Aurora Leigh Readalong: The Finishing

Here we are at the end of November, and here you are wondering why I have put you through this experience of reading a Victorian epic poem about a complainy poet and a saintly poor person and a snooty philanthropist and a sneaky posh lady. I don’t really have a moral to tell you. I just like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s writing a lot. I think that underneath all that waffling on about the nobility of poetry, and all that Manichean stuff about virtue and evil (ugh okay it’s not Manichean BUT KINDA), she can be a shockingly modern writer, and she has lots of excellent insights. I mean:

‘Tis our woman’s trade
To suffer torment for another’s ease.
The world’s male chivalry has perished out,
But women are knights-errant to the last;
And, if Cervantes had been greater still,
He had made his Don a Donna.

So Aurora can’t figure out if she should tell Romney was Lady Waldemar did. Y’all, I know we’re in a different time period and it’s not comparable to then because of how easy it is to get a divorce, etc., etc., but if you do ever find out that my spouse organized for someone to be sold into BASICALLY SLAVERY in order to clear their path to marrying me, please let me know. I would rather know, even if it creates problems for me in my marriage. Aurora decides that if Romney’s already married, there’s no point in her telling him, so she writes to Lord Howe (remember him? He was the one throwing that terrible party for rich people where Aurora kept staring at Lady Waldemar’s boobs) to be like “look if Romney isn’t married yet, tell him this thing; but if he is married, don’t worry about it.”

She then writes a super mean letter to Lady Waldemar, and it’s the lengthiest and most thorough shovel speech I’ve ever encountered. And I read fanfiction. Kind of often. The gist is that if Lady Waldemar is ever rude to Romney or makes him feel bad about anything, ever, Aurora and Marian will like SHOW UP AT HER HOUSE and reveal everything. The implication being that if they did this, Romney would put Lady Waldemar aside, no matter the personal cost to himself — which, if that’s the case, it makes Aurora’s decision not to tell him the thing absolutely unaccountable. She knows he’d believe her, is what this letter reveals. But she still doesn’t tell. Aurora. Come on.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to say Aurora totally is in love with Romney. She keeps being like “Am I–nah.” Girl, stick with nah. Romney is terrible. Just have a pleasant life with Marian and her baby. Look at this domestic business:

I, with shut eyes, smile and motion for
The dewy kiss that’s very sure to come
From mouth and cheeks, the whole child’s face at once
Dissolv’d on mine.

Baby kisses! So adorable, yet so wet and gross. And the baby calls her “Alola!” So to recap, she could hang out with a quiet saintly lady with cause to worship her and the quiet saintly lady’s adorable and affectionate child, or she could marry Romney Leigh who like, barely respects her.

Aurora gets a letter from her pal Vincent Carrington that her latest book has been well received, that Vincent is marrying a girl called Kate who Aurora thinks is maybe not smart enough for him (SHUT UP AURORA), and that Romney has been sick and Lady Waldemar has been nursing him back to health. So she’s like “oh I guess they are married now, well this seems like a good opportunity for me to spend a whole lot more time thinking about poetry and nature and stuff.” Oh Aurora.

Athrob with effort, trembling with resolve,
The fierce demanding whistle wailing on

“Athrob with effort, trembling with resolve, the fierce demanding whistle wailing on,” title of her sex tape, nailed it, self five.

Well then Romney comes to visit, and he’s like “I guess you heard the news?” and Aurora’s like “Yes I have definitely heard the news. Vincent Carrington told me the news.” And Romney’s like “Should we…talk about the news? After all, we almost got married that one time,” and Aurora’s like “No, I mean, I would have been a bad wife, so anyway, let’s not talk about the news.”

Cool. Cool cool cool. Seems like you two are 100% talking about the same news and no misunderstandings are occurring here whatsoever.

Romney also says that Aurora’s book is tremendous and has changed his life. I don’t have anything sarcastic to say about this part. It’s nice. He’s sorry that he was such a jerk about her writing when they were younger, and he repeatedly admits he was wrong and gives her a whole bunch of compliments. And he sneers at himself for believing that he could change the world, and Aurora tells him that she admires him for making the effort, and that he shouldn’t under-rate himself for making that effort. The whole thing actually is really sincere and sweet.

Romney tells Aurora that the poors burned down Leigh Hall, which he was trying to make into a refuge for them, and … what else? They talk a bit more and Aurora says something rude about Romney’s wife, Lady Waldemar, and Romney is legitimately like HA HA HA MY WIFE YOU THOUGHT HA HA HA HA HA HA HA. He’s so overcome by Aurora’s wrongness that he can’t even form a coherent sentence, so he just gives her a letter from Lady Waldemar.

(Y’all, I was so excited when I got to this part. Aurora and Lady Waldemar insulting each other has been the absolute best thing about this book.)

Lady Waldemar starts the letter by telling Aurora the sick burn she said about Aurora’s book after reading it to Romney. This isn’t the main point of her letter. It is 97% superfluous to the message she actually wants to relay to Aurora. But not long does she repeat the insult to Aurora’s book that she told Romney several weeks ago, she then describes how that insult was like, her mic drop for walking out of Romney’s life: “I triumphed o’er you both / And left him.”

Then the gist of the letter is that when she got Aurora’s frankly rather blackmailing letter, she told Romney the truth about what had happened with Marian, while strenuously denying that the sold-into-slavery-and-raped thing was her fault. And also that Romney loves Aurora and Aurora loves Romney but Romney’s still going to marry Marian because he feels like he should; and she, Lady Waldemar, not unreasonably washes her hands of all of them. And then this is the end of the letter. It’s so good.

Observe, Aurora Leigh,
Your droop of eyelid is the same as his,
And, but for you, I might have won his love,
And to you, I have shown my naked heart,
For which three things I hate, hate, hate you! …
I hate you from this gulph
And hollow of my soul, which opens out
To what, except for you, had been my heaven,
And is instead, a place to curse by.

In my imagination, the poem ends there. It’s just a set-up for a sequel where Romney Leigh gets kidnapped by pirates and Aurora and Lady Waldemar have to take to the sea in order to rescue him. YES I HAVE A TYPE W/R/T STORIES SO SUE ME.

In actual fact, Romney proposes to Marian because he feels like he should, Marian declines and peaces out, Aurora finds out that Romney is now blind, and Aurora and Romney confess their undying love to each other. And I guess they decide together that they’re going to each do the type of work that matters to them, but it’s going to be richer and more successful because they now also have Love.

Y’all, this has been a privilege. Aurora Leigh is exactly how I remembered it: sometimes awesome and sometimes tedious, with so many lines peppered in there that just blew me away with their clarity and insight. Thank you for taking this journey with me. Thank you to Alice for humoring me.

Aurora Leigh Readalong, Part Three

I enjoy that the consensus of this Aurora Leigh readalong immediately and spontaneously coalesced into the following:

  1. This is very hard and requires slow, careful reading.
  2. But so many good lines!
  3. Also, Romney is a butthead.

Those three main bullet points do sum up with extreme accuracy the main three things I remember from reading Aurora Leigh for the first time in 2010 or whatever it was. For those reading along at home, I do not remember softening towards Romney as time went on. Maybe this reread will surprise me (but I don’t think so). How can I ever like someone about whom Aurora says this?

[He] likes me very well,
And wishes me a paradise of good,
Good looks, good means, and good digestion!–ay,
But otherwise evades me, puts me off
With kindness, with a tolerant gentleness,–
Too light a book for a grave man’s reading!

Too light a book for a grave man’s reading is exactly why I love this poem. I mean this passage is basically the whole of How to Suppress Women’s Writing condensed into six lines of iambic pentameter.

Then there is a lot more talk about poetry and how it’s the noblest art, much much much more noble than dumb stupid drama but drama’s okay too but not like poetry okay.

If I were EBB’s editor, I would urge her to cut 75% of the talk about how noble poetry is compared to other professions out of this poem. It would be better, and we’d all want to smack Aurora less. Reader, I skimmed.

BUT. It was T O T A L L Y worth it to get to the part where Aurora’s attending a party at the Howes’ place and learns by eavesdropping Romney is fixing to marry none other than Lady Waldemar. GASP. (Lady Waldemar is at the party too. Aurora comments on her “alabaster shoulders and bare breasts” teehee hashtag gal pals.) Aurora seems to like spending time with rich people so she can judge them. I find this to be a terrible mistake. I can judge rich people perfectly happily from a safe and comfortable distance and not use up my valuable Black Sails-watching time attending their dumb parties.

(There’s a young philosophy bro at the Howes’ party, and Aurora describes him as speaking “with just that shade of sneering on the lip / Compensates for the lagging of the beard.” PLUS CA FUCKING CHANGE, you know what I’m saying?)

Lord Howe asks Aurora to marry a dopey friend of his; Aurora has to listen to two bros have opinions about Women and also Art and also Philosophy; and Lady Waldemar pounces on Aurora to tell her all about her betrothal to Romney. Aurora’s like:

The party is so relentlessly horrible — and again, this is really Aurora’s fault for choosing to go to a rich people party — that once it’s over, she litrally leaves the country. I WOULD TOO.

The next bit is hard to read, I’m not going to lie to you. Although I never read anything that makes me interested in living in the Victorian era (it is far preferable to just read about the Victorian era), sometimes I will read something that makes me want to burn the Victorians to the ground. Book six of Aurora Leigh was one of those things.

In Paris, a city Aurora spends kind of a while defending, I guess because people in England still felt a way about Bonaparte? Or something? I don’t really know much about the mid-1800s — was there something other than Bonaparte that made all British people act snotty about France? Or was it just standard-issue England/France hostility?

Anyway, in Paris, Aurora happens across Marian in the street with a (gasp!) baby, and she basically chases Marian down to demand that Marian explain herself. She is an utter shit about everything. She’s like “Marian you allowed yourself to be seduced so your kisses to this baby’s sweet angel cheek are as the touch of rot upon a dewy flower,” and then once Marian explains that no, she wasn’t seduced, she was raped and is now basically dead, Aurora’s like “MARIAN YOU ARE A SAINT A CHASTE SAINT FROM HEAVEN.”

Double fuck you to the Victorian era that this was a progressive stance for Aurora Leigh to take. I was going to say something nice earlier about how Aurora argues for poets to write about Social Issues, but now I am too furious about what a dick she is to Marian. She and Lady Waldemar and Romney should form a dickish self-righteous polyamorous relationship and THEY WOULD ALL DESERVE EACH OTHER.

Marian tells Aurora what happened: how Lady Waldemar came to visit her all throughout her engagement to Romney and slowly, gradually convinced her that she would ruin Romney’s life by marrying him. Then she gave Marian to her maid, and her maid dumped Marian in a gross brothel, where she was raped and impregnated and went insane, and then the brothel threw her out. This is all quite a bit more Gothic than I remembered.

We’re on a break next week for Thanksgiving, so have a pleasant Turkey Day! Tune in on the 30th for the conclusion of Aurora Leigh, in which I can only hope everybody dies miserably. As ever, thanks to the beautiful Alice for hosting!

Aurora Leigh Readalong: Part Two

We commence Book Three with Aurora telling us a little of her career after her aunt’s death. There’s some wonderfully bitchy lines that make me wish EBB had lived in the age of Twitter (or, I mean, at least the age of online criticism, right?).

He’s ‘forced to marry where his heart is not,
Because the purse lacks where he lost his heart.’
Ah!–lost it because no one picked it up!
That’s really loss!


Mostly, though, she’s writing about writing, and it’s a good time to mention that L.M. Montgomery, author most famously of Emily of New Moon and its sequels, obviously drew a ton of inspiration from EBB, which makes me feel extra fond of LM Montgomery. I’ve already spotted one spot where Emily quotes from Aurora Leigh, and I bet if I knew the poem better when reading the Emily books, I’d notice more. It is NICE when authors I like like other authors I like.

We get introduced in this section to LADY WALDEMAR, a character I know must be important because whoever owned my copy of Aurora Leigh before me wrote in the margins LADY WALDEMAR! when she shows up. Because this is the olden days when people came to people’s houses just goddamn willy nilly apparently like damn son give a person a heads-up first cause I know the post in London was supernaturally speedy and convenient. This is your first sign that you’re not going to like Lady Waldemar.

She shows up at Aurora’s place and is like “blah blah blah this and that classical reference I don’t care about your poetry” and Aurora’s all “What?” and Lady Waldemar’s all “Okay, I’ll be straight with you, I love Romney Leigh, you know, your cousin? I’d like to not love him but here we are, I do love him so that’s what’s up, I sure am glad we’re friends Aurora” and Aurora’s all,

She actually says, “Lady Waldemar, the point’s the thing / We never seem to come to” because ahahahaha she’s a bitch and I love her.

(Romney Leigh sucks and I wouldn’t be mad if this became a poem about Lady Waldemar learning to not be a rich jerk and Aurora Leigh learning not to be an intellectual snob and then they fall in love.)

It turns out that Romney is about to marry a POOR GIRL (gasp) called Marian Erle, a disgusting seamstress, and Aurora’s like “So?” and Lady Waldemar says,

Aurora, that most radiant morning name,
You’re dull as any London afternoon.

Obviously, Lady Waldemar wants Aurora to go up to visit Romney Leigh and do the whole “I object!” thing. All I’m saying is that in the gay version of this poem, Lady Waldemar and Aurora would road-trip to wherever Romney Leigh lives, and along the way maybe they’d have to stop at some inns with only one room available and the room only has one bed because of course, and what with one thing and another, by the time they get to the wedding, Lady Waldemar has some new interests in life.

In the real, not-gay version of the poem, Aurora says this:

A love that burns through veils will burn through masks,
And shrivel up treachery. What, love and lie!
Nay–go to the opera! Your love’s curable.

Aurora, who is contrary and whom I consequently adore, immediately runs off to meet Marian Erle, a properly Dickensian sort of waif who fled her home when her mother tried to sell her to a man, fell ill while running because of course, and met Romney Leigh at a hospital. She’s dull as dishwater but she does say one of the lines I remember loving best when I first read this poem:

‘Common words, perhaps;
The ministers in church might say the same;
But he, he made the church with what he spoke,–
The difference was the miracle,’ said she.

I just like that so much.

Then Romney Leigh shows up, and he and Aurora like assholes have this whole conversation about Marian in front of Marian. Marian just sits there waiting for Romney to notice her. It’s awful. He’s awful.

On the wedding day, Romney Leigh I guess invites all the rich people he knows, plus everyone in the whole of St. Giles? I am not clear exactly on what happens here, except that Aurora judges the fancy rich people in attendance for being snooty about the poors, but then she compares the poors to snakes and mud and says that remembering that day gives her nightmares. The only person at this wedding I don’t hate is this gentleman Lord Howe, who makes the following very good point:

There’s one true thing on earth;
That’s love! [Romney] takes it up, and dresses it,
And acts a play with it, as Hamlet did,
To show what cruel uncles we have been,
And how we should be uneasy in our minds.

Marian very sensibly leaves Romney at the altar. I expect this setback will do him a world of good. She writes him a letter all pitiful to say that she’s not good enough for him. Aurora Leigh suspects Lady Waldemar had a hand in it, but she’s not sure enough to say anything about it to Romney. And Romney’s like “Aurora, I’m real sad my marriage didn’t work out, and also, poetry’s still a dumb profession.”

Tune in next week for more brutal burns by Elizabeth Barrett Browning characters. I hope Aurora and Lady Waldemar get to hang out again. I enjoy how rude they are to each other.

Aurora Leigh Readalong: Part One

AT LAST I HAVE TRIUMPHED. Many years have I been badgering my good friend Alice to do a readalong of Aurora Leigh; many years has she responded with limited enthusiasm to the prospect of reading a Victorian epic poem about a cranky lady poet. BUT I HAVE WORN HER DOWN.

Thanks, Wonder Woman! I am proud!

So we are duly launching into the Aurora Leigh readalong, and I hope nobody hates it, since the fact that we’re doing it is absolutely my fault.

The first book introduces us to little Aurora, whose mother dies when she is quite young and whose father dies when she is only thirteen. Having spent her childhood in Florence, she goes to live with an aunt in England, about whom Elizabeth Barrett Browning says this:

She had lived we’ll say
A harmless life, she called a virtuous life,
A quiet life, which was not life at all,
(But that, she had not lived enough to know.)

I first read Aurora Leigh when I was trying to figure out my Career, and goddamn did these lines haunt me. But that, she had not lived enough to know. My recollection of this poem is primarily that it contains economically brutal descriptions like this throughout. I love Elizabeth Barrett Browning with all my heart, but I do not want her ever to describe me, please and thank you.

Aurora lives with her aunt and occasionally sees her cousin, Romney Leigh, when he comes home from school. They do not get along super well, but that’s fine because he’s not home very often, and Aurora fairly soon discovers her father’s old books and goes diving into them like Scrooge McDuck into his pile o’ gold.

except the gold is books

And then! She becomes! A poet! EBB goes into pretttttttty lengthy raptures over the art of poetry and how poets can See God and all this stuff that is probably a teeny bit hard to get through unless you grew up reading Emily of New Moon. Which some of us did. So I was fine with this. The downside is that it also caused me to read Romney Leigh, her naysaying cousin, as sliiiiiiightly Dean Priesty? Dean Priest is notably The Worst, so what I’m saying is that there’s nothing from this point onward that EBB could do to get me on board with Dean Romney.

Actually, my main memory of Aurora Leigh overall, aside from that it contained these little diamonds of insight throughout, is that Romney is so awful at the beginning that I absolutely couldn’t get on board with him as a romantic interest later on. Look at this nonsense he says to Aurora when he finds out she writes poetry!

The chances are that, being a woman, young,
And pure, with such a pair of large, calm eyes,
You write as well and ill upon the whole
As other women….
Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!
We get no Christ from you, and verily
We shall not get a poet, in my mind.

Apart from being a patronizing asshole, though, Romney seems like he’d be totally fun at parties:

The civiliser’s spade grinds horribly
On dead men’s bones, and cannot turn up soil
That’s otherwise than fetid.

My dude, I agree with you, but you are having this convo with your much-younger cousin at the ass-crack of dawn. Maybe let a girl have her morning coffee before you start going at her about the fetid soil of civilization.

Well guess the ENTIRE FUCK WHAT. This fuckery was prelude to him proposing to her, and when she’s like “Uh, you just super insulted me and my whole plan for my life, and now you want to marry me?” he hits her with this nonsense.

If your sex is weak for art
(And I who said so, did but honour you
By using truth in courtship) it is strong
For life and duty.

Y’all, like. I do not know how much gendered nonsense EBB had to put up with w/r/t her career as an author, but if this is the kind of shit people were saying to her, I am surprised she got through her whole life without setting anybody on fire. Anyway, this is how she describes Romney’s proposal:

Come, I have some worthy work for thee below,
Come, sweep my barns and keep my hospitals,–
And I will pay thee with a common coin
Which men give women.

I’m telling you. EBB with these understatedly savage burns. I love her so much. Also:

“Did he ask?” I said;
I think he rather stooped to take me up
For certain uses which he found to do
For something called a wife. He never asked.


Her aunt, the one who OH GOD HAD NOT LIVED ENOUGH TO KNOW, that aunt, is like “Well, fine, you can choose not to marry him, but you’re not going to have any money and you’re going to starve to death in the streets because nobody else will ever look after you.” Being a lady in the olden days sounds fun, y’all. This is Aurora’s final answer:

But certain flowers grow near as deep as trees,
And, cousin, you’ll not move my root, not you,
With all your confluent storms.

Romney tries to give Aurora some money through their aunt, but Aurora figures out what’s happening and turns the cash down. They part, Romney to do Good Works in the countryside, and Aurora to attempt to become a poet in London.

Are you Aurora Leigh-ing along with us? What did you make of the first two books?

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!)

Anyone care to read the Browning letters with me?

I’ve been wanting to reread their letters for a while now anyway, and it would be more fun if other people read them with me! I’ve just downloaded an epub copy of the whole set of them from the New York Public Library (thanks, library!). Gutenberg only has the first volume available for epub, so if you can’t find the full version with both volumes, please say so in the comments and I’ll email you the epub file.

(I’ll do that regardless of whether or not you want to join me in this readalong, of course. I am not holding you hostage to my proposed readalong.)

But do you want to do a readalong? I will feel less dorky posting loads of excerpts if other people are doing the same — which you will, because you can’t help it, these people are good writers and also very sweet and lovable. The syntax can get Victorianly convoluted, which I know is not everybody’s jam. On the other hand, it is tremendously touching and great to watch two brilliant, talented, awesome people fall crazy-crazy in love with each other. You will fall in love with both of them yourself. You will not be able to help it.

If anyone is interested, I was thinking we’d start slow and then decide after two rounds of posting how the schedule is working, and if we’d want to speed it up or slow it down. But I thought we could start with something like:

First Monday – We’d read letters from January 1845 to March 1845, which is basically just them getting to know each other and exchanging fulsome and adorable compliments.

Two weeks from that Monday – Next we’d do letters from April and May 1845, which would get us through The Missing Letter (cue dramatic music) and its fallout.

After that, I was thinking readalong participants could let me know how the schedule was working, and I’ll use that feedback and make a schedule for the rest of the letters. I’ve got us at a nice leisurely pace to start, but I’m willing to pick up the pace if y’all JUST CANNOT WAIT to find out whether they elope or not. Spoiler alert: They do.

My lovely Mumsy, who some of you know from her hanging out at your blogs, has agreed to write a guest post or two for this readalong, which is very exciting because I am always trying to get her to write a guest post and she will only do it pretty rarely. And I would like to call out a few other bloggers whose ongoing thoughts on the Browning letters I’d like to hear, but I don’t want to make it awkward for them, so I won’t. But if you are reading this and thinking I wonder if Jenny means me?, the answer is most probably yes.

So if you are interested, let me know! And tell me when in the year would be most convenient for you.

Lady’s Maid, Margaret Forster


One quick method to make me not finish your book: Talk shit about Robert Browning.

I was reading this book Lady’s Maid, which is a story about Elizabeth Barrett Browning from the point of view of her maid, Wilson, and for a while I was only bothered by how little Robert Browning there was in the book.  I kept reading, expecting to see more of dear, sweet, lovely Robert Browning (born on my birthday!), and very little was forthcoming.  And I was only half paying attention to it while I was reading it, because in my mind I kept thinking, You know, that is a problem with many books I have been reading throughout my life – not enough Robert Browning.  All books should contain more Robert Browning.  That would be an improvement over the current situation in which only a minority of books include Robert Browning at all.

After a while I got so fed up with the lack of Robert Browning that I flipped to the end to read Elizabeth’s death scene.  Because obviously that would have to contain Robert Browning, because he was with her when she died, and no matter what Margaret Forster would have to say a thing or two about Robert Browning then.  And that was okay, so I flipped to the last page to see what was going to happen ultimately, and it turned out to be that Margaret Forster was going to say what was true in her book and what she had made up.  She said that Wilson was impoverished later in her life, and “Robert Browning sent her an allowance of 10 pounds a year, while making it clear he felt no obligation to do so.”

I just don’t appreciate her tone.  I really love Robert Browning, and I don’t want to hear anyone taking a critical tone at him.  What a darling dear he was!  What a good birthday he had!  In the interests of not reading anything more that was unfriendly at the darling Brownings, I quit reading Lady’s Maid.  So there.  THE BROWNINGS WERE ALWAYS PERFECT ALL THE TIME AND I AM NOT LISTENING TO ANYTHING ELSE YOU SAY ABOUT THEM.  *puts fingers in ears and hums*

(They have a miraculous love.)

Geek Love and True Love

The past few days have been a bit weird, reading-wise.  I was reading Geek Love – recommended to me by Toryssa as an antidote to the trite blahness of Water for Elephants (Water to Elephants?  I can never remember) – and then when I wasn’t reading that, I was reading the Brownings’ letters to each other when they were a-courting.

It’s been strange.  Geek Love is two stories running consecutively: the main character, Olympia, is a hunchback dwarf from a family that deliberately bred freaks in order to make their circus all interesting, and she’s telling the story of her childhood.  And then she’s also got things going on in the present with her tail-having daughter and this woman who wants to give the daughter surgery to de-tail her.  Oh, and Olympia’s brother Arty (who has flippers instead of hands and feet) has a cult of people that get their limbs cut off.  But then *spoiler* the circus blows up.  So oh well.

Interspersed with letters from Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, in which they are so damn cute that my brain perpetually explodes.  Every time I think I can’t love Robert Browning any more, he says something even sweeter and I have to reset the scale.

And then back to Geek Love with the amputations and the telekinetic Chick kid.  The transitions have been weird.

Sorting through this confusion, I find that I do not care for Geek Love very much.  I didn’t like the family dynamic.  It was creepy, of course, the creepy parents with their creepy plans for the kids, and the creepy siblings with their creepy behavior, but it was sort of predictably creepy.  Creepy in ways you really could have anticipated.  Geek Love was such a strange book that I kept losing track of how blah the family dynamic actually was, but after a while I’d notice some discontentment feelings and discover that the source of the feelings was that the relationships between the family, while dysfunctional, were not interestingly dysfunctional.  You always knew what everyone was going to do.  I lost interest long before the book ended.

Oh, and?  I was also displeased with how the *spoiler* circus exploded.  It was like the author just got sick of the Binewski family and was trying to figure out what she could do to get rid of everyone so that she could get back to Olympia in the present in order to end that storyline unsatisfactorily too, so she was like, Well, hey, I’ll just blow everyone up.


I am much happier when I contemplate the Brownings.  Do you know about the Brownings?  If not, it is definitely worth your while to go and look up the Brownings and learn a little bit about them.  And go ahead and read The Barretts of Wimpole Street.  And then go ahead and read their letters to each other.  The ones from 1845-1846 are all the letters there ever were, because after they were married, says their son, they were never separated.

A sad (but nice) story: On Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s last day (of life, I mean), she was sickly and he was fretting, and when he offered to bathe her feet to soothe her she said, “Well, you are determined to make an exaggerated case of it!” and she died in his arms and the last thing she said was that when he asked her how she felt, she said, “Beautiful.”

(That story makes me teary-eyed.)

The Brownings are lovely.  I always want to give them a hug.  They’re so brave and humble and affectionate and dear, and they always send letters to tell each other how much they love them.  When I read their letters I feel like that episode of Buffy where she’s all upset about Xander and Anya having a fight and she’s all, “THEY HAVE A MIRACULOUS LOVE!”

That’s me.  About the Brownings.  Darling Brownings!

…I’m not bragging or anything.  I’m just mentioning.  Robert Browning?  He was born on my birthday.  So unless you were born on 9 December or 23 April, and actually even if you were born on 9 December or 23 April, I still pretty much win at Best Birthday.  Because Robert Browning was a gifted writer and also a completely lovely person.