Viva la trattoria

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Her Sister Arabella edited by Scott Lewis
    Wedgestone, two volumes, $300.00, October 2002, ISBN 0 911459 29 4

Eleven of Edward Moulton-Barrett’s dozen children survived to adulthood; and eight were left behind when the eldest escaped to Italy with Robert Browning in 1846 (two sons, including the father’s namesake, had died six years earlier). Moulton-Barrett did not attempt to hoard girl-children only, although the legend surrounding his daughter’s elopement has sometimes suggested that. The sex of the oldest Barrett child doubtless encouraged her confinement as an invalid; but on the question of marriage, at least, Edward Moulton-Barrett appears to have tyrannised all his children. He is famous for refusing to acknowledge Elizabeth ever again after she eloped with Browning, but he also disowned her sister Henrietta and her younger brother Alfred when they in turn chose to marry. Not surprisingly, the rest of his offspring managed to stay single during their father’s lifetime; two sons seem to have consoled themselves in the interlude with women on his Jamaica estates, and three took wives after his death. As the one daughter who never married, Arabella Barrett remained longest and most intimately connected to the domestic world Elizabeth Barrett Browning had left behind. Before the flight to Italy, she had slept on a couch in her invalid sister’s bedroom in Wimpole Street; in the years that followed, Elizabeth’s ‘beloved Arabel’ served as her principal link to the old house and the affections that inhabited it.

This is not to say that Arabella was the only member of her family to whom Elizabeth wrote after her arrival on the Continent. Even by 19th-century standards, EBB, as she often signed herself, was an extraordinarily prolific correspondent; and the invalid who had previously substituted letters for face to face meetings with friends close at hand now had another motive for taking to her pen. Both her sisters had been in on the secret of her relationship with Browning – though she spared them advance knowledge of the elopement in the interest of what we now call ‘deniability’ – and after the poets had settled in Italy, she often wrote to Henrietta as well. (A volume of 1929 entitled Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Letters to Her Sister 1846-59, consists largely of these letters, duly expurgated by Henrietta’s husband and the editor.) While her brothers initially sided with their father in opposing the union with Browning, none of them seems to have broken off relations completely. A ‘very hard’ letter from her ‘dearest George’ was awaiting her in ‘a great packet’ when the couple reached Orléans, but friendlier exchanges eventually followed. Included in that first dreaded packet – her ‘death warrant’ as she called it – was a letter from Mr Barrett himself. But Elizabeth’s letter to him was returned unopened, and her subsequent efforts proved no more successful: five years’ worth were returned, their seals unbroken, when the poets sought a reconciliation on their visit to England in 1851. This one-sided correspondence has not survived – a nephew burned it in the 1920s – but the letters to Arabella amply confirm that their author could not ‘forget in a moment the beloved of a whole life’. Although the bulk of their narrative is concerned with EBB’s domestic activities in Italy and elsewhere, it is clear that the satisfactions of the new home do not cancel out the attachment to the old. ‘Meantime my soul walks up & down that house of Wimpole Street,’ she wrote a few months after her father’s death in 1857; and one need not share her belief in the capacity of spirits to cross continents and penetrate walls to recognise the truth of her claim.

The collection opens with a narrative immediacy that would do justice to Samuel Richardson, as EBB hastens to reaffirm the bond her marriage and flight have threatened to sever:

My beloved Arabel I write to you after a thousand thoughts . . (for I have not heard a breath of any of you yet) but the strongest brings me still to writing to you – I believe that you at least, you & my dearest Henrietta, would rather hear from me than not hear – So without a word more of feeling . . leaving all the grief & the doubt on one side, . . I hurry on blindly to let you hear the whole story of me, which seems to me to run in a whole circle of years rather than days, . . so strange it all is, & full of wonder.

From a ‘miserable’ Channel crossing to the ‘fantastic scene’ of their diligence hurtling to Rouen by moonlight – the horses’ manes ‘leaping as they gallopped, & the white reins dripping down over their heads’ – through a dreamlike pause for coffee and bread, and then on to Paris in pursuit of their luggage, the heroine breathlessly recounts the story of the couple’s first days and nights on the Continent. This short tale, in a longer letter, has its climax when a brief note from Robert summons the Brownings’ mutual friend and fellow writer Anna Jameson to pronounce a suitable blessing on their marriage:

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