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,
("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.)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 ofwhat 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)
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–Browning received her letter the next day and recognized that after nine months of discussion, they needed to act immediately.
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)
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.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)
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." 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 [...]Browning returned directly to his parents' home, where he immediately wrote a letter to Elizabeth Barrett—now, of course, Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
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)
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–She responded:
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)
[...] 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. [...]Planning the elopement
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)
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 [...]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:
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)
Is this my last letter to you, ever dearest? —Oh—if I loved you less. . .a little, little less––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.
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)
Next time: Part 5: Sonnets from the Portuguese
Last time: Part 3: "I never shall forget"
- 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.
- Portraits of EBB and RB: Wikimedia Commons
- Self-portrait of EBB: The Brownings' Correspondence: An Online Edition: Browning Likenesses: Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- Drawing of EBB: The Brownings' Correspondence: An Online Edition: Browning Likenesses: Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- Engraving of EBB: Wikisource.org
- St. Marylebone Parish Church: https://ancestrycentral.wordpress.com
- Daniel Karlin, The Courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, Oxford University Press, 1985, facing p. 180
- 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/