Tuesday, February 21, 2012

February 21

Yes, Miss Barrett had writer's remorse after telling Browning that he "would not go" to Russia on a diplomatic mission. She starts the backtracking almost immediately in her February 21, 1846 letter:

"And I have been thinking, thinking since last night that I wrote you then a letter all but ... insolent ... which, do you know, I feel half ashamed to look back upon this morning—particularly what I wrote about 'missions of humanity'—now was it not insolent of me to write so? If I could take my letter again I would dip it into Lethe between the lilies, instead of the post office:—but I can't—so if you wondered, you must forget as far as possible, and understand how it was, and that I was in brimming spirits when I wrote, from two causes ... first, because I had your letter which was a pure goodness of yours, and secondly because you were 'noticeably' better you said, or 'noticeably well' rather, to mind my quotations. So I wrote what I wrote, and gave it to Arabel when she came in at midnight, to give it to Henrietta who goes out before eight in the morning and often takes charge of my letters, and it was too late, at the earliest this morning, to feel a little ashamed."

She is also backing down from her 'over praise' of Browning's letters. She is feeling rather contrite today.

"After all, do you know, I am a little vexed that I should have even seemed to do wrong in my speech about the letters. It must have been wrong, if it seemed so to you, I fancy now. Only I really did no more mean to try your letters ... mine ... such as they are to me now, by the common critical measure, than the shepherds praised the pure tenor of the angels who sang 'Peace upon earth' to them. It was enough that they knew it for angels' singing. So do you forgive me, beloved, and put away from you the thought that I have let in between us any miserable stuff 'de m├ętier,' [business] which I hate as you hate. And I will not say any more about it, not to run into more imprudences of mischief."

There are a number of interesting things in the letter today. One is a reference to a man who was editing some of Miss Barrett's  translation work for publication. Browning had apparently warned her that a certain Mr. Burges had a reputation for replacing the authors' translations with his own more worthy translations. Miss Barrett had subsequently corresponded with the publisher, a Miss Thomson, about this threat:

"Miss Thomson told me that she had determined to change the type of the few pages of her letterpress which had been touched, and that therefore Mr. Burges's revisions of my translations should be revised back again. She appears to be a very acute person, full of quick perceptions—naturally quick, and carefully trained—a little over anxious perhaps about mental lights, and opening her eyes still more than she sees, which is a common fault of clever people, if one must call it a fault. I like her, and she is kind and cordial. Will she ask you to help her book with a translation or two, I wonder."

And there would be a meeting betwixt Browning and one of the brothers Barrett:

"As my sisters did not dine at home yesterday and I see nobody else in the evening, I never heard till just now and from Papa himself, that 'George was invited to meet Mr. Browning and Mr. Procter.' How surprised you will be. It must have been a sudden thought of Mr. Kenyon's...Mr. Kenyon's dinner is a riddle which I cannot read. You are invited to meet Miss Thomson and Mr. Bayley and 'no one else.' George is invited to meet Mr. Browning and Mr. Procter and 'no one else'—just those words. The 'absolu' (do you remember Balzac's beautiful story?) is just you and 'no one else,' the other elements being mere uncertainties, shifting while one looks for them."

And then she admonishes Browning about wrong speaking:

"On the other hand I warn you against saying again what you began to say yesterday and stopped. Do not try it again. What may be quite good sense from me, is from you very much the reverse, and pray observe that difference. Or did you think that I was making my own road clear in the the thing I said about—'jilts'? No, you did not. Yet I am ready to repeat of myself as of others, that if I ceased to love you, I certainly would act out the whole consequence—but that is an impossible 'if' to my nature, supposing the conditions of it otherwise to be probable. I never loved anyone much and ceased to love that person. Ask every friend of mine, if I am given to change even in friendship! And to you...! Ah, but you never think of such a thing seriously—and you are conscious that you did not say it very sagely. You and I are in different positions."

She is trying to make it completely clear that he could 'jilt' her and she expected him to, if he had any sense and she, on the other hand, would 'jilt' him if she so desired, but she would not, because she was a woman. By the same token, which she does not mention, she would withdraw if her health failed her. Thus the deck is stacked.

The other intriging line is, "I never loved anyone much and ceased to love that person." Hmmm...The biographers tell us that this was the Rev. George Barrett Hunter. Apparently he came to visit Miss Barrett once and ran into Browning on the stairs. He thereafter called Browning her "New Cross Knight". Jealous? There is a transcript of a letter attributed to Hunter in "Letters of The Brownings to George Barrett" edited by Paul Landis (Amazon has it). His letter is rather painful to read, being an overlong and repetitious justification, but interesting to compare the styles of her suitors.

She ends this admonition with an illustrative story, as obscure as one of Brownings analogies:

"It befell that there stood in hall a bold baron, and out he spake to one of his serfs ... 'Come thou; and take this baton of my baronie, and give me instead thereof that sprig of hawthorn thou holdest in thine hand.' Now the hawthorn-bough was no larger a thing than might be carried by a wood-pigeon to the nest, when she flieth low, and the baronial baton was covered with fine gold, and the serf, turning it in his hands, marvelled greatly.
And he answered and said, 'Let not my lord be in haste, nor jest with his servant. Is it verily his will that I should keep his golden baton? Let him speak again—lest it repent him of his gift.'
And the baron spake again that it was his will. 'And I'—he said once again—'shall it be lawful for me to keep this sprig of hawthorn, and will it not repent thee of thy gift?'
Then all the servants who stood in hall, laughed, and the serf's hands trembled till they dropped the baton into the rushes, knowing that his lord did but jest....
Which mine did not. Only, de te fabula narratur [the story of you] up to a point."

But she gets back into the teasing mood after receiving Browning's letter in mid-epistle:

"And I have your letter. 'What did I expect?' Why I expected just that, a letter in turn. Also I am graciously pleased (yes, and very much pleased!) to 'let you write to-morrow.' How you spoil me with goodness, which makes one 'insolent' as I was saying, now and then.
The worst is, that I write 'too kind' letters—I!—and what does that criticism mean, pray? It reminds me, at least, of ... now I will tell you what it reminds me of.
A few days ago Henrietta said to me that she was quite uncomfortable. She had written to somebody a not kind enough letter, she thought, and it might be taken ill. 'Are you ever uncomfortable, Ba, after you have sent letters to the post?' she asked me.
'Yes,' I said, 'sometimes, but from a reason just the very reverse of your reason, my letters, when they get into the post, seem too kind,—rather.' And my sisters laughed ... laughed.
But if you think so beside, I must seriously set to work, you see, to correct that flagrant fault, and shall do better in time dis faventibus [with the gods' help], though it will be difficult."

She begins the letter worried that he would think that she was insolent for telling him that he would not go to Russia and ends it by vowing to correct her fault of writing kind letters. It was a good letter day.

1 comment:

  1. We always have too much time to think. She sent a letter and played it around in her mind. My unkind letters usually sit over night before I mail them.

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