Sunday, March 4, 2012

March 4

March 4, 1846 finds Miss Barrett again attempting to explain to Browning why he shouldn't marry her. For his security. Because he will be forever stuck. What man has ever had to fight so hard to convince a woman that he wants to be stuck with her?

"Yes, but, dearest, you mistake me, or you mistake yourself. I am sure I do not over-care for forms—it is not my way to do it—and in this case ... no. Still you must see that here is a fact as well as a form, and involving a frightful quantity of social inconvenience (to use the mildest word) if too hastily entered on. I deny altogether looking for, or 'seeing' any 'security' in it for myself—it is a mere form for the heart and the happiness: illusions may pass after as before. Still the truth is that if they were to pass with you now, you stand free to act according to the wide-awakeness of your eyes, and to reform your choice ... see! whereas afterward you could not carry out such a reformation while I was alive, even if I helped you. All I could do for you would be to walk away. And you pretend not to see this broad distinction?—ah. For me I have seen just this and no more, and have felt averse to forestall, to seem to forestall even by an hour, or a word, that stringency of the legal obligation from which there is in a certain sense no redemption."

Browning had given this analogy previously:

"Is there any parallel in the notion I once heard a man deliver himself of in the street—a labourer talking with his friends about 'wishes'—and this one wished, if he might get his wish, 'to have a nine gallon cask of strong ale set running that minute and his own mouth to be tied under it'—the exquisiteness of the delight was to be in the security upon security,—the being 'tied.' Now, Ba says I shall not be 'chained' if she can help!"

To which she responds:

"Tie up your drinker under the pour of his nine gallons, and in two minutes he will moan and writhe (as you perfectly know) like a Brinvilliers under the water-torture. That he asked to be tied up, was unwise on his own principle of loving ale. And you sha'n't be 'chained' up, if you were to ask twenty times: if you have found truth or not in the water-well."

She still does not believe that he is not under some sort of delusion. In one sense she trusts that he would do the honorable thing and not simply abandon her, but in another sense she does not trust him to know his own mind and feelings. Perhaps she had seen too many unhappy married couples, tied together forever in miserable marriages.

But now, again, she tries to clarify her father, but she doesn't really because she cannot:

"You do not see aright what I meant to tell you on another subject. If he was displeased, (and it was expressed by a shadow a mere negation of pleasure) it was not with you as a visitor and my friend. You must not fancy such a thing. It was a sort of instinctive indisposition towards seeing you here—unexplained to himself, I have no doubt—of course unexplained, or he would have desired me to receive you never again, that would have been done at once and unscrupulously. But without defining his own feeling, he rather disliked seeing you here—it just touched one of his vibratory wires, brushed by and touched it—oh, we understand in this house. He is not a nice observer, but, at intervals very wide, he is subject to lightnings—call them fancies, sometimes right, sometimes wrong. Certainly it was not in the character of a 'sympathising friend' that you made him a very little cross on Monday. And yet you never were nor will be in danger of being thanked, he would not think of it. For the reserve, the apprehension—dreadful those things are, and desecrating to one's own nature—but we did not make this position, we only endure it. The root of the evil is the miserable misconception of the limits and character of parental rights—it is a mistake of the intellect rather than of the heart. Then, after using one's children as one's chattels for a time, the children drop lower and lower toward the level of the chattels, and the duties of human sympathy to them become difficult in proportion. And (it seems strange to say it, yet it is true) love, he does not conceive of at all. He has feeling, he can be moved deeply, he is capable of affection in a peculiar way, but that, he does not understand, any more than he understands Chaldee, respecting it less of course."

She obviously has tried to explain her father to herself. She understands that he has these moods and temperaments, she can read them in him, but I doubt if she truly understands them. She is simply describing the symptoms. I recently read a biography that was attempting to defend Mr. Barrett and the writer was trying to make the point that EBB was exaggerating her father's faults to Browning so that she could allow Browning to replace her father in her affections. To back up this theory he tried to demonstrate that EBB wrote pleasant things about her father to another correspondent, Miss Mitford, and that she had dedicated her published poems of 1844 to her father. This line of argumentation seems like pretty weak milk to me. Miss Mitford was not an intimate, there is no possibility that EBB would write a critical essay about her father to Miss Mitford. Also, Miss Mitford's letters were passed around. And why wouldn't EBB dedicate her book of poetry to her father? He was her world up to that point. To think that she was blind to his faults is not plausible, given how keenly aware she was of her own faults. This again is a problem I have with so many biographies of both EBB and RB. The writers are either pro or con. Why does a biographer have to make a villain? Every person makes choices in their lives, for good or ill. Why does it necessarily follow that EBB ruined RB's life? Or that RB was a social climber who used his wife for his own personal and poetical gain? Why can't they be two very interesting, complicated and talented people who just happened upon each other at a time that was convenient to them both? Could it possibly be that simple? Perhaps that doesn't sell books. But hey, who am I to criticize someone for having an opinion? I certainly have one, or didn't you notice?

To continue with today's dose, she ends the letter with a warning and some affection:

"There will be no lack of 'lying,' be sure—'pure lying' too—and nothing you can do, dearest dearest, shall hinder my being torn to pieces by most of the particularly affectionate friends I have in the world. Which I do not think of much, any more than of Italy. You will be mad, and I shall be bad ... and that will be the effect of being poets! 'Till when, where are you?'—why in the very deepest of my soul—wherever in it is the fountain head of loving! beloved, there you are!
Some day I shall ask you 'in form,'—as I care so much for forms, it seems,—what your 'faults' are, these immense multitudinous faults of yours, which I hear such talk of, and never, never, can get to see. Will you give me a catalogue raisonnĂ©e of your faults? I should like it, I think. In the meantime they seem to be faults of obscurity, that is, invisible faults, like those in the poetry which do not keep it from selling as I am so, so glad to understand."

Browning meanwhile sends a short note of encouragement equating her father to a 'spitting toad':

"Ah, sweetest, don't mind people and their lies any more than I shall; if the toad does 'take it into his toad's head to spit at you'—you will not 'drop dead,' I warrant. All the same, if one may make a circuit through a flower-bed and see the less of his toad-habits and general ugliness, so much the better—no words can express my entire indifference (far below contempt) for what can be said or done. But one thing, only one, I choose to hinder being said, if I can—the others I would not if I could—why prevent the toad's puffing himself out thrice his black bigness if it amuses him among those wet stones? We shall be in the sun.
I dare say I am unjust—hasty certainly, in the other matter—but all faults are such inasmuch as they are 'mistakes of the intellect'—toads may spit or leave it alone,—but if I ever see it right, exercising my intellect, to treat any human beings like my 'chattels'—I shall pay for that mistake one day or another, I am convinced—and I very much fear that you would soon discover what one fault of mine is, if you were to hear anyone assert such a right in my presence."

He is selling himself as a husband: His wife will not be his chattel and anyone who treats his wife as chattel will feel his wrath!

1 comment:

  1. RB knows what she is going through. He is encouraging her. I like that. I too do not see a reason to take "sides" regarding EBB and RB. They are human.

    I like your insight into the subject, or should I say your opinion.