A Question of Breathing

John Bayley

  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Margaret Forster
    Chatto, 400 pp, £14.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3018 0
  • Selected Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Margaret Forster
    Chatto, 330 pp, £12.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3311 2
  • The Poetical Works of Robert Browning: Vol. III edited by Ian Jack and Rowena Fowler
    Oxford, 542 pp, £60.00, June 1988, ISBN 0 19 812762 6
  • The Complete Works of Robert Browning: Vol. VIII edited by Roma King and Susan Crowl
    Ohio/Baylor University, 379 pp, £47.50, September 1988, ISBN 0 8214 0380 X

The Romantic era produced in abundance both self-dramatisers and self-esteemers. Despite their obvious relation, they are, and remain, two distinct species. In our own literature Byron is the prototype of the first, Wordsworth of the second. The great Goethe was, in his time, king and emperor of both, and highly revered for it. In love with their fates, condemned by these to some suitable agony, the dramatisers had a more spectacular but more painful time of it than those whom Keats rather unfairly refers to as ‘large self-worshippers’. They did not exactly worship but explored themselves: in a sense, they became themselves. A process especially important for women writers.

Emily Brontë was in her own way a self-dramatiser, Charlotte a self-esteemer. Her example was easier to follow, much more influential. When Aurora Leigh was published in 1857, reviewers pointed out a striking resemblance to much in the plot of Jane Eyre. Romney Leigh, her cousin, whom the half-English half-Italian Aurora eventually marries, is blinded in a fire like Mr Rochester. But instead of being a powerful Gothic figure, he is a copybook prig with socialist principles. Self-esteemers with a need to write and a gift for it are good at having things both ways. Jane Eyre can become the happy slave in love because her demon lover is now helpless and belongs to her. When she falls into the arms of Romney, Aurora can be at once a woman, a writer, and a person with the right progressive ideas. So could the author of the poem, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

It is only fair to say, though, that this kind of wish-fulfilment is not only an accurate portrayal of the kind of selves that Charlotte and Elizabeth became, and wished to become: it is also a truthful discovery of what is possible for a woman, a possibility which Victorian patriarchal society was very doubtful about, but which we now take for granted. Self-esteem is the best possible foundation for self-liberation; even though the process is bound to be a contradictious one. The plots both of Jane Eyre and Aurora Leigh present, in their contrived and melodramatic ways, a deep home truth: that there is nothing demeaning in a woman’s dependence if it involves the equal dependence of her man. When her sister Henrietta finally managed to marry her soldier lover Surtees Cook, in the teeth of their father’s antagonism, Elizabeth Barrett was dubious about the results: but as well as being rich, Surtees proved himself a genial and doting husband and father. In a letter to her sister Elizabeth admitted that she had come to feel a real sisterly fondness for him: ‘Tell him so – tell him that I rejoice to know that you belong to him! And that’s the fullest of compliments as it is the tenderest of truths.’

As a record of Elizabeth’s own deep instinctual feelings, Aurora Leigh still has great interest today; as a contrived tale about womens’ sufferings, and the Victorian Woman Problem, it is completely unconvincing, and boring, because the reader soon sees that the poet is bored with her story, interested only in herself. The reader of any period, I suspect: my own copy of the complete poems has most of the pages of Aurora Leigh still uncut, though the rest of the book has been well thumbed. Even when just published as a verse novel, Aurora Leigh was clearly more acclaimed and reviewed than read. But it caught exactly the tone and the fashion for radical chic, as we know it today, and gratified bien-pensants for the same reason. There are a lot of novels like it now, which have a brief vogue, and make people think they are getting new stylish stuff with a social message.

There is all the difference between such a novel and a real novel, like Dickens’s and Charlotte Brontë’s, in which self-absorption is a natural part of their authors’ absorption in the social world around them. Elizabeth Barrett was fascinated by that world, but as a book-reader and rich recluse. It is significant that her puppet figure, Marian Erle, the girl who is sensationally and quite realistically wronged in the story, and saved and succoured by Aurora, rejects Romney, who has wanted to marry her for ideological reasons, and retires into domestic obscurity with the child she bore as a result of rape. It is the narrator and well-known writer Aurora, who lives à côté de la vie by being this narrator, who gets the man, and devotion, and love, at the end.

By the end Elizabeth is obviously fed up with everything in her story except this dénouement: but the first three books in which she is shamelessly talking about herself and her life are full of go, the opening especially apt.

I who have written much in prose and verse
For others’ uses, will now write for mine –
Will write my story for my better self,
As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
Long after he has ceased to love you, just
To hold together what he was and is.

The better self was the one who had found that being a sheltered author and a loving spouse were quite compatible. Aurora Leigh was Elizabeth’s swan-song, the testament of a perfect egoist and self-esteemer. With their natural reverence for double-dealing, perhaps the Victorian critics perceived this, while admiring the poem’s bold story and advanced views. The ‘feel’ for things in the early part, in the narrator’s consciousness, can be delicious: as good as Virginia Woolf, or John Betjeman, who would have adored subtle pentameters like ‘The irregular line of elms by the deep lane’. And like Sonnets from the Portuguese, which Robert Browning had advised Elizabeth to present as translations, and which were not published as her own until her death, Aurora Leigh is a remarkable tribute to the way in which new female independence, intelligence and sensibility can go with an equally conscious and adoring masochism. There are moments when Elizabeth Barrett reminds one both of the emancipated girl who wrote to the agony-aunt of her shameful dream of wanting to be carried off and mastered by a strong man, and of the wise reply that this was quite okay, dear, provided you knew what you were about and realised what was going on. Elizabeth was lucky to have Robert, but then Charlotte Brontë was perhaps equally lucky to have had Arthur Nicholls. Had Charlotte lived, she might have continued to write good things as private woman and happy spouse, blissfully submitting her letters and manuscripts to her husband’s censorship.

Elizabeth was also, in a sense, a conscious and loving masochist in relation to her father and family, and Margaret Forster has done an admirable job in investigating what really went on among them. It takes two – or rather three – to make an Andromeda, and Elizabeth herself was a powerful unit in a close-knit Compton-Burnett family, who all recognised in their own way the uses of exploiting and being exploited. The sugar fortune which called the father and sons at various times to Jamaica had begun to diminish when the Regency palace built in the Welsh marches was sold, and the family moved to London, eventually settling in Wimpole Street. Elizabeth’s creation of her health was part of the way she made her own life, and its manipulation continued after her marriage. The adolescent illness which prostrated her, possibly measles or rheumatic fever, she never allowed herself to recover from. It enabled her to use opium and, later, morphine; it launched her on her literary career; it gave her precisely the relationship she needed with her doting father. But it also played the most important part in Robert’s expression of his love – he was always washing her feet or warming her in his lap – and she could win amazement and admiration from herself and the others by dropping it to conceive and carry to birth a perfectly healthy child. It is true she also had two or three miscarriages – she would have loved a daughter to go with her adored Pen – but that was probably due to opium and a sedentary habit: she probably never breathed a full lungful in her 55 years, or at least not after that childish illness. Like Darwin and Florence Nightingale and so many others, she saw how health could be used to decoy one’s talents: but she outdid them in using it, most touchingly of all, to arrange her death. Betty Miller intuited this, some years back, in her excellent little book on Browning. Elizabeth herself intuited that her husband and son, tremendous and eupeptic pals as they were, had really no further use for her; and in a sense they confirmed this by their calm and sensible behaviour at and after her death. She had got what she wanted and given what she could, as wife and writer, and there was no more she could do.

Aurora’s treatment of her catspaw Marian Erle in the novel in verse has some uncomfortable parallels with Elizabeth’s own treatment of her maid, Wilson, on whose services she depended absolutely, both before and after marriage. Wilson married an Italian footman, Ferdinando Romagnoli, and had a child, whom Elizabeth more or less forced her to leave in England after they had all gone on a visit there. Later, when Wilson was desperate to rejoin her, Elizabeth turned her away, preferring her new Italian maid, Annunciata. Like most invalids, Elizabeth was tough. Margaret Forster brings this out without blaming her, and with uncommon skill implies Wilson’s dumb life running parallel with that of her mistress, and continuing well beyond it, the sort of woman’s life which Elizabeth took such interest in, wanted to write about, but could never see or present as quite real. Callousness need not be lack of imagination: more like too much of it, and as undeliberate as an ingrowing toenail. ‘The Cry of the Children’, and the other protest poems which made her famous, were expressions of genuine indignation on Elizabeth’s part, but the kind that goes with reading things, not experiencing them. For a poet this can be a fatal distinction. It is significant that Larkin’s moving poem about the London slum girl who was drugged and ruined makes no bones about the fact that it came from reading Mayhew. It is an honest poem about sympathy at book arm’s length. When writing, Elizabeth pretended to know and experience what happened to Marian Erle and her other victims. But for knowledge she avidly devoured Balzac and any other novel that shocked. Margaret Forster shrewdly points out that in a letter to Thackeray about his polite rejection of a poem of hers called ‘Lord Walter’s Wife’ as not suited to a family magazine like the Cornhill, Elizabeth discreetly mocked him in words very similar to those used ten years later by Josephine Butler when she led the fight against the Contagious Diseases Act. (Her triumph ensured that many more soldiers would get VD because there would be no licenced and inspected brothels in garrison towns, but this fact, deplored by Kipling, is not mentioned by Margaret Forster.) The point of principle, however, with which one can only agree about with Josephine and Elizabeth, is that ‘good’ women aided and abetted the exploitation of prostitutes by refusing to acknowledge them as part of a common feminine predicament. Elizabeth knew and felt strongly about such things; her views were wholly realistic, but they contributed more to her self-esteem than to her sense of how other people actually lived.

Wilson was a case in point. She became a landlady in England; Ferdinando went away and came back again; she was separated from her children (one called Oreste) then reunited with them. The Brownings refused her a rise when she was with them, but on the other hand they found her Landor as a lodger. Boarding-houses failed; she returned destitute to Italy, and Browning allowed her £10 a year ‘for old times’ sake’.

Then Pen the son, who had loved her as a child, came to the rescue. She lived in his house in Venice and went with him to Asolo, where she died in 1902. An ordinary up-and-down sort of life, but strangely inaccessible to the sensibility of her mistress, dead 41 years before, when her morphine-paralysed brain cells quietly gave up the question of breathing, although she had neither pnueumonia nor TB. In most salutary fashion Margaret Forster corrects the Browning Society image of Pen as playboy and ne’er-do-well. Always kind, much kinder than genius could afford to be, he had his own troubles, including desertion from the Palazzo Rezzonico, which he had restored, by his wife, an American heiress who had provided the wherewithal. One wonders what he and Wilson talked about in the long winter evenings.

The only implication that Margaret Forster rather fails to make is on the relation as artists of husband and wife. Did either influence the other in technique and outlook as poets? This should be the really decisive question. But poetry does not come into the biography very much, and the biographer seems to misunderstand one of the few poems she quotes. It is the man and not the woman in ‘A Man’s Requirements’ who promises in return for total devotion to ‘love thee – half a year – /As a man is able’, although it must be admitted that Elizabeth in this sort of poem favoured a flirtatious approach that can leave the drift of verses not so much ambiguous as archly unclear. The opening of her most celebrated poem, ‘What was he doing, the great God Pan?’, is seduced by unintentional archness to the point of mild absurdity. There is one thing the god would be likely to be up to, but her poetry cannot help taking itself too seriously to mean this, even under the rose. The poem is certainly both memorable and moving, but its message tells us more about Mrs Browning than about poetry and poets. Art was certainly something that removed her from life, but in a different sense to the one she intended.

Margaret Forster may have been right not to select from Aurora Leigh in her choice of the poems, since she could not give it all, yet the first part of it shows most about what might be called, in relation to Elizabeth and her husband, the Browning method. How intensely bookish they both are, and how they involuntarily encouraged bookishness in each other! Before she met him, Elizabeth had been much struck by Browning’s Paracelsus. He was such a generous and passionate admirer of Aurora Leigh – the poem that in a sense they wrote together, for it was Elizabeth’s last and most arduous effort at a time when Browning himself was writing nothing – that he vowed to have revenge on any critic who disparaged it and ‘rub his nose in his own filth’. Its succès d’estime pleased him far more than if he had himself become popular. Indeed his wife’s reputation, and his own lack of one, seem to have been positive factors in his adoration of her, just as it pleased her self-esteem to lay down her fame at his feet.

Only after Elizabeth’s death did Browning begin to win poetic authority. That does not mean that he had moved out of her shadow, but that he had digested the lessons he had learnt, perhaps unconsciously, when they were together. It is surely ironic that the first and vital lesson was not to exhibit self-esteem, that preoccupation which her poems, whatever their outward form, are so full of. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that Elizabeth’s greatest contribution to English poetry was to teach her husband, without knowing it, the full uses of the dramatic method. The monologue was Browning’s version of his wife’s poetic self-enjoyment. Fra Lippo, Bishop Blougram, and all the others, are the poet himself, enjoying himself, but by other and much more effective means. He and Elizabeth, alive or dead, remained wrapped up in themselves and in each other, in their books, their Greek, their pictures, their private selves. Robert’s extroversion remained a gigantic and eminently successful fraud. I fancy he was aware of this, deep down: when, shortly after his marriage, he scribbled off that very interior little jeu d’esprit, ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came’, he was playing with the same idea which Henry James would explore elaborately in his story ‘The Beast in the Jungle’. In both cases a narrator awaits, hopes and seeks for the arrival of the true thing, the Big Experience. And the awareness of looking is itself the indication that it will not be found, can never arrive.

That is a very masculine myth and preoccupation, which would have meant nothing to Elizabeth. In poetry and in love, as in death and the spirit world, she had found a true sense of herself. And this kind of discovery was to be a vital inspiration to other women, and to women poets, like Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson, who so much admired her. When Emily Dickinson says in a poem, ‘I’m nobody’, it means she has found out how to be her own sort of somebody, and Elizabeth’s example had pointed the way. This highly original and yet unpretentious biography understands all this very well: understands, too, how for Elizabeth being herself also involved giving herself into a conscious bondage. She never got over her father’s rejection of her at her marriage, nor did her sister Henrietta: even the love of Robert Browning and Surtees Cook could not comfort them for that. It would be melodramatic to claim that their early deaths resulted from it, and yet Elizabeth did undoubtedly feel that dying would reunite her with her father, who had himself died without a word of recognition or forgiveness. Self-esteem required from her that final but loving sacrifice.

Her Complete Works were once published, like her husband’s, in a handsome dark green volume by Smith Elder. My edition dates from 1904, and I imagine that they went out of print not so long after. Certainly they have never been given the superb treatment that Oxford and Ohio University Presses are now giving to Robert’s works. Ohio is ahead and has now produced the eighth of a 14-volume edition. It contains Books five to eight of The Ring and the Book, is meticulously collated on each page in terms of textual variants, and has explanatory notes at the back. The Oxford edition will not hazard a guess at the number of volumes it will eventually need: the present one contains Pippa passes, Dramatic Lyrics, and the plays, ending with A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon and Colombe’s Birthday. In the old editions one saw Browning’s poetry, as it were, through the wrong end of a telescope: now it suddenly comes into focus under a high-powered magnifying-glass. The results have their own sort of fascination. Without being invidious, it must be said that Ian Jack and Rowena Fowler are making a collection as sumptuous as Aladdin’s cave, wonderfully easy to read, and with introductions as absorbing as the poems and plays have now become. There is even an appendix printing on opposite pages two versions of a poem on the Pied Piper of Hamelin composed by Browning senior. Robert swore he never knew his father had written it, but they had chatted together about the antiquarian sources. The elder Browning was a learned man and no bad poet in the style of R.H. Barham, even though his son’s rats and kiddies have the last word.