The letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, 1845-1846

by Robert Browning

Other authorsElizabeth Barrett Browning (Author)
Hardcover, 1899




New York and London, Harper & Brothers, 1899. Two volumes

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LibraryThing member thorold
This is one of those cases where it really does pay to go back to the primary source. As Cole Porter put it, in a rather different context, "Let the poets talk of love". Forget The Barretts of Wimpole Street; put Possession, Flush: a biography and Lady's Maid on one side for the moment, and enjoy what is in essence a real-life epistolary novel. Unlike most collections of letters, there is a clear storyline here: a classic narrative arc of romantic comedy starting with first contact in January 1845, passing from friendship to love through the overcoming of difficulties, and ending 20 months later with — well, you know how it ends, but someone will probably shoot me if I actually say it...

The TV version of The Barretts of Wimpole Street put me off having anything to do with Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning for about 20 years: you might expect these letters to reinforce the idea of RB and EBB as a romantic cliché, but they don't: this isn't about two star-struck young lovers, nor is it about a sofa-bound princess being rescued by a fearless hero from the dragon guarding her W1 ivory tower. It's an engaging, vivid, and surprisingly often funny correspondence between superb letter-writers.

It is a bit of an epic: over the 20 months they wrote about 300 letters each, comfortably filling two 500-page volumes. The split between the volumes is in March 1846, giving some idea of how much the correspondence hotted up in the last few months. They also met at 50 Wimpole Street 91 times (RB kept score): we don't know what was said or done on those occasions, except for a few subsequent references in the letters (notably the famous one where Flush barked and had to be put out of the room).

The core of the correspondence reveals two mature, articulate, highly-intelligent and well-educated people, both happily single and with the best of reasons for remaining so, expressing their puzzlement, joy and dismay at the unexpected shared discovery that they want to spend the rest of their lives together, and debating about what it all means. The raw material that would be refined and distilled into the "Sonnets from the Portuguese". But there's also a very interesting surface level of everyday literary gossip: RB was a friend of the (poetry-hating) Carlyles, and was forever being charmed out of his rustic seclusion in the depths of the Surrey countryside (New Cross!) to go and dine with people like Dickens, Thackeray and Tennyson; EBB was in correspondence with people like Mary Russell Mitford, Harriet Martineau and Edgar Allan Poe, and remained surprisingly in touch with the London scene for someone who had scarcely left her room in five years. And there's a constant strain of professional discussion and collaboration: they are forever exchanging manuscripts, proofs, books, reviews, etc. EBB is the most active partner in this: while keeping rather quiet about her own work-in-progress, she advises RB on the plays he is working on ("Luria" and "A Soul's Tragedy") and corrects the proofs for him; she lobbies with her US correspondents to promote RB's work there.

There's perhaps a bit less than we might have liked about everyday domestic life. EBB is keen to tell RB about her little excursions as an index of her improving health. In 1845 it's still a red-letter day when she has herself carried down to the drawing room for half an hour, but by the summer of 1846 she's regularly walking to the post-office, going out for drives in the carriage with her sisters, and even paying little visits to her old Creole nanny and to her mentor in Greek studies, H.S. Boyd. But we don't hear very much about the inner life of 50 Wimpole Street. The dog Flush gets mentioned two or three times as often as her brothers and sisters, and maybe ten times as often as her maid Wilson — Virginia Woolf evidently did well to get in ahead of Margaret Forster. RB tells EBB almost nothing about his home life: we only know about his parents and sister because EBB asks after them, and even his beloved garden only gets very occasional mentions. Again, we mostly hear about it because EBB asks about it or thanks him for the lovely flowers.

There's a similar pattern with their pasts: EBB quite often uses incidents from her early life to illustrate a point about her current emotional state. In one letter she tells RB about her feelings on the the death of her brother Edward ("Bro") in a boating accident in 1840, something she says she hasn't felt able to talk about with anyone before. RB generally talks about his emotions and feelings in the abstract, or illustrates them with little fables: as in his poetry, he seems to have a problem with speaking directly in his own voice. It almost feels as though "R the lover of Ba" is another of his literary personae, which will start to crumble if it's connected too closely with the historical Robert Browning. It's notable that he starts calling EBB by her pet name Ba quite early on (and explicitly distinguishes Ba from "Miss Barrett the poet"), but EBB only starts to call him Robert in the summer of 1846. Characteristically, he never had a pet name at home. Also characteristic is that he knows nothing about his own father's Caribbean plantation background until about the same time.

As far as the actual "story" goes, there are essentially two "obstacles": firstly EBB's health and secondly Mr Barrett's unreasonable, implacable and indiscriminate opposition to any of his children marrying — even if "a prince of Eldorado should come, with a pedigree of lineal descent from some signory in the moon in one hand, and a ticket of good-behaviour from the nearest Independent chapel in the other"...

Books have been written on the question of what precisely was wrong with EBB, and it's not worth going into here. All that matters is that the friendship with RB started at a point where EBB had effectively withdrawn from the world to the extent that it was commonly reported that she was a permanent invalid. RB is astonished on one of his first visits to see her get up and walk across the room to get a book. After meeting RB, her health and/or her readiness to face the world get steadily stronger, and marriage no longer seems totally out of the question.

EBB was nearly 40 and had enough money of her own (an inheritance from a favourite uncle) to be able to defy her father if necessary, but her concern not to put her less-independent siblings in a difficult position meant that it was necessary to keep the friendship with RB quiet as long as possible. Both of them were obviously also a bit reluctant to pressure the other into taking a decisive step, so they carry on for a frustratingly long time consulting steamer timetables and agonising about which of EBB's friends and acquaintances might have caught on, constantly rescheduling meetings to avoid anyone working out how often they see each other. Of course, everyone at Wimpole Street except the master of the house must have known what was going on, but no-one was directly told that there was an engagement. Obviously, all the servants were too scared of Mr Barrett, and all the siblings too concerned for their own prospects of clandestine romance, for anyone to spill the beans. All the same, for the last couple of months the reader is likely to be sitting there screaming at them to get on with it and sign up for a marriage licence.

This perhaps isn't a book to recommend to a teenage romantic: the passion is certainly there, but might be rather too abstract and cerebral for anyone under thirty. On the other hand, if you're addicted to all things Victorian, this is what you should have on your bedside table — next to your copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese.

(Note: I read volume 1 in the Project Gutenberg text; volume 2 hasn't been Gutenberged yet, so I downloaded the PDF facsimile from and read it on an Ipad.)
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