Welcome one and all to the Browning Letters Readalong! We are kicking off this readalong by chatting about the letters between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett from January to May 1845 (the first five months of their acquaintance). I am your humble host Jenny, and I have roped my lovely Mumsy into talking about these Browning letters with me. We talk about them all the time anyway so it’s not that difficult for us. I hope you are enjoying them as much as Mumsy and I are in this first round!
Jenny: Obviously Robert is the sweetest dear in all the land in these early letters. That is undeniable. He is always rushing in to assure Elizabeth of his regard, and I think he’s ready to be in love with her by the time they meet. If I had to put a date on it, I’d say he’s ready to marry her as of her letter of 3 February, which is long and expansive and asks for no ceremony and no constraint. Here’s what he says in response:
People would hardly ever tell falsehoods about a matter, if they had been let tell truth in the beginning, for it is hard to prophane one’s very self, and nobody who has, for instance, used certain words and ways to a mother or a father could, even if by the devil’s help he would, reproduce or mimic them with any effect to anybody else that was to be won over—and so, if ‘I love you’ were always outspoken when it might be, there would, I suppose, be no fear of its desecration at any after time.
Mumsy: Oh, I agree that Robert is in love long before they meet, and I would put the date perhaps even earlier than you do – I think he is already half in love when he writes to her. “I can give a reason for my faith in one and another excellence [in your poetry], the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and rue new brave thought; but in this addressing myself to you – your own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogether. I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart – and I love you too.” He says in that very first letter, and I don’t think he was just being cute. He mentions several times how she uses her own voice in her poetry (“You speak out YOU”) and hints over and over at the fact that he has fallen in love with that voice. When he admires her poetry, he admires it for the one thing she cannot deny – that she uses her very own voice.
Jenny: I think that’s why she ends up falling in love with him, don’t you? Because he admires about her the things she secretly admires about herself?
Mumsy: They also have so much in common! With the bugs and spiders and toads, and the books they like, and the sense of humor. And sadly, so much contrast, too. It makes me feel sad when he talks about his family so fondly, and they love and appreciate him so much; and poor her, living on bits and shreds of love.
Jenny: It’s touching when she says, “Remember that as you owe your unscathed joy to God, you should pay it back to His world. And I thank you for some of it already.” It was a melancholy response to what he said about “If ‘I love you’ were always outspoken when it might be, there would, I suppose, be no fear of its desecration at any after time.” Which by the way? I ran that through Google Translate’s Subtext-to-English function? And it came out “When I said I love you I meant I really love you.”
Mumsy: That is what I took away from it too.
Jenny: I love how attentive Elizabeth is to him in these early letters (and throughout! of course!). Even though they’re basically strangers, she’s very quick to pick up on small things Robert says, and to try and move that on. When I was reading Elizabeth’s first letter to Robert, I kept thinking of the rule in group improv comedy that you’re never supposed to say no to an improv partner; you’re always supposed to say yes and. Elizabeth’s wonderful at yes and — she picks up something that Robert said in his letter about having wished to be of critical use to her (before discovering that her poems are ALL PERFECT ALL THE TIME), and says, in the most gracious manner possible, that she’d love to hear any criticisms he might have of her. She also takes up his regret over not having met her that one time, and says how much she’d like to meet him later in the year.
Mumsy: Don’t you love how he keeps escalating the closing of his letters? Yeah, first he is primly “ever faithfully yours”, then it’s “Ever most faithfully yours,” then he”s all “know me for ever your most faithful,” and pretty soon it’s “Yours everywhere, and at all times yours, R. Browning” (31 March). And she notices, too – that last letter she never responded to at all, until after he wrote a second letter two weeks later (on 16 April), and then she writes a letter that is clearly trying to pull him back to a less intense correspondence – asking him if he has read the “Improvisatore”, blah blah blah.
Robert catches that, too. His letter of the 18th is confusing and weird (I wonder if Google could translate that bit about Vivien Grey!), but you can see he is hinting away at the fact that he wants to Say Something Important and he knows she is pulling him up with trivia. But he’s no fool, and he signs that letter, very properly, “Yours ever faithfully.”
You know what else I noticed this time around? I always supposed that Bro’s death, and the tragic circumstances as they pertained to Elizabeth, were a big secret; that no one outside of the family knew about it. She hints at the tragedy several times, but clearly supposes that Robert doesn’t know about it.This time I was intrigued by how Robert, who notices everything, is careful not to ask her about it, but very quick to respond to the “tragic chord,” as he calls it, in her letters. Do you think Mr. Kenyon was a big gossip? Or do you think everyone in London knew?
Jenny: I don’t know! I don’t know what to believe. On one hand, I’m sure I’d gossip if I were Mr. Kenyon. On the other hand, isn’t it the case that Robert writes That One Letter because he doesn’t fully understand Elizabeth’s health situation? And wouldn’t he understand it if Mr. Kenyon were singing like a canary about the Barrett family history? Or do you think Mr. Kenyon also thought the wrong thing about what was wrong with Elizabeth?
And okay, That One Letter: The immediate aftermath of it makes me really sad on both sides. I feel so sad for Elizabeth when she’s being firm with Robert while also obviously hating the idea of losing him as a friend. I know you are mad at Robert for getting all “Oh great poets are always saying things in the grand style and how silly of you to take it in any serious way!” — and I am too! of course! It’s not very nice — but I also sympathize with him. When I’ve done something embarrassing I have to fight very hard against the impulse to shift the embarrassment elsewhere in the most ruthless manner.
Mumsy: I think maybe when I die and go to heaven and get to ask any questions I want (which, obviously, will happen), I will ask to see a copy of That One Letter. What on earth could he have said? “Marry me, my precious Erato, and allow me to gaze longingly at your melting brown eyes even though we can never have sex”? But yes, I AM mad at Robert for his response when Elizabeth calls him out on it.- it’s the one moment in the correspondence when I just do not like him. He deliberately embarrasses her! On the other hand, it is also the moment when I recognize how young he really is, for all his genius and his self-confidence. He just can’t bear to look like an idiot in her eyes.
Remember later in the correspondence, when That Letter comes up, and he says, “I would have said or done anything to get back into your good graces”? I think of that every time I read his response to her smackdown.
I just can’t end this without talking a little bit about how contemporary Robert and Elizabeth sound. They seem like people you might know, people you might even be (minus the poetic genius). I love when they talk about how they hate it when people admire their work for all the wrong things; and then Elizabeth says, “Pippa Passes is the one work I envy you the authorship of,” and Robert responds, “Pippa is my best thing of everything I have written.” They love all the right things about each other! They are completely irresistible.
Jenny: They are irresistible. I can’t wait to read the next batch of their letters.
The rest of you Browning Readalongers, please leave a comment if you’ve also written a post for today, and I’ll put together a link roundup this evening.
Did everyone feel good about this segment of the readalong? Does five months of letters work for you all? I propose the following schedule for the remainder of the readalong, if so:
- 8 July: June 1845 through October 1845
- 22 July: November 1845 through March 1846
- 5 August: April 1846 to the end (September 1846ish)
Does that work for people? If it seems too ambitious, I will happily revise it, but I’d like to know your thoughts before I make anything final.
THE BROWNINGS. I LOVE THEM SO MUCH.