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’.
But admiration did not prevent her from quickly registering her new friend’s limitations. ‘Life is not so tranquil a thing as you have made it either in the Village or these poems,’ the third letter observes. The same letter ventures to compare Mitford with Crabbe and then hastens to revoke the parallel as an ‘injustice’ – the association with the author of ‘The Village’ being common enough among Mitford’s critics, but a dubious compliment from one who promptly confesses that she has always found it impossible even to call Crabbe a poet. Mitford for her part obviously shared in the widespread judgment that Barrett’s poems were unnecessarily ‘obscure’ – a common complaint about the work of Robert Browning which she also repeatedly echoed. Often EBB penitently acknowledges the fault – ‘my obscure devil’ – just as she often insists on the inevitable cloudiness of those who strive after the sublime. Aeschylus, after all, was ‘the sublimest of the sublime Greeks’ and ‘the obscurest poet in the world, . . with the exception of ... we will say . . Mr Browning!’ In the early years of their friendship, Mitford had undertaken the task of editing Findens’ Tableaux, an annual holiday ‘gift book’ in which lavish engravings were accompanied by matching poems, and for several years she solicited contributions from EBB. Mitford would mail off a moonlit Hindu maiden or a smugly drowsing cherub, and the poet would respond with ‘The Romance of the Ganges’ or ‘The Dream’. Mitford seems not to have been sparing of editorial judgment, and there are frequent allusions to cuts and revisions. But no collaboration promoted such mutual uneasiness as a set of seven poems solicited for yet another annual – poems which were to be written by EBB and published in Mitford’s name. The burdensome Dr Mitford was dying, and his daughter evidently found herself hard-pressed to fulfil her contract. The result of this exercise in ventriloquism was mostly frustration: after several revisions of the ‘bad obscure verses’ only two of EBB’s efforts, the editors report, ever appeared as she wrote them – Mitford having eventually managed to write most of Mitford’s poems herself. The conspirators seem to have consoled themselves with the fact that Bijou’s Almanack was more a gimmick than a genuine book: a miniature volume the size of a thumbnail, it was, as Barrett put it, ‘an ingenious invention! – a book too small to be read!’ And she may well have felt something of a professional challenge in the struggle to submit to the constraints both of the miniature form and of another’s style. But for one who believed so intensely in poetic individuality, even thus compassionately to connive at plagiarism was not without its strain. A postscript to one letter asks emphatically ‘NOT to see’ the proofs: ‘I shd. prefer, if you please, looking another way.’ There may also be an unconscious reflection of both women’s anxieties when within the next few days she writes to console Mitford for her dying father’s delirious confusions of someone else with his daughter: ‘But consider ... that it is you & only you who are present actually to the wandering spirit – you in your perfect identity .... If another suggests you, – it is still YOU who are suggested: it is not that another has taken your place.’
The two women were not, it seems clear, very well suited as alter egos. In temperament and style, as well as in years, they belonged to different generations. The distance between them is partly measured by Barrett’s faith in what she herself termed the ‘religion of genius’, her Romantic readiness to identify the artist with the art and to sanctify both:
The canaille of literature may be as bad as the rest of the world, as other canailles, & as you say. But I am a hero-worshipper, & it is difficult, nay, impossible for me to believe that the hero, the true genius, is not morally greater, more generous, more faithful, more tender-hearted than the troop of vulgar men. Will you believe harm of your Fletcher? of the whole world’s Shakespeare? Do not their books testify against such thoughts? Wd. you turn back such books as no good witness? For my own part I receive the witness reverently, as if it were the voice of an angel. And however I may be, & am actually, ignorant of the personal manners & moods of the gifted men of our day, my instinct is to love and reverence them as men, & in a trust unshaken by a suspicion. And if that is very perverse, – why, you my dearest kindest friend, shd. be the last to be very angry, – if you love me the least bit in the world. Wd. it have been right of me not to love & reverence you a long time ago, nor keep a heart wide open for you? Had I been of your sect, I shd. have fancied all manner of evil of you – now, shdn’t I?
For the bedridden poet, so many of whose relations were mediated by the written word, this doctrine had a particular urgency. Whether or not anyone could have ‘fancied all manner of evil’ of Mitford, it is evident that the affectionate trust with which Barrett had welcomed her new friend was grounded in the belief that she already knew the woman in the work, even as she would later identify the long-admired poems with the poet and allow herself to fall in love with Robert Browning. Mitford appears to have retained an Augustan scepticism about the necessary association of personal virtue and great art, and to have been considerably more reluctant to assume that mere writing would ennoble, especially when the pen was wielded by a woman. A conflict between ‘pen & ink’ and ‘needle & thread’ repeatedly figures their difference, as the younger persistently celebrates literary aspiration itself and defends even third-rate women writers from the imputation that their time could be more valuably occupied. The poet and scholar half-mockingly confesses her own inability to ‘work’ – a word which in the feminine context could be safely understood as referring only to employment with the needle – but there is more pride than genuine shame in the confession: ‘As it is, I once knitted an odd garter, and embroidered an odd ruffle, & committed fragments of several collars, & did something mysterious, the name of which operation has past from my head, toward producing the quarter of a purse ....’Hers is the boastful clumsiness of one engaged in higher things:
And then, my beloved friend, I was always insane about books & poems – poems of my own, I mean, – & books of everybody’s else – and I read Mary Wolstonecraft [sic] when I was thirteen: no, twelve! and, through the whole course of my childhood, I had a steady indignation against Nature who made me a woman, & a determinate resolution to dress up in men’s clothes as soon as ever I was free of the nursery, & go into the world ‘to seek my fortune’. ‘How’, was not decided; but I rather leant towards being poor Lord Byron’s PAGE.
The ‘steady indignation’ has presumably abated, and the adult woman smiles at the little girl’s transvestite ambitions; elsewhere she, too, can object to ‘a woman of the masculine gender’. But no anxiety about the proper spheres of the sexes, no consideration even of the value of good needlework as against bad art, can be weighed in the balance of an essentially metaphysical distinction: ‘And isn’t a “needle” used for mending stockings, and a “pen” for making demigods?’ One way of confronting the problem of the woman writer, these letters suggest, is to identify art with transcendence and to place yourself squarely on the side of the gods.
By the time their correspondence began, Mitford herself was writing considerably less for publication than she had in the past; and there comes an awkward moment when EBB must retract her urgent appeals that the older woman once more take up the pen, and has stiffly to record her surprise that her friend ‘should loath to such an extent the exercise of a natural gift’, though she tactfully consoles herself by recognising that ‘new Villages’ would mean fewer letters for herself. Miss Mitford, she had earlier speculated, must ‘have a sort of satisfaction in saying “People do not talk literature to me” – or “people like me for myself better than they do for my books,” ’ a sort of satisfaction evidently alien to one for whom identity was primarily a literary and spiritual rather than a social fact. The Miss Mitford who prides herself more on being a lady than a writer is revealingly associated with another generation: ‘I think ... that you, as your Miss Austen did & as Mrs. Radcliffe did, care more for the respect paid to you on mere social grounds, than you care for any acknowledgement of your power as a writer & on literary grounds.’ ‘Your Miss Austen’, it should be noted, was emphatically not the writer’s, and largely because Austen’s art seemed to her so narrowly confined to the social life. In the way of most Austen detractors then and since, she is willing to grant the novelist ‘perfection in her sphere’, but only in order to insist on all that that sphere seems to shut out. Like Charlotte Brontë (whose own Jane Eyre, however, she would later pronounce ‘much over-rated’), Barrett found her celebrated predecessor seriously wanting in ‘poetry’ and soul: ‘Her human creatures never look up; and when they look within it is not deeply .... God, Nature, the Soul ... what does she say, or suggest of these? what proof does she give of consciousness of these? She is, I must repeat my persuasion, essentially un-poetical .... In her works we do not discern even “the trees” ... much less, the voice of God stirring them.’ The conventional comparison of Austen to Shakespeare, which Mitford seems to have ventured, strikes EBB as a sort of blasphemy. Indeed the very vehemence with which she frequently records her unbelief is a measure of the high praise that Mitford and others granted the novelist. No other writer provokes EBB to so persistent and strenuous a resistance, yet perhaps no other writer – certainly no female precursor – could seem so maddeningly close to ‘perfection’ and yet so far from ‘greatness’.
The novels of Jane Austen ironically provoked more controversy than did the scandalous productions of the French, the two women’s secret indulgence in ‘these wicked Gallic geniuses’ proving a strong bond between them. EBB’s confession that she had been covertly reading Victor Hugo and George Sand apparently evoked a sympathetic response, and she impetuously replied by determining to supply the other with the forbidden texts – to make of Miss Mitford ‘an accomplice in act as in desire’. After anonymously ordering a shipment to be sent by rail, she eventually settled on the expedient of purchasing for her rural friend a regular subscription to a foreign library in London, insisting on bearing all the costs of the secret traffic herself. (She was already accustomed to furnishing her poorer friend with delicacies – Devonshire cream, fresh oysters and fish from Torquay, imported grapes and West Indian chocolate from London. Mitford in turn sent rural gifts – flowers from her much-prized garden and, of course, the celebrated Flush, offspring of her own beloved spaniel.) For Barrett, who read avidly in Balzac, Stendhal, Eugène Sue and the elder Dumas, as well as Hugo and Sand, this was a literature whose ‘poetry’ and greatness were undeniable – despite its ‘monstrous & hideous morality’: ‘They light me up, & make me feel alive to the ends of my fingers.’ Not surprisingly, Mitford seems to have been far more cautious in her enthusiasm, but she was nonetheless drawn to the French and willing to debate their merits; and Barrett’s pleasure in their complicity obviously overrode any differences between them. Her letters frequently hasten to endorse her correspondent’s moral disgust at a book only to celebrate its irresistible eloquence and power: George Sand’s Jacques is ‘a gross lie, against the humanity of womanhood’, yet ‘I do consider Jacques to partake of all high qualities of rhetoric & language, on each side of the serpent’s hiss.’ The figure of Sand, in fact, exerts an especially intense fascination, both her very womanhood itself and her transvestite daring (much is also made of her cigar) compounding the disturbing attractions of the whole Gallic tribe. She is a ‘brilliant monstrous woman’ but ‘the greatest female poet the world ever saw’, and for Barrett, style finally proves more potent than morality: ‘The French language grows divine as she speaks it.’
She declares her friend ‘the only person in the world, to whom I dare to write on these subjects’ and insists that no one else in the Barrett household is to know of their secret. Papa, who ‘has very strict ideas about women & about what they shd. read’, used to keep a canto of Don Juan locked up in a drawer, a fate now shared by La Nouvelle Héloïse; ‘he wd. as soon give me Prussic acid if I were thirsty’ as release the Héloïse, and these texts are, after all, as ‘Hanah More [sic] & Wilberforce by the side of certain books that we wot of’. More interesting than the Victorian patriarch as censor, however, is the divided voice of his daughter, who manages to preserve the ideal of female purity even as she defies it by displacing it onto others, particularly her own sisters. For them she resorts to the conventionally dismissive formula, ‘They have enough to read without these books ... bristling & burning as they are with evil’; and she repeatedly expresses anxiety lest others be polluted by what she and Miss Mitford can safely absorb: ‘I shd. not like to be the conduit of this tainted literature into this house.’ Though she can eagerly indulge the fantasy of ‘expressing as two English female writers, our sense of the genius of that distinguished woman’ by sending their books in tribute to George Sand, she can also speak of the need to ‘abstract myself from my womanhood’ in order to admire Balzac, and proclaim that ‘such books could not & ought not to do in England, where a woman’s purity is inseparable from the idea of her.’ That the idea of a woman is nonetheless such as to sustain contradictions is evident not only in her sense of herself but in her later pronouncement – after the Brownings had finally met Sand, at Elizabeth’s urging, in Paris – that the novelist was ‘a noble woman, under the mud’, and that the cigarette was ‘really a feminine weapon if properly understood’. Perhaps wisely, she does not expand on the proper understanding of cigarettes.
Her experience in directing the secret traffic in French books must have served as useful training for the management of that more momentous secret, the courtship of Robert Browning. Indeed the letter in which she first reveals to her friend the fact of her marriage, a letter written on the eve of the couple’s departure for the Continent, concludes with a solemn postscript reporting that her maid’s final commission is to settle the bill for Mitford’s foreign subscription. The secret of the courtship, however, had been kept, not only from Papa and the other Barretts, but from Mitford too. She had been briefly told of his letters and enjoined to silence about his visits, but these letters deliberately understate the frequency of their meetings and say nothing about the nature of her feelings or the plans for elopement. Long before the lovers actually met, Mitford had frequently disagreed with her younger friend about Robert Browning’s merits as a poet and a man; and quite apart from the general need for secrecy, it is hardly surprising that Elizabeth should have been cautious about revealing her growing love for one whom her correspondent had often condemned as both effeminate and obscure. She herself had not been wholly uncritical of the poetry, but read with the grace of hindsight, her many impassioned defences of Browning’s genius take on something of a novel’s calculated irony: ‘Yet after all, he is a true soul-piercing poet – and it is easier to find a more faultless writer than such a one.’ One extraordinary letter, written a week after Browning’s first note to her and four months before his first visit, begins with a glowing account of her trance-like absorption in Balzac’s Modeste Mignon, and proceeds to identify the heroine’s capacity for dreamy castle-building with her own:
Let those who have imaginative daughters, beware of that ‘safe plan’, as it is said to be, of keeping them in seclusion – let them beware of their love of solitude & habits of silence .... Such girls will not run away with Mr. A or Mr. B – no, nor with their father’s footman by an illusion. They may be above that – but scarcely safer than that. At least, life in the mind is not nothing. It is as operative in its effects on the character as exterior life . . & then who can controul it? What friend’s counsel, – & what mother’s tear?
The letter then turns to an extended defence of Pippa passes, in a passage which concludes with a secret premonition veiled as prophecy: ‘We shall see – that is, we shall see some things – & other people will see other things. My opinion is that Browning’s name will stand, when the springtide comes!’ She had already suggested to Browning that he might visit her in the spring; he arrived in May.
That arrival inevitably put some distance between the two friends: the usual withdrawal of courtship and marriage was intensified first by secrecy and then by geography, the two women only meeting once again after the Brownings first set sail for France. And Miss Mitford, of course, was no longer the only one with whom EBB could talk poetry. In later years, the frequency and intensity of the correspondence gradually diminish: the second volume of these letters covers just two years, while the third – which begins a few months before Browning’s first letter – covers ten.
The writer’s world grows proportionately more crowded: not only George Sand, but Lamartine, Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Mazzini and many others put in personal appearances; and to the usual flow of topics – the gossip, the solicitous inquiries about illness and, above all, the literary exchange – are added exhilarated accounts of the pleasures of motion and travel, news of Italian and French politics, and increasingly eager reports of achievements in spiritualism and table-rapping. The spaniel Flush had long figured as one of the letters’ most vividly realised characters, and the narrative of his Italian adventures is now supplemented by similarly playful tales about the antics of Pen, the Brownings’ only child. Throughout it all the editors keep admirable account of the large cast of characters and of the densely allusive texture of Elizabeth’s letters. The woman who could gleefully report in 1839 that she had managed to evade her doctor’s disapproval of too much weighty reading, since ‘luckily my Plato looks as good as a novel on the outside,’ was a woman whose prose style was thick with casual quotation and paraphrase; the three and a half pages of the Plato letter alone require more than two pages of single-spaced notes for elucidation. This very density, as well as the repetitiousness of the letters, make it unlikely that many readers will wish to read them straight through: but there is a thorough and useful index, and the introduction provides a lucid and sensible overview. And in justification of their decision to print the letters in full, the editors cite a warrant from their subject herself: had it not been for the pruning of Anna Barbauld, Barrett lamented, Samuel Richardson’s ‘charming’ correspondence ‘might have filled twelve volumes instead of six! Oh those sensible editors! what harm they do in the world!’
EBB also makes an appearance in Kathleen Blake’s Love and the Woman Question in Victorian Literature, a study that uses both female writers and characters to explore the tensions between a woman’s self-realisation and her fulfilment through love. Like George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett seems to have been a happy exception to Blake’s general rule – having won fame as an artist and the devoted support of a lover as well. Yet the conflicts that both women seem to have successfully resolved in their personal histories nonetheless figure prominently in their writing. Other feminist critics have noted this discrepancy, but Blake characteristically approaches with sympathy what they have deplored as mere convention; and she is sensitive to the fact that art can sometimes thrive on the conflict unresolved. Cautioning against a too-easy identification of sexual liberation with female liberation, even for 20th-century women, Blake suggests that what may look like simple Victorian prudery in some 19th-century feminist thinking should rather be seen as a strain of ‘radical chastity’ – the indefinite postponement of erotic surrender so that a woman may achieve an independent self. Blake’s prose can be awkward, and some of her arguments strained: it is hard to make a thoroughly convincing case for the emotional logic of Hardy’s Sue Bridehead, for instance, though Blake makes a valiant effort. But this is a thoughtful and often shrewd book, and attractively stubborn in its refusal of simple solutions.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.