Mr. and Mrs. Browning left England on Saturday, September 19, 1846 heading for Pisa. By September 26th they have made it to Paris where Mrs. Browning writes to her sister Arabel:
"My beloved Arabel I write to you after a thousand thoughts..(for I have not heard a breath of any of you yet) but the strongest brings me still to writing to you-I believe that you at least, you & my dearest Henrietta, would rather hear from me than not hear-So without a word more of feeling..leaving all the grief & the doubt on one side,..I hurry on blindly to let you hear the whole story of me, which seems to me to run in a whole circle of years rather than days,..so strange it all is, & full of wonder.
After the Harve passage which was miserable thing in all ways, there was nothing for it but to rest all day at Harve- We were all three of us exhausted either by the sea of the sorrow, & Wilson & I lay down for a few hours, & had coffee & what else we could take--this, till nine oclock in the evening when the diligence set out for Rouen. Four hours by the diligence, we thought,-& then the rest, till the middle of the next day when we meant to go by the Paris railroad. In the diligence we had the coupe to ourselves..we three..& it was as comfortable & easy as any carriage I have been in for years--now five horses, now seven..all looking wild & loosely harnessed,..some of them white, some brown, some black, with the manes leaping as they galloped, & the white reins dripping down over their heads..such a fantastic scene it was in the moonlight!-& I who was a little feverish with the fatigue & the violence done to myself, in the self control of the last few days, began to see it all as in a vision & to doubt whether I was in or out of the body. They made me lie down with my feet up-Robert was dreadfully anxious about me-& after all, he was the worst, I believe, of any of us-Arrived at Rouen,-through some mistake or necessity of form, we were allowed to remain if we pleased, but were forbidden to keep any part of our luggage. The luggage was to go by railroad on to Paris directly-What was to be done? So I prevailed over all the fears, that we should continue on our route, after a rest of twenty minutes at the Rouen Hotel..coffee & the break of bread,-& you would have been startled, if in a dream you had seen me, carried in & out, as Robert in his infinite tenderness would insist on carrying me, between the lines of strange foreign faces & in the travelers' room,..back again to the coupe of the diligence which was placed on the railway,..& so we rolled on toward Paris."
The description here is priceless. The dreams and visions were perhaps aided a bit by an extra dosage of her opiate. If you look at a map of France you can see the Rouen is about 55 miles from La Harve. It would take about an hour today to drive the distance and it took them four hours in the coupe. That's not too bad although riding on a dirt track in a bouncing coach would certainly make me break out the Dramamine, so I do not begrudge Mrs. B. her laudanum. I suspect Mr. B. could have used some too. The vision of the coupe placed on the railway I am having trouble with. I tried doing a google image search for such a thing and find a coupe but not attached to a railroad car. My imagination says that the coupe was placed on a flat car, but who knows what kind of arrangement was made in 1846. Wikipedia was sadly lacking in information on this subject. If any of my Blogoleers has a graphic image or a more distinct description I would be greatly interested. I also have to wonder that the French built the railway from Paris to Rouen only. Why didn't they take it all the way to the coast? Perhaps it was the wagon master lobby that kept the rail line away from the coast. Just wondering.
"It was a night's travelling, & the daylight was at ten or eleven a.m. when we were deposited in the Messagerie Hotel, in a great noisy court--taking & not choosing that Hotel..taking it for being the nearest, & meaning to remain there, for that day & the next, on account of the necessities of the passport, which the Mayor of Harve promised faithfully to let us receive in time for an early departure-For me, I was quite satisfied with our accommodations in this hotel-but they were small & not over convenient, & the light & the noise, my two enemies, poured in upon us on all sides. Still we had good coffee, & everything was clean, & everyone courteous to the top of courtesy-& while I lay resting, Robert went to speak to Mrs. Jameson according to her address & the agreement of us both that her goodness to me deserved so passing look or sign, if we could give no more-She was not at home. He left a note..'Come & see your friend & my wife EBB-'..nearly as brief as that,--& signing it RB. Never thinking of either of us she stood for some moments, she told us afterwards, in a maze..wondering what these things could mean--In the meanwhile, it was night..or nine in the evening at least..& he was so thoroughly worn out with anxiety, agitation, fatigue, & effect of the sea voyage together with that of having scarcely eaten anything for three weeks, that he quite staggered in the room, & was feverish enough to make me talk of sending for a physician, & in default of it, to entreat him to go & lie down where he would not be disturbed..I promised to receive Mrs. Jameson myself..imagine with what terrors--She came with her stretched out, & eyes opened as wide as Flush's..'Can it be possible? is it possible? You wild, dear creature! You dear, abominable poets! Why what a menage you will make!- You should each have married a 'petit bout de prose [a little bit of prose]' to keep you reasonable. But he is a wise man..in choosing so..& you are a wise woman, let the world say as it pleases!--& I shall dance for joy both in earth & heaven, my dear friends." All this in interrupted interjections! She was the kindest, the most cordial, the most astonished, the most out of breath with wonder!----& I could scarcely speak-looking 'frightfully ill' as she has told me since. So she would not stay..I was to rest, she said, for the first thing,..& never to think (for the second) of travelling all night in that wild way any more-also I was to prevail on Robert to go with me to her apartment at the Hotel de la Ville de Paris, in the morning, when we could talk about Italy & the rest."
I have to wonder that Browning went to fetch Mrs. Jameson at 9pm. He must have been pretty desperate. And why hadn't he eaten for three weeks? It seems he had as nervous a disposition as she did. Thank goodness for Mrs. Jameson, she seems to have saved the day. I dare say she dined out on this encounter the rest of her life, but she deserved to.
"Which was done as she said. We went to her in the morning. She received us both as the most affectionate of possible friends could..kissing Robert, embracing me..professing to be as delighted as she was astonished, praising us for our noble imprudences which were oftener successful, she said, even in this world, than the chiefest of worldly wisdoms..in short, nothing could be more cordial & more cheering. May God bless her for all the good she did me--& does me--for we did not leave her so. She persuaded us to remove from the Messagerie to her Hotel, induced us to take the apartment above her own in the same (this same Hotel) a cheap, yet delightful suite of small rooms,..furnished with the very sufficient elegance..dining room, drawing room, two bedrooms, & a room up higher for Wilson..as quiet as in the midst of a wood, nearly, & in the best situation, or one of the best, in Paris-She persuaded us to settle here for a few days, in order to rest, both of us, & manage the passport business, & wait for herself,..she promising to go with us to Pisa,..travel with us,..& help him to take care of me."
Mrs. B seems to wonder at Mrs. Jameson kissing Mr. B for she underlined this. Was this jealousy or astonishment? Their rooms seem very cozy, like a small apartment. I presume the extra bedroom was for Flush.
"You may think how grateful we are! I am! & he is, still more, perhaps..if possible,--for it lifts from him a good half of the anxiety about moving me from one place to another, which, well as I bear it all, is felt by him too much at moments. Now he is well..I thank God..& I am well..living as in a dream,..loving & being loved better everyday..seeing near in him, all that I seemed to see from afar,...thinking with one thought, feeling with one heart,..& just able to discern that (if it were not for what I have left behind,.. with the dreadful, dreadful looking for the letters at Orleans perhaps,..) I should be the happiest of human beings..happiest through him- He loves me better he says than he ever did--& we live such a quiet yet new life, it is like riding an enchanted horse. We see Mrs. Jameson at certain hours, but keep to ourselves at others. We breakfast quietly, & spend the morning,..have bread and butter at one, (& coffee) then dine with her at the Restaurants..walking there,..ordering our own dinner at our own table in Parisian fashion, & walking home afterwards. The distance is short, being understood..& I do not at all dislike it. Mrs. Jameson & Robert talk..he pouring out rivers of wit & wisdom..(it is wonderful),-& she the agreeable, cultivated, fervid & affectionate woman I but half guessed her to be. I in the meanwhile, sit silent, & enjoy or suffer, as God lets me-Oh never, never believe that I can forget you, or love you less, my dearest dearest all of you,..my own Arabel, do not think so!-I never do, even while I feel that as far as and human choice can be wise & happy,..made under such circumstances..I mean, as far as I could have a right to choose at all,..I have done well, & received full compensation for the past sorrows of my life. He is perfect-far too good & tender for me-far too high & gifted- To hear him say that he is happy because of me, overwhelms me with a mixture of wonder & of shame."
What was making Mrs. B "suffer" as she sat listening to her husband and Mrs. Jameson talk? Physical discomfort or shyness and nerves? And why is she feeling shame because her husband says she makes him happy? She feels unworthy of being happy. What great sin did she commit in her life that makes her so fearful of being happy? She seems awfully superstitious for a Christian woman; she does not seem to fully embrace God's forgiveness.
"He will carry me up stairs, & make me eat too much--our chief disputations are on such points: & for the rest, we have broken no peace yet-we sit through the dusky evenings, watching the stars rise over the high Paris houses, & tell childish happy things, or making schemes for work & poetry to be achieved when we reach Pisa- This, if the good spirits & hopes take the pre-eminence."
Now that sounds very honeymoony.
"And everyone cries out that I look well-the first fatigue has passed..& the change, & the sense of the Thing Done (resuming the place of a painful resolution) & the constant love & attention of every moment..have done me good-for they touch me, besides the pain & fear. I am quite capable of travelling..quite. And on monday, we set out again--Mrs. Jameson & Gerardine her niece, Robert & I & Wilson. We go to Chartes, because a visit to the cathedral there is necessary for a book she is completing, & we can only go by Diligence- Thence by railroad to Orleans--(oh my letters, how you frighten me at this distance!) & slowly onward to Marseilles. You shall hear again. Robert has told Mrs. Jameson to call me Ba..& I am to call her Aunt Nina which is her favorite name for relation or friend. I tell you this nonsense to let you see how we are on familiar terms-She writes little notes to us, nearly every morning, sent up stairs by Gerardine for a post, beginning.."Dear friends, how are you today, & where will you go?" You comprehend why I repeat such foolishness to you. She has taken us once to the Louvre..I, trembling for fear of meeting somebody too dear! And, by the way, I have not written to Jane- Don't tell her how long I have been here, not daring to give her a sign..although Robert & I walked up the Rue Champs Elysses only yesterday."
She had told her family to write to her at Orleans so she is hoping and dreading what she will find waiting for her in that city. Her Aunt Jane and Uncle Hedley are in Paris and she is frightened that of all the people in that city she will run into them walking down the street. I guess it could happen but here her nerves are getting the better of her. Nerves and guilt, because she has been a naughty girl and run off with a penniless poet.
"The glance of the Louvre was a mere glance--the divine Raphaels..unspeakable, those are. Mrs. Jameson on one side of me, & Robert on the other, were learned equally..& I, the ignoramus, between!-He & I have seen nothing of course, comparatively, of Paris wonders,--but we shall return here some day, & see & hear. The colouring & life everywhere are very striking,..& the magnificence of the city, as a city, infinitely beyond London-"
And what is Wilson doing all this time? Doing maid things I guess. She gets paid to be bored. In Paris. She is probably dog sitting since I doubt even Flush would be permitted in the Louvre. The French are such barbarians when it comes to dogs in public buildings.
"Mrs. Jameson spoke to Lord Normanby (the English ambassador) about the wrong done to us in our passport at Harve--for we have not yet received it--& he instantly said that he knew Mr. Browning by reputation & would be happy to give us another which should put us to no trouble whatever. It was graciously said, & quickly done- And now the mayor & his devices are to be defied-"
Apparently passports in the 19th century worked differently than they do today. My understanding is that you could go to France without a passport but you had to apply for one once you were there. You were at the mercy of French officialdom to get out of the country, for you had to have one issued to you in order the leave the country. So the mayor in La Harve did not issue the proper documents, perhaps in order to get a, shall we say 'tip', for his service. Happily Mrs. Jameson knew the correct person to save the day. Mrs. Jameson was a very handy person to have around.
"My dearest, dearest Arabel..my beloved all of you..my heart goes out to you..I love you..I bless you in the name of God-Forgive me that I have caused you this pain,..oh, I beseech you-Kiss dearest Trippy for me, & say so too. My excuse is in him-If he was an another man in anything, I should have less an excuse-I wish you heard him talk of you all..how he grieves to have offended when he would give up all (except me) to conciliate- Wishing, he was, this morning, that you or dearest Henrietta were with us here, & hoping for me, that, one day, he might have you with us, as his sister & mine-You would love him & hold me justified, if you knew him-such a pure, tender, religious spirit,..apart from secular attainments & the specific genius-He rises on me, higher and higher-"
He would give everything to conciliate--except her--yes, that would seem to defeat the purpose. But isn't it a relief that she does not report that he has been beating her. I mean, what if?
"Now this is a long letter- Write me on I beseech you--& direct to Posta Restante, Pisa.-
My God bless you-Tell dear Minny not to follow me with too hard thoughts. No woman, beloved as I have been by such a man, could have acted much otherwise in the same circumstances-Is Stormie very angry? & George?
Dear Henrietta will understand why I do not write to her today--it shall be for another day-I love her-I love you- I am your own attached Ba
Do you think, Arabel, that dearest Papa will forgive me at last?------Answer
Wilson likes everything--& we try to make her comfortable in change for her great services-Oh, that day, Arabel when I left you!---
Arabel, Henrietta, dearest ones, both of you write to me."
Mrs. B. writes in faith that her sisters will forgive and support her. But she is obviously writing for a larger audience. She has to know that her sisters will pass around the letter to other family members. There is no chance that she was going to write anything negative about her trip or her husband. If he was beating her, ignoring her or otherwise treating her badly, would she say anything? It is pretty doubtful. But I think we can be certain that her letter is a fairly accurate description of the trip based on subsequent letters and the records of others they encounter on the way, including Mrs. Jameson who wrote blow by blow letters to Lady Byron and her niece Gerardine's eventual memoirs of traveling with her 'Aunt Nina'. Mrs. B. is off on the adventure of her life...