On February 8, 1847 Mrs. Browning wrote to Miss Mitford from Florence and as usual she discussed books and literature. Apparently having French literature in Italy at that time was not totally permitted, but she worked at satisfying her need to read:
"I will tell you what we have done: transplanted our subscription from the Italian library, which was wearing us away into a misanthropy, or at least despair of the wits of all Southerns, into a library which has a tolerable supply of French books, and gives us the privilege besides of having a French newspaper, the 'Siècle,' left with us every evening. Also, this library admits (is allowed to admit on certain conditions) some books forbidden generally by the censureship, which is of the strictest; and though Balzac appears very imperfectly, I am delighted to find him at all..."
I get a kick out of her opinions on books:
"The 'Siècle' has for a feuilleton a new romance of Soulié's, called 'Saturnin Fichet,' which is really not good, and tiresome to boot. Robert and I began by each of us reading it, but after a little while he left me alone, being certain that no good could come of such a work. So, of course, ever since, I have been exclaiming and exclaiming as to the wonderful improvement and increasing beauty and glory of it, just to justify myself, and to make him sorry for not having persevered! The truth is, however, that but for obstinacy I should give up too. Deplorably dull the story is, and there is a crowd of people each more indifferent than each, to you; the pith of the plot being (very characteristically) that the hero has somebody exactly like him. To the reader, it's all one in every sense—who's who, and what's what. Robert is a warm admirer of Balzac and has read most of his books, but certainly—oh certainly—he does not in a general way appreciate our French people quite with our warmth; he takes too high a standard, I tell him, and won't listen to a story for a story's sake. I can bear to be amused, you know without a strong pull on my admiration. So we have great wars sometimes, and I put up Dumas' flag, or Soulié's, or Eugène Sue's (yet he was properly possessed by the 'Mystères de Paris') and carry it till my arms ache. The plays and vaudevilles he knows far more of than I do, and always maintains they are the happiest growth of the French school—setting aside the masters, observe—for Balzac and George Sand hold all their honours; and, before your letter came, he had told me about the 'Kean' and the other dramas. Then we read together the other day the 'Rouge et Noir,' that powerful book of Stendhal's (Beyle), and he thought it very striking, and observed—what I had thought from the first and again and again—that it was exactly like Balzac in the raw, in the material and undeveloped conception. What a book it is really, and so full of pain and bitterness, and the gall of iniquity! The new Dumas I shall see in time, perhaps, and it is curious that Robert had just been telling me the very story you speak of in your letter, from the 'Causes Célèbres.' I never read it—the more shame! "
I hope she means that they read the books aloud. I can imagine a running commentary as they read. The worse it got the more acid Robert's comments. And another good example of her sense of humor as she teased him about how wonderful the book was after he gave it up. And "the gall of iniquity," how that describes so many things. Great stuff.