‘My dear Lady Olliffe,’ Robert Browning wrote in March 1877:
I have just been reading my old friend Miss Martineau’s protest against the publication – and indeed, retention – of all correspondence. Here, now, is a sample of mine: be assured I shall never demand it again, from any apprehension that hereafter the friendliness in it may be at variance with whatever feeling I please to entertain thirty years hence. Accordingly I set down with no sort of misgiving that I am,
Dear Lady Olliffe,
Yours very truly
This jeu d’esprit – which testifies nonetheless, in Browning’s words from Sordello, to his ‘laughing old outrageous stifled hate’ for his ‘old friend’ Harriet Martineau – is amongst hundreds of unpublished letters in the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. There are many more in other libraries and collections all over the world. Tracing, transcribing and annotating them – along with those already published, all of them, where possible, re-edited from the original manuscripts – is one of those epic tasks of scholarship before which most of us simply blench. Add to Browning’s letters those of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who lived 22 years less but corresponded twice as much in a hand half as legible; add to that all the letters to both the Brownings which can be found: and the task grows mountainous, vertiginous, seemingly impossible. Philip Kelley and Ronald Hudson have, nevertheless, undertaken it: an estimated twelve thousand letters in 40 volumes. It will take them at least until the end of the century. No university press is behind them: Wedgestone Press, the original publisher in the USA and Canada, is an independent organisation, set up by Philip Kelley and his associates for this specific project and others associated with the Brownings; and Athlone, who hold the distribution rights outside North America, are no longer the University of London Press. Without generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities in America the project could not have continued. The NEH can, for once, be assured without qualification that its money is being well spent.
The volume under review is the seventh: the first two appeared in 1984, and one has been issued each year since then. The story has reached 1843: the two principals have not even met, though they have knowledge of each other’s work and exchange compliments through their friend John Kenyon. The 573 letters of the courtship alone (1845-6) lie ahead; further on are the rich records of the Brownings’ life in Italy, and then the less familiar, and therefore more often surprising, documents of Browning’s later years. (Here, too, the Armstrong Browning Library has a profusion of unpublished material, much of it directly contradicting the image of Browning as a bluff optimist and loud diner-out which so persistently sticks to him.)
Kelley and Hudson’s work is already invaluable; when complete it will be one of the greatest editions of Victorian correspondence ever produced. The standard of editing is extraordinarily high. It is possible to find errors in the Correspondence – if you go through the volumes with that mythic instrument, beloved of illiterate politicians, the toothcomb – and it is possible to find fault with Kelley and Hudson for, at times, failing to supply a note or a cross-reference where one might have been useful; more detail in the index, too, would have been helpful. But this is like attempting to demolish the Great Pyramid with a toothpick. The detailed annotations to individual letters are supplemented in each volume by biographical sketches of the main correspondents, a chronology, a checklist of ‘supporting documents’ and a complete collection of all reviews which appeared in the dates covered by the volume. Kelley and Hudson will not be able, they tell us, to keep up this last feature: in the 1850s, when the Brownings were better known and reviews were more frequent, space will force them to start selecting. Even so they will provide, along with the correspondence, an unsurpassed account of the contemporary critical reception of the Brownings’ work. It seems almost impertinent to add that the volumes are beautifully made and generously illustrated.
The Brownings have long waited for such handsome treatment. In the aftermath of the great Sotheby’s sale of their son Pen Browning’s estate in 1913 (did he truly die intestate, or was there a will, and did his estranged wife destroy it?) the mangled limbs of their manuscripts and possessions were scattered across the world. Many items were not separately listed but sold in lots, so that even today, when the Isis-like efforts of Philip Kelley and Betty Coley, the librarian of the Armstrong Browning Library, have given us The Browning Collections: a Reconstruction (Wedgestone Press, 1984), we cannot know for certain what was in the sale. Treasures turn up in unlikely places: dozens of books from the Brownings’ library were discovered in Brighton Public Library, the gift of a hitherto unidentified collector. Betty Coley believes that Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s letters to her father after her marriage, all said to have been returned unopened, may still exist in some secret drawer of some lost bureau or writing-desk; I have heard it said that a medium was once consulted to help locate them. (This would have pleased Elizabeth Barrett Browning herself, perhaps, but not the author of ‘Mr Sludge, “the Medium” ’.)
As a result, in part, of the difficulty of assembling the materials for an edition of the correspondence in one place, volumes of letters have appeared haphazardly over the years, without editorial consistency, and with, to say the least, varying standards of scholarship. One of the most interesting series of letters, that between Browning and Julia Wedgwood – which includes Browning’s account of his wife’s gift to him of the ‘strange, heavy crown’ of Sonnets from the Portuguese, his memorably combative defence of The Ring and the Book and his liking for ‘the study of morbid cases of the soul’ – is among the worst-edited (by Richard Curle, 1937); moreover, the original manuscripts are lost and one can only hope that Kelley and Hudson find them before their edition reaches the 1860s. The edition of the love letters by Elvan Kintner (1969) is impressive but by no means definitive: it is full of transcription errors (as I discovered to my alarm when I collated Kintner’s readings with the original manuscripts at Wellesley College) and the notes are of very uneven quality. The best modern editions are those which, like Kintner’s, cover specialised areas of the Brownings’ correspondence – for example, Gertrude Reese Hudson’s exemplary Browning to His American Friends (1965) and Meredith Raymond and Mary Sullivan’s Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford (1983). It is this blurred, fragmented picture of the Brownings’ life-in-letters which Kelley and Hudson are slowly and methodically restoring.
Browning was not always as cavalier as his letter to Lady Olliffe suggests. He recovered and destroyed large numbers of his own letters, particularly the early ones. Ironically, one letter has survived which lays bare the contortions of embarrassment with which he went about the business of getting potentially compromising letters returned to him, his terror ‘at the possibility of some packet’s being lost, given away, let lie in unknown hands for a time, and then turning up to bother one’s survivors and make them ashamed of one’.The reference here is to Eliza Flower, to whom Browning was romantically attached in his boyhood; and, as he wrote to R.H. Horne:
one day Eliza told me to my amazement and discomfort that she had ‘still with her somewhere, safe,’ all the letters I had written to her – ‘never being used to destroy a scrap of any such thing’ – moreover producing on some occasion or other, a sort of album-book in which were entered ‘poem’ this and ‘poem’ the other ... ‘I grinned and bore it’ – promising myself to speak about it some day, so as not to offend; alas, a few more years have gone by, and poor E.F. has left us only her strange beautiful memory! I heard it at Pisa, and three or four months after, wrote a note to Mrs Adams – a few lines, but they must have shown how I felt, I think. I added, (thinking it would be best to say and get done with it) that I should be glad to have my letters back – just mentioning what Eliza had told me, as an excuse for the seeming absurdity of not being sure all such boyish rubbish had not been at once properly disposed of ... No answer ever came to this – and I don’t think I had written a week before a letter arrived from you, describing a horrible raking up of the correspondence in general ...
Would Browning have thought of Kelley and Hudson’s labours as a ‘horrible raking up of the correspondence in general’? Today it seems not a horrible but a wonderful raking up; but how one would feel about some of one’s own letters coming to light is another matter. We have a double standard in these questions, and it is hard to see how it could be otherwise as long as the lives of writers are felt to have any bearing on the understanding of their work. Elizabeth Barrett Browning vigorously defended the principle of publishing letters in a letter to Browning himself: ‘we should all be ready to say that if the secrets of our daily lives – inner souls may instruct other surviving souls, let them be open to men hereafter, even as they are to God now ... Not that I do not intimately understand the shrinking back from the idea of publicity on any terms – not that I would not myself destroy papers of mine which were sacred to me for personal reasons – but then I would never call this natural weakness, virtue.’ She did not, perhaps, take into account the possibility that readers might be interested in the secrets of daily life from less worthy motives than that of instruction, but it was certainly disingenuous of Browning to claim, as he did after her death, that she would have agreed with his wholesale refusal to release material for biographies of her.
The difference between them goes deeper, though, than the issue of publication of letters. After his wife’s death Browning did correspond regularly with a number of female friends (Isa Blagden, Julia Wedgwood, Eliza Fitzgerald, Katharine Bronson) but he remained, as he always had been, an uneasy and reluctant letter-writer, grateful, he told Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for ‘the sweet haven of page one, line last’. The fact that he wrote less and destroyed more than she did is obvious from a glance at Kelley and Hudson’s volumes, in which, even in those covering the 1840s when Browning’s literary and social career was well advanced, a few islands of Robert float desultorily in a sea of Elizabeth. She was a copious, enthusiastic, fluent correspondent; he a self-conscious and anxious one. She enjoyed receiving letters as much as writing them, even when she was being used as a nominal addressee of travel letters intended for publication: ‘I accept with open hands – arms your correspondence,’ she wrote to Mary Russell Mitford in April 1843, ‘– will preserve your letters apart – in order ... – . . what is a greater effort, . . will return them to you when you – the compositor claim them. I will act the public at your rehearsal.’ She wrote to Browning in February 1845, soon after they began to correspond: ‘As for me, I have done most of my talking by the post of late years – as people shut up in dungeons, take up with scrawling mottos on the walls’. But her correspondence continued to flourish after she escaped from the ‘dungeon’; and there are grounds for thinking it the major part of her literary achievement, something which could never be said of Browning. One of the pleasures of Kelley and Hudson’s work is to witness the rapid development of her skill in the conduct of long-term epistolary friendships, from the awkwardness of early attempts (with Hugh Stuart Boyd, for example) to the confident intimacy of her letters to Mary Russell Mitford. These letters display her wit, her self-awareness, and her fine descriptive eye, as well as her sudden plunges into fervent feeling. In May 1843 she gave a graphic and unsentimental account of spring-cleaning her invalid room in Wimpole Street; from it she leaped to imagine Miss Mitford’s own well-being:
The consequence of living through the winter in one room, with a fire, day – night, – every crevice sealed close ... you may imagine perhaps by the help of your ideal of all Dustfulness, latent and developed. At last we come to walk upon a substance like white sand, – if we dont lift our feet gently up – put them gently down, we act Simoom. – stir up the sand into a cloud. As to a duster or a broom, seen in profile even, ... calculate the effect upon us! – The spiders have grown tame – – their webs are a part of our own domestic oeconomy, – Flush eschews walking under the bed. The result of which is that I am glad May is come, that I yield to that necessity at once – May God bless you – – give you health, – – gladness by its means! Write to me – do – ! Your writing reeled from your pen in this letter! I never remember observing that it trembled so before. May God keep you, my dearest dearest Miss Mitford.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s emphasis on the handwriting, on the clues it gives about the writer’s state of mind and even character, is, of course, harder to appreciate when all the letters are in disembodied typography. ‘Think of what an immense quantity of physical energy must go to the making of those immense sweeping handwritings achieved by some persons,’ she wrote to Browning; ‘Mr Landor for instance, who writes as if he had the sky for a copybook – dotted his i’s in proportion’; and in another letter, she divined that he was not angry with her ‘because the writing did not look angry ... not vexed writing’. Browning, too, was alive to this sense of letters as having a physical being, which is bound up with the kind and size of the paper and envelope, the colour of the ink, even the presence or absence of a postmark. ‘See the strangely dirty paper,’ he wrote to her on one occasion, ‘– it comes from my desk where, every now and then, a candle gets over-set; or the snuffers remain open, aghast at what I write!’ No printed edition, however excellent, can re-create the ‘event’of the letter, its lost presence. Perhaps this is just as well. A certain formal distance reminds us that we are not the recipients of these letters, but, at best, eavesdroppers in time; that our knowledge of the living context in which the letters were written and read remains partial, however informed and tactful the guidance we receive.