Apr 1, 2010

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

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

Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning’s romance is probably the most well-known literary love story of the Victorian age. They met in 1845, when Browning (at the time not nearly as well-regarded a poet as his future wife) wrote Elizabeth Barrett a shy fan letter. Elizabeth Barrett suffered greatly from a chronic illness, and at the time led a very reclusive life in London. Her famously strict father did not want any of his children to get married, so her acquaintance with Browning had to maintain an appearance of unimportance even as it developed into a love affair – until the night when, carrying her cocker-spaniel Flush in her arms, she escaped the house and eloped with him to Italy.

The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, 1845-1846 is the first of two volumes of letters which were put together by their son after his parents’ deaths. It covers the first two years of their relationship, including its initially formality and timidity and the eventual passionate transformation from friendship to love. And as Jenny promised when she recommended it to me, it’s really as exciting as any novel. A forbidden love affair between two Victorian poets told in letters – what else could I ask for? And if this puts you in mind of A.S. Byatt’s wonderful Possession, well, it’s only natural that it should.

I have a soft spot for stories that deal with unspoken things – stories in which subtlety reigns, and in which, for whatever reason, there’s an elephant in the room that the characters aren’t acknowledging. Thus my love for movies such as Lost in Translation and for books like Meg Rosoff’s What I Was. These letters are not fiction, but they still fit the bill perfectly. For more than half of the book, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning don’t openly discuss their feelings for each other, even as they become increasingly obvious.

This probably sounds extremely presumptuous, but these letters actually reminded me a little of how my relationship with my boyfriend developed. We were best friends for years before we fell in love, and anyone who’s been in that position will find these letters at least a little bit familiar – suddenly every word and gesture acquires a new meaning, what is not being said becomes as loud as what’s being said, and there’s a feeling of wonder, of newness behind every interaction with a person with whom you’re already acquainted. I cannot possibly do it justice, but it’s a wonderful feeling, and a beautiful thing to watch.

Robert Browning was the bolder of the two – he hints at his feelings constantly, but Elizabeth Barrett repeatedly curtails his hints. And then something happens: something which, were this fiction, would be too convenient a way of dragging the tension. There’s a certain letter in which we are given reasons to assume he finally talks about his feelings openly, but this letter is missing from the book because it was destroyed. But as this is not fiction, we cannot resent it for being too obvious a plot device. All we can do is sigh and eagerly await the moment when the words are actually said. And when it finally comes, it’s so absolutely satisfying, and so very, very sweet.

I found myself wondering about Elizabeth Barrett’s hesitation. I can perfectly understand it in the light of the gender conventions of her time, and also of her family situation. But the interesting thing about these letters is that for the most part, both of them seem unconcerned with the social rules that governed most gendered interactions. These were private letters, after all. Nobody was watching them, so they talked to each other as people, not as a Gentleman and a Lady. For this reason, I’m tempted to also read her fear under a more personal and universal light: perhaps she worried that saying the words out loud would irrevocably change things between them. Perhaps she was afraid she’d lose him if she dared to take the plunge, which in my experience is only natural in a transition from friends to lovers.

But of course, we don’t know. We know what they say to each other, but not what was going on in their heads. We also don’t know what happened when Robert Browning visited Elizabeth in person, which happened about once a week (they feared that to meet more frequently might make their families suspicions). We’re only given hints, and we have to reconstruct the rest—and that’s part of the charm of this book.

One of my favourite things about these letters was the fact that they gave me glimpse of a Victorian relationship from the inside. We know what the conventions were, of course, we know the ideology that governed people’s interactions. But that doesn’t necessarily tell us how people really acted in private, how they related to one another, what they did when they knew they wouldn’t be scrutinised by the public eye. Unsurprisingly, EBB and RB both felt the weight of the social constraints of their time, and were unhappy with the roles they were expected to perform. At one point, Elizabeth says:
The falseness and the calculations!—why how can you, who are just, blame women ... when you must know what the ‘system’ of man is towards them,—and of men not ungenerous otherwise? Why are women to be blamed if they act as if they had to do with swindlers?—is it not the mere instinct of preservation which makes them do it? These make women what they are. And your ‘honourable men,’ the most loyal of them, (for instance) is it not a rule with them (unless when taken unaware through a want of self-government) to force a woman (trying all means) to force a woman to stand committed in her affections ... (they with their feet lifted all the time to trample on her for want of delicacy) before they risk the pin-prick to their own personal pitiful vanities? Oh—to see how these things are set about by men! to see how a man carefully holding up on each side the skirts of an embroidered vanity to keep it quite safe from the wet, will contrive to tell you in so many words that he ... might love you if the sun shone! And women are to be blamed! Why there are, to be sure, cold and heartless, light and changeable, ungenerous and calculating women in the world!—that is sure. But for the most part, they are only what they are made ... and far better than the nature of the making ... of that I am confident. The loyal make the loyal, the disloyal the disloyal.
Hearts, Elizabeth. I love how, unlike him (or, to be fair, unlike him in the previous letter), she understands that there’s a social structure behind the kind of gendered interaction they both dislike. But then again, of course: she did write Aurora Leigh.

The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, 1845-1846 is a book I’d highly recommend to anyone interest on the impact of the public on the private. To which extent did the knowledge that, as Respectable People, they were expected to act in certain ways influence even their most private decisions? Recently I talked about how I loved that Dorothy Sayers explored this issue through her Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane novels. But this takes place earlier, which makes it even more appealing. The Victorian age is a particularly interesting microcosm, but one of the reasons why I’m so interested in this question is because I actually don't think it’s irrelevant even today.

Of course, as progressive as these two often were, they’re still Victorians, which means that there were occasional pearls of wisdom such as this:
I would confide to you perhaps my secret profession of faith—which is ... which is ... that let us say and do what we please and can ... there is a natural inferiority of mind in women—of the intellect ... not by any means, of the moral nature—and that the history of Art and of genius testifies to this fact openly.
Oh, Elizabeth. Why? WHY?! Actually, I know why. And I wish she were alive today. I wish she’d met Virginia Woolf and heard the story of Shakespeare’s sister. I won’t hold this against her, but it still made me sad that she, such an intelligent and obviously talented woman, simply accepted the inferiority of her own gender. I wonder if she thought this applied to her own work?

I’ve babbled for long enough, so let me just finish this by saying that these aren’t only love letters, though the development of their love affair does take the centre stage. The book most likely won’t appeal to those who are generally uninterested in love stories, while those who are will likely find it extremely satisfying. (For example: I loved how erotically charged EEB giving RB a lock of her hair was. And no, they don’t discuss it openly, but you can feel the tension behind their words, and it was so exciting and sweet and so very, very Victorian.) Still, there’s actually a lot here that goes beyond their romance: discussions of their own writing, of the works of Tennyson or George Sand, of Greek tragedy, of what motivates them to write, and so on and so forth. It’s a mine of information for anyone interested in the Victorians, and it’s also a lot of fun to read.

Other bits I liked:
And I have some sympathy in your habit of feeling for chairs and tables. I remember, when I was a child and wrote poems in little clasped books, I used to kiss the books and put them away tenderly because I had been happy near them, and take them out by turns when I was going from home, to cheer them by the change of air and the pleasure of the new place. This, not for the sake of the verses written in them, and not for the sake of writing more verses in them, but from pure gratitude. Other books I used to treat in a like manner—and to talk to the trees and the flowers, was a natural inclination—but between me and that time, the cypresses grow thick and dark.
EBB

I am very fond of romances; yes! and I read them not only as some wise people are known to do, for the sake of the eloquence here and the sentiment there, and the graphic intermixtures here and there, but for the story! just as little children would, sitting on their papa's knee. My childish love of a story never wore out with my love of plum cake, and now there is not a hole in it. I make it a rule, for the most part, to read all the romances that other people are kind enough to write—and woe to the miserable wight who tells me how the third volume endeth.
EBB
Yes! Down with spoilers! And hooray to loving stories simply as stories.
And then, I like those long, long books, one can live away into ... leaving the world and above all oneself, quite at the end of the avenue of palms—quite out of sight and out of hearing!—Oh, I have felt something like that so often—so often! and you never felt it, and never will, I hope.
EBB

When I come back from seeing you, and think over it all, there never is a least word of yours I could not occupy myself with, and wish to return to you with some ... not to say, all ... the thoughts and fancies it is sure to call out of me. There is nothing in you that does not draw out all of me. You possess me, dearest ... and there is no help for the expressing it all, no voice nor hand, but these of mine which shrink and turn away from the attempt. So you must go on, patiently, knowing me more and more, and your entire power on me, and I will console myself, to the full extent, with your knowledge—penetration, intuition—somehow I must believe you can get to what is here, in me, without the pretence of my telling or writing it.
RB
He said the sweetest things.

(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll add your link here.)

37 comments:

  1. Ana, thank you for this wonderful review! I've been meaning to read this for a long time and after reading what you have to say I can't wait to start it.

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  2. What a wonderful, informative, passionate post. I saw the movie Possession not long ago for the first time and I was deeply touched by the two poets' love story but that was the end of it. Now, after reading your review, I must get these letters! You made me absolutely in need of having them in my hands and read them. THANK YOU!!!

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  3. Your review cannot fail in making everyone want to read this book, I think. It sounds like a wonderful read.

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  4. This sounds incredible, another add to the wishlist. It sounds so romantic :)

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  5. Wow, sounds wonderful and so romantic. I will have to read this, the word Victorian in your review just forces me to add this to my wish list:)

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  6. Lovely review! While I know them both as poets, I really don't have an idea how they met and what their love affair was like. Thanks for this post.

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  7. You are amazing. Your love of books is just so addictive. It is a shame that Elizabeth viewed herself as being inferior to men.
    It must have been quite difficult for the relationship between them to continue with her father being so strict. I would love to read this now, especially as it is in letter format.

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  8. Must, MUST read! Beautiful, beautiful review. Thank you.

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  9. I generally avoid epistolary books (fiction or non). They just never really do it for me. I think it's because I love the backdrops in stories. However, this love affair has always truly inspired me. I might eventually give it a chance because you found it so thoroughly enjoyable.

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  10. Awwww, so sweet! I love their true romance. I really need to read Possession soon.

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  11. The relationship between these two really fascinates me, but I feel like I shouldn't read about it until I've read each of the author's works. For some reason I always go into it that way - must know them as authors before I can know them as people. I guess it's a good thing I'm planning to read Sonnets from the Portuguese this year!

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  12. How fascinating. I'm wondering why Elizabeth's father didn't want any of his children to get married.

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  13. This sounds absolutely wonderful! I always love experiencing how much of themselves authors put into their letters.

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  14. I had heard of these letters, but never read them. For some reason I thought they would be boring! but it sounds lovely, and tender, and profound.

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  15. I read this book one time that suggested that Elizabeth's family was mixed race to some degree, given that she had dark coloring and her father was so passionately opposed to any of his children marrying. I thought that was an interesting idea.

    Yay, I'm so glad you liked this! I have the biggest crush on the Brownings. And I liked it when Robert sent THE LETTER, and Elizabeth wrote back telling him never to speak of such things again, and then she was all like, Not that I remember exactly what it said. Cause I only read it once and then didn't look at it again. I thought, Suuuuure ya didn't. :P

    Did I tell you the story of the day she died? It is a very sweet story and makes me cry. The last thing she said was, Robert asked her how she was feeling, and she said, "Beautiful," and died in his arms.

    *mops up tears with lots of Kleenex*

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  16. Added to the list. Thank you!

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  17. Why was the letter destroyed?! Who destroyed it?!

    Somehow I don't think she must have thought the inferiority of intellect applied to her own work. Maybe she would have said so as a matter of form, but secretly, she must have known how good she was. Her self-awareness was so intense.

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  18. What a wonderful review. It sounds like these letters are treasures.

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  19. Oooohhh me want this!!!!!! Thanks, this is the first time I've seen this book!

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  20. What a beautiful review. I'll look for this book at the library. If I enjoy it half as much as I enjoyed reading about your feelings and insights, it will be a treat. :-)

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  21. Well, I pop in, I see the title of your post, and I think, "Ahhh, finally a book I won't need to add to my wish list!" Yeah, right...have I not learned better by now?!!

    I'm still waiting for your review of a phone book or an automotive manual...I just know you'd end up making me buy those, too. ;)

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  22. Excellent review! I have almost bought this book on several occasions, but the fact that I am not very familiar with the couples writing has kept me from doing it. It does sound wonderful, and I get the picture that one doesn't have to be an ardent follower of either of the authors to enjoy this book. Next time the urge hits me, I am not going to stop myself!!

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  23. This sounds like such a great book. The fact that this is a true romance even though it reads like an amazing story is a thrill! :)

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  24. This book has been on my radar - but not on my shelves - for too long. I love the excerpts you have provided as they seem to be both personal and worldly. Great review!

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  25. Oh, the B's (as I like to think of them). On one hand, I love the romance of their story; on the other hand, their poetry is way too over the top for me. I'm not sure how I'd react to a whole book of their letters.

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  26. Oh this book sounds utterly beautiful!! I immediately thought of Possession when I started reading your review and was thrilled to hear you mention it. So now I am convinced that I must have and read this!!

    Elise
    http://onceohmarvellousonce.blogspot.com/

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  27. After my recent thrill with Bright Star I think it is finally time that I read this as well. I've heard so much about their romance but in reality know precious little about it! Thanks for the great review, Nymeth.

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  28. What a wonderful review, Ana! I can't imagine something more suited for you- Victorian epistolary! I actually like that the ONE letter was destroyed- it gives the couple a sense of privacy :)

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  29. I LOVE letters, they're an underrepresented art form, and I'm so glad these ones are still around, I will definitely be reading them, soon :).

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  30. This sounds so sweet :) I want to read it! Great review. I'm a sucker for love letters.
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  31. I have the complete works of EBB, but sadly have not read it yet. These letters sound fascinating. I'm adding the book to my to-read list.

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  32. Oh, these letters are possibly my favorite books of all time (and that is a strong statement!). I loved it when she wanted The Letter back and Robert was all, "The Hell? How could you think it lived ONE MOMENT after it returned to me?"

    Robert almost married again, long after EBB's death. But the bottom line was, he simply couldn't stop being in love with EBB - and even his GF realized it.

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  33. I have got to get this book!!! I studied both of them in university, but that was light years ago.....I find that I learn as much about an author through their letters as I do their work, which was the case with John Keats also. I have to see Bright Star (I've rented it and never been able to get to it!) and now, this book....guess you are slowly getting me back into Victorian literature again!!! lol

    PS I haven't given up on Possession, I'm half-way through, I'm just taking a breather. I don't like the character of Maud much, which is annoying when I love the authors comments and insights into so much else, in the book!!!

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  34. Sounds like a lovely book! I don't mind books full of letters -- but they are the type that (for me) are ideal for reading at bedtime or when I have a moment to sit on the couch. Not to be read through non-stop.

    I picked up an old volume (copyright 1970) called "The Brownings" from our library's sale shelf a couple months ago, and put it in my TBR stack. After reading your post, I took a closer look at the book. As it turns out, the subtitle is "Letters and Poetry" and it's "selected and with an introudction" by Christopher Ricks.

    Now I'll pick it up and decide if I really want to read a whole book of their letters to each other -- but I probably would, based on your review :-) !

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  35. This sounds absolutely wonderful! Adding to my Our Mutual Read list right now!!

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  36. And another book gets added to the wish list. Actually, I've always wanted to read more about Barrett and Browning, but it's good to know their letters make good reading for an outside audience.

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  37. Wow, I had no idea this book would be so gripping! Sounds fantastic.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.