Sunday, January 22, 2017

A knife in the back: The Chase and North by Northwest

The Chase is a 1946 film directed by journeyman Arthur Ripley. Remarkably it seems to prefigure several of Alfred Hitchcock's 1950s movies, including Stage Fright (1950), Dial M for Murder (1954), Vertigo (1958), and most especially North by Northwest (1959). Never seen it? Well, then, you know what you have to do now. The Chase has just been restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and issued on DVD by Kino Films.

It's based on the Cornell Woolrich novel The Black Path of Fear (1944), but screenwriter Philip Yordan, who also wrote the screenplay for The Big Combo (1995), introduced some radically new elements into the story. Robert Cummings (the poor man's Dana Andrews) is Chuck Scott, a pill-popping, down-and-out WWII veteran who may be suffering from what we might now diagnose as PTSD. Chuck is hired as a driver by psychotic gangster Eddie Roman (Steve Cochrane); another indication that taking the job may not be the smartest move on Scott's part is that Roman's sinister right-hand man Gino is Peter Lorre. Scott's main responsibility is to chauffeur Roman's unhappy wife Lola (French actress Michèle Morgan) on nightly drives around Miami Beach.*

Soon Lola is offering Scott $1000 to escape with her to a place where no 1940s gangster could ever find them: Havana. Before you can say "Is that really a good idea?" Scott has booked a passage for two on a steamship headed to Cuba leaving the same night; he ignores some obvious signs that perhaps he should reconsider this move:

Note the warning over Scott's shoulder

In a Havana nightclub the couple are murmuring tender endearments when suddenly Lola stiffens, then slumps to the floor. When Scott takes her in his arms his hand touches something; pulling it away he discovers that he's clutching a knife:

The knife resembles one that Scott bought earlier that day, and the circumstantial evidence of his guilt is damning. But we know that the cops are after the wrong man; Scott must escape arrest in order to find the evidence that will prove his innocence.

This image may recall another scene filmed more than a decade later. In the United Nations, a conversation between two men is interrupted when knife thrown by an unseen assassin finds its mark, and an innocent man finds himself hunted by the police:

Both scenes take place in a crowded public place. In The Chase, it's La Habana bar:

In North by Northwest, it's the UN public lounge:

In both scenes a photographer is present:

In The Chase in the background of a shot the photographer has inadvertently captured the image of the real killer:

In North by Northwest a photographer instead takes a picture of Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) holding the murder weapon, a picture that makes headlines and seems to prove his guilt:

Did Hitchcock or North by Northwest screenwriter Ernest Lehman see The Chase? The parallel of a murder by a knife-throwing assassin implicating an innocent man seems too direct for coincidence. And the knife-throwing man was one of the details introduced by The Chase's screenwriter Yordan; it wasn't derived from Woolrich's novel, in which Roman's wife is stabbed by a man standing next to her. If Hitchcock and Lehman did borrow and rework the elements of this scene, they could only have encountered them from a viewing of the film.

Circumstantial evidence that Hitchcock knew The Chase is also provided by additional parallels to several of his other films. Here are some other suggestive connections:
  • Towards the end of The Chase we learn that some of what we've seen occurred in the dream of one of the characters. This dream sequence violates film conventions because it is presented objectively (for example, scenes occur in the dream that the dreamer isn't present to "witness"). Towards the end of Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950) we learn that some of what we've seen occurred in a false flashback related by one of the characters. This flashback violates film conventions because it is presented objectively (for example, as in The Chase's dream sequence details are depicted that did not actually occur).
  • The Chase stars Robert Cummings. He had earlier appeared in Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942), and would later portray Grace Kelly's lover in Dial M for Murder (1954). It wouldn't be unusual for Hitchcock to make a point of viewing his other films. It should be noted as well that in Michèle Morgan The Chase features an elegant blond heroine of the type that Hitchcock favored in many of his movies.
  • In The Chase, Cumming's character Chuck Scott (often referred to as "Scotty") is tormented by the apparent death of the woman he loves. In Vertigo (1958), James Stewart's character John Ferguson (often referred to as "Scotty") is also obsessed with a woman he believes has died.
Hitchcock often reworked narrative elements or scenes in his films. A character precariously dangling from a height, for example, occurs in his Young and Innocent (1937) and Saboteur before reaching its perfected form in the finale of North by Northwest. Famously, he even entirely remade one of his early films, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956).

But as I have tried to show previously, I don't think his borrowings and reworkings (which generally resulted in improvements) were limited to his own movies. In the same way that the UN assassination scene in North by Northwest seems to have made use of elements from the parallel scene in The Chase, a key scene in Vertigo seems to have had its visual origins in a Cary Grant film from 1932, Hot Saturday (for more details, including stills, see the post "Obsession, perversity and recapitulation: Hitchcock's Vertigo and its sources".)

Raymond Foery has looked at the Frenzy-related material in the Alfred Hitchcock papers held at the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills and reports that during the casting of that film "Hitchcock screened literally dozens of films, in whole or in part, as he scanned them for suitable actors and actresses...[H]e spent hours in the screening order to evaluate performances." [1] There is no reason to think he did anything differently in preparing for his other movies. Perhaps a closer look needs to be taken at those "dozens of films" Hitchcock watched in order to trace how some of them—such as, perhaps, The Chase—may have influenced his distinctive visual style.

* Both the Internet Movie Database and Wikipedia give Morgan's character's name as "Lorna" (it's Eve in Woolrich's novel). But Lorna is a Scottish name, while "Lola" would be congruent with her obviously French nationality. Roman never calls her by name; Chuck Scott does, but Cummings swallows the middle consonants in such a way that it's impossible to distinguish which name he's saying. Since Lola makes sense in the context of the film and Lorna doesn't, I'm sticking with Lola until I see a copy of the script (the movie credits don't name the characters).

1. Raymond Foery, Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy : the last masterpiece, Scarecrow Press, 2012, pp. 40-41.

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:
  3. Poetry Foundation: "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"

  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:
  5. St. Marylebone Parish Church:
  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: