Saturday, August 25, 2012

August 25

One of the most important letters of the courtship was written on August 25, 1845. This letter was the opening of Miss Barrett's hidden sorrow to Browning. Browning had called in the afternoon and Miss Barrett hastened to write to him after he left, to explain or perhaps clarify her remarks. And in doing so she revealed to him what she considered her greatest sin, a weakness, that she could not forgive herself for and that ultimately haunted her for the rest of her life. She had begun the letter earlier and addresses his inquiry from August 20th when he asked what 'I had done':

"But what have I done that you should ask what have you done? I have not brought any accusation, have I ... no, nor thought any, I am sure—and it was only the 'kindness and considerateness'—argument that was irresistible as a thing to be retorted, when your thanks came so naturally and just at the corner of an application. And then, you know, it is gravely true, seriously true, sadly true, that I am always expecting to hear or to see how tired you are at last of me!—sooner or later, you know!—But I did not mean any seriousness in that letter. No, nor did I mean ... (to pass to another question ...) to provoke you to the
Mister Hayley ... so are you....
reply complimentary. All I observed concerning yourself, was the combination—which not an idiom in chivalry could treat grammatically as a thing common to me and you, inasmuch as everyone who has known me for half a day, may know that, if there is anything peculiar in me, it lies for the most part in an extraordinary deficiency in this and this and this, ... there is no need to describe what. Only nuns of the strictest sect of the nunneries are rather wiser in some points, and have led less restricted lives than I have in others. And if it had not been for my 'carpet-work'—
Well—and do you know that I have, for the last few years, taken quite to despise book-knowledge and its effect on the mind—I mean when people live by it as most readers by profession do, ... cloistering their souls under these roofs made with heads, when they might be under the sky. Such people grow dark and narrow and low, with all their pains."

She is of course describing herself as 'dark and narrow and low' and living a life more restrictive than a cloistered nun. She very much wants to get out into the world and live a full life. But there is an abrupt change of tone as she begins writing anew:

"Friday.—I was writing you see before you came—and now I go on in haste to speak 'off my mind' some things which are on it. First ... of yourself; how can it be that you are unwell again, ... and that you should talk (now did you not?—did I not hear you say so?) of being 'weary in your soul' ... you? What should make you, dearest friend, weary in your soul; or out of spirits in any way?—Do ... tell me.... I was going to write without a pause—and almost I might, perhaps, ... even as one of the two hundred of your friends, ... almost I might say out that 'Do tell me.' Or is it (which I am inclined to think most probable) that you are tired of a same life and want change? It may happen to anyone sometimes, and is independent of your will and choice, you know—and I know, and the whole world knows: and would it not therefore be wise of you, in that case, to fold your life new again and go abroad at once? What can make you weary in your soul, is a problem to me. You are the last from whom I should have expected such a word. And you did say so, I think. I think that it was not a mistake of mine. And you, ... with a full liberty, and the world in your hand for every purpose and pleasure of it!—Or is it that, being unwell, your spirits are affected by that? But then you might be more unwell than you like to admit—. And I am teasing you with talking of it ... am I not?—and being disagreeable is only one third of the way towards being useful, it is good to remember in time.

She can't imagine why a man at, full liberty to go and come as he will and in perfect health, can be wearied of the world. She is, in her way, telling him to snap out of it. But then she comes to the heart of the issue:

"And then the next thing to write off my mind is ... that you must not, you must not, make an unjust opinion out of what I said to-day. I have been uncomfortable since, lest you should—and perhaps it would have been better if I had not said it apart from all context in that way; only that you could not long be a friend of mine without knowing and seeing what so lies on the surface. But then, ... as far as I am concerned, ... no one cares less for a 'will' than I do (and this though I never had one, ... in clear opposition to your theory which holds generally nevertheless) for a will in the common things of life. Every now and then there must of course be a crossing and vexation—but in one's mere pleasures and fantasies, one would rather be crossed and vexed a little than vex a person one loves ... and it is possible to get used to the harness and run easily in it at last; and there is a side-world to hide one's thoughts in, and 'carpet-work' to be immoral on in spite of Mrs. Jameson, ... and the word 'literature' has, with me, covered a good deal of liberty as you must see ... real liberty which is never enquired into—and it has happened throughout my life by an accident (as far as anything is accident) that my own sense of right and happiness on any important point of overt action, has never run contrariwise to the way of obedience required of me ... while in things not exactly overt, I and all of us are apt to act sometimes up to the limit of our means of acting, with shut doors and windows, and no waiting for cognisance or permission. Ah—and that last is the worst of it all perhaps! to be forced into concealments from the heart naturally nearest to us; and forced away from the natural source of counsel and strength!—and then, the disingenuousnessthe cowardicethe 'vices of slaves'!—and everyone you see ... all my brothers, ... constrained bodily into submission ... apparent submission at least ... by that worst and most dishonouring of necessities, the necessity of living, everyone of them all, except myself, being dependent in money-matters on the inflexible will ... do you see? But what you do not see, what you cannot see, is the deep tender affection behind and below all those patriarchal ideas of governing grown up children 'in the way they must go!' and there never was (under the strata) a truer affection in a father's heart ... no, nor a worthier heart in itself ... a heart loyaller and purer, and more compelling to gratitude and reverence, than his, as I see it! The evil is in the system—and he simply takes it to be his duty to rule, and to make happy according to his own views of the propriety of happiness—he takes it to be his duty to rule like the Kings of Christendom, by divine right. But he loves us through and through it—and I, for one, love him!...."

Her description of her brothers being held in 'bodily submission' does not reflect well on the personal ambition of the Barrett boys. Her father rules the roost and she has lived under it all her life and is essentially saying that because he is a relatively benevolent dictator she has not had too great a problem living in his dictatorship. Okay, she has set the stage for the revelation of her great sin and the forgiving of it by her divine father. She is referring here to the loss of her brother Edward, who she called 'Bro':

"...and when, five years ago, I lost what I loved best in the world beyond comparison and rivalship ... far better than himself [Papa Barrett] as he knew ... for everyone who knew me could not choose but know what was my first and chiefest affection ... when I lost that, ... I felt that he stood the nearest to me on the closed grave ... or by the unclosing sea ... I do not know which nor could ask. And I will tell you that not only he has been kind and patient and forbearing to me through the tedious trial of this illness (far more trying to standers by than you have an idea of perhaps) but that he was generous and forbearing in that hour of bitter trial, and never reproached me as he might have done and as my own soul has not spared—never once said to me then or since, that if it had not been for me, the crown of his house would not have fallen. He never did ... and he might have said it, and more—and I could have answered nothing. Nothing, except that I had paid my own price—and that the price I paid was greater than his loss ... his!! For see how it was; and how, 'not with my hand but heart,' I was the cause or occasion of that misery—and though not with the intention of my heart but with its weakness, yet the occasion, any way!
They sent me down you know to Torquay—Dr. Chambers saying that I could not live a winter in London. The worst—what people call the worst—was apprehended for me at that time. So I was sent down with my sister to my aunt there—and he, my brother whom I loved so, was sent too, to take us there and return. And when the time came for him to leave me, I, to whom he was the dearest of friends and brothers in one ... the only one of my family who ... well, but I cannot write of these things; and it is enough to tell you that he was above us all, better than us all, and kindest and noblest and dearest to me, beyond comparison, any comparison, as I said—and when the time came for him to leave me I, weakened by illness, could not master my spirits or drive back my tears—and my aunt kissed them away instead of reproving me as she should have done; and said that she would take care that I should not be grieved ... she! ... and so she sate down and wrote a letter to Papa to tell him that he would 'break my heart' if he persisted in calling away my brother—As if hearts were broken so! I have thought bitterly since that my heart did not break for a good deal more than that! And Papa's answer was—burnt into me, as with fire, it is—that 'under such circumstances he did not refuse to suspend his purpose, but that he considered it to be very wrong in me to exact such a thing.' So there was no separation then: and month after month passed—and sometimes I was better and sometimes worse—and the medical men continued to say that they would not answer for my life ... they! if I were agitated—and so there was no more talk of a separation. And once he held my hand, ... how I remember! and said that he 'loved me better than them all and that he would not leave me ... till I was well,' he said! how I remember that! And ten days from that day the boat had left the shore which never returned; never—and he had left me! gone! For three days we waited—and I hoped while I could—oh—that awful agony of three days! And the sun shone as it shines to-day, and there was no more wind than now; and the sea under the windows was like this paper for smoothness—and my sisters drew the curtains back that I might see for myself how smooth the sea was, and how it could hurt nobody—and other boats came back one by one.
Remember how you wrote in your 'Gismond'

What says the body when they spring
Some monstrous torture-engine’s whole
Strength on it? No more says the soul,

and you never wrote anything which lived with me more than that. It is such a dreadful truth. But you knew it for truth, I hope, by your genius, and not by such proof as mine—I, who could not speak or shed a tear, but lay for weeks and months half conscious, half unconscious, with a wandering mind, and too near to God under the crushing of His hand, to pray at all. I expiated all my weak tears before, by not being able to shed then one tear—and yet they were forbearing—and no voice said 'You have done this.'
Do not notice what I have written to you, my dearest friend. I have never said so much to a living being—I never could speak or write of it. I asked no question from the moment when my last hope went: and since then, it has been impossible for me to speak what was in me. I have borne to do it to-day and to you, but perhaps if you were to write—so do not let this be noticed between us again—do not! And besides there is no need! I do not reproach myself with such acrid thoughts as I had once—I know that I would have died ten times over for him, and that therefore though it was wrong of me to be weak, and I have suffered for it and shall learn by it I hope; remorse is not precisely the word for me—not at least in its full sense. Still you will comprehend from what I have told you how the spring of life must have seemed to break within me then; and how natural it has been for me to loathe the living on—and to lose faith (even without the loathing), to lose faith in myself ... which I have done on some points utterly. It is not from the cause of illness—no. And you will comprehend too that I have strong reasons for being grateful to the forbearance.... It would have been cruel, you think, to reproach me. Perhaps so! yet the kindness and patience of the desisting from reproach, are positive things all the same.

She loved her brother and she insisted that he stay with her and she blamed herself for what she saw as her weakness, her willfulness which kept her brother in Torquay when her father wanted him elsewhere. That is why she says near the beginning of the letter that she has no will. But it is not that she has no will, she chooses now not to use her will. This explains her constant and almost irrational denial of her affection toward Browning. If she imposed her will on him she may kill the one she loved again, so it is much better, safer, to push him away and save him from her willful and weak nature. This irrational belief in her own ability of cause the death of another through the very act of love is what Browning must overcome.

"Shall I be too late for the post, I wonder? Wilson tells me that you were followed up-stairs yesterday (I write on Saturday this latter part) by somebody whom you probably took for my father. Which is Wilson's idea—and I hope not yours. No—it was neither father nor other relative of mine, but an old friend in rather an ill temper."

The first appearance of the Rev. George Barrett Hunter, to be known under the sobriquet Chippiano, because he was always in an ill tempter. Perhaps Miss Barrett put up with him as a punishment for her sins?

"And so good-bye until Tuesday. Perhaps I shall ... not ... hear from you to-night. Don't let the tragedy or aught else do you harm—will you? and try not to be 'weary in your soul' any more—and forgive me this gloomy letter I half shrink from sending you, yet will send. May God bless you. E.B.B."

I find this letter very moving. She really released herself to this 'friend'. This was an act of trust that is almost hard to understand. She has been up to this point pushing him away, but with this letter she is pulling him into her life more closely than ever. But there is no guile here. She is not telling him this story to lure him into any kind of trap. What is her motivation in telling this story? She is trying to defend her father, trying to explain why she remains so attached to him despite his tyrannical streak. Barrett didn't blame her for the death of this eldest son. That was all he did or didn't do. He also never told her that it was not her fault and that it was simply an accident. He said nothing to her and so he was a great man. "It would have been cruel, you think, to reproach me," she writes to Browning. But the truth is that it would have been irrational to reproach her. Her convoluted reasoning seems so obviously absurd to us and yet how many of us have questionable reasoning which motivate our thoughts and actions?

This is an opening that Browning can carefully exploit if he doesn't push too hard. She has given him a glimpse of her inner life that he must slowly build on. Let's watch and see how he handles it.

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