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

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