The Centre for the History of European Discourses was incorporated in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities in August 2015.

The information in this website is therefore out of date but retained for archival and staff purposes.

In 1890 the lesbian aunt-and-niece couple, Katharine Bradley (1846-1914) and Edith Cooper (1862-1913), better known as the poet Michael Field, met Bernard Berenson (1865-1959). At the time Berenson was an impecunious Jewish-American who offered to tutor them in Renaissance and modern art. He had just fallen in love with the married American Quaker, Mary Smith Costelloe (1864-1945). She left her Catholic husband and two young daughters to travel with him. Under her instigation, Berenson began to write art criticism and to practice attribution. He became an enormously wealthy and influential art connoisseur who helped to stock the major museums of America.

Critics have long known that Cooper felt passionately in love with Berenson, but no one has examined this relationship closely. Each used the emotions they stirred in the other as a backdrop for and then part of their aesthetics. Cooper needed an idealized passion for her poetry and Berenson needed her intensity for his theories about art appreciation. Cooper felt that she and Berenson were faun-like creatures who instinctively understood each other on a deeper level than the physical. Bradley reconciled herself to this male intrusion into Michael Field's poetic and personal "oneness" by turning Berenson into a modern-day Dionysius. As an earthly faun, he confirmed their masculine creativity and feminine beauty. Through his eyes, they knew they were not like Vernon Lee and the other lesbian intellectuals they met, who were homely, "shirt-fronty" and "abnormal." Theirs was a fee, Bacchic homosexuality, not an ugly imitation of masculinity.

My talk will examine poems, letters, and diaries to explore the impact of falling in love with a man on lesbian poetry. I will consider how the two poets and art critic used elaborate gender play in their erotic friendship. By living imaginatively in and for Art, each hoped to avoid the dreary materialism and sexual constraints of the time. As long as the three could create a wide range of gendered and gender-free positions, they could experience life more intensely and aesthetically than their peers. Only the practical Mary was unimpressed with this aesthetic play.

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