Wednesday, September 19, 2012

September 17&18, 1846 Letter to George Barrett

This letter to George Barrett, is the only extant letter (that I am aware of) from Mrs. Browning to her family explaining her marriage to Robert Browning.

"Thursday & Friday

My dearest George I throw myself on your affection for me & beseech of God that it may hold under the weight -- dearest George, Go to your room & read this letter -- and I entreat you by all that we both hold dearest, to hold me still dear after the communication which it remains to me to make to yourself and to leave to you in order to be communicated to others in the way that shall seem best to your judgement. And Oh, love me George, while you are reading it. Love me -- that I may find pardon in your heart for me after it is read.

Mr. Browning has been attached to me for nearly two years - At first and for long I could not believe that he (who is what you know a little) could care for such as I, except in an illusion & a dream. I put an end (as I thought) briefly to the subject. I felt certain that a few days & a little more light on my ghastly face, would lead him to thank me for my negative, and I bade him observe that if my position had not been exceptional, I should not have received him at all. With a protest, he submitted, and months passed on so. Still he came continually & wrote, & made me feel (though observing my conditions in the form) made me feel with every breath I drew in his presence, that he loved me with no ordinary affection. But I believed that it would be a wrong to such a man, to cast on him the burden of my sickly life, & to ruin him by his own generosity - He was too good for me, I knew, but I tried to be as generous. I showed him that I was altogether bruised & broken -- that setting aside my health which, however improved, was liable to fail with every withdrawing of the sun, -- that the common advantages of youth & good spirits had gone from me & that I was an undone creature for the pleasures of life, as for its social duties.

His answer was -- not the common gallantries which come so easily to the lips of men -- but simply that he loved me -- he met argument with fact. He told me -- that with himself also, the early freshness of youth had gone by, & that throughout it he had not been able to love any woman -- that he loved now for the first time & the last. That, as to the question of my health, he had been under the impression when he first declared his attachment to me, that I was suffering from an incurable injury of the spine, which would prevent my ever standing up before his eyes. If that had been true -- he bade me tell how it should have operated in suppressing any pure attachment of a soul to a soul. For his part, he had desired under those circumstances, to attain to the right of sitting by my sofa just two hours in the day as one of my brothers might -- and he preferred, of deliberate choice, the realization of such a dream, to the highest, which should exclude me, in the world. - But he would not, he said, torment me - He would wait, if I pleased, twenty years, till we both should grow old, & then at the latest, -- too late, -- I should understand him as he understood himself now -- & should know that he loved me with an ineffaceble love. In the meanwhile, what he asked I had it in my power to give. He did not ask me to dance or to sing, -- but to help him to work and to live -- to live a useful life & to die a happy death -- that was in my power.

And this attachment, George, I have had to do with, & this man - Such a man. - Noble he is -- his intellect the least of his gifts! His love showed itself to me like a vocation. And I a mere woman, feeling as a woman must, & in circumstances which made every proof of devotion sink down to the deepest of my heart where the deep sorrow was before. Did he not come in my adversity? When I had done with life, did he not come to me. Call to mind the sorrow & the solitude, & how, in these long years, the feeling of personal vanity had died out of me, till I was grateful to all those who a little could bear with me personally. And he, such a man! Why men have talked to me before of what they called love, -- but never for any one, could I think even, of relinquishing the single life with which I was contented. I never believed that a man whom I could love (I having a need to look up high in order to love) .. could be satisfied with the loving me. And yet he did -- does. Then we have one mind on all subjects -- & the solemner they are, the nearer we seem to approach. If poets, we are together, still more we are Christians. For these nearly two years we have known each other's opinions & thoughts & feelings, weakness & strength, as few persons in the like position have had equal opportunities of doing. And knowing me perfectly he had entirely loved me -- : At last, I only could say -- "Wait until the winter - You will see that I shall be ill again - If not, I leave it to you". I believed I should be ill again certainly. But the winter came, mild and wonderful - I did not fail in health -- nor to him.

I beseech you, George, to judge me gently, looking to the peculiar circumstances, -- & above all, to acquit him wholly. I claim the whole responsibility of his omission of the usual application to my father and friends -- for he was about to do it -- anxious to do it -- & I stopped him. That blame therefore belongs to me. But I knew, & you know, that the consequences of that application would have been -- we should have been separated from that moment. He is not rich -- which wd have been an obstacle -- At any rate, I could not physically bear the encounter agitating opposition from those I tenderly loved -- & to act openly in defiance of Papa's will, would have been more impossible for me than to use the right which I believe to be mine, of taking a step so strictly personal, on my own responsibility. We both of us comprehend life in a simpler way than is generally done, and to live happily according to our conscience, we do not need to be richer than we are. I do beseech you, George, to look to the circumstances & judge me gently, & see that, having resolved to give my life to one who is in my eyes the noblest of all men & who loves me as such a man can love, -- there was no way possible to my weakness but the way adopted with this pain. The motives are altogether different from any supposable want of respect & affection where I owe them most tenderly. I beseech you to understand this -- I beseech you to lay it before my dearest Papa, that it is so - Also, to have consulted one of you, would have been ungenerous & have involved you in my blame I have therefore consulted not one of you. I here declare that everyone in the house is absolutely ignorant & innocent of all participation in this act of my own. I love you too dearly, too tenderly, to have done you such an injustice. Forgive me all of you for the act itself, for the sake of the love which came before it -- & follows after it -- for never (whether you pardon or reproach me) will an hour pass during my absence from you, in which I shall not think of you with tenderest thoughts.

It appears right to say of dear Mr. Kenyon -- to whom I ever shall be grateful, that he has not any knowledge of these circumstances - It appears right to say it, since Mr. Browning is his friend.

And I think it due to myself, to observe, that I have seen Mr. Browning only in this house & openly -- except the day of our meeting in the church of this parish in order to becoming his wife in the presence of the two necessary witnesses. We go across France, down the Seine & Rhone to Pisa for the winter, in submission to the conditions necessary for the re-establishment of my health, & shall return in the next summer. As soon as he became aware that I had the little money which is mine, he wished much that I would leave it with my sisters, & go to him penniless - But this, which I would have acceded to under ordinary circumstances, I resisted on the ground of my health -- the uncertainty of which seemed to make it a duty to me to keep from being a burden to him -- at least in a pecuniary respect.

George, dear George, read the enclosed letter for my dearest Papa, & then -- breaking gently the news of it -- give it to him to read. Also, if he would deign to read this letter addressed to you -- I should be grateful -- I wish him in justice, & beseech him in affection, to understand the whole bearings of this case. George, believe of me, that I have endeavored in all this matter to do right according to my own view of rights & righteousness - If it is not your view, bear with me & pardon me. Do you all pardon me, my beloved ones, & believe that if I could have benefitted any of you by staying here, I would have stayed. Have I not done for you what I could, always? When I could - Now I am weak. And if in this crisis I were to do otherwise that what I am about to do, there would be a victim without an expiation, & a sacrifice without an object. My spirits would have festered on in this enforced prison, & none of you all would have been the happier for what would have been bitter to me. Also, I should have wronged another. I cannot do it.

If you have any affection for me, George, dearest George, let me hear a word -- at Orleans --let me hear. I will write -- I bless you, I love you - I am Your Ba"

She is straightforward in laying out her case and her reasoning. She does not seem overly emotional. She would have made a good lawyer, using her best lawyerly skills to appeal to her lawyer brother. There is one amusing moment in an otherwise serious letter: her statement of Browning "He is not rich." No, indeed. Her statement that she, "felt certain that a few days & a little more light on my ghastly face, would lead him to thank me for my negative," could be read as a jest with many writers, but not Mrs. Browning. Our poetess of low self-esteem was most seriously serious on this score.

The main thing is that this letter is perfectly honest. There is no prevarication here. The objections she addresses here are the same objections she has argued with Browning about for the previous 19 months. The only arguments which she does not address here are the personal objections, which really have no bearing with her family.

And notice how she seeks to protect everyone but herself. She defends Browning, Kenyon and everyone in the household. Loving and noble.

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