London: George Bell and Sons, 1890. Octavo, measuring 7.5 x 5 inches: x, 261, . Original brown pictorial paper boards with floral design by Selwyn Image, spine lettered in black, text block uncut and unopened. Light pencil note to front free endpaper: “From a remainder of at least a dozen copies sold by Bell’s about June 1973.” Light offsetting to endpapers. Without scarce glassine wrapper.
First edition of this Victorian verse drama about Mary, Queen of Scots, co-written by the lesbian couple Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who published under the penname Michael Field for four decades. Their pseudonymous authorship was a loosely held secret among literary friends like Robert Browning and Oscar Wilde. The ambiguous figure of Mary Stuart fascinated the Victorians, as evidenced in Walter Pater’s “Essay on Rossetti,” which inspired the title of the play: “Old Scotch history, perhaps beyond any other, is strong in the matter of heroic and vehement hatreds and love, the tragic Mary herself being but the perfect blossom of them.” The Tragic Mary dramatizes the tumultuous years of 1566 and 1567, when Mary’s first husband Lord Darnley was murdered and his alleged killer, the Earl of Bothwell, abducted and married her. Field explores the tension between the queen’s vulnerability and authority, as when Mary asks her abusive captor: “Have you thought what utter hatred would be like in me? . . . Have you beheld the vision? Very soon it will be actual, and face to face.” Focused on the world of the queen and her woman servants, the play is of particular note for its undertones of same-sex desire; the scholar Jayne Lewis calls it “a fable of lesbian longing” (Mary Queen of Scots: Romance and Nation.) The Tragic Mary features a celebrated cover design by Selwyn Image, one of the founders of the Century Guild of Artists, now seen as a key forerunner of the Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau. A fine copy.