Tuesday, February 14, 2012

February 14

To buck the trend this Valentines Day we will not dabble in a love soaked letter from our poetic pair, because there is no letter twixt the two on February 14 in 1845 or 1846. Rather, we will turn to a letter simply dated February 1857. Mrs. Browning has published her verse-novel 'Aurora Leigh' and has scandalized part of the English speaking world, heartened part of the English speaking world and continued to be ignored by 99% of the English speaking world. The saintly Mrs. Browning had created shocking, free-living women characters, who attempt to make their own way in the world. This development has given feminists a subject for their doctoral thesis's for the past 50 years! But in 1857 she has created a disturbance in the mind of her old friend Mrs. Martin:

"In respect to certain objections, I am quite sure you do me the justice to believe that I do not willingly give cause for offence. Without going as far as Robert, who holds that I 'couldn't be coarse if I tried,' (only that!) you will grant that I don't habitually dabble in the dirt; it's not the way of my mind or life. If, therefore, I move certain subjects in this work, it is because my conscience was first moved in me not to ignore them. What has given most offence in the book, more than the story of Marian—far more!—has been the reference to the condition of women in our cities, which a woman oughtn't to refer to, by any manner of means, says the conventional tradition. Now I have thought deeply otherwise. If a woman ignores these wrongs, then may women as a sex continue to suffer them; there is no help for any of us—let us be dumb and die. I have spoken therefore, and in speaking have used plain words—words which look like blots, and which you yourself would put away—words which, if blurred or softened, would imperil perhaps the force and righteousness of the moral influence. Still, I certainly will, when the time comes, go over the poem carefully, and see where an offence can be got rid of without loss otherwise."

This last sentence is wonderful, coming at the end of a righteous defence of plain speaking. She continues her defence by blaming Browning for not permitting her to change anything! At least not yet:

"The second edition was issued so early that Robert would not let me alter even a comma, would not let me look between the pages in order to the least alteration. He said (the truth) that my head was dizzy-blind with the book, and that, if I changed anything, it would be probably for the worse; like arranging a room in the dark. Oh no. Indeed he is not vexed that you should say what you do. On the contrary, he was pleased because of the much more that you said. As to your friend with the susceptible 'morals'—well, I could not help smiling indeed. I am assured too, by a friend of my own, that the 'mamas of England' in a body refuse to let their daughters read it. Still, the daughters emancipate themselves and do, that is certain; for the number of young women, not merely 'the strong-minded' as a sect, but pretty, affluent, happy women, surrounded by all the temptations of English respectability, that cover it with the most extravagant praises is surprising to me, who was not prepared for that particular kind of welcome. It's true that there's a quantity of hate to balance the love, only I think it chiefly seems to come from the less advanced part of society. (See how modest that sounds! But you will know what I mean.) I mean, from persons whose opinions are not in a state of growth, and who do not like to be disturbed from a settled position. Oh, that there are faults in the book, no human being knows so well as I; defects, weaknesses, great gaps of intelligence. Don't let me stop to recount them."

What a wonderful analysis of her own book and the reception it was receiving. Continuing in a typical self-deprecating manner she ends the letter with:

"I would show you what George sent me the other day, a number of the 'National Magazine,' with the most hideous engraving, from a medallion, you could imagine—the head of a 'strong-minded' giantess on the neck of a bull, and my name underneath! Penini said, 'It's not a bit like; it's too old, and not half so pretty'—which was comforting under the trying circumstance, if anything could comfort one in despair...."

Browning had obviously trained their child in his own particular school of Browning charm.

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