Perhaps all human courtships follow narrative precedents, but few make for such a satisfying story as that of the Brownings. The slightest imaginative pressure can transform the familiar facts of the case into a myth or fairy-tale, with each of the principals in the affair behaving wonderfully true to type: the spellbound maiden, mysteriously immobilised by an unnamed curse; the patriarchal ogre, who keeps his daughter locked away in a darkened room and turns aside all suitors; the lover who arrives with spring to break the spell and carry the heroine south, restoring her to health, happiness and fertility. Though luck must receive some credit for the happy ending of the tale, Daniel Karlin emphasises that theirs was doubly a writer’s story, and that much of its narrative potential should be attributed to the participants themselves. Subject to many subsequent redactions, the love story on which they first collaborated would ironically become the two ‘obscure’ poets’ most popular and accessible work. Rather than offer yet another retelling of the myth, Karlin’s book seeks to analyse the process of myth-making, and the psychological and literary needs that process served.
Though Robert Browning especially would have resisted the idea, the Brownings’ courtship seems ideally suited to our current preoccupation with the priority of language over experience. These were lovers who read long before they saw one another, who admired writing first and persons after. In the opening line of their correspondence, Robert Browning emphatically recorded his admiration of Elizabeth Barrett’s poetry – ‘I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett’; and though he proceeded in the same letter to append his ‘love’ for the poet as well, she figures significantly as a woman not-yet-seen. ‘I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart – and I love you too: do you know I was once not very far from seeing – really seeing you?’ For several years Barrett had been paying tribute to Browning’s ‘genius’ as a ‘true poet’ in her correspondence with Mary Russell Mitford: ‘I estimate him very highly – – so do you,’ she had rather coercively informed the more sceptical Mitford almost three years earlier, ‘– so must all who know what poetry is – turn their faces towards its presence willingly.’ But more than four months would elapse after Browning first wrote to her, and more than twenty letters pass between them, before she would turn her face willingly towards the presence of the poet himself; 574 letters would be exchanged before they set off for Italy as a married couple at the close of summer in 1846. The single letter now missing from this correspondence is one that Browning burnt after Barrett returned it to him, having threatened to break off their relationship unless he ‘forget at once, – for ever’, its ‘intemperate’ language and allow it to ‘die out between you – me alone, like a misprint between you and the printer’. The offending letter arrived only a few days after their first meeting, and Karlin speculates that the ‘misprint’ – to which Browning dutifully alluded in his reply as ‘the “printer’s error” in my blotted proof – was a premature declaration of love. Barrett sought anxiously to restore the proper text of their relationship.
In order to accept Browning’s love – and, perhaps more crucially, in order to leave Wimpole Street – Barrett had radically to revise her interpretation of herself. ‘I begin to think that none are so bold as the timid, when they are fairly roused’: if Browning had the first word in their correspondence, she had the last, and in remarking with this final postscript on the new-found daring of her maid, Elizabeth Wilson, Elizabeth Barrett (now Barrett Browning) was obviously summing up the transformation in herself as well. Karlin is particularly good at suggesting how she rewrote her story. He is too sensitive to the complexity of such matters to argue that Barrett’s invalidism was ‘merely’ an effect of her psyche, still less of her pen – noting that the tuberculosis she seems to have contracted as an adolescent eventually killed her – but he does make clear how she collaborated first in her own imprisonment and then in setting herself free. Like most commentators on her history, he follows her lead in identifying the crucial event as the accidental drowning of her eldest brother Edward, her beloved ‘Bro’, off the coast of Torquay in the summer of 1840. Elizabeth had been sent to the coast for her health, ‘against the bias’, as she later put it, of her father’s ‘desire’; and against a bias from the same quarter she had begged that Bro remain with her rather than be summoned back to Wimpole Street. Very soon after he had ardently pledged not to leave her until she recovered, the brother and sister quarrelled; he went sailing and was drowned by a sudden squall in the bay. In the terrible breakdown that followed, Elizabeth felt herself close to madness and death. The woman who frequently described her younger self as impetuous and ‘headlong’ became terrified of exerting her seemingly fatal will – especially against the bias of her father’s desire – and terrified of doing anything further to break up the family. As Karlin notes, it was the daughter rather than the father who insisted on her return to Wimpole Street (‘I want to be with you all,’ she wrote to her brother George, ‘– none away but those whom God has taken’), though once safely ensconced there, she set herself to conform as closely as possible to the paternal will. By retreating to the security of her room, she could not only keep her father from losing another child but keep herself from imposing her dreadful fatality on others. Even when she finally brought herself to accept Browning’s affection, she revealingly pledged herself ‘yours for everything but to do you harm’.
Karlin does not directly address the question, but Barrett’s fear of her own aggressive energies and her drastic self-containment may well have had their analogues in the histories of other 19th-century female invalids. Of course the role could be adopted to a number of ends: among the most significant compensations it seems to have afforded Elizabeth Barrett was the freedom to devote herself wholly to her writing and reading, relieved from the anxiety of having to live up in person to the poet’s reputation. Karlin also points out that she could later exploit her peculiar position to see Browning alone in her room 91 times before their marriage. But to allow those visits was necessarily to alter her precarious equilibrium – a process that required both a new account of herself and of the father whose wishes she could no longer automatically identify with her own. Without denying Mr Barrett’s rigidity and authoritarianism, especially his notorious refusal to countenance the possibility that any of his children might marry, Karlin shrewdly observes that the figure of the patriarchal tyrant does not really appear in his daughter’s letters until the writer begins to articulate a wish to break free. The ‘Papa’ of the earlier correspondence with Mitford is a difficult, but far more lovable creature. In part, Elizabeth Barrett seems to have drawn her father as an ogre so that she could transfer her affections to Robert Browning; in part, so that she could externalise and eventually break with the forces that held her in thrall. Not surprisingly, what she appears to have most dreaded in her father as she prepared herself to leave him was the possibility that at the last moment he might prove disarmingly tender and kind.
Robert Browning had an obvious stake in collaborating in the portrait of the unrelenting patriarch. His stake in the courtship of the daughter is a more complicated matter: perhaps inevitably, Karlin’s account of his motivation partakes in some measure of the poet’s own tendencies toward knottiness and obscurity. ‘There is no love but from beneath, far beneath,’ Browning proclaimed in one letter; and in the 39-year-old Elizabeth Barrett, six years his senior and at the time of their first meeting arguably the more successful poet, Browning seems to have found someone he could genuinely look up to. She was not the first older woman to whom he was attracted – a pattern whose origins other commentators (most notably Betty Miller) have understandably sought in the poet’s relations with his mother. While Karlin does not altogether discount such explanations, his analysis of Browning concentrates far more on the poet’s creative than on his familial struggles. As Karlin interprets Browning’s myth-making, the poet made Elizabeth Barrett not so much in the image of his mother as of God and Shelley. Browning needed a presence he could defer to – or rather, in Karlin’s account, he willed a presence he could defer to, creating an ideal poet he could not reach in order to create his own poetry of energised struggle and aspiration. For Browning, language inevitably fell short of that which it strove to capture: ‘I know that I don’t make out my conception by my language,’ he wrote to Ruskin, ‘all poetry being a putting of the infinite within the finite.’ But ‘all poetry’, Karlin suggests, paradoxically had its exceptions – rare artists for whom conception and language were one, whose writing attained the fullness and presence of speech. To the pantheon of Dante and Shelley, Browning added Elizabeth Barrett. ‘You speak out, you,’ he announced in his second letter to her, ‘– I only make men – women speak – give you truth broken into prismatic hues, and fear the pure white light, even if it is in me,’ an image he echoed when he wrote that the ‘spheric poetical faculty of Shelley’ had ‘its own self-sufficing central light’. If
God is the perfect poet,
Who in his person acts his own creations,
as a character declares in Browning’s early poem Paracelsus, such human poets partake of divine perfection. And their persons are indistinguishable from their poetry: not even the gap of a paragraph separates Browning’s ‘I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,’ from his ‘I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart – and I love you too.’
Elizabeth Barrett vigorously resisted such deification. ‘Have pity on me, my own dearest, – consider how I must feel to see myself idealised away, little by little, like Ossian’s spirits into the mist,’ she protested at one point. Almost from the beginning Browning insisted on turning her into a critic of his work, a role in which she felt profoundly uncomfortable. ‘I do wish you wd consider all this reasonably,’ she entreated him, ‘– consent not to spoil the real pleasure I have – am about to have in your poetry, by nailing me up into a false position with your gold-headed nails of chivalry, which wont hold to the wall through this summer.’ Browning, however, continued to hammer at the gold-headed nails. The rhetoric of mutual deference that so often characterises courtships turned in their case into a lengthy and unresolved debate about who was the superior poet, with each striving to accord that distinction to the other.
Like all idealisations, Browning’s enforced a peculiar imbalance of power. Barrett’s allusion to being ‘nailed’ into a false position clearly expresses her sense of painful constraint, her recognition that so much wilful deference was itself a form of coercion. When she tried to retract a suggestion she had made about ‘The Flight of the Duchess’ on the grounds that his rough metrics had been right originally, Browning persisted in adopting her change – what Karlin aptly terms his ‘determination to have the last word on her behalf’ perversely operating even at the expense of his art. Though Karlin does not explicitly make the connection, Barrett’s fear of doing Browning harm must have intensified her uneasiness at being cast in the role of mentor: in this sense his chivalry granted her not too little power but too much. For all the complexity of both poets’ attitudes toward the roles of men and women, the resemblance between these particular literary and emotional politics and 19th-century sexual politics generally is not hard to see. There is no reason to doubt Browning’s sincerity when, eight days before his marriage, he burst out against ‘the execrable policy of the world’s husbands, fathers, brothers and domineerers in general’, but despite the firmly anti-patriarchal cast of his wooing, despite even his reputation with some of his contemporaries for ‘effeminacy’, the evidence suggests that he too sought to ‘domineer’, and precisely by the Victorian indirection of woman-worship.
In a curious way, Karlin’s attempt to demythologise the Browning courtship tends to reinforce and exaggerate this aspect of their relation. For there is a striking asymmetry in his reading of the two poets’ myth-making, an asymmetry that results in making Elizabeth Barrett seem ‘better’, in the sense of more naturally attractive, while attributing most of the shaping force and aesthetic power to Browning. Though Karlin argues that both lovers were engaged in composing as well as experiencing their relationship, he nonetheless approaches Browning as the much more deliberate and self-conscious artist. According to Karlin, ‘courtship and marriage did not change’ Browning, ‘they conformed to him. He had already anticipated his affair with Elizabeth Barrett in numerous aspects of his poems, from Pauline onward, not out of prescience, but because his nature followed its bent in whatever sphere it operated, and because it was a nature unalterable by external circumstances. Browning lived by and for the imagination, and he imagined Elizabeth Barrett.’ Yet Barrett’s numerous anticipatory references to Browning before his first letter, her spirited defences of him from Mitford’s attacks, are oddly muted by Karlin’s reading. While he recognises that she took the initiative by encouraging Browning to see her and then deliberately played down her role in her reports to Mitford, he still finds something ‘unconsciously prophetic’ in the invitation. Browning writes ‘scripts’, he ‘composes’ his approach to her, but even the initial timing of his entrance to coincide with the arrival of spring is not described as her piece of staging. It should be emphasised that this difference does not entail any intentional disparagement of Barrett: on the contrary, like Browning himself, Karlin appears to privilege the woman’s voice. ‘There is a hardness in Browning’s style, you might call it a worldliness, which contrasts strongly with Elizabeth Barrett’s more impressionable manner’; and ‘she is a much better letter-writer than Browning as good letter-writing is understood,’ because her ‘easy, unaffected and witty’ letters convey the ‘sense of a speaker’, while Browning’s are ‘compositions’ that demand to be read alongside not his other letters but his poems.
It is a corollary of this difference that Karlin explains Browning’s role in the courtship almost exclusively by reference to his theories of language and poetics, and Barrett’s by reference to her emotional history and domestic relations. She seems motivated largely by psychological, he by aesthetic needs; she, too, invents and revises, but in order to get well and marry Browning, while his myth-making seems to originate and end in poetry. One might put this another way by saying that Mr Barrett continues to loom large in the story, if only as a figure of Elizabeth Barrett’s imagination, while Browning’s mother plays a far less significant role here than she did in Betty Miller’s 1952 Portrait. Browning’s artistic ‘nature’ – that nature which ‘followed its bent in whatever sphere it operated’, and was ‘unalterable by external circumstances’ – appears virtually to have engendered itself.
Karlin’s failure to interrogate his own myth-making in this connection is all the more notable because his book is generally sensible and untendentious, alert to the complexity of human feeling and motivation. If The Courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett takes as its real subject not the courtship but the correspondence, the written record is all we have – and it is just because the Brownings’ love affair was so intensely and subtly written that it continues to interest us. Occasionally Karlin’s study suffers from insisting too strenuously on the primacy of language: though it seems legitimate to argue that the many references in the letters to other people and events have ‘a rhetorical as well as an objective function’, for example, it is disconcerting to be told that even a minor acquaintance of the lovers ‘is a figure of speech (or rather, of writing), whose importance as a rhetorical property quite outweighs that of his “real” identity’. But for the most part Karlin manages to keep his balance admirably. As he well knows, to call attention to the play of myth and rhetoric in the Brownings’ courtship is not to deny but to argue for their humanity.