To his closest friends, after Elizabeth Barrett’s death, Browning repeatedly spoke of the present as a country of exile. He wrote to Isa Blagden in July 1867 of taking ‘the three loveliest women in London’ to hear the Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein (who ‘played divinely’):
they all pet me, you must know, and yet, when I handed them into their carriage again, I made an excuse about wanting to go elsewhere, rather than accompany them further. Yet I would gladly ride with Annette once more up to the little old ruined chapel, by the bridge – she may remember – where we took shelter in a thunderstorm. This is because she is part of the Past, while Ladies This, That and the Other are of this present time which wearies me ...1
Browning did not idealise this ‘Past’, but felt it as a passion of love and suffering; however ‘divine’ the music in a London drawing-room, it cannot match the music of a remembered storm. Two months before this letter, he wrote to Isa Blagden:
So you go to Lucca. I don’t in the least know – or rather in my fancies I change continually as to how I should feel on seeing old sights again. The general impression of the past is as if it had been pain. I would not live it over again, not one day of it. Yet all that seems my real life, – and before and after, nothing at all: I look back on all my life, when I look there: and life is painful. I always think of this when I read the Odyssey – Homer makes the surviving Greeks, whenever they refer to Troy, just say of it ‘At Troy, where the Greeks suffered so.’ Yet all their life was in that ten years at Troy. ‘Lucca, where I suffered so.’2
Two years later, in the remarkable diary entries found by Virginia Surtees, Edith Story reports Browning as telling her that he has been in love with her for ‘years’ – a period which must include the writing of this letter, along with other letters in which Browning denied rumour after rumour that he was thinking of marrying again. In September 1867 the gossip – circulated by Dickens, among others – concerned the poet and novelist Jean Ingelow; and Browning wrote (again to Isa Blagden):
no goose tells you I am married, – only, that I shall be, – and six years hence, the same goose can cackle ‘so it was to be, – only, it was broken off!’ – I never saw Miss Ingelow but once, at least four years ago ... It is funny people think I am likely to do nothing naughty in the world, neither rob nor kill, seduce nor ravish, – only honestly marry – which I should consider the two last, – and perhaps the two first, – naughtinesses united, together with the grace of perjury. Enough of it all.3
It is hard to reconcile this kind of declaration with those which an ‘unmanly’ and infatuated Browning is now ‘revealed’ to have made to Edith Story.
Curiously enough, Mrs Howard’s diary finally extinguishes one such episode even as it sets fire to another. Until recently, critics and biographers have accepted one blot on Browning’s post-marital ‘scutcheon, his tactless proposal, as it was held to be, to Louisa, Lady Ashburton.Virginia Surtees, following William Whitla, has argued that it was Lady Ashburton who proposed to Browning, and now she has discovered what amounts to conclusive proof that it was so. But if one instance of ‘naughtiness’ is disposed of, what of the other?
That Mrs Howard is a trustworthy witness cannot be questioned. ‘Aggie let down her golden hair to please Browning as we sat by the waterfall – he said poets ought to be indulged by such sights.’ This, to the life, is the poet of ‘Porphyria’s Lover’:
She put her arm about my waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me ...
Our knowledge of Browning’s life and art is enriched by this single detail. Of the rest I am not so sure.
The difficulty lies in the extent of Mrs Howard’s own direct knowledge. She was there when Browning made his playful request by the waterfall; and when ‘Browning discussed the Lady Ashburton matter for an hour with Mrs Story – Edy in the library with open doors,’ the inference is that Mrs Howard heard what was being said; but for Browning’s pursuit of Edith Story, Edith herself is the only authority. No one else, of course, could have been present at the scenes which she describes. Once the idea is put into Mrs Howard’s mind, she sees confirmation of it in Browning’s behaviour, but this proves nothing. The question is whether Edith Story, not Mrs Howard, is telling the truth.
I think not, though I must stress that it can’t be proved. There is, however, one trace in the text which might point to this reading. Mrs Howard’s diary entry opens: ‘We think Edy is in love with Browning and he with her.’ For the first part of this statement Edith Story is not the authority. On the contrary, ‘she says that he is in love with her ... but that she is not in love with him.’ How to account for this contradiction? Suppose the two parts of Mrs Howard’s sentence refer to different periods of time – one before her conversation with Edith, one after. Suppose that she and her husband notice something which persuades them that ‘Edy is in love with Browning’; that Mrs Howard quizzes Edith, who averts the threat by reversing the terms – whatever the Howards have observed, ‘he with her’ explains it. (Why would it be a threat? Because the disparity in their ages would make it unseemly, Browning’s proclaimed fidelity to Elizabeth Barrett’s memory would make it scandalous, and her parents’ ambitions for her would make it awkward.) Edith would, of course, be safe from Mrs Howard’s verifying the account one way or the other: she was not an intimate friend of Browning, and she could not break Edith’s confidence by talking about it to her parents. Nor is it possible to say whether Edith made her feelings known to Browning. True, Mrs Howard records him being ‘terribly irritable’ with the Storys, and speaking ‘rather unkindly of them’ to her; and we might take this as indirect evidence that Browning was frustrated at their blindness to Edith’s importuning of him: but the opposite inference, the one Mrs Howard adopts, is equally tenable. My own belief is that Edith said nothing, or so little that Browning was able to overlook it as he did not overlook Lady Ashburton’s words; that the long talks between Edith and Browning were about the Ashburton crisis; and that this crisis sufficiently explains Browning’s sour temper. If my guess is right, Edith’s description of Browning’s passion is a disguised description of her own, and the point about his being her ‘best – greatest – oldest friend’ cuts the other way.
A final point: if Browning had pestered Edith Story with pleadings, furious reproaches and the rest, how could he have had the gall to write to her, as he did in January 1872 (in a letter marked ‘PRIVATE’), of a ‘question quite between ourselves’, which turns out to be nothing more than another instalment of the Ashburton affair?That Browning could have made unwanted advances to Edith Story is just conceivable: that he should then confide to her his indignation at another woman’s unwanted advances to him is more than I can swallow.
None of this would be to deny that Browning loved Edith Story – loved her because, more even than Annette Bracken, she was ‘part of the Past’, Pen’s playmate in Florence, and during the mourning time in Rome when the Storys lost their little son. Perhaps the warmth of Browning’s attachment misled Edith, especially at a time when he needed advice and support. Certainly the whole Story family was in Browning’s close confidence, as Mrs Howard’s diary makes clear; and nothing in their subsequent relations suggests anything other than the continuance of affection and regard. In December 1881, Browning wrote to John W. Field, a friend of his and the Storys’, of a recent trip to Venice: ‘Had the Storys – all of them – been where we expected to find them – why – the arrangement would have been too perfect: I rejoice to hear they are well.’The affection, as this indicates, was between families. In one of his last letters to William Wetmore Story, Browning mentions that Pen is with him, and says: ‘His love goes with mine and my sister’s to you and all with you.’
There is, I might add, one expression of passion for a woman named Edith which can be attributed to Browning – in his poem ‘Too Late’. The speaker is a man who has heard of the death of the woman he loved, Edith. She married a poet, who ‘rhymed [her] his rubbish nobody read’, but was incapable of loving her as the speaker did; he must come to terms with the monstrous injustice that he was the one rejected.
Oh, heart of mine, marked broad with her mark,
Tekel, found wanting, set aside,
Scorned! See, I bleed these tears in the dark
Till comfort come and the last be bled:
He? He is tagging your epitaph.
In the world it is ‘too late’ for the speaker, but in the text there is still time – or rather, time is defied and undone in the morbid grandeur of the consuming and consummate suicide with which the poem ends:
But I turn my back on the world: I take
Your hand, and kneel, and lay to my lips.
Bid me live, Edith! Let me slake
Thirst at your presence! Fear no slips:
’Tis your slave shall pay, while his soul endures,
Full due, love’s whole debt, summum jus.
My queen shall have high observance, planned
Courtship made perfect, no least line
Crossed without warrant. There you stand,
Warm too, and white too: would this wine
Had washed all over that body of yours
Ere I drank it, and you down with it, thus!
How the biographically-minded critic would long to find the date ‘September 1869’ attached to this poem! What ironies and complexities might it then assume, outside of and deliciously irrelevant to those which it generates on its own account! But no – it was published in Dramatis Personae in 1864, and may even have been written before Elizabeth Barrett’s death in 1861. Fortunately for those of us who find such readings of little use, ‘Too Late’ is far too early.