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:

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