Saturday, January 7, 2017

The letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett part 5: Sonnets from the Portuguese


Elizabeth Barrett Browning photographed in May 1861

Sonnets from the Portuguese

During the time that she and Browning were falling in love and planning their secret marriage and elopement to Italy, Elizabeth Barrett wrote a sonnet sequence that is filled with references to the events of their courtship. She apparently hinted at the poems' existence in one of her meetings with Browning in the weeks before their marriage; when he asked to see them, she responded, "You shall see some day at Pisa what I will not show you now. Does not Solomon say that ‘there is a time to read what is written’. If he does’nt, he ought." (22 July 1846)

However, she apparently didn't show the sonnets to Browning until they were living in Italy. He later wrote, "all this delay, because I happened early to say something against putting one's love into verse [...]" But one day, "[...] I said something else on the other side . . . and next morning she said hesitatingly 'Do you know I once wrote some poems about you?' — and then — 'There they are, if you care to see them.' . . . How I see the gesture, and hear the tones . . . " [1]

Because of the sonnets' intimate content, the couple discussed the question of whether they were to be published. Browning later said, "I dared not reserve to myself the finest sonnets written in any language since Shakespeare's." [2] The sonnets were included in the new edition of Barrett Browning's Poems, published in 1850. To deflect the embarrassment of personal exposure the sequence was given the title Sonnets from the Portuguese, implying that the poems were translations of centuries-old originals. Barrett Browning had published a poem in her 1844 collection entitled "Catarina to Camoens," in which a dying woman addresses her poet-lover (Camoens is the British rendering of the name of Luís de Camões, the Renaissance Portuguese poet). Robert Browning "associated Elizabeth with the Portuguese Catarina," and "Catarina to Camoens" was placed immediately before Sonnets from the Portuguese in the new edition of her Poems. [3]

Browning later wrote, "there was a trial at covering it [Barrett Browning's authorship and the autobiographical nature of the Sonnets] a little by leaving out one sonnet which had plainly a connexion with the former works [probably Sonnet XLII, which directly quotes a previously published Barrett Browning poem]: but it was put in afterwards when people chose to pull down the mask which, in old days, people used to respect at a masquerade. But I never cared." [4]

"The depth and breadth and height my soul can reach"

The Sonnets have since, of course, "become the most beloved of all Mrs. Browning's works" [5], particularly Sonnet XLIII, which begins,
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach [...]

The phrase "depth and breadth and height" echoes one from a letter which Robert Browning sent to her:
I feel, after reading these letters,. . .as ordinarily after seeing you, sweetest, or hearing from you. . .that if marriage did not exist, I should infallibly invent it. I should say, no words, no feelings even, do justice to the whole conviction and religion of my soul—and tho' they may be suffered to represent some one minute's phase of it, yet, in their very fulness and passion they do injustice to the unrepresented, other minute's, depth and breadth of love. . .which let my whole life (I would say) be devoted to telling and proving and exemplifying, if not in one, then in another way— (17 January 1846)


Image of the letter from Robert Browning to Elizabeth Barrett of 17 January 1846

Many of the other sonnets also echo incidents and feelings described in the letters. A few examples:

The lock(s) of hair

Sonnet XVIII:
I never gave a lock of hair away
To a man, Dearest, except this to thee [...]
In response to a direct request from Browning in his letter of November 23 for a lock of her hair, Barrett replied: "I never gave away what you ask me to give you, to a human being, except my nearest relatives & once or twice or thrice to female friends,. . .never, though reproached for it!" (24 November 1845). Later the same day, she wrote to him teasingly that she would not give him a lock of her hair, but only exchange hers for a lock of his:
I never can nor will give you this thing;—only that I will, if you please, exchange it for another thing—you understand. I too will avoid being 'assuming'; I will not pretend to be generous, no, nor "kind." It shall be pure merchandise or nothing at all. Therefore determine!—[…]

Then there is another reason for me, entirely mine. You have come to me as a dream comes, as the best dreams come. . .dearest—& so there is need to me of "a sign" to know the difference between dream & vision— [...] ought I not to have it? (24 November 1845)

Image of the letter from Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning, 24 November 1845

She refers to this exchange in Sonnet XIX:
The soul's Rialto hath its merchandise;
I barter curl for curl upon that mart,
And from my poet's forehead to my heart
Receive this lock [...]
And lay the gift where nothing hindereth;
Here on my heart, as on thy brow, to lack
No natural heat till mine grows cold in death.
She received her lock on November 28 in a letter, and as the sonnet suggests, placed it in a locket which she wore over her heart. In return, she sent Browning a small gold ring, engraved "Ba," with a lock of hair in a small compartment accessed from the back. "I meant at first only to send you what is in the ring. . .which, by the way, will not fit you I know—(not certainly in the finger which it was meant for. . .) [...] but can easily be altered to the right size–" (28 November 1845)


The ring given by Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning containing a lock of her hair. Source: British Museum

He wrote her: "I was happy, so happy before! But I am happier and richer now—My love—no words could serve here, but there is life before us, and to the end of it the vibration now struck will extend– I will live and die with your beautiful ring, your beloved hair—comforting me, blessing me." (2 December 1845) After her death, he had the inner surface of the ring inscribed "God bless you, June 29, 1861"; it is now in the British Museum.

A small comic footnote: As Barrett had suggested, Browning took the ring to be resized so that he could wear it, probably on his little finger (he may have initially planned to wear it on his ring finger, where, of course, engagement and wedding rings are worn). "I have thought again, and believe it will be best to select the finger you intended. . .as the alteration will be simpler, I find,—and one is less liable to observation and comment." (2 December 1845)

However, when he received the ring back from the jeweler, Barrett's lock of hair was missing. She sent him another one; the original had evidently been vaporized: "[...] it seems probable that there was no intentional mischief in that jeweller’s management of the ring—the divided gold must have been exposed to fire,—heated thoroughly, perhaps,—and what became of the contents then! Well, all is safe now [...]" (15 December 1845) The ring still contains a lock of her hair.

Her pet name

Sonnet XXXIII:
Yes, call me by my pet-name! let me hear
The name I used to run at, when a child,
From innocent play, and leave the cowslips piled,
To glance up in some face that proved me dear
With the look of its eyes. [...]
Yes, call me by that name,—and I, in truth,
With the same heart, will answer and not wait.
"Ba" was the name by which Elizabeth Barrett was called in her family. But when she gave her ring to Robert Browning, Barrett apparently did not explain the letters with which it was engraved. Browning quickly figured it out:
(But I have a new thing to say or sing—you never before heard me love and bless and send my heart after. . ."Ba"—did you?[)] Ba. . .and that is you! I tried (—more than wanted—) to call you that, on Wednesday! (19 December 1845)


Browning gradually began to use her pet name in his letters (and, it's likely, in their meetings). In his letter of December 21 he wrote "Ba, mi ocelle" (Ba, my eyes); he closed his letter of January 6, 1846 with "Bless you, my Ba"; and on January 11 he wrote "love, dear heart of my heart, my own, only Ba."

Of course, Barrett's use of the ring to signal to Browning that she would permit him to know and use her pet name was an indication that the couple had moved a major step closer in their growing intimacy. Browning, of course, recognized this significance, and used her private name in his most fervent endearments. In his letter of January 28, when he writes to "claim your promise’s fulfilment—say, at the summer’s end," he closes with "Till to-morrow, and ever after, God bless my heart’s own, own Ba. All my soul follows you, love!—encircles you—and I live in being yours." And in the letter he wrote to her on their wedding day, "Enough now, my dearest, dearest, own Ba! You have given me the highest, completest proof of love that ever one human being gave another."

The letters

Sonnet XXVIII:
My letters! all dead paper, mute and white!
And yet they seem alive and quivering
Against my tremulous hands which loose the string
And let them drop down on my knee tonight. [...]
Both correspondents treasured the letters they received from each other, and kept careful count of the letters they sent and received (Browning also noted all but one of their 92 in-person meetings). A year after their epistolary exchange had begun, Barrett teased Browning about the imbalance in the correspondence: "By the way you owe me two letters by your confession. A hundred & four of mine you have, & I, only a hundred & two of yours. . .which is a 'deficit' scarcely creditable to me, (—now is it?. . .) when according to the law & ordinance, a woman's hundred & four letters would take two hundred & eight at least, from the other side, to justify them–" (21 January 1846)

Browning never did catch up. At the time that they eloped to Italy and stopped sending letters to one another, Barrett had written Browning a total of 289 letters over 88 weeks; he still lagged by two, having sent her "only" 287. As might be expected, beginning in the fall of 1845, when the Pisa affair drew them emotionally closer, the pace of their correspondence increased. During the first 10 months of their acquaintance (through mid-November 1845) they exchanged a total of 150 letters, or between 3 and 4 per week; in the second 10 months, a total of 426, or almost 10 per week, nearly one each almost every day letters were delivered (there was no delivery on Sundays). From Sonnet XXVIII:
[...] this fixed a day in spring
To come and touch my hand. . .a simple thing,
Yet I wept for it!—this,. . .the paper's light. . .
Said, Dear, I love thee; and I sank and quailed
As if God's future thundered on my past.
This said, I am thine—and so its ink has paled
With lying on my heart that beat too fast.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's death


Elizabeth Barrett Browning photographed in May 1861

At the end of June 1861 Robert Browning wrote his sister Sarianna a long letter about the "calamity" of the last few days: the last illness and death of Elizabeth. After the couple's return from Rome, Elizabeth had complained of a sore throat and cold. Soon she was coughing and struggling to breathe. Treatments were ineffectual, and her nights were "passed in violent exertion without a minute's sleep."
So we went on, 'rather better, but still with the unfavorable symptoms'—was I told twice a day. She was cheerful as ever, with voice all but extinct—still, 'it would be nothing' she repeated. On Thursday night we tried asses' milk, with success—'had a better night decidedly'—always much expectoration however, and her feet swelled a little. [...] I sat by her at night. She coughed little, took the emulgent duly, and another medicine, but dozed constantly: if I spoke she looked, knew me, smiled, said she was better, and relapsed. I continued this till past three in the morning, when the dozing made me very uneasy. She said 'You did right not to wait—what a fine steamer—how comfortable!' I called Annunziata, bade her get hot water, as the Doctor had done, and send the porter for himself. I bade her sit up for the water. She did with little help—smiling, letting us act, and repeating 'Well, you do make an exaggerated case of it!' 'My hands too' she said and put them in another basin. I said you know me? 'My Robert—my heavens, my beloved'—kissing me (but I can't tell you) she said 'Our lives are held by God.' [...] She put her arms round me—'God bless you' repeatedly—kissing me with such vehemence that when I laid her down she continued to kiss the air with her lips, and several times raised her own hands and kissed them; I said 'Are you comfortable?' 'Beautiful.' I only put in a thing or two out of the many in my heart of hearts. [...] she began to sleep again—the last, I saw. I felt she must be raised, took her in my arms, I felt the struggle to cough begin, and end unavailingly—no pain, no sigh,—only a quiet sight. Her head fell on me. I thought she might have fainted, but presently there was the least knitting of the brows, and A. cried 'Quest' anima benedetta è passata! [This blessed soul has passed!]'

It was so. She is with God, who takes from me the life of my life in one sense,—not so in the truest. My life is fixed and sure now. I shall live out the remainder in her direct influence, endeavouring to complete mine, miserably imperfect now, but so as to take the good she was meant to give me. [...] I shall live in the presence of her, in every sense, I hope and believe—so that so far my loss is not irreparable—but the future is nothing to me now, except inasmuch as it confirms and realizes the past. [...] I shall try and work hard, educate [our son], and live worthy of my past fifteen years' happiness. I do not feel paroxysms of grief, but as if the very blessing, she died giving me, insensible to all beside, had begun to work already. She will be buried tomorrow. Several times in writing this I have for a moment referred in my mind to her—'I will ask Ba about that.' [...] I shall now go in and sit with herself—my Ba, for ever. The service will be that of the Ch[urch]. of En[gland]., that I may hear those only words at the beginning. ["I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die."][...]

How she looks now—how perfectly beautiful!

The publication of the letters


Critic Stefan Collini has written that "Letters are performances of the self." [6] Sometimes those performances are semi- or even fully public, but it seems clear that neither Browning nor Barrett intended these letters for publication at the time, or later—they are largely private and intimate.

Even if the letters were not intended for publication, though, these were two poets writing to one another; they were both very aware that their words would be read and considered with unusual care. And because they were constrained by Barrett's circumstances to meet only once or twice a week for an hour or two (they had 92 meetings over the 70 weeks between their first meeting and elopement), it was through their letters that "the lovers had most of their contact." [7]

In fact, their initial meetings were apparently somewhat awkward. A year after Browning initiated the correspondence and seven months after they had begun to meet in person, Barrett wrote to him,
You never guessed perhaps [...] the curious double feeling I had about you. . .you personally, & you as the writer of these letters,. . .& the crisis of the feeling, when I was positively vexed & jealous of myself for not succeeding better in making a unity of the two. I could not!— And moreover I could not help but that the writer of the letters seemed nearer to me, long. . .long. . .& in spite of the postmark. . .than did the personal visitor who confounded me [...] I could read such letters for ever & answer them after a fashion. . .that, I felt from the beginning. But you—! (4-5 January 1846)
In their letters they could both be more personally revealing and emotionally open; and both of them carefully saved the letters from the other. Only one was ever lost: Browning's declaration of love after their first meeting that he burned at Barrett's request (see Part 2: "Burn it at once").


Robert Wiedeman Penini Browning with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ca. 1860

Robert Browning died in 1889. Ten years after his father's death, Robert Browning Jr. (known in the family as "Pen," short for Penini), brought the courtship letters to the renowned London publishers Smith, Elder. Pen wrote a short introduction to the published volumes, The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, 1845-1846, explaining his decision to make them public:
In considering the question of publishing these letters, which are all that ever passed between my father and mother, for after their marriage they were never separated, it seemed to me that my only alternatives were to allow them to be published or to destroy them. I might, indeed, have left the matter to the decision of others after my death, but that would be evading a responsibility which I feel that I ought to accept.

Ever since my mother's death these letters were kept by my father in a certain inlaid box, into which they exactly fitted, and where they have always rested, letter beside letter, each in its consecutive order and numbered on the envelope by his own hand.

My father destroyed all the rest of his correspondence, and not long before his death he said, referring to these letters: 'There they are, do with them as you please when I am dead and gone!'


The box in which Robert Browning preserved the courtship correspondence with Elizabeth Barrett

The original published editions of the letters can be read at the Internet Archive. A searchable database of the texts of all of the letters is available at The Brownings' Correspondence: An Online Edition. The letters themselves have been digitized by the libraries of Wellesley College and Baylor University.

Last time:  Part 4: "The highest, completest proof of love": The secret marriage



  1. Quoted in Dorothy Mermin, "The Female Poet and the Embarrassed Reader: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets From the Portuguese." ELH, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Summer, 1981), p. 359.
  2. Quoted in Richard Gilder, "A Romance of the 19th Century," The Century Magazine, Vol. 70, May-Oct. 1905: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.31175024615554?urlappend=%3Bseq=935
  3. Poetry Foundation: "Elizabeth Barrett Browning": https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/elizabeth-barrett-browning
  4. Quoted in Mermin, p. 359.
  5. Poetry Foundation: "Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  6. Stefan Collini, "Highlight of Stay So Far," London Review of Books,  Vol. 38 No. 23, 1 December 2016, p. 7.
  7. Daniel Karlin, The Courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 126

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett part 4: "The highest, completest proof of love"


1. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, by Thomas Read, ca. 1853

"He takes it to be his duty to rule"

Before the Pisa affair (see Part 3: "I never shall forget") Barrett had tried to excuse her father's tyrannical behavior towards his children:
[...] there never was (under the strata) a truer affection in a father’s heart. . .no, nor a worthier heart in itself. . .a heart loyaller & purer, & more compelling to gratitude & reverence, than his, as I see it!— The evil is in the system—& he simply takes it to be his duty to rule, & to make happy according to his own views of the propriety of happiness—he takes it to be his duty to rule like the Kings of Christendom, by divine right. But he loves us through & through it—& I, for one, love him! (20 August 1845)
She is speaking, of course, of the man who had forbidden love and marriage to all of his children.

But after the Pisa affair—her father's denial of permission for her to travel to Italy during the winter months of 1845-46 for her health (indeed, as she and Browning saw it, perhaps her survival)—she began to view him in a new light. (From her letter to Browning dated 11-13 October 1845: "The bitterest fact of all is, that I had believed Papa to have loved me more than he obviously does—") Once she had acknowledged and reciprocated Robert Browning's declaration of love, she knew that if her father became aware that Browning was any more than a mere social acquaintance, he would strongly object to Browning's frequent letters and weekly visits.

When in January Browning wrote to her about wanting to make plans for their future together—
[...] this living without you is too tormenting now. So begin thinking: as for Spring, as for a New Year, as for a New Life.– [...] we are to live together one day, love! (15 January 1846)
—she reminded him of her father's implacable ban:
I hope we both are aware that nothing can be more hopeless than our position in some relations & aspects, though you do not guess perhaps that the very approach to the subject is shut up by dangers, & that from the moment of a suspicion entering one mind, we should be able to meet never again in this room, nor to have intercourse by letter through the ordinary channel. I mean, that letters of yours, addressed to me here, would infallibly be stopped & destroyed——if not opened. Therefore it is advisable to hurry on nothing— [...] 
She recalled the confrontation that had occurred when her father had discovered that her sister Henrietta had a prospective suitor:
I look back shuddering to the dreadful scenes in which poor Henrietta was involved who never offended as I have offended. . .years ago which seem as present as today [...] how she was made to suffer— Oh, the dreadful scenes!—and only because she had seemed to feel a little. [...] I hear how her knees were made to ring upon the floor, now! she was carried out of the room in strong hysterics, & I, who rose up to follow her, though I was quite well at that time & suffered only by sympathy; fell flat down upon my face in a fainting-fit. Arabel thought I was dead. (15 January 1846)
In the same letter she told Browning that she had revealed their secret to her sisters, and that "we are as safe with both of them as possible— […] From themselves I have received nothing but the most smiling words of kindness & satisfaction." But she warned that her brothers did not know for certain, and "are full of suspicions and conjectures [...] the absolute knowledge would be dangerous for my brothers"—and for the lovers. Should any word reach her father, she wrote a few days later, "he would rather see me dead at his foot than yield the point: & he will say so, & mean it, & persist in the meaning." (26-27 January 1846)

Browning must now have realized that not only would Barrett's father never accept their love, but that it must inevitably be discovered sooner or later. At the end of the Pisa affair Barrett had written "I am yours"; Browning now asked her to make that promise concrete:
I dare claim, once for all, and in all possible cases, (except that dreadful one of your becoming worse again. . .in which case I wait till life ends with both of us. . .)—I claim your promise’s fulfilment—say, at the summer’s end: it cannot be for your good that this state of things should continue. We can go to Italy for a year or two and be happy as day & night are long. For me, I adore you. This is all unnecessary, I feel as I write: but you will think of the main fact as ordained, granted by God, will you not, dearest?—so, not to be put in doubt ever again–  (28 January 1846)
She responded, "all the yeses in the world would not be too many for such a letter [...] Therefore it is a conditional engagement still—all the conditions being in your hands, except the necessary one, of my health. And shall I tell you what is 'not to be put in doubt ever'?—your goodness, that is. . .& every tie that binds me to you." (30 January 1846)

Elizabeth Barrett, opium user


2. Self-portrait by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1850

One of Browning's concerns as he made plans for the couple was Barrett's dependence on opium. The question of her regular opium use first came up in the fall, when she had written to reassure him:
My opium comes in to keep the pulse from fluttering & fainting. . .to give the right composure & point of balance to the nervous system. I dont take it for 'my spirits' in the usual sense,—you must not think such a thing. […] Also I do not suffer from it in any way, as people usually do who take opium. I am not even subject to an opium-headache. (12 November 1845)
He wrote back to excuse his asking her about the subject: "As for my question about the opium. . .you do not misunderstand that neither: I trust in the eventual consummation of my. . .shall I not say, our. . .hopes; and all that bears upon your health immediately or prospectively, affects me—how it affects me!" (16 November 1845)

In the winter the question arose again, and apparently at Browning's urging Barrett attempted to reduce her habitual dose. He wrote to her, "I will make you laugh at me, if you will, for my inordinate delight at hearing the success of your experiment with the opium; I never dared, nor shall dare inquire into your use of that—for, knowing you utterly as I do, I know you only bend to the most absolute necessity in taking more or less of it—so that increase of the quantity must mean simply increased weakness, illness, and diminution, diminished illness– And now there is diminution!" (4 February 1846)

Barrett tried to both excuse her use and minimize its importance:
[...] that you should care so much about the opium—! Then I must care, & get to do with less. . . [...] it might strike you as strange that I who have had no pain .. no acute suffering to keep down from its angles. . .should need opium in any shape. But I have had restlessness till it made me almost mad—at one time I lost the power of sleeping quite. . .& even in the day, the continual aching sense of weakness, has been intolerable. . .besides palpitation. . .as if one’s life instead of giving movement to the body, were imprisoned undiminished within it, & beating & fluttering impotently to get out, at all the doors & windows. So the medical people gave me opium. . . a preparation of it, called morphine, & æther—& ever since I have been calling it my amreeta draught, my elixir,. . .because the tranquillizing power has been wonderful. Such a nervous system I have. . .so irritable naturally, & so shattered by various causes,. . .that the need has continued in a degree until now—& it would be dangerous to leave off the calming remedy [...] except very slowly & gradually. But slowly & gradually something may be done—& you are to understand that I never increased upon the prescribed quantity. . .prescribed in the first instance—no!– Now think of my writing all this to you!– (4 February 1846)
("Amreeta" or "Amrita" in Hindu mythology is the elixir of immortality.)

But although she evidently moderated her opium use, Barrett did not stop entirely. The next year she wrote that "experience has proved, that I cant do without it—" (20 October 1847) And in a letter to Browning's sister, she said,
[Opium] is certainly one of the gifts of God & I do not understand why we should object to use it simply on the ground that it may possibly be abused. For my part, I am sure I should have died or gone mad (not from pain but nervous & febrile irritation) years ago, if it had not been for morphine—yet I was never tempted beyond the medical prescription, in taking it, nor have I suffered from the practise in any specific way. . .not from headache, not from indigestion. . .nor am I prevented from leaving it off, you see, (Robert must have told you) when it becomes desireable to leave it off, notwithstanding the long habit & the excessive use. . .few persons having taken such large doses as I. (8 Jan 1849)
Barrett continued to take opium, at least occasionally, for the rest of her life.

"It is something new for me to be rained upon"


3. Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Rudolf Lehmann, 1859

Throughout the summer months Elizabeth Barrett, with Browning's encouragement, made determined attempts to regain her strength. In May during a carriage ride in Regent's Park, "I wished so much to walk through a half open gate along a shaded path, that we stopped the carriage & got out & walked, & I put both my feet on the grass,. . .which was the strangest feeling!" (11 May 1846) She mailed a letter to Browning "which with my own hand I dropped into the post. I liked to do it beyond what you discern. And how the sun shone,—& the little breath of wind could do nobody harm, I felt." (28 May 1846)

In June she left the house for the first time on her own:
When everybody was at dinner I remembered that I had not been out—it was nearly eight. . .there was no companion for me unless I called one from the dinner-table,— [...] Therefore I put on my bonnet, as a knight of old took his sword, [...] aspiring to the pure heroic,. . .& called Flush, & walked down stairs & into the street, all alone—that was something great!— And, with just Flush, I walked there, up & down in glorious independence. (18 June 1846)
In the company of Anna Jameson she went to an exhibit of paintings by Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, and Rembrandt: "[...] the pictures [...] are full of wonder & divinity— [...] How was it possible not to feel giddy with such sights!— Almost I could have run my head against the wall, I felt, with bewilderment—and Mrs Jameson must have been edified, I have thought since, by my intense stupidity." (22 June 1846) John Kenyon twice took her to see the railway: "[...] we saw the great roaring, grinding Thing. . .a great blind mole, it looked for blackness– We got out of the carriage, to see closer—& Flush was so frightened at the roar of it, that he leapt upon the coachbox." Poignantly, she described being caught outside in a rain shower: "I had ever so many raindrops on my gown & in my face even,. . .which pleased me nearly as much as the railroad-sight. It is something new for me to be rained upon, you know–" (15 August 1846)

During the summer months as Barrett grew stronger she and Browning discussed the details of the trip to Italy and their future life together. As the autumn approached so did the time by which they would need to depart or have to wait through another winter and spring, a prospect that particularly troubled Browning. Then two events occurred that hastened their plans.

The discovery and the plan to leave London


4. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, engraving after a photograph, 1859

Browning's visits of once or twice a week usually began around 2 or 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and typically lasted between one and two hours. He was always careful to leave before 6; not only would it have been odd for him to remain past the hour of "morning visits," but he also wanted to avoid encountering Barrett's father, who generally returned home around 7 pm.

However, on Saturday, August 1, London was hit by fierce winds, driving rain, and thunder and lightning. The violent storm caused Barrett's father to return early from the City. He arrived at the house around 5 o'clock and soon learned that his daughter had a visitor. He sent up a message via Arabella: "He took up the fancy that I might be ill perhaps with fear. . .'& only Mr Browning in the room'!!!—which was not to be permitted. He was peremptory with Arabel, she told me." Browning left at 6 but did not see Mr. Barrett on his way out.

The next day Barrett wrote to Browning,
I was frightened out of all wisdom by the idea of who was down stairs & listening perhaps, & watching— [...] Dearest, he came into the room at about seven, before he went to dinner– I was lying on the sofa & had on a white dressing gown, to get rid of the strings. . .so oppressive the air was,—for all the purifications of lightning– He looked a little as if the thunder had passed into him, & said, "Has this been your costume since the morning, pray?" "Oh no"—I answered—"only just now, because of the heat". "Well", he resumed, with a still graver aspect. . .(so displeased, he looked, dearest!) "it appears, Ba, that that man has spent the whole day with you". To which I replied as quietly as I could, that you had several times meant to go away, but that the rain would not let you,—& there, the colloquy ended. Brief enough!—but it took my breath away .. or the remains of what was left, by the previous fear. And think how it must have been a terrible day, when the lightning of it made the least terror–– (2 August 1846)
("Ba" was how Elizabeth Barrett's family referred to her; shortly after she had accepted Browning's renewed declaration of love in the fall of 1845 he had also began to address her using this pet name.)

Finding that Browning had been alone with his daughter for hours that day may have raised Mr. Barrett's suspicions, because he began to make plans to take his family away from London. On Wednesday, September 9, Barrett alerted Browning to her father's announcement:
This night, an edict has gone out, and George is tomorrow to be on his way to take a house for a month either at Dover, Reigate, Tunbridge, .. Papa did "not mind which," he said, & ["]you may settle it among you". . .but he "must have this house empty for a month in order to its cleaning"—we are to go therefore & not delay–

Now!—what can be done? It is possible that the absence may be longer than for a month, indeed it is probable—for there is much to do in painting & repairing, here in Wimpole Street, more than a month’s work they say. Decide, after thinking– I am embarrassed to the utmost degree, as to the best path to take. If we are taken away on monday. . .what then? [...]

Therefore decide! It seems quite too soon & too sudden for us to set out on our Italian adventure now—& perhaps even we could not compass——

Well—but you must think for both of us– [...] I will do as you wish—understand. (9 September 1846)
Browning received her letter the next day and recognized that after nine months of discussion, they needed to act immediately. 
12 oc[loc]k On returning I find your note.
"I will do as you wish—understand"—then I understand you are in earnest. If you do go on Monday, our marriage will be impossible for another year—the misery! You see what we have gained by waiting. We must be married directly and go to Italy– I will go for a licence today and we can be married on Saturday. (10 September 1846)
On Friday, September 11, Browning visited Barrett while the rest of her family was on a picnic. During that meeting they made arrangements for the next day.

The secret marriage


5. St. Marylebone Parish Church in the early 1800s

At around 10:30 in the morning on Saturday, September 12, Barrett left her home in the company of her lady's maid, Elizabeth Wilson. Ostensibly she was going to visit Hugh Boyd, an elderly family friend and classical scholar whom she had known from childhood.
[...] now you shall praise me for courage. . .or rather you shall love me for the love which was the root of it all– How necessity makes heroes—or heroines at least!– For I did not sleep all last night, & when I first went out with Wilson to get to the flystand in Marylebone Street I staggered so, that we both were afraid for the fear's sake,—but we called at a chemist's for sal volatile [smelling salts] & were thus enabled to go on– (12 September 1846)
She and Wilson took a cab to St. Marylebone Parish Church several blocks away, where she met Browning and his cousin and best man, James Silverthorne; Wilson served as her bridesmaid. As scholar Daniel Karlin points out, "It was the first time that [Browning] and Elizabeth Barrett had met outside her room in Wimpole Street."[1] The marriage ceremony and the signing of the register took only half an hour; by 11:15 the newlywed couple had emerged from the church, stepped into separate carriages, and driven off in different directions.


6. The signed marriage register at the St. Marylebone Parish Church

Barrett drove to the house of Mr. Boyd, where she had arranged for her sisters to pick her up in the afternoon.
[...] oh, such a day!– I went to Mr Boyd’s directly, so as to send Wilson home the faster—and was able to lie quietly on the sofa in his sittingroom down stairs [...] Then I was made to talk & take Cyprus wine,—&, my sisters delaying to come, I had some bread & butter for dinner, to keep me from looking too pale in their eyes– At last they came, & with such grave faces! Missing me & Wilson, they had taken fright,—& Arabel had forgotten at first what I told her last night about the fly. I kept saying, "What nonsense,. . .what fancies you do have to be sure",. . .trembling in my heart with every look they cast at me– And so, to complete the bravery, I went on with them in the carriage to Hampstead. . .as far as the heath [...]

It seems all like a dream! When we drove past that church again, I and my sisters, there was a cloud before my eyes—. (12 September 1846)
Browning returned directly to his parents' home, where he immediately wrote a letter to Elizabeth Barrett—now, of course, Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
You will only expect a few words—what will those be? When the heart is full it may run over, but the real fulness stays within– [...]
Words can never tell you, however,—form them, transform them anyway,—how perfectly dear you are to me—perfectly dear to my heart and soul–

I look back, and in every one point, every word and gesture, every letter, every silence—you have been entirely perfect to me—I would not change one word, one look–

My hope and aim are to preserve this love, not to fall from it—for which I trust to God who procured it for me, and doubtlessly can preserve it.

Enough now, my dearest, dearest, own Ba! You have given me the highest, completest proof of love that ever one human being gave another. I am all gratitude—and all pride, (under the proper feeling which ascribes pride to the right source—) all pride that my life has been so crowned by you. (12 September 1846)
She responded:
[...] What could be better than lifting me from the ground & carrying me into life & the sunshine? I was yours rather by right than by gift,—(yet by gift—also, my beloved!) for what you have saved & renewed, is surely yours. All that I am, I owe you:—if I enjoy anything now & henceforth, it is through you. [...]

Dearest, in the emotion & confusion of yesterday morning, there was yet room in me for one thought which was not a feeling—for I thought, that, of the many, many women who have stood where I stood, & to the same end, not one of them all perhaps, not one perhaps, since that building was a church, has had reasons strong as mine, for an absolute trust & devotion towards the man she married,—not one! (13 September 1846)
Planning the elopement


7. Image of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's final letter to Robert Browning, September 18, 1846

They were married, but they were still living apart, and the danger was not over. Barrett was concerned that someone would alert the newspapers to the entry in the marriage register at the church, or that one of her friends or relations might find out and tell her father. When Browning hinted at telling their mutual friend Mr. Kenyon, Barrett wrote, "Do let no letter nor intimation be given till the very last– Remember that I shall be killed——it will be so infinitely worse than you can have an idea." (14 September 1846)

And then word came on Wednesday that the Barrett family's departure for their rented house in Little Bookham, Surrey, would be on Monday, September 21—only a few days away.
Dearest, the general departure from this house takes place on monday— [...] I would rather have waited—indeed rather—only it may be difficult to leave Bookham [...]

Wilson & I have a light box & a carpet bag between us— [...] Remember that we cannot take them out of the house with us– We must send them the evening before[,] Friday evening, if we went on saturday— (16 September 1846)
Browning immediately endorsed the idea of leaving on Saturday, but in his urgency he kept misreading the railway and ferry timetables; Barrett patiently corrected him. Finally at the last minute on Friday everything was straightened out. That night, Elizabeth wrote to Robert Browning for what she recognized was the final time:
Is this my last letter to you, ever dearest? —Oh—if I loved you less. . .a little, little less––

Why I should tell you that our marriage was invalid, or ought to be—& that you should by no means come for me tomorrow. It is dreadful. . .dreadful. . .to have to give pain here by a voluntary act—for the first time in my life– [...]

Do you pray for me tonight, Robert? Pray for me, & love me, that I may have courage, feeling both–

Your own Ba–

The boxes are safely sent. Wilson has been perfect to me– And I. . .calling her "timid," & afraid of her timidity! I begin to think that none are so bold as the timid, when they are fairly roused. (18 September 1846)
The next day they eloped to Europe (see Part 1: "The delight of your friendship"). They would never be separated again until Elizabeth's death, 15 years later.

Next time: Part 5: Sonnets from the Portuguese
Last time: Part 3: "I never shall forget"



Note:
  1. Daniel Karlin, The Courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 166. Even though it has only been directly quoted once, this book was a major source for this series of posts.
Image sources:
  1. Portraits of EBB and RB: Wikimedia Commons
  2. Self-portrait of EBB: The Brownings' Correspondence: An Online Edition: Browning Likenesses: Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  3.  Drawing of EBB: The Brownings' Correspondence: An Online Edition: Browning Likenesses: Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  4. Engraving of EBB: Wikisource.org
  5. St. Marylebone Parish Church: https://ancestrycentral.wordpress.com
  6. Daniel Karlin, The Courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, Oxford University Press, 1985, facing p. 180
  7. EBB's last letter to RB, 18 September 1846: Baylor University Library Digital Collections: http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/ab-letters/id/4773/

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett part 3: "I never shall forget"


Elizabeth Barrett with her dog Flush, sketched by her brother Alfred Moulton-Barrett, July 1845

Getting well

Despite the rebuff of his declaration of love, Browning continued to write and visit Barrett. And although he had been forbidden from mentioning his feelings for her, he expressed them indirectly by urging her to take advantage of the warm summer weather to gain health and strength.

Barrett's progress was slow but steady: on June 10 she reported "yesterday [...] I went down stairs. . .or rather was carried—& am not the worse." (10 June 1845)

Less than a month later she made her first expedition outside the doors of her family home in many years: a short carriage ride towards Regent's Park. Although she later wrote her brother George that "the carriage shook beyond any imagination of my heart, or power of my body" (14 July 1845), she used a more lighthearted tone when describing the adventure to Browning the night after the trip:
Well—I have really been out,—& am really alive after it—which is more surprising still—alive enough I mean, to write even so, tonight. But perhaps I say so with more emphasis, to console myself for failing in my great ambition of getting into the park & of reaching Mr Kenyon’s door just to leave a card there vaingloriously,. . .all which I did fail in, & was forced to turn back from the gates of Devonshire Place. The next time it will be better perhaps—& this time there was no fainting nor anything very wrong. . .not even cowardice on the part of the victim—(be it recorded!) for one of my sisters was as usual in authority & ordered the turning back just according to her own prudence & not my selfwill. Only you will not, any of you, ask me to admit that it was all delightful. . . (7-8 July 1845)
Browning responded encouragingly:
I am happy and thankful the beginning (and worst of it) is over and so well. The Park, & Mr Kenyon's all in good time—and your sister was most prudent—and you mean to try again— [...] go out, without a moment’s thought or care, if to-morrow should suit you—(9 July 1845)
His solicitude touched Barrett deeply. Towards the end of the month she wrote him, 
[...] if I get better or worse. . .as long as I live & to the last moment of life, I shall remember with an emotion which cannot change its character, all the generous interest & feeling you have spent on me——wasted on me I was going to write—[...] I never shall forget these things, my dearest friend,—nor remember them more coldly. (26-27 July 1845)

Image of Elizabeth Barrett's letter to Robert Browning, 26-27 July 1845

Other friends also helped Barrett in her efforts. She wrote George that she had "replaced my sofa by a loan-chair of dear kind Mr Kenyon's,. . .to the obvious inconvenience & dejection of my poor companion [her dog Flush] for whom there's no room close to me." (14 July 1845)

At the end of July Barrett wrote to family friend Judith Martin:
I have been 'getting well'. . .which is a process—going out into the carriage two or three times a week, abdicating my sofa for my armchair. . .moving from one room to another now & then,. . .& walking about mine quite as well as, & with considerably more complacency than a child of two years old. [...] Everybody praises me, & I look in the looking-glass with a better conscience. Also it is an improving improvement—& will be, until, you know, the last hem of the garment of summer is lost sight of—& then, & then, I must either follow to another climate. . .or be ill again. . .that I know, & am prepared for. (28 July 1845)

The Pisa affair

The possibility of a trip to the Mediterranean for the winter had already been raised with Barrett's father in mid-July by her visiting aunt Jane Hedley, "who saw with her eyes how the change came with the sun, & how, from a feeble colourless invalid, I strengthened & brightened as the season advanced. . .she, seeing it day by day!" (13 September 1845) As discussion of a possible trip advanced during August, Barrett's father wrote her what she described to her brother George as a "hard, cold letter": he demanded that she see a doctor, perhaps hoping that any extended travel would be ruled out on medical grounds. The outcome, however, was exactly the reverse, as Barrett delightedly reported to her friend Mary Mitford:
[...] Papa wished me to see [Dr.] Chambers & have his advice—& I sent for him, & was examined with that dreadful stethoscope, & received his command to go without fail to Pisa by sea. He said that it was the obvious thing to do—& that he not merely advised but enjoined it—that there was nothing for me but warm air. . .no other possible remedy. (13 September 1845)
But Barrett's father still refused to give his approval for the trip, which would also necessarily include a sister and a brother as travelling companions:
All I asked him to say the other day, was that he was not displeased with me——& he would’nt; & for me to walk across his displeasure spread on the threshold of the door, & moreover take a sister & brother with me, & do such a thing for the sake of going to Italy, & securing a personal advantage, were altogether impossible, obviously impossible! (18 September 1845)
With time running out before the onset of the cold, stormy weather that would make travel for her impossible, she raised the subject with her father again a few days later:
I have spoken again,—& the result is that we are in precisely the same position,—only with bitterer feelings on one side. If I go or stay they must be bitter: words have been said that I cannot easily forget, nor remember without pain— [...] he complained of the undutifulness & rebellion (!!!) of everyone in the house—& when I asked if he meant that reproach for me, the answer was that he meant it for all of us, one with another. And I could not get an answer. [...] I might do my own way, he said—he would not speak—he would not say that he was not displeased with me, nor the contrary:—I had better do what I liked:—for his part, he washed his hands of me altogether– (24 September 1845)
Her father, without explanation or warning, abruptly stopped visiting her room just before he retired each night:
To show the significance of the omission of those evening or rather night visits of Papa's. . .for they came sometimes at eleven & sometimes at twelve, .. I will tell you that he used to sit & talk in them, & then always kneel & pray with me & for me—which I used of course to feel as a proof of very kind & affectionate sympathy on his part, & which has proportionably pained me in the withdrawing. They were no ordinary visits, you observe,. . .& he could not well throw me further from him than by ceasing to pay them—the thing is quite expressively significant. (11 October 1845)
Paralyzed by her father's anger and disapproval, Barrett turned to Browning for counsel; he responded immediately:
You have said to me more than once that you wished I might never know certain feelings you had been forced to endure: I suppose all of us have the proper place where a blow should fall to be felt most—and I as truly wish you may never feel what I have to bear in looking on, quite powerless, and silent, while you are subjected to this treatment, which I refuse to characterize—so blind is it for blindness. I think I ought to understand what a father may exact, and a child should comply with—[...] I wholly sympathize, however it go against me, with the highest, wariest, pride & love for you, and the proper jealousy and vigilance they entail—but now, and here, the jewel is not being over guarded, but ruined, cast away,—and whoever is privileged to interfere should do so in the possessor’s own interest—all common sense interferes—all rationality against absolute no-reason at all: and you ask whether you ought to obey this no-reason?
While she was willing to disobey her father, she could not bring herself to ask her siblings to do so, "everyone of them all, except myself, being dependent in money-matters on the inflexible will." (20 August 1845) In mid-October, with the weather beginning to turn, a final attempt by her brother George to win permission for the journey failed utterly:
I do not go to Italy. . .it has ended as I feared. What passed between George & Papa there is no need of telling:—only the latter said that I "might go if I pleased, but that going it would be under his heaviest displeasure." George, in great indignation, pressed the question fully. . .but all was vain. . .& I am left in this position. . .to go, if I please, with his displeasure over me, (which after what you have said & after what Mr Kenyon has said, & after what my own conscience & deepest moral convictions say aloud, I would unhesitatingly do at this hour!) and necessarily run the risk of exposing my sister & brother to that same displeasure. . .from which risk I shrink & fall back & feel that to incur it, is impossible. [...] The very kindness & goodness with which they desire me (both my sisters) "not to think of them," naturally makes me think more of them——. And so, tell me that I am not wrong in taking up my chain again & acquiescing in this hard necessity. The bitterest fact of all is, that I had believed Papa to have loved me more than he obviously does— (11 October 1845)


Robert Browning, sketched by André Victor Amédée de Ripert-Monclar, 1837

A declaration renewed, and reciprocated

Barrett was now convinced that her father no longer had her best interests or care at heart. However, there was someone who did, who had aided and encouraged her in getting well, and who had made no secret of his continued passionate feelings for her. In late August, in reply to a letter from her in which she feared he was either "vexed" with her or unwell, he had broken the silence which she had imposed three months previously:
Let me say now—this only once—that I loved you from my soul, and gave you my life, so much of it is as you would take,—and all that is done, not to be altered now: it was, in the nature of the proceeding, wholly independent of any return on your part: [...]—as it is, the assurances of your friendship, the intimacy to which you admit me, now,—make the truest, deepest joy of my life—[...] what you could and would give me, of your affection, you would give nobly and simply and, as a giver—you would not need that I tell you—(tell you!)—what would be supreme happiness to me in the event—however distant– (30 August 1845)
As evidence of her father's selfishness and obstinacy mounted, Browning made a bold offer, couched as a "dream":
[...] you are in what I should wonder at as the veriest slavery—and I who could free you from it, I am here scarcely daring to write. . .tho' I know you must feel for me and forgive what forces itself from me. . .what retires so mutely into my heart at your least word. . .what shall not be again written or spoken, if you so will. . .that I should be made happy beyond all hope of expression by—— Now while I dream, let me once dream! I would marry you now and thus—I would come when you let me, and go when you bade me– I would be no more than one of your brothers—"no more"— [...] I deliberately choose the realization of that dream (—of sitting simply by you for an hour every day) rather than of any other, excluding you, I am able to form for this world, or any world I know. [...] You know what I am, what I would speak, and all I would do. (25 September 1845)

Image of Robert Browning's letter to Elizabeth Barrett, 25 September 1845

Barrett finally allowed herself to acknowledge that she returned his feelings:
[...] your words in this letter have done me good & made me happy,. . .that I thank & bless you for them,. . .& that to receive such a proof of attachment from you, not only overpowers every present evil but seems to me a full & abundant amends for the merely personal sufferings of my whole life. When I had read that letter last night I did think so. I looked round & round for the small bitternesses which for several days had been bitter to me, & I could not find one of them. The tear-marks went away in the moisture of new, happy tears. Why how else could I have felt? how else do you think I could? How would any woman have felt. . .who could feel at all. . .hearing such words said (though "in a dream" indeed) by such a speaker.?
She continued to insist, though, that they needed to wait until her health was sufficiently restored. A recurring theme in her letters to Browning is her fear that she might be a burden to him:
And now listen to me in turn. You have touched me more profoundly than I thought even you could have touched me—my heart was full when you came here today– Henceforward I am yours for everything but to do you harm—and I am yours too much, in my heart, ever to consent to do you harm in that way.—–. If I could consent to do it, not only should I be less loyal .. but in one sense, less yours. I say this to you without drawback & reserve, because it is all I am able to say, & perhaps all I shall be able to say.
But, once the precondition of her restored health was fulfilled, she would gratefully accept his "dream" proposal:
However this may be, a promise goes to you in it that none except God & your will, shall interpose between you & me,––I mean, that if He should free me within a moderate time from the trailing chain of this weakness, I will then be to you whatever at that hour you shall choose. . .whether friend or more than friend. . .a friend to the last in any case. So it rests with God & with you– (26 September 1845)
From this moment on, Barrett's recovery of strength was openly recognized by both lovers to be intertwined with their plans for a life together. But first the long, dangerous winter months would intervene. And always there was the threat of her father discovering Browning's status as acknowledged lover—a discovery which, if it took place, would inevitably result in their forced separation.

Next time: The discovery
Last time: "Burn it at once": The first meeting and Browning's declaration



Image sources:
  1. Sketch of EBB: The Brownings' Correspondence: An Online Edition: Browning Likenesses: Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  2. Image of EBB's letter to RB, 26-27 July 1845: Baylor University Library Digital Collections: http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ab-letters/id/1091
  3. Sketch of RB: The Brownings' Correspondence: An Online Edition: Browning Likenesses: Robert Browning
  4. Image of RB's letter to EBB, 25 September 1845: Baylor University Library Digital Collections: http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ab-letters/id/3324
 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett part 2: "Burn it at once"


Elizabeth Barrett reclining on the sofa in her room, sketched by her brother Alfred Moulton-Barrett, May 1843

The first meeting
Wednesday Morning—Spring! 
Real warm Spring, dear Miss Barrett, and the birds know it; and in Spring I shall see you, surely see you. . .for when did I once fail to get whatever I had set my heart upon? (26 February 1845)
Barrett received this announcement from Browning with trepidation. She responded:
Is it true that your wishes fulfil themselves?— And when they do, are they not bitter to your taste—do you not wish them unfulfilled? (27 February 1845)
Famously reclusive, Barrett allowed visits (which meant, necessarily, entry into her bedroom) by only a handful of old friends. Browning himself had previously been refused permission to see her, in March 1842. At the time she had written to her brother George,
Mr Kenyon proposed also to introduce to my sofa-side. . .Mr Browning the poet. . .who was so honor-giving as to wish something of the sort! I was pleased at the thought of his wishing it—for the rest, no! (30 March 1842)
She later wrote to family friend Julia Martin,
Mr Kenyon wished to bring him to see me five years ago [...]—but I refused then, in my blind dislike to seeing strangers. (22 October 1846)
She did not refuse Browning outright this time, however. She hinted that a visit might be possible, but only at some vague future time:
A little later comes my spring,—and indeed after such severe weather, from which I have just escaped with my life, I may thank it for coming at all [...] spring will really come some day I hope & believe, & the warm settled weather with it, and that then I shall be probably fitter for certain pleasures than I can appear even to myself, now. (27 February 1845)
But this hint was sufficient for Browning to prompt her for a more specific date: "Do you think I shall see you in two months, three months?" (11 March 1845) His insistence brought her to a tentative agreement, but not without a warning:
[...] if you think that I shall not like to see you—you are wrong, for all your learning. But I shall be afraid of you at first—[...] I am a recluse—with nerves that have been all broken on the rack, & now hang loosely,. . .quivering at a step & breath. (20 March 1845)
In early May she raised the possibility of a visit again, only to plead further delay because of the poor weather: "Shall I have courage to see you soon, I wonder! If you ask me, I must ask myself [...] —the English spring-winds have excelled themselves in evil this year; & I have not been down stairs yet" (5-6 May 1845). Browning responded,
"If you ask me, I must ask myself"—that is, when I am to see you. I will never ask you! You do not know what I shall estimate that permission at,—nor do I, quite—but you do—do not you? know so much of me as to make my "asking" worse than a form. [...] I ask you not to see me so long as you are unwell, or mistrustful of (13 May 1845)*


Image of Browning's letter to Barrett of 13 May 1845

Whether she was reassured by his pledge not to ask to see her, or stung by his half-censored accusation of mistrust on her part, her reluctance (if not her ambivalence) was overcome. She wrote back,
Forgive me. I am shy by nature:—& by position & experience,. . .by having had my nerves shaken to excess, & by leading a life of such seclusion,. . .by these things together & by others besides, I have appeared shy & ungrateful to you. Only not mistrustful. You could not mean to judge me so. Mistrustful people do not write as I write,. . .surely! [...]

Well!—but this is to prove that I am not mistrustful, & to say, that if you care to come to see me you can come,—& that it is my gain (as I feel it to be) & not yours, whenever you do come.
The letter contains a remarkable image. In his first letter to her, Browning had compared her poetry to a flower. She echoes that comparison here, but extends the metaphor:
For the rest,. . .when you write that “I do not know how you w[oul]d value, nor yourself quite,” you touch very accurately on the truth [...] Certainly you cannot "quite know," or know at all, whether the least straw of pleasure can go to you from knowing me otherwise than on this paper—& I, for my part, 'quite know' my own honest impression dear Mr Browning, that none is likely to go to you. There is nothing to see in me,—nor to hear in me—I never learnt to talk as you do in London,—although I can admire that brightness of carved speech in Mr Kenyon & others. If my poetry is worth anything to any eye,—it is the flower of me– I have lived most & been most happy in it, & so it has all my colours,—the rest of me is nothing but a root, fit for the ground & the dark.
Of course, "fit for the ground and the dark" is also an image of death—not the first or the last one in her letters. She went on,
Come then. [...] And my sister will bring you up stairs to me,—& we will talk,—or you will talk,—& you will try to be indulgent, & like me as well as you can. [...]

Remember that the how & the when rest with you—except that it cannot be before next week at the soonest. You are to decide– (15 May 1846)
Browning came the following Tuesday, May 20, at 3 o'clock, and stayed until 4:30 (social "morning calls"—actually made after noon and before 5 pm—were usually only 10 to 30 minutes long). The results of that meeting would decisively shift the course of their relationship.


Robert Browning, sketched by André Victor Amédée de Ripert-Monclar, 1837

The declaration

One letter is missing from the Barrett-Browning correspondence. Two days after their first meeting Barrett received a letter from Browning that declared his love, and which may have contained an indirect offer of marriage. She was stunned; the next day she wrote him and forbade him ever to mention it again:
I intended to write to you last night & this morning, & could not,—you do not know what pain you give me in speaking so wildly– [...] You have said some intemperate things. . .fancies—which you will not say over again, nor unsay, but forget at once, & for ever, having said at all,—& which (so) will die out between you & me alone, like a misprint between you & the printer. And this you will do for my sake who am your friend,—(& you have none truer)—& this I ask, because it is a condition necessary to our future liberty of intercourse.
Barrett thought that it was unsuitable that Browning—who had travelled to Europe and had recently written her about dancing the polka until dawn—should express love for a woman who could barely rise from her bed and never left her room:
You remember,—surely you do,—that I am in the most exceptional of positions,—& that, just because of it, I am able to receive you as I did on tuesday,—& that, for me to listen to "unconscious exaggerations", is as unbecoming to the humilities of my position, as unpropitious (which is of more consequence) to the prosperities of yours– Now, if there sh[oul]d be one word of answer attempted to this,—or of reference,—I must not. . .I will not see you again—& you will justify me later in your heart– So for my sake you will not say it—I think you will not—& spare me the sadness of having to break through an intercourse just as it is promising pleasure to me,—to me who have so many sadnesses & so few pleasures.
She also realized that if her father caught wind of Browning's intentions he would be enraged, and that both Browning and his letters would be forever barred from the house ("hail will beat down"):
Your friendship & sympathy will be dear & precious to me all my life, if you indeed leave them with me so long or so little– Your mistakes in me. . .which I cannot mistake (. . .& which have humbled me by too much honoring. . .) I put away gently, & with grateful tears in my eyes,—because all that hail will beat down & spoil crowns, as well as "blossoms." (23 May 1845)
More than a year later Barrett was to confess to Browning the effect his letter had had on her:
[...] the letter was read in pain & agitation, & you have scarcely guessed how much. I could not sleep night after night,—c[oul]d not,—& my fear was at nights, lest the feverishness should make me talk deliriously & tell the secret aloud. [Elizabeth's youngest sister Arabella slept in the same room.] Judge if the deeps of my heart were not shaken. From the first you had that power over me, notwithstanding those convictions which I also had & which you know. (19 May 1846)
"Those convictions" were that she should never fall in love or marry. For one thing, there was her father's stern prohibition against marriage; another barrier was her fragile health.

At Browning's request, she returned his letter, and asked him to destroy it.
I venture to advise you to burn it at once [...] After which friendly turn, you will do me the one last kindness of forgetting all this exquisite nonsense, & of refraining from mentioning it, by breath or pen, to me or another–"
However, in the same letter she invited him to return for another visit, telling him that "if you like to come .. not on tuesday .. but on wednesday at three oclock, I shall be very glad to see you,—& I, for one, shall have forgotten everything by that time,—" (25 May 1845)


Image of Barrett's letter to Browning of 25 May 1845

Their friendship had survived its first crisis. But a few months later another crisis would occur which would bring to the surface all of Browning's forbidden feelings.

Next time: The "Pisa affair"
Last time: The correspondence begins




* The words "mistrustful of" were struck through by Browning in the original, and the sentence left unfinished.

Image sources:
  1. Sketch of EBB: The Brownings' Correspondence: An Online Edition: Browning Likenesses: Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  2. Image of RB's letter to EBB, 13 May 1845: Baylor University Library Digital Collections: http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ab-letters/id/1735
  3. Sketch of RB: The Brownings' Correspondence: An Online Edition: Browning Likenesses: Robert Browning
  4. Image of EBB's letter to RB, 25 May 1845: Baylor University Library Digital Collections: http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ab-letters/id/2497

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett part 1: "The delight of your friendship"

Elizabeth Barrett and her dog Flush. Miniature by Mathilde Carter, 1841

At half-past three on Saturday afternoon, September 19, 1846, Elizabeth Barrett left her family's house in Wimpole Street, London, to go to Hodgson's bookshop around the corner in Great Marylebone Street. Barrett, who suffered from chronically poor health, had spent most of the past six years in virtual seclusion in her bedroom, seeing only a few regular visitors and venturing out of her room infrequently. As usual on her rare expeditions outside the family home she was accompanied by her maid, Elizabeth Wilson, and her dog Flush.

She never returned. At Hodgson's, by prearrangement, she met fellow poet Robert Browning. Together they entered his waiting cab and were driven across the Thames to Vauxhall Station. There they claimed her luggage, secretly sent ahead the previous day, and boarded the 5 pm train to Southampton, arriving there at 8. At 8:15 the night ferry to Le Havre departed with Browning, Barrett and Wilson on board. After a rough passage they arrived the next morning at the French port, where they boarded a night coach for Paris.

The next day, Monday, September 21, they knocked on the door of the Parisian lodgings of their mutual friend, the art historian and critic Anna Jameson, who had not been forewarned of their coming. The travellers were tired and bedraggled; the successive overnight journeys in the heaving boat and jolting carriage were especially hard on Elizabeth. The next day Mrs. Jameson wrote to her friend Lady Noel Byron, "she has suffered much—she is nervous—frightened—ashamed[,] agitated[,] happy, miserable—" (22 September 1846) To Mrs. Jameson the couple broke the news: they were husband and wife, having been married in defiance of her father's express dictates in a clandestine ceremony a week before they left London.

After resting for several days, the Brownings travelled on to northern Italy with Jameson. Back in England, Elizabeth's furious and domineering father, who had forbidden all of his children to marry, disinherited her; he never spoke to her again. But with Elizabeth's independent income of a few hundred pounds a year, financial support from Robert's family, and the earnings from their writings, the Brownings lived for fifteen blissful years in Italy (most of them in Florence). In 1861, at age 55, Elizabeth died there in her husband's arms.

It's one of the most famous love stories in literature. And it's only fitting that the enduring love of these two poets was born and sustained through the written word.

Robert Browning, by J. C. Armytage, based on a sketch attributed to Margaret Gillies ca. 1835 *

The two poets

Literary London in the mid-nineteenth century was a world where everyone seemed to know everyone else, but very few people had ever met the reclusive invalid Elizabeth Barrett. Her already fragile health had been shattered in 1840 when her beloved brother Edward drowned while staying with her at the seaside town of Torquay in Devonshire. Her anguish at his death was compounded by her own intense feelings of guilt; she had asked Edward to remain with her at Torquay instead of going back to London.

After the accident and her own return to the family home in Wimpole Street, Elizabeth stayed entirely in her upstairs room (she did not leave the house or even go downstairs to join the rest of her family for meals). She visited no one, and received only a few visitors, spending her days reclining on a sofa. During this time she produced a collection of poetry, her third book of original verse, which was published in August 1844 with the title Poems. In her preface to the book Barrett wrote,
In 'The Vision of Poets' I have endeavoured to indicate the necessary relations of genius to suffering and self-sacrifice […] I have attempted to express in this poem my view of the mission of the poet, of the self-abnegation implied in it, of the great work involved in it […] and of the obvious truth, above all, that if knowledge is power, suffering should be acceptable as a part of knowledge.**
An anonymous reviewer in The Athenaeum wrote of this work that "much of her verse is profoundly, some of it passionately melancholy." The reviewer recognized that her poems were the expression of a deeply personal sensibility. As Barrett wrote in the preface, "while my poems are full of faults,—as I go forward to my critics, and confess,—they have my heart and life in them." (Athenaeum, 12 August 1844)

Her poems also contained praise of a few of her contemporaries. In "Lady Geraldine's Courtship: A Romance of the Age" the high-born and beautiful Lady Geraldine loves Bertram, a poet of no means and obscure family. Bertram reads aloud to Lady Geraldine from Spenser, Petrarch,
Or at times a modern volume, Wordsworth's solemn-thoughted idyl,
Howitt's ballad-dew, or Tennyson's enchanted reverie,—
Or from Browning some 'Pomegranate,' which, if cut deep down the middle,
Shows a heart within, blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity. (Gentleman’s Magazine, May 1845)
The "Pomegranate" reference is to a series of poems and plays in verse that Browning had been publishing since 1841 in pamphlet form under the collective title Bells & Pomegranates. Browning's immediately previous work, a densely allusive narrative poem entitled Sordello (after a character in Dante's Inferno), had been panned by critics and had not won the public's favor. Bells & Pomegranates had only partly recuperated his reputation; after the success of Barrett's Poems, she was the more highly regarded writer.

At the time of the publication of Barrett's collection Browning himself was in Italy, only returning to England at the end of the year. Hearing the enthusiastic talk of Poems in London's literary circles, Browning read a copy that had been given to his sister by a friend of Barrett, John Kenyon. After reading the book, Browning asked Kenyon whether it would be permissible to write to Barrett. The answer, probably conveyed through Kenyon from Barrett herself—"He assured me with his perfect kindness, you would be even 'pleased' to hear from me" (16 November 1845)—was fateful.


Image of Browning's first letter to Barrett

The correspondence begins
I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,— [...] into me it has gone, and part of me it has become, this great living poetry of yours, not a flower of which but took root and grew [...]

I can give a reason for my faith in one and another excellence, the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought—but in this addressing myself to you, your own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogether. I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart—and I love you too [...] (10 January 1845)
By the emotionally reticent standards of the Victorian era, Browning's letter was effusive, not to say extravagant. Browning was responding not only to the flattering reference to his work, but to what he perceived as Barrett's direct, personal, and deeply appealing voice in the poems. As he wrote in his second letter to her:
[...] you do what I always wanted, hoped to do, and only seem now likely to do for the first time—you speak out, you,—I only make men & women speak,—give you truth broken into prismatic hues, and fear the pure white light, even if it is in me [...] (13 January 1845)
Barrett responded the day after she received his first letter, echoing the informality of form and intensity of expression of his:
I thank you, dear Mr Browning, from the bottom of my heart. You meant to give me pleasure by your letter—and even if the object had not been answered, I ought still to thank you. But it is thoroughly answered. Such a letter from such a hand! Sympathy is dear—very dear to me: but the sympathy of a poet & of such a poet, is the quintessence of sympathy to me! […]

I will say that while I live to follow this divine art of poetry, . . .in proportion to my love for it & my devotion to it, I must be a devout admirer & student of your works. This is in my heart to say to you—& I say it. (11 January 1845)
In January 1845 Barrett was 38 years old (Browning was 32). Her beloved brother's death and her continuing health problems had left her deeply melancholy. Although she told Browning early in their correspondence, "I am not desponding by nature" (5 March 1846), she later wrote, "when I first knew you [...] I was tired of living. . .unaffectedly tired [...] My life was ended when I knew you" (13 January 1846 and 15 January 1846).

As they exchanged their first letters, Barrett assumed that she was entering into a solely epistolary friendship with Browning; he, though, had other ideas.

Next in the series: The first meeting and Browning's declaration of love: "Burn it at once"



* The portrait of Browning in this post is from an engraving by J. C. Armytage published in R. H. Horne's A New Spirit of the Age, London, 1844. Before she had any thought of corresponding with Browning, Elizabeth Barrett had received this engraving from Horne, and had framed and hung the portrait in her room (along with those of some of the other authors featured in A New Spirit of the Age: Wordsworth, Tennyson, Carlyle and Harriet Martineau, who was author of (among other works) Life in the Sickroom: Essays by a Invalid). After Barrett met Browning, she wrote to him that "the portrait of you in the 'Spirit of the age' [...] is not like. . .no! [...] has not your character, in a line of it. . . " (4 December 1845)

** In her letters Barrett often uses ellipses to indicate a pause. Where I have omitted material from her or Browning's writings I have enclosed my editorial ellipses in brackets to distinguish them from the ones Barrett wrote.

Image sources:
  1. Miniature of EBB and her dog Flush: The Brownings' Correspondence: An Online Edition: Browning Likenesses: Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  2. Engraving of RB: Reproduced in Edward Dowden, Robert Browning (J. M. Dent, 1904), accessed online at Project Gutenberg.
  3. Image of RB's first letter to EBB: Baylor University Library Digital Collections: http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ab-letters/id/1960