“Michael Field” was the pseudonym of writers Katharine Harris Bradley (1846-1914) and Edith Emma Cooper (1862-1913). They were a lesbian couple and also aunt and niece who lived in Bristol for ten years from 1878-1888 at ‘Ivythorpe’ (No 3) Sunnyside, Stoke Bishop, moving around 1884 to ‘Stoke Green’ (No 12).
Katharine Bradley was the daughter of a wealthy tobacco manufacturer. In 1860 her elder sister, Emma, married James Robert Cooper and their daughter Edith was born two years later when Katharine was 16. After the birth of a second daughter, Amy (1863-1910), Emma became an invalid for the rest of her life and Katharine became legal guardian of her elder niece and lived with the family for the rest of her life.
During their time in Bristol Katharine and Edith both studied at Bristol University and attended lectures in Classics and Philosophy. They joined the University debating society and spoke eloquently in favour of women’s suffrage. Katharine was also a prime mover of the Anti Vivisection Society in Clifton and was its Secretary until 1887. They adopted the ‘aesthetic dress’ style of the day and are remembered by friends walking across Durdham Down every day to attend lectures.
It was during their years in Bristol they began to publish their joint work as “Michael Field”. It was also where they began their lesbian relationship which was to last over 30 years until their deaths only nine months apart from cancer.
In 1881 their first historical verse drama Bellerophon was published using the pseudonyms “Arran and Isla Leigh”. They first used the name “Michael Field” in 1884 with the publication of the verse dramas Callirroe and Fair Rosamund, and in the same year “Michael Field” was identified as “a Bristol man”. The plays were published by J Baker & Son of 34 The Mall, Clifton. Bristol Times and Mirror wrote on 10 December 1884 “Such a pure literary success has rarely been achieved by a new writer” while the Western Daily Press of 5 December 1885 added “Rarely has an unknown writer so quickly gained a place in the ranks of English poets …. but this writer’s works have at once forced him into note”.
Together they wrote 40 works of poetry and verse drama; their intention was to keep their pen name secret but it became public knowledge in 1885 after they confided in their friend, poet Robert Browning. They corresponded with and befriended many like-minded writers and artists of the day including Oscar Wilde who they met in 1890.
They left Bristol for Surrey in 1888 and Edith’s mother died the following year. Edith’s father died in 1897 after a climbing accident in the Alps in Switzerland and this enabled the couple to buy a home of their own in Richmond as evidence of their “marriage”, although Edith saw her father’s death as retribution for their lifestyle.
They wrote a number of passionate love poems to each other and the name “Michael Field” was their way of declaring their inseparable oneness. Friends referred to them as “The Fields”. In 1886 Katharine wrote in a letter to a friend “Let no man think he can put asunder what God has joined”, explaining her relationship with Edith using the words of the Christian marriage ceremony to affirm their life-long partnership. In one poem they wrote “My Love and I took hands and swore, Against the world to be, Poets and lovers evermore”.
Much of Katharine and Edith’s verse deals quite openly with feminine sexuality and erotic love between women. Their plays, of which only a few were ever actually performed, often focussed on the power of the feminine, prominently featuring strong and complex female characters. Katharine wrote “We have determined by Heaven’s grace, to give the English people plays, full of poetry and religion, humour and thought. They will not like this …. they will kick against the pricks, but ultimately they will thankfully accept us”. They declared themselves ‘rationalists’ in 1887, pagans in 1897, and converted to Roman Catholicism in 1907.
Katharine was vivacious, small and ruddy, forthcoming and full of fun but could be rather haughty at times. Edith was tall with a fragile pallid beauty and gray eyes. After their deaths fellow Bristol University friend (herself very possibly one half of a lesbian couple) “Carta” Mary Charlotte Sturge, a daughter of Bristol surveying firm J P Sturge, wrote: “Their genius was great, their spirits beautiful, and their companionship of unexampled delight. And this is how gratefully we remember them”.
Largely forgotten after their deaths, today Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper are renowned both for their formal acuity and ground-breaking contributions to women’s and lesbian literature which began in Bristol.
Jonathan Rowe 2021
The “Michael Field’ diaries 1888-1914 are available online at https://vllc.wordpress.cdhsc.org/the-michael-field-diaries/.
Michael Field, Mary Sturgeon (George G.Harrap & Co. Ltd., 1922)
We Are Michael Field, Emma Donoghue (Absolute Press, 1998)
Music and Silence: The Gamut of Michael Field, Ivor G Treby (2000)