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:

You dear, abominable poets! Why what a ménage you will make! – You should each have married a ‘petit bouce de prose’ to keep you reasonable. But he is a wise man . . in choosing so . . & you are a wise woman, let the world say as it pleases! – & I shall dance for joy both in earth & in heaven, my dear friends.

Subsequent letters confirm the aptness of Jameson’s response. Especially in the early years of the marriage, Elizabeth’s letters repeatedly testify to her happiness. ‘For my part, I am happier now than at first – (not so extraordinary perhaps!),’ she writes two months after the elopement.

But it is strange for him to love me with increase, in this way: it is not the common way of men . . . I assure you, I have far more extravagances & ‘voluntary humilities’ to put away from me, than ever I had in the Wimpole Street days of adoration, – & now I begin to wonder naturally whether I may not be some sort of a real angel after all. It is not so bad a thing, be sure, for a woman to be loved by a man of imagination – He loves her through a lustrous atmosphere, which not only keeps back the faults, but produces a continual novelty, through its own changes.

‘If all married people lived as happily as we do, how many good jokes it would spoil!’ she remarks a few months later. It does not detract from the authenticity of that happiness to acknowledge that these early letters aim to justify her new life as well as to describe it: the repeated accounts of marital bliss serve to persuade her sister – and perhaps herself – that the radical break with her family was worth the cost.

Cost in another sense also enters the narrative, as the cheapness of life on the Continent helps to offset the emotional extravagance of the enterprise. Delighted reports of inexpensive food and inexpensive lodgings simultaneously vindicate the decision to live abroad and testify to a poetic incapacity for ordinary homemaking. ‘Viva la trattoria, I say. It is cheap & direct, & saves unlearned people like Robert & me from the dreadful pass of “keeping house”.’ In Florence:

we have every luxury really – & I never shd. desire to live in better rooms (& these are carpeted all over) nor with completer comfort. And the cheapness is something miraculous . . frightful almost . . I open my eyes wider & wider every day as our dinner comes! Observe, that according to our present arrangement, nobody orders the dinner – The restaurant agrees to send us a certain number of dishes every day, on the payment of so much a week . . about nineteen shillings. Now is’nt it delightful to take no thought of what we shall eat, & without so much as rubbing a lamp like Aladdin, to see the table covered, with a dinner cooked [&] served hot in the flash of a miracle, precisely at three oclock?!

Despite the attendance of the household ‘Genii’ – not to mention an annual gift of £100 from Elizabeth’s cousin John Kenyon – the later letters make it clear that the Browning finances were often tight, and that Robert in particular worried about expenditure. Since he had been accused of marrying Elizabeth for her fortune – she had a small independent income, while he was a middle-class poet without salary – he was perhaps less able to afford, both literally and psychologically, her cheerful confidence about money.

EBB has a lively way with dialogue; and some of the most animated passages of the early letters ventriloquise both parts in the lovers’ ‘quarrels’ – exchanges that inevitably end with them yet more attached to each other. The voice she most delights in mimicking, however, is their son Pen’s. (Christened ‘Wiedemann’ after Robert’s mother’s maiden name, the child managed to convert this ‘by an extraordinary resolution of syllables’ into ‘Peninny’, which was eventually shortened to ‘Pen’.) Unlike Robert, who insisted on speaking English to the child, Elizabeth preferred to encourage his immediate understanding of Italian – being ‘obstinately of the opinion’, as she put it, that language is ‘only a symbol’ and that ‘the introduction of two different symbols, must, by complicating the difficulty, render the process slower.’ Rather than speed time up, Elizabeth preferred that it be extended indefinitely. ‘Robert wants to make the child like a boy, he says – (because he is a man) – and I, because I am a woman perhaps, like him to be a baby as long as possible.’ Indeed, the zeal with which she endlessly transcribed his childish dialect makes clear how little she wanted to hasten the day when childhood was no longer in question. ‘I asked him if he loved me, the other day,’ she reports when Pen is two and a half. ‘“Less” [yes], said he – “Peninny’s Mama’s boy.”’ The idiom of the four-year-old is more sophisticated, but neither the sentiment nor the childish pronunciation has apparently altered. ‘What should I do without you, my darling?’ the mother inquires. ‘Oh no,’ the child responds: ‘I wont be lost, Mama! I not lite be tilled. I stay with Mama, and laugh & love, and tate tare of Mama.’ Even an expression of distaste for a young female acquaintance manages to sound a similar note: ‘Somebody asked him the other day if he liked May Sartoris. “Not velly mush” – said he – “she tumbles up mine turls!”’ (Until their ends began to split when he was five, Elizabeth insisted that those curls remain uncut.) Not all Pen’s speeches are so cloying, nor does his mother’s appreciation of them lack irony, but a little of this sort of thing goes a long way.

Even before the baby begins to speak, tales of his adventures increasingly dominate the narrative, from the comic succession of wet-nurses – four in all – who variously attempt to feed him, to his noisy pursuit of the Brownings’ spaniel, Flush, when the latter hides under the bed rather than have his ears pulled. That celebrated dog is mostly conspicuous here by his absence, having been anecdotally supplanted by the curly-headed child. Descriptions of ‘Baby . . . staggering sometimes like a drunken fairy’ as he tries to cross the room without assistance, or taking hold of a pencil at 13 and a half months ‘just like a writing master’, amply compensate for those days before digital baby pictures flooded the computers of doting relatives. All children imitate their elders, and all parents delight in the fact; but the writer who lovingly registered the ‘scientific manner’ with which her small Pen grasped his pencil was more than ordinarily sensitive to the childish capacity for mimesis. Many of her most vivid anecdotes imitate his own imitations, whether he is pretending to shoot every Austrian soldier he meets, solemnly mimicking the gestures of the Catholic Mass, or gravely echoing their Italian manservant’s scornful generalisations about women. In the matter of religion, at least, Arabella seems to have been perpetually anxious that so much copying would end by producing the thing itself; and Elizabeth has repeatedly to assure her that there is little danger that Pen will ‘sprout up an infantine Papist’. For all her pleasure in Pen’s imitations, his mother generally remains clear-eyed about its limits – nowhere more so than in her judgment of Pen’s early efforts at poetry:

You are to understand, Arabel, that Penini’s ‘poems’ so called, are not to be compared with any writings of precocious children . . . simply because they are not writings . . compositions . . at all . . . What makes Penini’s things so pleasant, is, that they are the prattle of the young soul . . just pure improvisation . . . Oh no – he’s not the least bit an author – & perhaps he never may be. But he’s a little improvisatore . . which Robert & I were at no time in our childhood . . . Only pray dont fancy that he’s going the way of his fathers as a juvenile author . . . He breathes & lives in that book – it’s his prattle . . & no more.

Elizabeth was rarely so cool about her small son’s prospects; and Arabella seems to have ventured no further remarks on Pen’s future as a poet.

As it happens, the Brownings’ only child would follow in his parents’ footsteps, but only quite literally. After Elizabeth’s death in 1861, Robert abruptly seized the opportunity to turn the baby into a boy by cutting his hair, discarding the velvet suits and fantastic hats, and transporting him to England in a vain attempt to set him up at Oxford. ‘Ah, Arabel – when his wings drop off! when he grows deeper into the world! I shant like it, I assure you,’ Elizabeth had written; and the evidence suggests that Pen himself never quite recovered from the sudden collapse of those imaginary appendages. After repeatedly failing to take his degree and briefly seeking to make his way as a painter, Pen married an American heiress and returned with her to Italy – even going so far as to rehire the servants who had helped raise him at Casa Guidi. Reading in retrospect may be unfair, but it is hard not to wince when one comes upon the letter that describes how the ten-year-old has fastened his ‘little bed’ by a string to his parents’ bedpost so as to be ‘tied tight to mama’.

Despite the hothouse atmosphere of Casa Guidi, the wider world makes itself continuously felt in these letters. A parade of distinguished visitors, from Margaret Fuller Ossoli to Goethe’s grandson, pays court to the Brownings in Florence. On a sojourn in Paris, the poets finally manage a much anticipated meeting with George Sand, who – greatly to Arabella’s disapproval, apparently – begins their acquaintance by kissing Elizabeth on the lips. EBB keeps up a running commentary on political news from Italy and France, while the later letters are increasingly given over to excited reports of table-rapping and spiritualism. To judge by Elizabeth’s half of the dialogue, her sister does not seem to have shared her enthusiasm for Louis Napoleon or the ‘rapping spirits’. Ironically, EBB tried to justify her interest in both subjects as providing that ‘knowledge of real life’ she otherwise sorely lacked: ‘These things supply a defect in my experience, and I am convinced that I shall think & write better & stronger for the knowledge of them.’ Despite her assurances that Robert would be converted at any moment, he remained less sympathetic, particularly on the spirit question: decades later, he still dreaded the publication of these letters, fearing that the ‘imaginary’ experiences they recount would arouse scorn and ridicule.

The contemporary fashion for spiritualism was real enough; and EBB was not wholly wrong to argue, as she did repeatedly, that scepticism can itself be a form of prejudice and closed-mindedness. But although at first she admitted only to ‘potential belief’ and displayed a certain irony as to the manifestations at issue – ‘there is actually a periodical magazine which is carried on wholly on this subject, professing to convey the last news from the spirit-world’ – this rapidly turned into a faith seemingly impervious to disproof. All across America and Europe, if these letters are to be believed, tables vibrated, four-posters rose in the air, music played – the spirits seem to have been particularly fond of accordions – and messages were written without visible agency. ‘For me,’ EBB writes, ‘a hundred fruitless experiments would not shake my convictions.’ Ever since the loss of her beloved brother Edward (‘Bro’) in a boating accident for which she felt herself partly responsible, EBB had had an intense need to believe in the accessibility of the dead; and for all her excitement at rocking tables and ghostly music, nothing seems to have captured her imagination more than the spiritualists’ talk of death as if it were simply moving to another room of the house. Towards the end of these letters comes the news that her other sister, Henrietta, has died of cancer; and her anguish at the death is the more moving for her recognition of how little her spiritualist faith consoles her. She tries to persuade herself that her sister ‘is only in the next room – though . . . I cannot see or hear her,’ but is compelled to acknowledge that ‘the mortal,’ in her words, ‘takes hold of me & strangles me.’

EBB can be a splendid letter-writer, one may even be tempted to conclude that her epistolary art surpasses her achievement as a poet. Though the present collection has its wonderful moments, it is not likely to challenge the love letters to Browning or, for that matter, the extensive literary correspondence with Mary Russell Mitford – EBB’s exchanges with each of them having been similarly accorded separate publication as a sequence. (A scholarly edition of all the extant letters of both Brownings, anticipated to fill some forty volumes, has so far reached Volume XIV.) Part of the difference can probably be attributed to the silent partner in this dialogue – Arabella’s share of this exchange has not survived. The letters to Mitford, the bulk of which were written from the invalid’s quarters at Wimpole Street, derive much of their energy from their exhilarated discovery of a fellow conspirator – a woman with whom she could exchange advice and criticism, dispute the merits of other writers, and confidently indulge in literary allusion. Among their shared enthusiasms were the novels of George Sand and Balzac, an appetite that EBB deliberately concealed from her more conventional sisters: ‘They have enough to read without these books . . bristling & burning as they are with evil.’ Even after the escape to Italy, when solitude no longer heightened the stakes of epistolary companionship, the correspondence with Mitford has an intellectual bite generally absent from the letters to Arabella. As for the courtship letters to Browning, their apparent spontaneity is the achievement of a writer still more invested in her choice of words – a woman who conspired with her lover to give rhetorical life to their intimacy.

The correspondence with Arabella served more to maintain a bond than create one; and it is no reflection on EBB’s fondness for her sister to say that the collection as a whole suffers accordingly. Scott Lewis may be right to contend that she ‘felt no fear or constraint in writing to Arabella’, but the absence of pressure does not necessarily result in greater pleasure for the reader. Between the breathlessly associative style of these letters, their idiosyncratic punctuation, and their extraordinary length – so long that Robert apparently worried that Elizabeth might endanger her health in writing them – the non-specialist may find herself longing for the days when editors believed it their duty to prune documents rather than reproduce them in full. On the other hand, the editor’s scrupulous notation of missing material – primarily Arabella’s excisions of references to EBB’s pregnancy and miscarriages, but also the inevitable accidents of torn paper and lost pages – yields many moments of surpassing bafflement. Scholars of the Brownings will perhaps be grateful for Lewis’s inclusion of every fragment, but most readers will only wonder at his patience.