Saturday, June 23, 2012

June 23

June 23, 1846 began the next crisis in the courtship of Barrett and Browning. For some years Miss Barrett had been carrying on a correspondence with a number of literary and artistic personalities. Her sympathetic words drew in many frustrated artists. Many of them, especially those of the male persuasion, she had never met, and in some cases even refused the meet. Such was the case with the painter and sculptor Benjamin Haydon.  By summer 1846 he was bankrupt. To save his painting and sculpting tools from being taken by his creditors he sent them to Miss Barrett at Wimpole Street for safe keeping, along with his manuscript autobiography. He then committed suicide.
Browning, knowing of their correspondence and acquaintance wrote to break the news of the suicide to Miss Barrett:

"I was just on the point of answering your dear letter, in all the good spirits it might be expected to wake in me, when the sad news of poor Haydon’s death stopped all; much I feel it, for the light words of my own about his extravagance, as I had been told of it, but very much more on your account, who were so lately in communication with him– I earnestly hope,—I will trust—you have not been rudely apprised of this–I am happy to remember that you do not see the newspaper in the morning,—others will see it first: perhaps there may be no notice in the Chronicle at all, or on the other hand, a more circumstantial one than this in the Times which barely says—“that B R H. died suddenly at his residence—yesterday morning. He was in his usual health on the previous evening, and it is believed that his decease was hastened by pecuniary embarrassment”—and he is called “the unfortunate gentleman”—which with the rest implies the very worst, I fear. If by any chance this should be the first intimation you receive of it .. do not think me stupid nor brutal,—for I thought again and again as to the right course to take .. whether it would not be best to be silent altogether and wait and see .. but in that case I should have surprised you more by my cold letter,—such an one as I could bring myself to write,—for how were it possible to speak of pictures and indifferent matters when you perhaps have been shocked, made ill by this news? If I have done wrong, forgive me, my own best, dearest Ba– I would give the world to know how you are. The storm too, and lightning may have made you even more than ordinarily unfit to be startled and grieved– God knows and must help you! I am but your devoted


How glad I am you told me you had never seen him. And perhaps he may be after all a mere acquaintance .. anything I will fancy that is likely to relieve you of pain! Dearest dearest!"

You can feel Browning's impotence here. He wants to go to her but he does not have leave to, so he sends the letter and waits to be bidden. But she had heard the news already:

Oh yes—it has shocked me, this dreadful news of poor Mr Haydon—it chilled the blood in my veins when I heard it from Alfred, who, seeing the Times at the Great Western Terminus, wrote out the bare extract & sent it to me by the post. He just thought that the Chronicle did not mention it, .. & that I had not seen Mr Haydon .. he did not perhaps think how it would shock me–
For, this, I cannot help thinking—Could anyone .. could my own hand even—have averted what has happened?– My head & heart have ached today over the inactive hand!– But, for the moment, it was out of my power, without an application where it would have been useless—& then, I never fancied this case to be more than a piece of a continuous case .. of a habit fixed: two years ago he sent me boxes & pictures precisely so, & took them back again—poor, poor Haydon!—as he will not this time. And he said last week that Peel had sent him fifty pounds .. adding .. ‘I do not however want charity, but employment.’ Also, I have been told again & again (oh, never by you my beloved!) that to give money there, was to drop it into a hole of the ground.
But if to have dropped it so, dust to dust, would have saved a living man--what then?–
Yet of the three notes I had from him last week, the first was written so lightly, that the second came to desire me not to attribute to him a “want of feeling”. And who could think .. contemplate .. this calamity? May God have mercy on the strongest of us, for we are weak. Oh, that a man so high hearted & highly endowed .. a bold man, who has thrown down gauntlet after gauntlet in the face of the world--that such a man should go mad for a few paltry pounds! For he was mad if he killed himself!--of that I am as sure as if I knew it. If he killed himself, he was mad first.
Some day, when I have the heart to look for it, you shall see his last note. I understand now that there are touches in it of a desperate pathos--but never could he have meditated self destruction while writing that note. He said he should write six sets of lectures more .. six more volumes. He said he was painting a new background to a picture, which made him “feel as if his soul had wings”. And then he hoped his brain would not turn. And he ‘gloried’ in the naval dangers of his son at sea. And he repeated an old phrase of his, which I had heard from him often before, & which now rings hollowly to the ears of my memory .. that he could’nt & would’nt die. Strange & dreadful!
It is nearly two years since we had a correspondence of some few months--from which at last I receded, notwithstanding the individuality & spirit of his letters, & my admiration for a certain fervour & magnanimity of genius, no one could deny to him. His very faults partook of that nobleness. But for a year & a half or more perhaps, I scarcely have written or heard from him—until last week when he wrote to ask for a shelter for his boxes & pictures. If you had enquired of me the week before, I might have answered that I did not wish to renew the intercourse—yet who could help being shocked & saddened? Would it have availed, to have dropped something into that ‘hole in the ground’? Oh, to imagine that! Yet a little would have been but as nothing!– & he did not ask even for a little:—& I should have been ashamed to have offered but a little. Yet I cannot turn the thought away— .. that I did not offer.
Henry went to the house as I begged him. His son came to the door, & to a general enquiry ‘after the family’, said, that “Mr Haydon was dead & that his family were quite as well as could be expected." That horrible banality is all I know more than you know–
Yesterday at Rogers’s, Mrs Jameson led me to his picture of Napoleon at St Helena. At the moment we looked at it, his hand was scarcely cold, perhaps. Surely it was not made of the commonest clay of men,—that hand!–
I pour out my thoughts to you, dearest dearest, as if it were right rather to think of doing myself that good & relief, than of you who have to read all. But you spoil me into an excess of liberty, by your tenderness. Best in the world!– Oh—you help me to live– I am better & lighter since I have drawn near to you even on this paper—already I am better & lighter. And now I am going to dream of you .. to meet you on some mystical landing place.. in order to be quite well tomorrow. Oh—we are so selfish on this earth, that nothing grieves us very long, let it be ever so grievous, unless we are touched in ourselves .. in the apple of our eye .. in the quick of our heart .. in what you are, & where you are .. my own dearest beloved! So you need not be afraid for me! We all look to our own, as I to you; the thunderbolts may strike the tops of the cedars, &, except in the first start, none of us be moved. True it is of me—not of you perhaps—certainly you are better than I, in all things. Best in the world, you are!—no one is like you. Can you read what I have written? Do not love me less! Do you think that I cannot feel you love me, through all this distance? If you loved me less, I should know,—without a word or a sign. Because I live by your loving me!"

Hardly can Miss Barrett write a bad letter. Is it any wonder that so many people wanted to correspond with her? Even as the thoughts spill onto the paper she wants to sympathize with Browning for causing him discomfort by having to read her letter. Again she is blind to her own power.

But this episode will not end here and Browning will act as knight-errant to run interference and save Miss Barrett's reputation when society asks, "What is her relationship with the married Haydon that he would send her his property to keep!"


  1. oooo, I can't wait for the next installment

    1. Hold your horses Gentle Reader, we are talking letters through the penny post, not Instant Messenger. These things take time.