Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • The Courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett by Daniel Karlin
    Oxford, 281 pp, £12.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 19 811728 0

Perhaps all human courtships follow narrative precedents, but few make for such a satisfying story as that of the Brownings. The slightest imaginative pressure can transform the familiar facts of the case into a myth or fairy-tale, with each of the principals in the affair behaving wonderfully true to type: the spellbound maiden, mysteriously immobilised by an unnamed curse; the patriarchal ogre, who keeps his daughter locked away in a darkened room and turns aside all suitors; the lover who arrives with spring to break the spell and carry the heroine south, restoring her to health, happiness and fertility. Though luck must receive some credit for the happy ending of the tale, Daniel Karlin emphasises that theirs was doubly a writer’s story, and that much of its narrative potential should be attributed to the participants themselves. Subject to many subsequent redactions, the love story on which they first collaborated would ironically become the two ‘obscure’ poets’ most popular and accessible work. Rather than offer yet another retelling of the myth, Karlin’s book seeks to analyse the process of myth-making, and the psychological and literary needs that process served.

Though Robert Browning especially would have resisted the idea, the Brownings’ courtship seems ideally suited to our current preoccupation with the priority of language over experience. These were lovers who read long before they saw one another, who admired writing first and persons after. In the opening line of their correspondence, Robert Browning emphatically recorded his admiration of Elizabeth Barrett’s poetry – ‘I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett’; and though he proceeded in the same letter to append his ‘love’ for the poet as well, she figures significantly as a woman not-yet-seen. ‘I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart – and I love you too: do you know I was once not very far from seeing – really seeing you?’ For several years Barrett had been paying tribute to Browning’s ‘genius’ as a ‘true poet’ in her correspondence with Mary Russell Mitford: ‘I estimate him very highly – – so do you,’ she had rather coercively informed the more sceptical Mitford almost three years earlier, ‘– so must all who know what poetry is – turn their faces towards its presence willingly.’ But more than four months would elapse after Browning first wrote to her, and more than twenty letters pass between them, before she would turn her face willingly towards the presence of the poet himself; 574 letters would be exchanged before they set off for Italy as a married couple at the close of summer in 1846. The single letter now missing from this correspondence is one that Browning burnt after Barrett returned it to him, having threatened to break off their relationship unless he ‘forget at once, – for ever’, its ‘intemperate’ language and allow it to ‘die out between you – me alone, like a misprint between you and the printer’. The offending letter arrived only a few days after their first meeting, and Karlin speculates that the ‘misprint’ – to which Browning dutifully alluded in his reply as ‘the “printer’s error” in my blotted proof – was a premature declaration of love. Barrett sought anxiously to restore the proper text of their relationship.

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