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.