Foiled by Pleasure

Matthew Bevis

  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Selected Writings edited by Josie Billington and Philip Davis
    Oxford, 592 pp, £14.99, February 2018, ISBN 978 0 19 879763 0

Having reached the grand age of 14, Elizabeth Barrett peered back into the distant past. She recorded in her journal that, when she was nine, ‘works of imagination only afforded me gratification and I trod the delightful fields of fancy without any of those conscientious scruples which now always attend me when wasting time in frivolous pleasure.’ She is wiser now, but her scruples don’t lead her to renounce pleasure:

My feelings are acute in the extreme but as nothing is so odious in my eyes as a damsel famed in story for a superabundance of sensibility, they are carefully restrained! I have so habituated myself to this sort of continued restraint, that I often appear to my dearest friends to lack common feeling! – I do not blame them. They know me not and I feel a sort of mysterious pleasure in their mistake! –

The thrill comes not just from being misunderstood, but from her understanding of her own pleasure as a bit of an enigma. Elizabeth would continue to enjoy both the wilfulness and the mysteriousness of the feeling; the OED credits her with the invention of ‘pleasurehood’. That coinage occurs in an early poem which appears to be fretful about gratification. In her translation of St Gregory Nazianzen’s ‘Soul and Body’, she has the rhetorician pray for the right words, ones that ‘may flourish/Of which mine enemy would spoil me,/Using pleasurehood to foil me!’ But the poem’s own fondness for verbal flourishes isn’t easily disentangled from pleasurehood. Her writing often uses pleasure as a foil; more often, though, it wants to be foiled by pleasure.

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