Protomodernist Love Triangle: On Carolyn Dever’s “Chains of Love and Beauty”

By Evangeline Riddiford GrahamOctober 16, 2023

Protomodernist Love Triangle: On Carolyn Dever’s “Chains of Love and Beauty”

Chains of Love and Beauty: The Diary of Michael Field by Carolyn Dever

IF YOU HAD MET the poet Michael Field walking in London in the late 1880s, you might have been surprised to learn that the new literary celebrity dazzling critics with his “Elizabethan Method” was not a brilliant young man, but two women: aunt and niece. Before Robert Browning let the secret slip, you might have strolled past Michael Field and never known. But the women might have noticed you and returned home to write about you in Michael Field’s diary.

In Chains of Love and Beauty: The Diary of Michael Field (Princeton University Press, 2022), scholar Carolyn Dever pulls that diary out of a century of obscurity and unfurls 30 years and almost 10,000 pages to reveal a genre-defying, protomodernist document. Chains of Love and Beauty is the first book-length critical appraisal of Michael Field’s diary; it will be followed in January 2024 by One Soul We Divide: A Critical Edition of the Diary of Michael Field (Princeton University Press,), a selection of diary entries edited by Dever. The two books join a small but insistent catalog by scholars who, since the 1990s, have worked to retrieve Michael Field’s writing and release its authors from footnote characterizations, if they are mentioned at all, as sexually naive spinsters and pathetic literary groupies. Curious readers may want to begin with Emma Donoghue’s concise and entertaining biography, We Are Michael Field (Absolute Press, 1998), before they plunge into Dever’s commentary—and into the decadent, eccentric, contradictory marvel that is Michael Field’s diary.

For Dever, that diary begins in 1867, when Katharine Harris Bradley turns 21; her niece Edith Emma Cooper, precocious but not yet a contributor, is five. By 1889, they have become Michael Field, an acclaimed poet and playwright of their invention, whose diary they keep together. They are also lovers, aged 43 and 27, sharing a bed in their family home.

Theirs was an intricate partnership, and “Michael Field” an intricate part. Bradley and Cooper kept Michael Field alive even after the nom de plume became a dinner-party joke and his literary star waned. The persona remained the crux of the women’s relationship: writing Michael Field’s poetry fed their intimacy, which fueled more writing—eight volumes of poetry and 27 plays. “We lie in our bed, read proofs and poems, and stick roses in our ears,” Bradley crooned in an 1897 letter. They published under Michael Field’s name, and wrote Michael Field’s diary, which they titled Works and Days, until the end of their lives.

From its beginning, Works and Days was not a private diary, and not a strictly linear accounting. Its authors were one another’s first readers, shuttling the year’s white foolscap notebook between desk and bed. They drafted entries before adding them to the diary, edited and annotated their writing, and returned to important events to rewrite them multiple times. This deliberation was not just for their own satisfaction: Bradley and Cooper intended the diary to be published 15 years after their deaths.

The impulse to write both about and against the passage of time extended to Michael Field’s poetry, finding its form in an atemporal style that prominent critics both fêted and sneered at. Cooper explained to William Archer that “1590 is second nature to us,” after he accused them of worshipping “dead convention”; Thomas Wentworth Higginson (correspondent of Emily Dickinson) and Lionel Johnson both praised their “Elizabethan” quality. Robert Browning, meanwhile, addressed Michael Field as his “two dear, Greek women” and advised them to wait 50 years for full acclaim—casting the women, as Dever points out, as visitors from the ancient past who are also, somehow, too modern for the present.

Indeed, despite their vocabulary, Michael Field hungered to be modern. The women paid critical attention to their contemporaries. They sought advice from John Ruskin, socialized with Oscar Wilde, and received, with some misgivings, the praise of W. B. Yeats. They pursued an awkward, collapsing love triangle with art critic Bernard Berenson, and sought his instruction in viewing modern art. In their 1889 collection Long Ago, their response to Sappho gestured to the tug between old and new:

Oh not the honey, nor the bee!
Yet who can drain the flowers
As I?

Works and Days, Dever argues, is where Michael Field realized their modernity. The diary’s 29-volume, multiplot narrative, she writes, “reads like the great unknown novel of the nineteenth century—or better, the living record of the transition from a Victorian worldview to a modernist one, from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf.” It combines that “baggy” quality Henry James attributed to Victorian novels with protomodernist temporal innovations like splicing, fragmentation, and an eroticized, feminized calendar. The result is a two-part harmony for a single mouth, only to be heard 15—or 50, or 100—years later. As Dever admits, the “Greek women” seem unlikely to have anticipated queer theory, but they certainly understood that their lives, as female, lesbian Victorian poets, would matter to future readers.

Berenson advised Bradley and Cooper that “if marriage is the aim of English and American novels, its violation is the aim of the French.” For women striving to be “wild and free as [they] could be,” both plots presented a kind of ego death. The female protagonist of the English novel must renounce her familial identity for a married one; the French protagonist loses her married identity through infidelity. Rebellion against this paradigm, Dever writes, was crucial to Michael Field’s identity. In their incestuous, lifelong relationship, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper seamlessly maintained faithfulness to both their born and partnered selves.

Romantic relationships between female relatives weren’t unheard of among Victorian bourgeoisie; what makes Bradley and Cooper’s union unusual is that their triumphant rewrite of the marriage plot chose authorial collaboration as its climax. Loving and writing together made Michael Field more intimate even than Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, they calculated: “[T]hose two poets, man and wife, wrote alone; each wrote, but did not bless or quicken one another at their work; we are closer married.”

When Bradley and Cooper do leave the family home, it is to become heads of their own household. With the support of another queer artist couple, Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, they throw themselves into a new aesthetic form: decorating. In Dever’s pithy formulation, the erotics of writing is temporarily replaced with the erotics of consumption. Or, as Cooper enumerates in 1899:

Michael buys for me my wedding present […] a small tea-casket (call it not caddy) of ivory and tortoiseshell—the loveliest object I have ever loved; ‘nothing too much’ dreamt into a shape. And we buy old cut-glass liqueur glasses and old silver eggspoons, and three of the most perfect coffee-tables with seed-legs! There is in our behaviour a riot of luxurious contrariety.

This ecstatic, exacting focus on beauty hints at Michael Field’s need to both fulfill and subvert the culmination of the English marriage plot: parenthood. A fruitful Victorian should leave a legacy; for Michael Field, longevity of hearth and home is ensured not by children, but by art.

Their counter to the French novel is even more astonishing. Michael Field’s authors are faithful; however, the foundation of their marriage is not coupledom, but love triangles. There is, of course, the Michael Field–Bradley-Cooper triangle, in which three identities merge and tease one another. Dever persuasively charts how this pattern repeats in other relationships central to Michael Field’s identity, as the women exalt—in terms that muddle romantic, filial, and even interspecies boundaries—love objects that include “the Doctrine” (Berenson), “the Old Gentleman” (Browning), “the Beloved Mother-One” (Bradley’s sister and Cooper’s mother), and “the Chow” (their doted-on dog, subject to his own poetry collection). In their later years, they find their final triad in the Holy Trinity of the Catholic Church.

Dever explores the Michael Field method of making art and family on one’s own terms with sensitivity and rigor; she also has a keen sense of the weird, and many of the most vibrant passages of Chains of Love and Beauty underscore both the intensity and the unrepentant oddness of Works and Days. For instance, there’s the mysterious death of Cooper’s father, who disappeared in the Alps in 1897. Bradley and Cooper travel to Switzerland to do “the work of sons” monitoring police investigations. While there, they buy rings, which they exchange with vows in a meadow, near the spot their relative may have died. “What better time to go wedding-ring shopping,” Dever wryly asks, “than while awaiting discovery of one’s father’s perhaps-murdered corpse in a country far from home?” Michael Field have again taken charge of the plot and bent it to a triangle, the father’s dead body permitting—almost necessitating—the union of the two women.

Bradley and Cooper are seldom apart, always hiding the nature of their relationship in plain sight. Dever takes care not to skip over the fact that, while the women are frustrated by the confines of gender, they find no little thrill in subterfuge. This tension lends Michael Field’s love poetry a jolt of risk: lines like “She has the star’s own pulse; its throbbing / Is a quick light” take on new boldness when you know the authors were in a secret incestuous lesbian relationship and publishing under a pseudonym that was, as Dever puts it, “one of the worst-kept secrets of the fin de siècle.” In foregrounding the pleasure Bradley and Cooper take in secrets, Dever illustrates the extent to which they were undermined by Robert Browning’s carelessness. (The poets themselves were careful to avoid accusing the revered “Old Gentleman” of outright betrayal.)

The defiant happiness of their hidden world is arguably the most radical part of the Michael Field project, though Dever indicates that silliness is in rather short supply over the diary in its entirety. This makes her commentary and judicious selection of passages only more valuable (and enjoyable) to those of us who probably aren’t going to visit the British Library to read the whole thing. A dash of silliness helps Michael Field recognize hostile Victorian social mores as ridiculous. For instance, when explorer Edward Whymper visits, the women are entertained by their new friend’s faddish diet and his promise to take them to the top of Mont Blanc, “dead or living.” But their delight reaches its apex when Whymper asks Cooper if her aunt has ever been married: “I don’t know why I should think so, but she has the manner of a married lady.” Upstairs, the women laugh so hard that they make the bed shake.

This joyful episode of misplaced recognition finds a heartbreaking coda near the end of Chains of Love and Beauty. After Cooper converts to Catholicism, the bewildered Bradley anticipates that the priest will be puzzled by his new parishioner’s living arrangements, so she intercepts him with the assurance that she has “maternal” care for Cooper. The Holy Trinity, Dever suggests, inspires Cooper to rethink Michael Field as a three-part altar, rather than an entanglement with a mortal beloved; the shift “enables Cooper to leave Bradley without actually leaving her.” The Michael Field triangle is intact but inactive, and Bradley must declare that she has never been “a married lady” after all.

Michael Field keep secrets from their diary as well as their priest. It is never mentioned when their sexual relationship began, as Dever observes. Given that Bradley was not just an older relative but also Cooper’s live-in caretaker from childhood, this information would be crucial to how we think about consent and coercion in an already incestuous arrangement. Michael Field are silent on this score.

Rather than chase declarations, Dever teases out details: private deathbed rituals, factionalism between artists, the hushed misery of Oscar Wilde’s trial, and, most of all, the nuances of daily emotional experience. Bradley and Cooper are strong on artistic rapture; they are even stronger on the minutiae of social anxiety, indignance, and contrarian humor. Of a visit to their friends’ exquisite home, Cooper writes:

The “gee-gee” carpet has a ground^-colour^ of dead roses. “You must lie down on it” commands Ricketts. I fall like Whym Chow in a heap—then become conscious of my huge winter-coat, and see myself a black Russian Bear before the eyes that love bony grace and veils. I rise sensitive.

Having behaved like a dog, and then a bear, at the encouragement of her queer artist friends, Cooper feels a complex mixture of animal playfulness and shame at her lack of femininity. Or there’s the time their dog kills Rudyard Kipling’s white bunny. After the initial horror and deathbed ministrations to the rabbit, Bradley can’t help but admire her brazen dog: “The incident has made a man of him. I shall never forget the air with which he dashed in, and drank water, like a young hero who flings aside his casque and refreshes himself.”

Michael Field overspend on flowers, ward off “plunging” kisses from nuns, and rage at their gardener for failing to doff his hat at their dog’s funeral. Ricketts tells them that together they are “impossible and insane.” He isn’t the only one. Dever and other scholars have noted how uncooperative Michael Field are as biographical subjects. They are intolerant, demanding, and self-obsessed. They reject sympathy. Instead, they offer a shared portrait of two women determined not just to survive as artists, but also to write at the highest level.

In Chains of Love and Beauty and the forthcoming One Soul We Divided, Dever whittles down three decades of memoir to highlight how the temporal-social experiments of Works and Days and the lives of its authors both resist convention. Michael Field chart the ebb and flow of years—only to turn pages back and rewrite time. They marry themselves. They keep a secret and seek publicity. They prize palimpsest within exhaustive accounting. They defy their own diary.


Evangeline Riddiford Graham’s poetry and criticism can be found in ARTnewsLandfall, and Electric Literature, and in the chapbooks La belle dame avec les mains vertes (Compound Press, 2019) and Ginesthoi (hard press, 2017).

LARB Contributor

Evangeline Riddiford Graham’s poetry and criticism can be found in ARTnewsLandfall, and Electric Literature, and in the chapbooks La belle dame avec les mains vertes (Compound Press, 2019) and Ginesthoi (hard press, 2017). She hosts the poetry podcast Multi-Verse.


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