We Are Michael Field.
If you're my age, you doubtless remember that series of little orange books with titles such as Ben Franklin, Boy Inventor and Clara Barton, Girl Nurse. I devoured them. You learned so many interesting things, they were fun to read, and right after you finished one you wanted another. Well, a couple of years ago the British publisher Absolute Press came out with a sophisticated version of this with its Outlines series: $10 paperbacks, each less than 150 pages long, which present the lives of famous gay artists as seen through the prism of their homosexuality. Furthermore, all are written by contemporary gay writers who have a special affinity--sometimes one might say obsession--for their chosen subject.
Earlier volumes that have been particularly successful include British poet Jackie Kay's life of Bessie Smith, Michael Wilcox on Benjamin Britten, and Peter Adam's take on the life and work of David Hockney. Two new biographies have just joined this impressive list; one may well be the most fascinating yet, while the other I would have to classify as a near miss.
The name Michael Field is virtually forgotten now, but in late-Victorian England it was an intellectual force to be reckoned with. It was the pseudonym of two eccentric spinsters, aunt and niece but also lovers, who wrote almost endless volumes of plays and poetry, some wonderful, some quite awful. Their story, as told by Irish novelist Emma Donoghue, reads like one of the better Merchant-Ivory screenplays: a comedy of manners, obsession, and art, with twin heroines heroic one moment and foolish the next, plus a supporting cast that includes John Ruskin, Bernhard Berenson, and Oscar Wilde.
The second new Outlines entry is about all-time artistic bad boy and iconoclast Arthur Rimbaud. So much of modern poetry and rock music can be traced to the influence of his short and sensational life (he wrote all his great work before the age of 20) that Benjamin Ivry has probably bitten off more than he and the reader can easily chew in such a short book. It's all here, certainly--the drink, the drugs, the lice-infested clothes, the famous affair with Paul Verlaine--but the result this time is too literally an outline. Ivry tells his story through literary analysis and secondhand biographical material; as a result the poet never quite comes to life.
An American counterpart to the Outlines books is under way with Lipper/Viking's Penguin Lives series. Although Penguin Lives is not gay, one of its two debut volumes turns out to be Edmund White's minibiography of Marcel Proust. This is the book White was born to write--elegant, perfectly balanced, and short. Time after time he hits exactly the right note as he analyzes an intellect that only he could explain so well. College students everywhere will rejoice. And I can only hope that someday Ben Franklin and Clara Barton will have such insightful, sympathetic, and dishy biographers.
Plunket is the author of My Search for Warren Harding and Love Junkie.
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|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 2, 1999|
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