round him thrown”:
He trembled at the quickening change,
He trembled at his vision’s change,
His finer sense for bliss and dole,
His receptivity of soul;
But when love came, and, loving back,
It seemed that he had broken free
Almost from his mortality.
And more than almost from his masculinity. The entirety of “LII” enacts a radical decentering of gender and sexual identity that is simultaneously startling, bracing, and hauntingly beautiful. Had Garnett read and considered this poem before his visit to “Michael Field,” what a rich, strange and interesting letter he might have composed.
Richard Garnett himself was “in good company”—better than he may have been able to imagine.
James Diedrick is Professor of English at Agnes Scott College (a women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia USA) where he teaches courses on 19th-20th century British literature and culture and film. His scholarship includes a co-edited anthology of essays on Stanley Kubrick, Depth of Field: Stanley Kubrick, Film and the Uses of History (University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), and a critical monograph Understanding Martin Amis (University of South Carolina Press, first edition, 1995; revised and expanded edition, 2004). He has published essays on Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, and Mathilde Blind, and is currently working on a biography of the late-Victorian poet and woman of letters Mathilde Blind.
20 Years of Victorian Poetry: Isobel Armstrong to include chapter on Fin-de-Siècle Poetry in New Edition of Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetic, Politics
On the 15 November 2013 I was fortunate enough to attend the London Nineteenth Century Seminar at Senate House in London (organised by Ana Vadillo). At this very special event, Professor Isobel Armstrong spoke about the process of revising her monumental 1993 study, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetic, Politics for a new, updated version which is currently forthcoming. The event was held to celebrate Armstrong’s achievement in transforming the face of Victorian Poetry scholarship, and to reflect on the status of Victorian Poetry twenty years on, asking: what are the current trends within the field, and where do we go from here?
To this end, Professor Armstrong was joined by two panellists – Professor Richard Cronin (University of Glasgow) and Dr Gregory Tate (University of Surrey). Richard Cronin spoke about the distinctive contribution Armstrong’s book made to the study of Victorian poetry, a much-maligned field during the larger part of the twentieth-century, due to misrepresentations of modernist writers such as T. S. Eliot and critics such as F. R. Leavis. Gregory Tate discussed the status of Victorian poetry today, and how scholarship might move on into the future.
One of the most illuminating aspects of this event, in my opinion, was Isobel Armstrong’s own autobiographical account of her career. She recounted her experiences as a PhD student, the challenge of writing her doctoral thesis, and how a number of seemingly false turns led her to write Language as Living Form in 19th Century Poetry (1982) and eventually, the trail-blazing Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetic, Politics (1993). Armstrong’s sheer intellectual energy and dynamism, and her fearless urge to tackle huge, unwieldy yet crucial topics came across during her talk. To hear her recount her own experiences and ever-changing thought processes was truly inspiring.
Another exciting aspect of the event was to hear about the planned revisions to Victorian Poetry. Though Armstrong explained that she is limited in terms of what she can add and change, we can expect a new introduction and, most intriguingly of all, a whole new chapter which will focus on fin-de-siècle poetry. Armstrong noted the boom in scholarship on late-nineteenth century poetry and aims to address and respond to this in her book. She made specific mention of Michael Field as a poet she aims to discuss in this chapter, citing some examples of recent work on Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper. I personally am very excited to read this chapter when the revised edition comes out. The addition of Michael Field among other fin-de-siècle poets is proof – if it were needed – that Michael Field are well and truly ‘on the map’ of nineteenth century poetry.
Blog post by: Dr Sarah Parker
Institute of English Studies, Senate House, University of London
Confirmed Keynote Speakers:
Professor Joseph Bristow (UCLA)
Professor Margaret D. Stetz (University of Delaware)
Michael Field (Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper) occupies an increasingly central role as one of the most fascinating figures of the fin de siècle. Following ground-breaking revisionist scholarship of the 1990s which rediscovered Bradley and Cooper’s poetry, the last twenty years has seen a major resurgence in work on Michael Field – reflecting Bradley and Cooper’s own belief that their work would not be appreciated until sometime in the distant future.
This major international conference will mark the Michael Field Centenary, bringing together world-renowned scholars of fin de siècle literature, poetry, life writing, women’s writing and gender and sexuality.
The Michael Field Centenary conference also aims to acknowledge and celebrate the diversity and vitality of new scholarship surrounding Michael Field and fin de siècle literature generally, providing a platform for new voices and perspectives from postgraduate/ early career scholars. As the first major Michael Field conference following the 2004 ‘Michael Field and their World’ conference at University of Delaware, we aim to assess the how the ‘field’ has changed over the last ten years; for example, following the publication of significant works such as Margaret D. Stetz and Cheryl A. Wilson’s Michael Field and their World (2007), Marion Thain’s ‘Michael Field’: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Fin de Siècle and Sharon Bickle’s The Fowl and the Pussycat: Love Letters of Michael Field, 1876-1909 (2008).
We invite proposals for 20 minute papers on topics related to Michael Field and fin de siècle culture, which may include, but are not limited to:
• Fin de siècle poetry
• Late-Victorian literary culture
• Aestheticism and Decadence
• Verse drama/closet drama
• Drama and performance
• Poetic form, prosody, the lyric
• History, time, historiography
• Interactions with different periods/literary traditions
• Life writing, biography, autobiography
• Gender, sexuality, desire
• Michael Field’s circle/influences
• Fashion and dress culture
• Catholicism and religious writing
• Art and design
• Book history, book design, printing
• The New Woman, the Female Aesthete
• Modernity, modernism
• Michael Field’s influence on later writers
Deadline for abstracts: 31 December 2013
Please email 300-word abstracts to email@example.com
Organisers: Dr Ana Parejo Vadillo (Birkbeck, University of London), Dr Sarah Parker (University of Stirling) and Dr Marion Thain (University of Sheffield)