‘Your letters began by being first to my intellect, before they were first to my heart,’ Elizabeth Barrett told Browning when they had been corresponding for over a year and had acknowledged their love. When she first got the fan letter from a fellow poet, six years younger and much less celebrated than she was, she took it for the opening of another correspondence such as she had had in the past with other men of letters – with Hugh Stuart Boyd on prosody, with Richard Hengist Horne on contemporary literature, with Benjamin Robert Haydon on the artist’s vocation. Browning in this first letter told her that he loved her poetry with its ‘fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought’. She saw this as another inauguration, with a fellow writer whose work she greatly admired, of a dialogue of professional ‘shop’, all by correspondence, just as she liked best in her invalid seclusion in which she could on paper be bold and honest ‘en bon camarade’ with male correspondents whom she was never to meet face to face. She sent Browning a gratified answer, asking him for critical comments on her poetry.
But Browning had not just said that he loved her poems with all his heart. He had added: ‘I love you too.’ She shrugged that off, as an ‘Attic contraction’, in a letter to her friend Mary Russell Mitford. Browning did not let her escape into the purely intellectual correspondence she looked for. It was useless for her to tell him: ‘I have lived all my chief joy, and indeed nearly all emotions that go warmly by that name and relate to myself personally, in poetry and in poetry alone.’ He was determined to have a share in her joy, and gradually he introduced personal emotion and concern among the professional sharing of notes on poetry. What followed is well-known, too well-known indeed. Even the public which has never read a line of Browning’s poetry, let alone of Elizabeth Barrett’s, knows of his weekly visits to that close-sealed room with ivy growing over the window – visits always timed to end just before Mr Barrett came home – of the escape plans made and unmade, the secret marriage, the luggage smuggled out of the house, the rendezvous at the bookshop, the flight to Italy. The actual story is so gripping that it has diverted attention from the literary excellence of the letters in which it was revealed. As Daniel Karlin justly says in his introduction to this selection, ‘the letters themselves are more interesting than the tabloid version which has predominated from the first outbreak of gossip and which was fixed in the lurid colours of Rudolf Besier’s The Barretts of Wimpole Street.’
In his 1985 study The Courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, Daniel Karlin presented the lovers as two wary chess-players, bent over their board intent on the strategy of every move – the gambits and exchanges, the castling and captures, the deep previsions of the endgame. Browning, in particular, was tracked through labyrinths of hidden intentions and secret openings, making a pageant of his own tardiloquence to beguile his opponent. The reader was given an impression of manoeuvres within an air-tight intellectual cell, and urged to remain detached, not to collaborate with the chess-players’ deluding feints. This is surely a somewhat gloomy and humourless reaction to a correspondence so sparkling with wit and fervour. Chess is too solemn and unspontaneous a business to represent it: a better analogy would be a championship tennis singles – not the tennis of the unreturnable smash hit, but the long breathless rally back and forth from every corner of the court. Browning called it ‘heart-playing’, quoting from Elizabeth Barrett’s ‘Caterina to Camoens’, the poem which provided the alias title of Sonnets from the Portuguese. Excitement and enjoyment shine through their ‘heart-playing’, their absorbed search for the exact word, phrase, image, to express every shade of feeling. When it is found, back goes the ball over the net from a new angle, and the rally goes joyfully on. Even a reader who did not know that this story was historically to have a happily-ever-after ending (which has never been successfully debunked, though several biographers have tried) could deduce it from these letters; this was a couple who were never going to bore each other.
In the first months of their correspondence, their confidences, especially hers to him, were about their poetic technique and vocation, and these early letters have the fascination of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, as a revelation of the creative process in action. Elizabeth Barrett bemoaned the chasm between what she meant to say and what actually came out in her poetry; she insisted that she did not, as her critics suggested, say everything that she thought, but took every means to say what she thought. This was to be the essence of their later letters about their love: a delighted search for perfect expression. In his very first letter, Browning told her: ‘I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning and turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you.’ Later he was to claim that his letters to her were written quite spontaneously, hardly knowing what he was writing, relying on her intuition to fill out his imperfect phrases, but the turning and turning again of the mind, and the laugh of enjoyment that followed, were a truer picture of his letter-writing.
Daniel Karlin, in an awkward but expressive phrase, has urged the reader of the Brownings’ letters to concentrate on ‘the intensity of their writerly natures’. It is because these lovers were also poets that their letters are unique, and reading them is a literary as well as biographical experience. To convey to each other exactly what they meant and felt, they deployed, with inexhaustible pleasure, images, anecdotes, analogies, quotations, descriptions, reported dialogues. They made up new words like ‘soul-mammothism’ and ‘misomonsism’ (hatred of society). They snatched to and fro, and forbade each other the use of, such words as ‘gratitude’ and ‘kindness’. They (particularly Browning) went through such contortions to explain exactly what they felt that their explanations have bewildered their biographers ever since, and led to wildly conflicting interpretations. Browning was weakly subservient to Elizabeth Barrett’s stronger will; no, he was subtly manoeuvring her into doing exactly what he wanted. His reply, when she took fright at his first hasty proposal of marriage, was a panic-stricken and unworthy evasion (Karlin calls it ‘excruciating’); no, it was an ‘admirably strong open letter’ (according to Margaret Forster’s recent biography of Mrs Browning). Mr Barrett was a cruel tyrant; not at all, he was a loving father about whom his daughter lied and exaggerated. Mr Barrett, regarded for a century or more as an archetypal ogre, has indeed found some energetic supporters lately. Karlin has suggested that it was Elizabeth Barrett who manipulated her father into his obstinate stance, and then misrepresented him for maintaining it, while Margaret Forster in a recent broadcast depicted him as a fond and admiring father, whose attitude was understandable and forgivable till after the Brownings’ marriage.
Elizabeth Barrett was a ‘teazer par excellence’, as she herself said: she could not resist an occasional deliberate misunderstanding of Browning’s words, and her little flourishes of feigned indignation sometimes frightened him into portentous apologies, so that she had eventually to suggest that – like the earliest painters, who when they painted a tree used to write under it ‘This is a tree’ – she ought to write under her sallies, ‘This is a jest,’ to prevent him from taking them too seriously. She was just as apt to mock herself as to tease him, and he learned to tease back, to ‘wrench her simile-weapons out of the dexterous hand’, and to find an answering simile, a mock reproach of her ‘humming-bird bill’ which pierced the eye of his word-flowers of devotion and turned them black and shrivelled. One of their finest exchanges (astonishingly omitted from this selection) was over the morality of duelling, on which they had a serious disagreement. Browning first mentioned in a letter, and partly justified, the practice of duelling; they discussed it on one of his visits soon afterwards; a day later she wrote vehemently condemning it as a crime which no outdated notion of ‘honour’ could justify, and worked herself up into writing that if Browning fought a duel, ‘I would just call in the police, though you were to throw me out of the window afterwards’; and then, hearing in her mind’s ear what she had just said, she subsided into laughter and went on: ‘So, with that beautiful vision of domestic felicity ... I shall end my letter.’ The calculated anti-climax was meant to defuse the argument, but Browning was alarmed, and wrote an immense letter of reasoned arguments and instances justifying duelling in certain circumstances, but pleading for her forgiveness. In her reply, she sadly maintained her disagreement, and he gave way: ‘YOU ARE RIGHT and I am wrong.’ She disclaimed didacticism, and the subsequent reiterations of their worship of each other were all the warmer for the battle, which had had its elements of fun and excitement as well as sadness.
The letters are indissolubly linked by recurring images and allusions, and to read a selection from them is like watching that tennis match with the television set on the blink, so that one misses how the score progressed from 15-all to 30-40. If a selection had to be made, Daniel Karlin has done it judiciously on the whole. Some of the enquiries and arrangements he has cut out are no great loss, though the disappearance even of these trivialities dims some of the immediacy, the reader’s feeling of living through the story as it happened, from week to week, from day to day. Karlin – owning his regret at what he has had to leave out – has decided to concentrate on ‘the letters and passages where Browning’s and Elizabeth Barrett’s self-consciousness and consciousness of the other were at their sharpest and most intense: where the writers were lovers and the lovers writers’, and to omit most of ‘the Victorian domestic, social, political, religious and artistic scene’. So out go anecdotes of Tennyson and Dickens, of Haydon’s suicide and of Wordsworth going to a Court levée in Samuel Rogers’s breeches. Out go most of the references to the alarmingly watchful solicitude of Kenyon and Mrs Jameson. Out go Henrietta Barrett and her comic suitors. Out go most of the antics of Flush, the spaniel. Out go Browning’s social encounters and Elizabeth Barrett’s tiresome callers and their faithfully remembered conversation. Out go political crises and literary scandals. Out go weather and flowers, street-scenes and landscapes: Browning’s closely-observant reminiscences of Roman women emptying roast-chestnut shells from their aprons onto the heads of passers-by in the street, and of weary mouse-coloured oxen collapsing outside a house in Padua, and the untravelled Elizabeth’s vividly fresh picture of a scene nearer home, on a carriage drive to Finchley, with its hedgerows and its meadows of deep grass hiding the nostrils of the grazing cows, and ‘the ground rising and falling as if with the weight of verdure and dew’.
Even within the limits chosen by Karlin, whole exchanges of tendernesses and suspicions, promises and apprehensions, have had to go, or to be given only in part, with endnotes (tiresomely unconnected by numbers on the text pages) attempting to pick up the broken links. At times, the abrupt curtaining of paragraphs, even of sentences, makes nonsense of continuous trains of thought. No doubt the editor was straitjacketed by rigid publishing requirements, but even another hundred pages added to this fairly slim volume would have saved many felicities, tied up many loose ends. It is perhaps too much to hope that some enterprising publisher will give the general reader access to the full text of these wonderful letters (two stout but not huge paperback volumes would do it). Failing that, Daniel Karlin’s selection, though in some ways a missed opportunity, is a great deal better than nothing: no previous attempt to abridge these unabridgeable letters has produced such a consistent and readable narrative, which should whet the appetite of readers encountering the letters for the first time (who should not, however, be guided by Karlin’s eccentric list of sources, which includes no full-length life of Browning since Betty Miller’s slanted and misleading book, published in 1952, and not one of the many recent biographies and studies of Elizabeth Barrett).
A year after the correspondence began, Elizabeth Barrett, looking back on what she innocently described as ‘the physiology of our intercourse’, confessed that, even after they had finally met face to face, ‘the writer of the letters seemed nearer to me ... than did the personal visitor.’ By then they had frequently kissed, if no more, and theirs seems subsequently to have been a happy marriage sexually as in other ways, but nothing in all their lives – perhaps nothing in all their poetry – was to outshine the splendour of their letters. Five months before their marriage, Browning said: ‘I believe that, when I should have been your husband for years, – years – if I were separated from you for a day and a letter came – I think my heart would move to it just as it now does.’ The letters are, as Karlin suggests in his introduction, a joint work of art – not untrue to, or apart from, the sincerity of the letter-writers’ love, but a poetic creation which offers the reader the exhilarating spectacle of two powerful intellects riding the storm of their equally powerful emotions.