January 27, 1846 gives us the letter from Miss Barrett to Browning that most coolly explains her father. I say coolly because I do not feel that this is an overly emotional letter. As I see it she is calmly explaining her understanding of her father. Certain understandings of the back-story are necessary, but let’s just say that this is a 39 year old woman, an intellectual, who has lived with her father and under his apparently benevolent protection all her life. But she is trapped and she knows it.
She is responding to Browning’s notion that Mr. Barrett can be won over to their eventual marriage. She makes it clear in one sentence that this is not possible:
“For him ... he would rather see me dead at his foot than yield the point: and he will say so, and mean it, and persist in the meaning.”
“I believe, I am certain, I have loved him better than the rest of his children. I have heard the fountain within the rock, and my heart has struggled in towards him through the stones of the rock ... thrust off ... dropping off ... turning in again and clinging! Knowing what is excellent in him well, loving him as my only parent left, and for himself dearly, notwithstanding that hardness and the miserable 'system' which made him appear harder still, I have loved him and been proud of him for his high qualities, for his courage and fortitude when he bore up so bravely years ago under the worldly reverses which he yet felt acutely—more than you and I could feel them—but the fortitude was admirable. Then came the trials of love—then, I was repulsed too often, ... made to suffer in the suffering of those by my side ... depressed by petty daily sadnesses and terrors, from which it is possible however for an elastic affection to rise again as past. Yet my friends used to say 'You look broken-spirited'—and it was true. In the midst, came my illness,—and when I was ill he grew gentler and let me draw nearer than ever I had done: and after that great stroke ... you know ... though that fell in the middle of a storm of emotion and sympathy on my part, which drove clearly against him, God seemed to strike our hearts together by the shock; and I was grateful to him for not saying aloud what I said to myself in my agony, 'If it had not been for you'...! And comparing my self-reproach to what I imagined his self-reproach must certainly be (for if I had loved selfishly, he had not been kind), I felt as if I could love and forgive him for two ... (I knowing that serene generous departed spirit, and seeming left to represent it) ... and I did love him better than all those left to me to love in the world here. I proved a little my affection for him, by coming to London at the risk of my life rather than diminish the comfort of his home by keeping a part of my family away from him. And afterwards for long and long he spoke to me kindly and gently, and of me affectionately and with too much praise; and God knows that I had as much joy as I imagined myself capable of again, in the sound of his footstep on the stairs, and of his voice when he prayed in this room; my best hope, as I have told him since, being, to die beneath his eyes. Love is so much to me naturally—it is, to all women! and it was so much to me to feel sure at last that he loved me—to forget all blame—to pull the weeds up from that last illusion of life:—and this, till the Pisa-business, which threw me off, far as ever, again—farther than ever—when George said 'he could not flatter me' and I dared not flatter myself. But do you believe that I never wrote what I did not feel: I never did. And I ask one kindness more ... do not notice what I have written here. Let it pass. We can alter nothing by ever so many words. After all, he is the victim. He isolates himself—and now and then he feels it ... the cold dead silence all round, which is the effect of an incredible system. If he were not stronger than most men, he could not bear it as he does. With such high qualities too!—so upright and honourable—you would esteem him, you would like him, I think. And so ... dearest ... let that be the last word.
I dare say you have asked yourself sometimes, why it was that I never managed to draw you into the house here, so that you might make your own way. Now that is one of the things impossible to me. I have not influence enough for that. George can never invite a friend of his even. Do you see? The people who do come here, come by particular license and association ... Capt. Surtees Cook being one of them. Once ... when I was in high favour too ... I asked for Mr. Kenyon to be invited to dinner—he an old college friend, and living close by and so affectionate to me always—I felt that he must be hurt by the neglect, and asked. It was in vain. Now, you see—“
This is a long quote and I hope you are still with me here. A couple of things stand out to me in this letter. The use of the word “terrors” is interesting in that she surely knows the meaning of the word. I don’t think this is hyperbole; he must have been a totally domineering man. The power over his adult children must have been amazing. Keep in mind that all of eight of her brothers turned against her for marrying Browning and leaving to lead (what we would call) a normal life.
Next is the notion that she was grateful to him for never blaming her for her brother’s death by drowning, “……not saying aloud what I said to myself in my agony, 'If it had not been for you'...!” A truly loving parent would have disabused her of any guilt by assuring her that it was no fault of hers. Perhaps it never occurred to him that she felt at fault, but it is more realistic to understand that he did blame her for being ‘selfish’ and so punished her with silence.
Finally, this comment shows a maturity of understanding that makes me think that she had resigned herself to either live with the perpetual domination by pursuing a deeper inner life or resigning to death: “After all, he is the victim. He isolates himself—and now and then he feels it ... the cold dead silence all round, which is the effect of an incredible system.”
To be loved but feared. She never in her life gave up loving her father despite the fact that he treated her as dead after she left his house. She hung his portrait in her bedroom at Casa Guidi the rest of her life. Extraordinary. Christian.
Tomorrow we will get Browning’s response. Will he explode in indignation? Hmm…this might make or break the courtship……stay tuned……