I started this blog a year ago on a whim. Part of me believed that I could never sustain it for a year, but the letters were so interesting the blog really wrote itself. I enjoyed the research it took to interpret the letters. Perhaps because I started it on a whim there are things I would have done differently. The main think I would have done differently would have been beginning at the beginning of the courtship and follow it through until they left for Italy. As it was I squeezed two years-or more-together on one page. But it wasn't a fatal error. You and I both survived.
Also, when I began, and for a time, I included letters from other years and to other people. But over time I became more interested in following the thread of the courtship letters. Also, during this time I read the two volume set of Mrs. Browning's letters to her sister Arabel. I finished those letters at about the same time as the blog wound down. Mrs. Browning's sister Henrietta died in November 1860 and as her health began to fail her in late 1860 and early 1861 the depression she was going through seemed to be affecting me as I nightly read her letters. She seemed at times to lose her faith and talk herself back into it in the same paragraph. Her letters to Arabel were cathartic. At one point Arabel was apparently offended by Mrs. Browning's seeming lecture on not embracing grief and she had to explain that she was referring to herself and not Arabel. And then Mrs. Browning died all over again, 152 years later. My rational mind laughs at the absurdity of being sad about it, she would be very old indeed if she lived on.
I have also read many biographies over the past year and most of them are really bad. Only the more modern ones give me any hope for the profession of literary biographer. Too many of them have a strange prejudice against one or the other of the poets. Biographers are judgemental and so very orthodox. I plead with any of you to read the primary material rather than taking the biographers word for anything. I have read some real howlers from the biographer fraternity. They take quotes out of context, apply quotes to the wrong year, the wrong circumstance and the wrong poem. Many of the biographers of the early twentieth century made a romantic hash of the love story, making Browning into some kind of demi-god and Miss Barrett into something of a simpleton. What I make of them may be a irrelevant, but Browning was not a god and Miss Barrett was not a simpleton. Their relationship was not understood by them; I have no claim on understanding it any better than they did. I think Browning was a very conventional man, very conservative in many ways. He was no iconoclast, he conformed in almost every way to societal standards and norms. Mrs. Browning was far more unconventional in her thoughts and really very brave. She was not scared to tell the world, through her poetry, that she admired Napoleon III and supported the struggle for Italian unification. She became unpopular in her home country for her political views. She did not care. She was also very bold in her religion. She embraced and rejected most Christian religions. She went to Catholic Mass and many other mix and match services. She scandalized her conservative sister by allowing her young son to reenact the mass in exact detail in the drawing room. I think she was more interested that this young boy could remember all the words and actions of the priests and reproduce them, than worried that he might absorb the meaning and become a papist. Her letters are full of antidotes where she described things that she did which upset her conservative husband. (She let her dog Flush run free in the church with the other Italian dogs and he urinated on the altar, which she found amusing and Browning found appalling. He couldn't take her anywhere!) She was boldly anti-slavery, writing a very shocking (for the time--tepid for today) poem about a slave, pregnant by her master, who kills the offspring of the rape. She wrote about the conditions of child labor and in her masterwork took on the state of 19th century women, addressing rape, the class system, the education of women and the inability of women to choose their own profession. She was not scared. But Browning was.
I have mentioned many times in the blog that Browning was in a perpetual state of embarrassment. Some may call this modesty. But this seems to point to his conventionality. His wife embarrassed him on a regular basis. He was embarrassed by her politics and by her interest in spiritualism. The editors who publish the letters of the Browning's usually begin with an explanation of why they are publishing private letters. These discussion are often uncomfortable sessions in which they quote Browning's letters(!) explaining why he didn't want their letters published. He spent quite a bit of time in his later years trying to retrieve his wife's letters from people who might publish them and burning his own. Usually they quote from letters Browning wrote to his brother-in-law George Barrett in which Browning appeals to George and the other Barrett brothers to protect Mrs. Browning after his death. He is embarrassed especially by her enthusiastic interest in Spiritualism. He believed that this interest would ruin her reputation. Her unconventional religious inquiries seem pretty mainstream today and even conservative. From reading her letters it is perfectly clear that she desperately wanted to communicate with the dead but her experiments were almost total failures. She was not blind to this and always wanted controls and proof but seldom got proof, although she did get a lot of excited testimony about phenomena other people had experienced.
The Browning letters which remain are, for the most part, not especially interesting. The letters to his sister and later his son are mostly missing. Sarianna was his only intimate receiving letters. Even his letters to Isa Blagdon, which are interesting, are not especially revealing. They do not compare in power to the letters of his wife. I think ultimately he could not bring himself to destroy her letters because he knew how brilliant they are. And Mrs. Browning, I believe, knew that her letters might be published one day. I suspect she wrote, especially to her literary correspondents, with this in mind. And she was amazingly prolific; Wedgestone Press predicts that the entire set of the Browning Correspondence will run to forty volumes. However, she specifically and angrily stated she wanted people to wait until she was dead before they picked through her letters.
I often tell people that Mrs. Browning's letter remind me of "Letters from 'Nam". She wrote to each person for that person. A specific audience. Her letters to her sisters for the most part stuck to family news, sisterly news. She didn't discuss literature and politics to a great extent with her sisters and she shaped her religious discussions with them to reflect what she could agree with them about, occasionally tossing in a recommended book that would help to explain her less than conventional views. Trying to explain the brilliance of George Sand she recommended the less her salacious offerings. Her letters to her brother George have a totally different tone. She wrote to her brother on a higher level, treating him as a brother to be teased but as an intellectual equal. Which is not to say that she wasn't willing to portray herself as a weak and feeble woman, if it was required. Her letter to George at the time of her marriage and retreat from Wimpole Street is brilliant. The tone is perfect, reflecting excellent reasoning. It is not overly emotional nor pleading. It did not work, George did not forgive her for several years, but I suspect that it wasn't the fault of the letter, but instead, the fact that George had to protect his own position in the Barrett household which kept him from embracing her life change. Another of her brilliant letters was written two months prior to her death, even as her letters to Arabel were reflecting her personal despair. She had submitted a poem to be published in Cornhill Magazine which was rejected on decency grounds by the editor William Makepiece Thackeray. Her response to him was clever and witty and defended her poem as highly moral, simply addressing a difficult subject. It in no way reflected the personal turmoil she was emerging from nor her poor health and wonderfully illustrates how her letters are tailored to her audience.
I want to comment as well about our poets relationship after they left England. Miss Barrett's fears that Browning would be disappointed in her and that he would throw his life away taking care of her dogged her to the end. Her health did improve a great deal in the sun of Italy but she remained fragile and gradually she withdrew physically more and more. You can see glimpses of her frustration in her letters to her sisters. The couple were together so much you see the frayed edges, almost always touched on with humor. We saw glimpses of Browning's temper in the courtship letters--never directed to her. We also saw how Miss Barrett feared verbal confrontations of any kind. We see in Mrs. Browning's letters to Arabel that there were times when she had to explain her husband's ill humors and address Arabel's contention that they were always quarreling during their visit to England. There were periods where Mrs. Browning did not speak to her husband about certain topics, usually spiritualism but also politics. She also grew frustrated at her husband's careful way with money. He never wanted to be accused of milking his wife dry--he was so very scrupulous--and she did not care. She knew he was honest to a fault. He took care of her to the very end. He carried her everywhere. Her descriptions of him bundling her up against the cold and cramming her head first into the carriage like a very large package are wonderful examples of her light touch. At one point in Rome he had to carry her up 88 steps to their apartment. She was very tiny and he was very strong. (They also used a devise called "The Queens Chair" to get her up the stairs.) Some biographers try to contend that his poems reflect his disappointment in her and their relationship. I do not believe that. For a man who burned almost all of his personal letters to write poems about his frustration with his wife I find ridiculous. Of course his poems reflected life, but we can see that he was able to address all situations from many angles. I think some people are desperate to find a thesis for their dissertations. After her death he did begin addressing her in his poems but these poems suggest a mythification, a longing, a frustration with his own long life and finally an acceptance. He did not have much luck with women after his wife's death although I suspect he was an incorrigible flirt. He loved the attention of pretty ladies. What man doesn't? But what does this all add up to? They were normal. But extraordinarily normal. They had a extraordinarily normal marriage.
Now, I am going to take a bit of a break from the blog. I am not going to stop completely. There will be a special treat on February 20 that you can look forward to. It is the only extant letter written by Mrs. Browning to her husband after they left England in 1846. I won't tease you too much. I may even pop back in before that if I find something of interest. I was able to get volume 6 of the correspondence for next to no money on eBay. They are $110.00 a volume if you buy them new so I consider myself lucky to have gotten this volume for $16.00.
I also would like to thank the editors of the most recent edition of the courtship letters for not suing me for copyright infringement. The letters are in the public domain, you can get them on The Gutenberg Project website, but I suspect that I may have been in violation of some law. I used their footnotes to guide my research. A shocking admission I know.