In a horizontal posture

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford: 1836-1854 edited by Meredith Raymond and Mary Rose Sullivan
    Baylor University, Browning Institute, Wedgestone Press and Wellesley College, 431 pp, March 1983, ISBN 0 911459 01 4
  • Love and the Woman Question in Victorian Literature: The Art of Self-Postponement by Kathleen Blake
    Harvester, 254 pp, £25.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 7108 0560 8

Shut off from more immediate contact with others, the ailing Elizabeth Barrett Barrett was a prodigious correspondent – as these three heavy volumes amply testify. Like one of Richardson’s immured heroines, she boasts of her skill at writing ‘in a horizontal posture’. ‘I can write as well or as badly when I lie down, as at a desk,’ she announced soon after she began corresponding with Mary Russell Mitford, and more than once she urged the older writer to lessen the strain of fatigue or illness by adopting the practice. Though Barrett was imprisoned by a peculiarly Victorian combination of female invalidism and paternal rigidity rather than by a threatening seducer, her own life would eventually yield enough romantic intrigue even for the pen of a Richardsonian heroine. The history of the Browning courtship and elopement seems made for storytelling, and beginning with the correspondence of the lovers themselves, it has of course been told many times. The nearly five hundred letters to Mitford collected here represent the largest number Barrett wrote to a single correspondent; they open in 1836, when the poet had just turned 30 and the Barretts had not yet moved to Wimpole Street, and end when the Brownings had been living almost seven years in Casa Guidi, the 15th-century Florentine palace in which they took up permanent residence after the liberating flight to Europe. Yet the events which loom so large in most popular accounts of these years figure very little in these documents. That EBB, as she signed herself, nonetheless managed to correspond so voluminously with her ‘ever dearest Miss Mitford’ might well prompt reflection on the arbitrary proportions between any written record and a life. But it also suggests that for the professional writer, at least, there is always more than one story to tell. And these letters are above all the record of a literary relation.

‘I send you the little book,’ the first letter begins. ‘I have been disappointed in not being able to have it bound in time: but I wish that its worst fault were on its outside!’ The editors speculate that the faulty little book in question was EBB’s translation of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, which she had published anonymously with some miscellaneous poems several years before. Her adolescent epic, The Battle of Marathon, had been privately printed by her father when she was 14, and the Prometheus was her second commercially-published volume, but compared to Mitford she was still a relative novice. The older woman had also been precocious, having learned to read before she was three, and she had had 17 years’ advantage over Barrett; a poet, novelist and successful dramatist, by 1836 she had been long celebrated as the author of Our Village, a series of rural sketches that had brought her widespread popularity as well as much-needed cash. When the sketches had first appeared in the Lady’s Magazine of 1819, sales of the periodical had multiplied eightfold, and five volumes in the series had been published in the intervening years. The bulk of Mitford’s earnings as a writer were rapidly squandered by her dreadful father – that ‘gluttonous, bibulous, amorous old man’, as Virginia Woolf would call him – who had long since run through the £20, 000 lottery prize Mary had won as a child. Dr Mitford continued to batten on his daughter and she continued to be pressed for money, but the small cottage they shared at Three Mile Cross had become something of a literary shrine. Endowed with an ‘organ of veneration ... as large as a Welsh mountain’, Elizabeth Barrett, too, had strong ‘impulses to lionizing’ – and scarcely anyone else, as she lamented, with whom to talk poetry. Her first letter to Mitford gratefully seizes the opportunity ‘to join together two ideas, each of them precious in its kind . . of an admired writer . . and a dear friend’.

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