Browning Letters Readalong, Part 2 (June 1845 to October 1845)

Well, the major event of this portion of the Browning letters is, of course, the mutual declaration (ish — Elizabeth’s still being a little cautious about it) of love. They stop playing games where Robert doesn’t talk about being in love with Elizabeth and Elizabeth doesn’t talk about being in love with Robert. Those games could be really sweet, but it’s even sweeter for them to be able to say, I love you and that will always be true.

Thematically, what interests me about this section is Elizabeth’s falling in love with Robert. I feel like you see it first in the way she becomes so protective of his “unscathed joy” and his open-hearted innocence. That is why I love him too! She brings this up a lot of times. If he ever seems melancholy, she gets very upset about it:

First … of yourself; how can it be that you are unwell again, … and that you should talk (now did you not? — did I not hear you say so?) of being ‘weary in your soul’ … you? What should make you, dearest friend, weary in your soul; or out of spirits in any way?

And when she’s talking about a very sad verse of his that she found to be incredibly true and wrenching, she says:

You never wrote anything which lived with me more than that. It is such a dreadful truth. But you knew it for truth, I hope, by your genius, and not by such proof as mine — I, who could not speak or shed a tear.

The latter is in her letter about losing her brother, which I think marks a sea-change in their relationship. (Robert thinks so too.) She writes to him the complete story (a very sad story) about how she was ordered to go to the seaside for her health, and her brother Edward, “Bro”, came with her. Her father wanted Bro to come home; sick Elizabeth wanted him to stay so he stayed; and a week and a half later, he was killing in a sailing accident. Elizabeth tells all this to Robert. He’s the first person, she says, that she’s ever told. This is what Robert replies that tells me he thinks the time is ripe for LOVE:

Though I could blot [Elizabeth’s worry that Robert will stop being interested in her] out of your mind for ever by a very few words now, — for you would believe me at this moment … but I will take no such advantage — I will wait.

He’s waiting, presumably, for some indication that Elizabeth won’t freak out again if he tells her he loves her, so when she writes him a few days later to ask if he’s mad at her (he hasn’t sent a letter in three days), he just lays it all out there:

Let me say now — this only once — that I loved you from my soul, and gave you my life, so much of it as you would take, — and all that is done, not to be altered now: it was, in the nature of the proceeding, wholly independent of any return on your part.

At this point I would like to insert a GIF of Buffy crying and saying “They have a beautiful love,” but I couldn’t find one on the internet after five minutes of searching, so I gave up. Anyway I did not want to trivialize the saddest thing (I think) that Elizabeth ever says in all these letters, which is this:

Your life! If you gave it to me and I put my whole heart into it; what should I put but anxiety, and more sadness than you were born to? What could I give you, which it would not be ungenerous to give? Therefore we must leave this subject.

For once, Robert ignores her instructions about leaving it alone. Seriously, y’all, can we just give the man props for being good at wooing? He’s so gracious and so attentive, his one misstep being whatever the contents of That One Letter were; and although he usually subsides meekly and drops the subjects he’s been asked to drop, he doesn’t do it this time. He pushes back hard (but politely) to say that he doesn’t want her to say no on his account because she makes him so happy; and he can easily make enough money to support them both, and he only hasn’t done that so far because he didn’t have her in his life.

My whole scheme of life (with its wants, material wants at least, closely cut down) was long ago calculated — and it supposed you, the finding such a one as you, utterly impossible — because in calculating one goes upon chances, not on providence — how could I expect you?

Y’all, nobody could resist this. You would have to have a heart of stone, I’m not even kidding. Elizabeth has been so correct so far, though, and so careful not to say anything that would encourage Robert to think that marriage is possible. Even though I’ve read these letters before, I was afraid she wouldn’t tell him she loved him too. But look! Look! Look what she says!

Neither now nor formerly has any man been to my feelings what you are … and that if I were different in some respects and free in others by the providence of God, I would accept the great trust of your happiness, gladly, proudly, and gratefully; and give away my own life and soul to that end. I would do it … not, I do … observe! it is a truth without a consequence; only meaning that I am not all stone.

Seriously, when I read this bit, I wanted to leap up and run around the room pumping my fists and chanting USA! USA! USA!

My really truly favorite thing that Robert ever says to Elizabeth (I think) is in the below passage, an indignant letter he writes to her protesting how ugly her father is to her. (Yes. I like it when Robert wants to leap to Elizabeth’s defense and be her knight in shining armor. I like it that he eventually got to do that.)

Now while I dream, let me once dream! I would marry you now and thus—I would come when you let me, and go when you bade me—I would be no more than one of your brothers—’no more‘—that is, instead of getting to-morrow for Saturday, I should get Saturday as well—two hours for one—when your head ached I should be here. I deliberately choose the realization of that dream (—of sitting simply by you for an hour every day) rather than any other, excluding you, I am able to form for this world, or any world I know—And it will continue but a dream. … You know what I am, what I would speak, and all I would do.

That last line! Seriously, all my Nook annotations on this section of the letters have been Robert! Elizabeth! Elizabeth! YOU. Y’all, if you haven’t been doing this readalong, you should hop on board this train. It’s an excellent train. A wonderful train. A train that will tug at your heartstrings.

(I’m sorry this is not as good a post as last time. I know that I am basically just squeeing and giving virtual hugs to Elizabeth and Robert. But it’s such a sweet section of letters!)

Jenny and Mumsy go on about the Brownings (Part 1)

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.