- The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning, edited by Richard Altick and Thomas Collins
Broadview, 700 pp, £12.99, August 2001, ISBN 1 55111 372 4
- The Poetical Works of Robert Browning. Vol. VIII: The Ring and the Book, Books V-VIII edited by Stefan Hawlin and Tim Burnett
Oxford, £75.00, February 2001, ISBN 0 19 818647 9
At the very end of The Ring and the Book Browning delivers one of the most staggering mule-kicks ever meted out by an author to his readers. Bear in mind that the poem is more than 21,000 lines of blank verse – about twice the length of Paradise Lost. It was published in four monthly instalments, each containing three books of the poem, which appeared from November 1868 to February 1869. Browning, like Melville, was asking Jonah to swallow the whale. But even Melville might have blenched at Browning’s final exordium:
So, British Public, who may like me yet,
(Marry and amen!) learn one lesson hence
Of many which whatever lives should teach:
This lesson, that our human speech is naught,
Our human testimony false, our fame
And human estimation words and wind.
So that’s it. The British Public might reasonably ask, after 12 books and 21,000 lines of human speech, testimony and estimation, whether the message couldn’t have been delivered a little more crisply. Thomas Carlyle certainly thought so: the poem, he declared, was ‘all made out of an Old Bailey story that might have been told in ten lines and only wants forgetting’.
It is not in fact that easy to tell the story in ten lines – Browning’s most concise effort took him 43, and he could afford to leave out a lot of things he knew he was going to put in elsewhere. Here is the best I can do.
In September 1693, Guido Franceschini, an impoverished middle-aged count, originally from Arezzo in Tuscany but living in Rome in the retinue of a cardinal, married 14-year-old Pompilia, putative daughter of Pietro and Violante Comparini, a moderately wealthy middle-class couple. Shortly after the marriage, Guido, his wife and his parents-in-law moved from Rome to Arezzo. Subsequently the Comparini returned to Rome, claiming ill-treatment by Guido; Violante then publicly confessed that Pompilia was not really her child, but a prostitute’s whom she had passed off as hers in order to secure an inheritance in which Pietro held only a life-interest. The Comparini sued Guido for the return of the dowry; he counter-sued, claiming that the story of Pompilia’s illegitimacy was a fabrication. Meanwhile Pompilia, unhappy in Arezzo, eventually fled in the company of a priest, Giuseppe Caponsacchi. Guido pursued the couple, caught up with them just before they reached Rome, and had them arrested. The subsequent hearing satisfied nobody. The charge of adultery was not sustained, but Caponsacchi was ‘relegated’ to Civita Vecchia for three years and Pompilia was placed in the care of a convent which also acted as a reformatory for fallen women. Guido was told to go home. Lawsuits multiplied in both Rome and Arezzo. Then it was found that Pompilia was pregnant. She was released from the convent into the custody of her putative parents, and a few weeks later bore Guido – or Caponsacchi – a son. This was in December 1697. On the night of 2 January 1698, Guido and four accomplices – farm workers from his Aretine estate – arrived at the Comparini house and gained entry by pretending to be delivering a letter from Caponsacchi. Guido killed Pietro and Violante and thought he had killed Pompilia, too – she lay still after being repeatedly stabbed. As neighbours rushed to the scene, Guido and his accomplices fled, intending to escape to Arezzo where they would be outside Roman jurisdiction. However, Pompilia was still alive and was able to set the authorities on their track; moreover Guido had omitted to secure the necessary permit to hire horses in the city. The murderers covered nearly twenty miles on foot before collapsing, exhausted, at an inn where the posse caught up with them. When the bewildered Guido asked how they knew who to look for and where to find him, and was told that his wife was still living, he fainted. (It later emerged that his accomplices were planning to murder him for not paying them the money he had promised.) Pompilia lived four more days – long enough to make a deathbed confession and deposition.
At the subsequent trial, Guido’s lawyers claimed that the murder of his wife was a matter of honour, and that Guido had acted under extreme provocation. Already maddened by his wife’s adultery and by the Comparini’s cynical chicanery, the birth of (obviously) Caponsacchi’s bastard had tipped the noble cuckold over the edge. The prosecution argued that Guido’s real and ignoble motive was money, and that the birth of a child sealed the death-warrant of both Pompilia and the Comparini for purely mercenary reasons: with their deaths all the lawsuits would end and Guido as legal father of the one remaining heir would walk away with the jackpot.
Guido was found guilty and condemned to death. But he had one card left to play – an appeal to the Pope, Innocent XII, on the grounds that he was in minor orders and subject to the jurisdiction of the Church. The popular expectation was that he would be let off, but the Pope to everyone’s surprise confirmed the sentence and Guido, together with his four accomplices, was executed in February 1698.
When Browning retold this story in The Ring and the Book he used the form which he had made his own over the past quarter of a century, the dramatic monologue, but he did so in a novel way. A dramatic monologue, as the name suggests, is the utterance of a single speaker. The Ring and the Book presents a series of such monologues, arguably including those of an author-figure as well as those of the fictional characters. After an introductory book (or authorial monologue), a succession of speakers occupy Books II to XI, the first three of whom are outsiders, representatives of public opinion in Rome, who know about the events only by hearsay: ‘Half-Rome’, a partisan of Guido; then ‘Other Half-Rome’, who is on Pompilia’s side; then ‘Tertium Quid’, who purports to give an objective summary of the case. These gossips and guess-workers are followed by three of the principals: Guido, Caponsacchi and Pompilia. And these in turn are followed by three of the characters involved in the trial: lawyers for the defence and the prosecution, and the Pope, who sums up and delivers the final verdict. The eleventh book consists of Guido’s second monologue, this time spoken in his prison cell after he has heard that his appeal has failed and that he is to be executed the following day. The twelfth book, like the first one, belongs to Browning as narrator.