Browning’s Last Duchess

Virginia Surtees

Entries for September 1869 from the diary of the Hon. Mrs George Howard (Rosalind, youngest daughter of the second Lord Stanley of Alderley) are published here for the first time, with the permission of the Hon. Simon Howard. They cover the visit of the 57-year-old Robert Browning to Naworth Castle, the Cumberland home of the George Howards. Browning had recently published his great poem The Ring and the Book, with its dedication to his dead wife. He was mentally tired, and uneasy over his son Pen’s performance at Oxford, but had agreed to go to Scotland in August with Sarianna his sister and Pen, and join forces at North Berwick with his friends the Storys. Before starting, he had told John Forster that Pen and the Storys had persuaded him to this course, but that he meant to stay only a month.

The friendship with the Storys was an old and affectionate one: they had met in Italy in 1848. William Wetmore Story was an American sculptor of ability and unfailing charm; he and his wife were active in Roman society and through the years entertained with undiminished enthusiasm in their third-floor apartment in the Palazzo Barberini. They came regularly to England to visit their many friends, and were accompanied by their only daughter Edith (Edy), aged 25 in 1869 and unmarried. Of Edith little is known. Lady Paget wrote disparagingly that had she not been so stumpy she might have been good-looking, that her family thought she resembled a Sir Joshua Reynolds painting, and that her singing was without charm. ‘The disappointment of her life had been Odo Russell’: diplomatic secretary in Rome in the 1860s, he had married in 1868 and was created first Lord Ampthill. He had flirted and sung with her and dined twice a week at the Palazzo Barberini – and ‘to do that a man must have been madly in love.’ Mrs Story was in the habit of saying that ‘only a Roman prince or an English peer need apply for her daughter’s hand.’ Until Rosalind Howard’s diary was made available, Edith would have been remembered chiefly as the child who lay ill in Rome in 1853 when, to hasten her convalescence, Thackeray went every day to read The Rose and the Ring to her, as each chapter was completed.

From North Berwick the party moved to the Highlands. An invitation from Louisa Lady Ashburton for them all to stay at Loch Luichart, her house in Ross-shire, had been reluctantly accepted by Browning (‘through circumstances unforeseen and quite out of my control’) and there, it has been recently established, the widowed Lady Ashburton proposed marriage to the poet, a widower of eight years. When this visit came to an end, Browning and the three Storys continued to Naworth Castle and found two other guests, Sidney Colvin and Agnes Carnegie. Philip Webb, the architect, had been invited but had declined, dreading his ignorance ‘cheek by jowl with that compendium of knowledge, Browning’. Pen and Sarianna had left for the South. Mrs Howard’s diary takes up the story:

17 September 1869 We think Edy is in love with Browning and he with her.

I spoke to Edy about it just before we went to bed, sitting chatting in my room & she says he is in love with her but that she will never marry him – that he is her best & greatest & oldest friend but that she is not in love with him & therefore could not think it right to marry him as she might meet someone after marriage whm she wld fall in love with. She is very unhappy for him & says she could at once sacrifice herself & marry him to make him happy but that it would not be right to do it. She never knew his love for her till they went together to Scotland this year. He has been in love with her years & says every line he writes is now written with her in his thoughts. He told her at Nth Berwick about it & has since been 3 weeks with her at Loch Luichart (Lady Ashburton’s) where a very curious & dramatic complication took place – for Lady A. there declared herself to be in love with Browning & shewed it to everyone. B. says if Edith will tell him to marry Lady A. he will do it – but Edy says it is not high-minded to marry her for his son’s sake and for her position. That Lady A. had great love for him but that she could not advise the marriage &c. Poor Edy – it is terrible trouble for her because everyone will fall in love with her & not the right people.

19 September Rained all day Browning read Caponsacchi to us this-afternoon.

20 September Aggie Carnegie Edy Mrs Story Browning & I went to Lanerton & 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 ... Poor Browning.

We drove to Cleugh Head to meet the shooters and we were in mad spirits & shouted & laughed.

21 September This aftn Story Aggie & I & Browning & Edy went to Corby Castle ... Browning & Edy walked together all the time & he seemed very miserable & desperate. R.B. Edy & I drove home in the dog-cart & by moonlight & we hardly spoke a word.

23 September More talks between Edy & R. Browning. He wont leave her alone or give her up. He is getting quite desperate he is so passionately – burningly in love & thinks he covers it all by being an old family friend, so that it is not apparent to people & he takes hold of her hand & once kissed her on the forehead (in the presence of her unsuspecting mother). He is furious today because he feels Edy & he can no longer talk together as they did before he had these violent altercations with her – in wch he seems to have forgot himself & to have blamed Edy & said unjust things. He is getting beyond his own control & is so wildly in love with Edy that I cannot help feeling very much with him.

24 September This morning Browning discussed the Lady Ashburton matter for an hour with Mrs Story & Edy in the library with open doors. He had got a letter from her in wch I believe she expressed a wish to clinch the matter one way or another. He finally settled, supported by Mrs Story’s advice (who knows nothing of his love for Edy but thinks Lady A. would not make his home happy as he does not care for her) to write to say no – taking advantage of an expression in her letter in which she said that perhaps it would be better for her child’s sake that they should not marry. He appeared much more light hearted when he had disposed of that matter but he is terribly irritable with the Storys & spoke rather unkindly of them to me ... Edy has talked to G [George Howard] about these matters & he is very angry with Browning – who he says is behaving in an unmanly way by forcing himself upon Edy – when she has so often said no – & that he is taking advantage of his position as an old friend of the family to go on urging Edy & tormenting her when her parents know nothing about it.

26 September Edy had a most gushing letter from Lady Ashn. We think she cannot know the full extent of R.B.’s love for Edy & imagines much of his fondness for her to be attributable to the old friendship & I believe she thinks Edy speaks in her favour to R.B. Perhaps when she gets the letter R.B. wrote yesterday she will begin to suspect the full truth but R.B. has never told her. What a queer story it is.

27 September The Storys & Mr Browning left us at 12 ... Browning will have to tear himself away to-day – poor man how he will suffer – & he has had no parting interview with her – she refused to have one which was very wise of her.

Nothing that had gone on before nor anything that follows gives an intimation of the direction of Browning’s affections. Rosalind Howard had a scrupulously truthful character: she recorded what she saw and what Edith had told her. Yet her first entry speaks of Browning’s and Edith’s love for each other. The poet was known for his gallantries to women, indulging in ‘inconsequential kissing. Without troubling his conscience he took increasing advantage of the prerogative of an elderly, respectable, and rather jovial widower.’ Was his conduct at Naworth simply in line with this behaviour? Can it have been Edith who was the (rejected) adorer? Is it conceivable that the Storys did not detect something more than gallantry in their old friend, nor perceive their daughter’s agitation? To contend that every line ‘is now written’ with her in Browning’s thoughts was surely an exaggeration, for he was writing nothing at the time and the notion that his later ‘St Martin’s Summer’ encapsulated the Browning-Ashburton fable can now be regarded as implausible. Replying to a letter from Edith 14 months later, Browning asked her: ‘What is the poem you allude to, which “I talked about at Loch Luichart”. I have absolutely forgotten – if you tell me, and I still am of the same mind about it, I will try and keep alive what you will have helped me to recover.’ In Robert Browning and his World Maisie Ward observes that, given Browning’s inability ‘to relate any happening other than backwards or standing on its head, can we be at all certain what this letter is saying?’

If a passionate flame had kindled into a St Martin’s summer-madness (surely not a love of ‘years’), by November the mood had passed. Browning wrote to the Storys: ‘the fact is, the holidays are over, with (for me) an end of boys’-play which – it is said, – men ought to know when to leave off: and “left off” it all is, I very sincerely assure you.’ If, and again it is uncertain, he is referring to his pursuit of Edith, this determines her parents’ knowledge of the circumstances.