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
 

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