Female Marriage and the Triangulation of Michael Field and Whym Chow

Kelsie Kato

The Victorian Era was a period of growing cultural awareness surrounding same-sex desires. Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 criminalized both public and private acts of “gross indecency” between two men (Burnie 33). This amendment was used to convict Oscar Wilde to two years of hard labor after a sensationalized trial in 1895. Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (translation published in Britain in 1899) and Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds’ Sexual Inversion (1897) were landmark works in the field of sexology, exposing the wider British public to a sympathetic view of same-sex desire (Bauer 96). While discourse surrounding male same-sex desire gained footing in both academic and legal arenas, female sexuality remained largely sidelined. Sex acts between two women were not criminalized, and the male-dominated field of sexology considered female sexuality most commonly as it related to male sexuality. However, that did not mean that women did not engage in same-sex affairs. There are numerous examples of nineteenth-century women in both Britain and the United States who lived together and openly considered their partnerships as marriages (Marcus 196). Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper were two of these women. In Whym Chow: Flame of Love, Bradley and Cooper step beyond the conventional bonds of heterosexual marriage into a space where their individual identities are triangulated and oftentimes merged with that of their dog, Whym Chow. In doing so, they implicitly argue that their relationship and the oneness of their identity is more profound than "traditional" love.

In their journal Works and Days, Bradley claimed that, by writing together as Michael Field, she and Cooper were “closer married” than their friends Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning who had distinct poetic identities (Field 16). This sentiment speaks to a larger phenomenon in the Victorian era known as female marriages. In her essay, “The Genealogy of Marriage,” Sharon Marcus defines female marriage as “relationships that, like legal marriage, did the work assigned to sexuality in the nineteenth century: the management of shared households, the transmission of property, the expression of emotional and religious affect, and the development and care of the self” (Marcus 193). Cooper and Bradley lived together for all of Cooper’s adult life, writing collaboratively both publicly and privately. The nature of their partnership enabled them to share everything from social circles and pets to their joint conversion to Catholicism.

In the eyes of the law, the Brownings were one entity—Robert Browning—but the Brownings, perhaps unconsciously, strove against this merged identity by writing as themselves. Cooper and Bradley, whose marriage was accepted within their community of Aesthetic writers and artists but not legally recognized, made the conscious decision to write under a pseudonym that subsumed their individual identities and created a single, public persona. The fact that they wrote not just their published collections of poetry and verse dramas under a single name but also journaled in shared volumes shows that the oneness created by the name Michael Field did not exist solely under the purview of their profession as poets.

Whym Chow: Flame of Love invites the couple’s beloved dog Whym Chow to join in the merging of identities. Throughout the volume, he serves as many things, from a poetic muse to a vision of Victorian Orientalism to a representative figure for one or both of the women behind the name Michael Field (Baylis-Green). Poem IX serves as a clear example of how Cooper and Bradley triangulated their relationship to include Whym Chow. The poem opens, “My loved One is away from me/ Whom thou dost love. O Chow” (lines 1-2). Within the first two lines, the poetic speaker immediately identifies herself with Whym Chow through a mutual love for the absent woman. The initial line is retained with minor alterations to the pronouns throughout six of the poem’s eight stanzas. When “My loved One” becomes “Our loved one,” Whym Chow and the speaker’s identities are further entwined; their individual desire to see her once more becomes “one yearning” (line 18, 16). 

Throughout the poem and indeed the whole volume, there is no indication as to who the poetic I refers to, implying a sense of interchangeability between Bradley and Cooper’s yearning for one another’s presence. The speaker could, therefore, be either woman, or “I” could refer to both of them as the singular Michael Field, each desiring one another across the distance. There is a shift in the seventh stanza when “My loved One” becomes a referent for the deceased Whym Chow (Field 23). The yearning is now a feeling shared between Bradley and Cooper and directed towards the third member of their small family. The ambiguity of the poem’s final line solidifies the merging of the three identities. The poetic speaker calls for Whym Chow to “Watch still beside me, be with me her lover!” (line 36). This line can be read two ways; either she is asking Whym Chow to identify with herself as a second lover to the absent woman, or she is asking Whym Chow to return to her, lover of the absent woman. Or, if “me” refers to Michael Field, one can interpret the line as carrying both meanings at once.

The depth of Cooper and Bradley’s bond and their devotion to projecting themselves as a single entity, evidenced both in their life writing and their poetry, certainly validates the perception of their relationship as a marriage. Their use of Whym Chow as a representative figure within the poems only further alludes to the oneness of their identity. In Poem IX, he is at once capable of standing in for the poetic speaker, the yearned-for lover, and a third figure who shares the desire of both. This triangulation represents Cooper and Bradley's love, much like the yearning in poem IX, as a feeling "Vaster than we," so vast that the weight of it must be shared with a third beloved (line 17).

Works Cited

Bauer, Heike. “Theorizing Female Inversion: Sexology, Discipline, and Gender at the Fin De Siècle.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 18, no. 1, 2009, pp. 84–102. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20542719. Accessed 7 Mar. 2021.

Baylis-Green, Caroline. “Sentimental Coatings and the Subversive Pet Closet: Michael Field’s Whym Chow: Flame of Love.” Torch, Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, 21 Nov. 2018, https://www.torch.ox.ac.uk/article/sentimental-coatings-and-the-subversive-pet-closet-michael-fields-whym-chow-flame-of-love. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.

Burnie, Robert William. The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885. London, Waterlow & Sons, 1885. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-criminal-law-amendment-act-1885. Accessed 9 Mar. 2021.

Field, Michael. Whym Chow: Flame of Love. Eragny Press. 1914.

Field, Michael. Works and Days. From the Journal of Michael Field. Ed. T & D.C. Sturge Moore. London, John Murray, 1933.

Marcus, Sharon. “The Genealogy of Marriage.” Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, Princeton University Press, 2007, pp. 193-226.