Reflections from a Visiting Scholar: Hair and Hairwork at the Armstrong Browning Library

By Heather Hind, PhD Candidate, Universities of Exeter and Bristol, United Kingdom

Heather Hind at the Armstrong Browning Library

I was delighted to find out earlier this year that I’d been awarded a one month fellowship with the Armstrong Browning Library (ABL) to carry out research for a chapter of my PhD thesis on the Brownings. Even with my preliminary enquiries into the ABL’s collections, I did not anticipate just how fruitful my time here would be.

My thesis is a study of hairwork—the art of making decorative objects such as jewellery and embroidery out of human hair—in Victorian literature and culture. This topic tends to get rather polarised reactions: some are in disbelief that it was a common practice (the hashtag #HairyArchives on Twitter is testament to this), some are a bit grossed-out by idea of keeping hair clippings, while others show enthusiasm for something so curious and of its time. The latter, thankfully, was the reaction of the ABL staff who have all been incredibly helpful and supportive during my stay.

Robert Browning’s grandfather’s hair in an 1830s memorial brooch (H0500).

Robert Browning’s grandfather’s hair in an 1830s memorial brooch (H0500).

I should first explain that hairwork was not an invention of the Victorians. If you count locks of hair plaited and curled into reliquaries and rings, it dates back at least as far as medieval times (see Margaret Sleeman’s ‘Medieval Hair Tokens’, 1981). In the seventeenth century bracelets made of hair had a moment, as attested to by their romantic exchange in John Donne’s ‘The Relic’ and ‘The Funeral’ (1633) and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600), in which Egeus complains that Lysander has ‘stolen the impression of [Hermia’s] fantasy / With bracelets of thy hair’. The fashion for memento mori jewellery in the eighteenth century, which often meant incorporating a lock or woven background of hair into a brooch or ring, marks the beginning of the more familiar use of hair for memento mori and mourning purposes. Robert Browning’s grandfather’s hair brooch is a prime example of this. The seed pearls around the brooch were common elements in mourning jewellery, signifying teardrops, and the back of the brooch makes its memorial function clear: ‘Robert Browning Esqr. Obt. Decr. 11th 1833. At. 84’. The popularity of sentimental fiction such as The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774) played a part in shaping this period of hairwork, associated with romance and deep affection but tied, almost inevitably, to death and mourning. While these morbid associations persisted to some extent in the Victoria era, during the heyday of hairwork in the 1840s-60s it had far more to do with love, family, and friendships—with relationships with the living—than it did with anticipating or memorialising death. This is one of the key points that I make in my thesis and, with the aid of the ABL’s collections, one that can be demonstrated by looking at the place and prevalence of locks of hair and hairwork in the Brownings’ poetry, letters, and personal effects.

There is a lot of the Brownings’ hair to consider. There are forty-nine recorded articles of hair and hairwork connected with the Brownings listed across the The Browning Collections Catalogue and two related archives housed by the ABL, The Altham Archive and The Joseph Milsand Archive. Though the majority of these locks have found themselves stranded in libraries and museums all over the world (at least from Eton to Wellesley College), the ABL holds eighteen of these articles—and they are some of the more interesting pieces, too. Along with eleven plain or ‘unworked’ locks of hair, there are three locks coiled into lockets, three hair bracelets and a brooch. Of these, half are attributed to RB or EBB.

From top clockwise: Hair bracelet engraved ‘E B Barrett’ (H0474), hair bracelet of Mary Moulton-Barrett (G17), and hair bracelet of Henrietta Clutterbuck engraved “March 9th 1838” (G18).

From top clockwise: Hair bracelet engraved ‘E B Barrett’ (H0474), hair bracelet of Mary Moulton-Barrett (G17), and hair bracelet of Henrietta Clutterbuck engraved “March 9th 1838” (G18).

The three hair bracelets in the Altham Archive are the most elaborate pieces in the collection, though they are not unusual for the time they were made. The bracelet belonging to Mary Moulton-Barrett, EBB’s mother, another in memory of Henrietta Clutterbuck (a family friend from when the Barretts lived at Hope End), and the one of EBB’s hair are very similar in appearance. Each consists of a wide band of woven hair fitted with a flat clasp: a popular design in the 1820s and 30s and comparable to other early-nineteenth-century bracelets, such as one made of Anne Brontë’s hair in the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth.

From top clockwise: A hairwork frame from William Martin’s Hair Worker’s Manual (1852), a hair bracelet of Anne Brontë’s hair (HAOBP: J14), and part of the frontispiece of Emilie Berrin’s Thorough Instructions for Women on the Production of All Possible Kinds of Hairbraids (1822).

From top clockwise: A hairwork frame from William Martin’s Hair Worker’s Manual (1852), a hair bracelet of Anne Brontë’s hair (HAOBP: J14), and part of the frontispiece of Emilie Berrin’s Thorough Instructions for Women on the Production of All Possible Kinds of Hairbraids (1822).

This style of hairwork would have been made on a frame or weighted across a cushion in order to plait the many strands of hair evenly and, while this set-up could have been achieved at home by the amateur, was more likely completed by a jeweller or professional hairworker. This transaction was, however, not without anxiety. There is mention in the Brownings’ letters of hair going missing while in the possession of jewellers. Part of a lock of EBB’s hair, requested in a letter by RB and the subject of her poem ‘I never gave a lock of hair away’ (Sonnets from the Portuguese, 1850), was placed in a ring bearing her nickname, ‘Ba’, and sent to a jeweller to be resized for RB’s little finger. When he received the ring back from the jeweller EBB’s hair was gone. She sent him another lock, RB reasoning that ‘it seems probable that there was no intentional mischief in that jeweller’s management of the ring—the divided gold must have been exposed to the fire,—heated thoroughly, perhaps,—and what became of the contents then!’ (15 December 1845; BC 11, 240-41).

Lock of hair cut when Robert Barrett Browning was nine days old (H0501), and lock of hair cut later in life, but undated (H0502).

Lock of hair cut when Robert Barrett Browning was nine days old (H0501), and lock of hair cut later in life, but undated (H0502).

Finely woven hairwork offered a way for friends and family to memorialise their relations and relationships in a wearable and touchable memento. Locks of hair, however, could be equally precious, treasured not for their intricate form but for the affections and memories they manifest. The two locks of Pen Browning’s hair demonstrate this most clearly, one cut when he was nine days old and another undated but, by judging its grisly appearance, cut in later life. The lock cut in Pen’s childhood is curled into the shape of a bow, or perhaps an infinity symbol, a golden token of youth and possibility. The other lock curls untidily round itself, its various shades of blonde and brown and grey marking the passing from youth to old age. EBB wrote fondly of Pen’s hair in her letters (which are fully searchable using the in-house database ABL Research Tools) and occasionally sent locks out to her friends, proud of but precious about his long golden ringlets. She writes to Joanna Hilary Bonham Carter, for instance, ‘I will send you in some niggardly way the ‘hairs’ you ask for—confessing myself a miser’ (25 May 1854; BC 20, 225-26). I am interested also in how hair is aligned in the Brownings’ poetry with gold and precious goods—be they a figure of spiritual wealth or worldly economic value—particularly in EBB’s ‘The soul’s rialto hath its merchandise’ (1850) and ‘Only a curl’ (1862), and RB’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ (1842) and ‘Gold Hair: A Story of Pornic’ (1862). The collections of the ABL have provided a rich source of material as I chart these uneasy intersections between hair and money, the gift of hair and its expected return, and hairwork and poetic work.

From left: Hair album of the Estes Family (Texas Collection), manuscript of EBB’s ‘Lines on the Portrait of the Widow of Riego’ and lock of the widow’s hair (H0508), replica of a locket worn by EBB containing RB’s hair (H0493), manuscript page of Leigh Hunt’s ‘To Robert Batty, M.D., on His Giving Me a Lock of Milton's Hair’ (ABL Victorian Collection), and a lock of EBB’s hair (H0479).

From left: Hair album of the Estes Family (Texas Collection), manuscript of EBB’s ‘Lines on the Portrait of the Widow of Riego’ and lock of the widow’s hair (H0508), replica of a locket worn by EBB containing RB’s hair (H0493), manuscript page of Leigh Hunt’s ‘To Robert Batty, M.D., on His Giving Me a Lock of Milton’s Hair’ (ABL Victorian Collection), and a lock of EBB’s hair (H0479).

There are many more curious hair tokens I would like to share from my research, just a sample being: a replica of EBB’s locket encircled by a serpent containing the hair of RB; a beautifully plaited and coiled lock of EBB’s hair; the long plaited lock of the widow of Riego which is tucked inside the manuscript of EBB’s poem on her portrait; a page of the manuscript of Leigh Hunt’s poem on Milton’s hair which begins ‘There seems a love in hair though it be dead’; and the hair album of the Estes family from The Texas Collection of the Carroll Library. Each of these unique artefacts offers a further step to understanding the vibrant and varied culture of hairwork in the nineteenth century.

As Dr Duc Dau noted in her blog post for the ABL last year, ‘For the tactile among us, there’s a certain thrill at the experience of touching these manuscripts and bits of paper’, but it’s this thrill that forms a key part of my project. Sometimes, physical proximity and touch can illuminate more about an artefact than reading about it can—you get a real sense of the scale, texture, opacity or translucency, incongruous lightness or heaviness, and of the fragility or sturdiness of an item that you simply cannot work out with even the best quality digital image. And it’s these precise qualities that need to be defined if we are to understand the affective power hairwork held for the Victorians. The embodied experience of handling and viewing and contemplating locks of hair—seeing the way they want to uncurl and escape from envelopes and regarding the light-reflecting litheness of woven hair bracelets even two hundred years on—makes sense of their lively and allusive presence in the poetry of the Brownings.

I would like to end by thanking all of the ABL staff for their incredible support and for helping me to find resources (and, of course, hair) for my research in places I would never have thought to look. And I would strongly encourage other graduate students in Victorian studies to look into the collections of the ABL—there is much more than just a few locks locked away in the archives.

Rhyme and Reform Symposium: An Instructor’s Perspective

By Meagan Anthony, English Ph.D. Candidate, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

On October 4th and 5th, the Armstrong Browning Library co-hosted our first hybrid symposium, Rhyme and Reform: Victorian Working-Class Poets and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Cry of the Children”, along with the University of Strathclyde and the University of Manchester. This multi-site, digitally-networked symposium about Victorian portrayals of industrial labor and verse coincided with the 175th anniversary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “The Cry of the Children,” which protested the abuse of child workers in British mines and factories. Rhyme and Reform’s schedule of events included in-person and live-streamed presentations, on-site workshops featuring the digital editing tool COVE, and an exhibition. Below, Armstrong Browning Library’s Graduate Research Assistant, Meagan Anthony writes about her decision to bring her English course to the opening reception of Rhyme and Reform’s exhibit.

*****

As an instructor, I think linking classroom discussion with real world events is an important tool for students to transition classroom ideas into their everyday lives. This semester I am teaching the FAS (Freshman Academic Seminar) Protest Writing and Civil Disobedience.  We began looking at the protest writing of the American Independence Movement and will continue up to the #MeToo Movement and March for Our Lives.

Students from Meagan Anthony's English class interact with the Rhyme and Reform exhibit.

Students from Meagan Anthony’s English class interact with the Rhyme and Reform exhibit.

Coincidentally, the week Rhyme and Reform took place, my class was reading about the protest writing of the American tenement dwellers and factory workers. The symposium fit in with our discussion perfectly. Not only could the students see how other scholars presented work regarding protest literature, but they were able to see and experience that the issues with working and living conditions in 19th century America were not limited to America, or that century. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry also offered the students a new genre for discussion. Our active questions included: How does the genre of protest writing effect the message? What rhetorical techniques are unique to certain genres and which are shared by others? By what past text is this author influenced? How would readers have responded to this text at the time? How should we respond to it?

Meagan Anthony leads her class in a discussion of the Rhyme and Reform exhibit.

Meagan Anthony leads her class in a discussion of the Rhyme and Reform exhibit.

My class thoroughly enjoyed their experience at the ABL and noted that the few classmates who were unable to make class that day had truly missed out. Events like Rhyme and Reform help us to keep literature and historical writing relevant and living. Throughout the semester my class will engage with many instances of injustice and reform through historical texts and literature in order to come to the understanding that these issues are cyclical. We are not experiencing new forms of oppression or disenfranchisement; we are simply experiencing new waves of conflict. Looking back at former protest voices aids us by showing where we have come from and envisioning what our next steps should be.

Rhyme and Reform: Victorian Working-Class Poets and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Cry of the Children”

a multi-site, digitally networked symposium organized by
the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University (US)
and the Universities of Strathclyde and Manchester (UK)

October 4-5, 2018
To register and learn more, please visit
baylor.edu/library/rhymeandreform

Many know that Victorian factories and mines were dangerous places to work, but how often do we really consider the human lives and stories they shaped?  What was it like to be a child working in these places? How did workers write about their conditions? How did authors on the outside respond to reports of labor abuse? Can these stories still speak to our times?

Please join us in considering these questions at “Rhyme and Reform” as we investigate Victorian portrayals of industrial labor in verse and narrative.  This multi-site, digitally linked series of events will be hosted by the Armstrong Browning Library in partnership with the University of Strathclyde in Scotland and the University of Manchester in England.

“Rhyme and Reform” marks the 175th anniversary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “The Cry of the Children,” which protested the abuse of child workers in British mines and factories.

This symposium will put “The Cry of the Children” and representations of labor by Victorian working-class authors in conversation through scholarly presentations, performances of laboring-class balladry, interactive workshops, and a combination of physical and digital exhibitions by scholars and students.

The centerpiece of these exhibitions is “‘Orphans of earthly love’: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Protest for Working Children,” which was designed by undergraduates in my recent Victorian Poetry seminar at the Armstrong Browning Library (ABL). This exhibition will open at the ABL on the first day of “Rhyme and Reform.”  We would be especially delighted for Benefactors of the library to join us for this occasion, when students from the class will attend—in person and digitally—to discuss their work.  A version of this exhibition will also be on the event site, where it will be accompanied by displays about working-class poetry supplied by the “Piston, Pen & Press” project, which highlights the literary cultures of workers in nineteenth-century industrial Scotland and northern England.  This project is sponsored by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council, and led by faculty and staff at the University of Strathclyde, the University of Manchester, and the National Railway Museum (York, UK).

Through “Rhyme and Reform,” we hope to illuminate the contexts, concerns, and ongoing relevance of Victorian depictions of industrial labor. Calling these subjects “relevant” might seem a stretch.  Most who witness this conference will probably have no personal experience of mines or factories, which have largely moved out of eyesight in “first-world” countries.  Yet our wardrobes and powerplants still depend upon their often-inhumane operation around the globe, and far more children endure slavery and forced labor today than in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s time.  Furthermore, people everywhere are feeling the effects of another legacy from Britain’s industrial age, dependency on fossil fuels.  How we respond to this inheritance will define our shared future.

This symposium seeks to contribute to that response by experimenting with a more sustainable form of international conferencing and collaboration.  Rather than flying everyone to one site, it will digitally link two event centers across the Atlantic, use a digital suite of tools called COVE to create a cooperative annotation of “Cry of the Children,” and invite participants around the world to access exhibitions and live-streamed presentations through the event website.

I warmly encourage you to visit this website to review the schedule and make time in yours to attend.  If you are unable to join us physically, please make a note to return to the website during the symposium for streamed and prerecorded events.

Dr. Joshua King
Associate Professor of English, Baylor University
Margarett Root Brown Chair in Robert Browning and Victorian Studies
Armstrong Browning Library

White Star Lines–Titanic Connections at the ABL–The Fano Club

By Melinda Creech
Graduate Assistant, Armstrong Browning Library

The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, more commonly known as the White Star Line, was a prominent British shipping company.  Founded in 1845, The White Star Line, operated a fleet of clipper ships that sailed between Britain, Australia, and America. The ill-fated Titanic was perhaps their most famous ship. The Armstrong Browning Library has a few connections to the Titanic. One connection relates to a set of postcards that disappeared with the Titanic and another relates to the author of the hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” the song that was purportedly playing as the Titanic sank. The Armstrong Browning Library’s collection includes a letter with the White Star logo in its heading and several letters written on board ships or while individuals were preparing to board ships. The letters, written between 1841 and 1912, are lines from people who were passengers on SS (Steamer Ships), RMS (Royal Mail Steamers), or HMS (Her Majesty’s Ship). It is interesting to note that one of the first purposes of steamers crossing the Atlantic was to deliver the mail. These lines, written from steamer ships, may shed some light on the adventure and danger presented by steamer travel in the late nineteenth century.

This first post is directly connected to the Titanic and tells the story of a unique link between Robert and Elizabeth Browning and the sunken Titanic.

In the spring of 1912, one hundred years after the birth of Robert Browning, William Lyon Phelps, Yale professor and Browning scholar, and his wife made a trip to the little Italian town of Fano. Dr. Phelps and his wife had boarded the S. S. Cleveland on 1 July 1911 for their second sabbatical trip from Yale University, visiting England, Sweden, Russia, Germany, France, and were now ending up their travels in Italy. Dr. Phelps and his wife knew that the poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning had visited Fano in the summer of 1848. The Phelpses travelled there with the expressed purpose of walking in the poets’ footsteps.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, aged 47. Oil painting by Thomas Buchanan Read, Florence, November 1853. Robert Browning, aged 41. Oil painting by Thomas Buchanan Read, Rome, November 1853.

In the summer of 1848 the Brownings had travelled to Fano, Italy, hoping the cool sea breeze of the east coast of Italy would provide a respite from the stifling heat they had been experiencing in their home in Florence. They found Fano even hotter than Florence. Looking for some shade they entered the Church of San Agostino and discovered a large painting, The Guardian Angel, by a seventeenth-century artist known as Guercino. In a letter to Mary Russell Mitford, 24 August [1848], Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:

excerpt of letter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford. 24 August [1848].

we found it uninhabitable from the heat.. vegetation scorched into paleness, the very air swooning in the sun, and the gloomy looks of the inhabitants sufficiently corroborative of their words, that no drop of rain or dew ever falls there during the summer . . . —yet the churches are beautiful, and a divine picture of Guercino’s is worth going all that way to see.

When the Brownings returned to their hotel in Ancona, Robert composed a poem inspired by the painting, which he titled “The Guardian Angel: A Picture at Fano.”

The Guardian Angel by Guercino

I.
Dear and great Angel, wouldst thou only leave
That child, when thou hast done with him, for me!
Let me sit all the day here, that when eve
Shall find performed thy special ministry,
And time come for departure, thou, suspending
Thy flight, mayst see another child for tending,
Another still, to quiet and retrieve.
II.
Then I shall feel thee step one step, no more,
From where thou standest now, to where I gaze,
—And suddenly my head is covered o’er
With those wings, white above the child who prays
Now on that tomb—and I shall feel thee guarding
Me, out of all the world; for me, discarding
Yon heaven thy home, that waits and opes its door.
III.
I would not look up thither past thy head
Because the door opes, like that child, I know,
For I should have thy gracious face instead,
Thou bird of God! And wilt thou bend me low
Like him, and lay, like his, my hands together,
And lift them up to pray, and gently tether
Me, as thy lamb there, with thy garment’s spread?
IV.
If this was ever granted, I would rest
My head beneath thine, while thy healing hands
Close-covered both my eyes beside thy breast,
Pressing the brain, which too much thought expands,
Back to its proper size again, and smoothing
Distortion down till every nerve had soothing,
And all lay quiet, happy and suppressed.
V.
How soon all worldly wrong would be repaired!
I think how I should view the earth and skies
And sea, when once again my brow was bared
After thy healing, with such different eyes.
O world, as God has made it! All is beauty:
And knowing this, is love, and love is duty.
What further may be sought for or declared?
VI.
Guercino drew this angel I saw teach
(Alfred, dear friend!)—that little child to pray,
Holding the little hands up, each to each
Pressed gently,—with his own head turned away
Over the earth where so much lay before him
Of work to do, though heaven was opening o’er him,
And he was left at Fano by the beach.
VII.
We were at Fano, and three times we went
To sit and see him in his chapel there,
And drink his beauty to our soul’s content
—My angel with me too: and since I care
For dear Guercino’s fame (to which in power
And glory comes this picture for a dower,
Fraught with a pathos so magnificent)—
VIII.
And since he did not work thus earnestly
At all times, and has else endured some wrong—
I took one thought his picture struck from me,
And spread it out, translating it to song.
My love is here. Where are you, dear old friend?
How rolls the Wairoa at your world’s far end?
This is Ancona, yonder is the sea.

Standing before the painting on Easter day, 7 April 1912, in the church of San Agostino, Phelps wondered why few Browning enthusiasts visited Fano. To encourage such visits, Phelps instituted the Fano Club. Anyone could become a life member by visiting Fano, seeing the painting, and sending him a picture postcard postmarked from Fano. He and his wife bought seventy-five postcards and addressed them to various friends in America. Unfortunately, the postcards never reached their destinations as they were among the cargo on board the Titanic.

But in spite of the first failed attempt, the idea caught on. In his Autobiography with Letters, published in 1939, Phelps reported that over 500 scholars, students, and lovers of Browning had been inspired to make the pilgrimage.

The administration of the Fano Club was passed on to Dr. A. J. Armstrong (1873-1954), founder of the ABL, after the death of William Lyon Phelps in 1943, and has been carried on by each succeeding library director. Today there are over 200 members of the Fano Club from around the world. Each year members are invited to the ABL around May 7, which is Robert Browning’s birthday, for a dinner and a meeting. Members share stories about seeing the painting (now in the Civic Museum in Fano) and the youngest member present reads “The Guardian Angel: A Picture at Fano” to the group.

Perhaps one day those postcards will be found among the remains of the shipwrecked Titanic.

Reflections from a Visiting Scholar: Manuscripts and Marginalia at the Armstrong Browning Library

By Denae Dyck, PhD Candidate, University of Victoria, Canada

Denae Dyck, PhD Candidate, University of Victoria, Canada

Denae Dyck, PhD Candidate, University of Victoria, Canada

For two weeks in March, I spent time as a visiting scholar at the Armstrong Browning Library (ABL). I am grateful to have had the opportunity to do research at a library with unique and extensive collections related to the texts, writers, and intellectual traditions that I am examining in my PhD studies at the University of Victoria, Canada. My dissertation looks at the uses of biblical wisdom literature by Victorian writers responding to the higher criticism, criticism that broke new ground by approaching the Bible primarily as a composite, historical, and literary document. This focus means that I am interested not only in the particular place of this wisdom literature within changing ideas about authority and revelation in nineteenth-century thought but also in the broader field of hermeneutics. Working with manuscripts and marginalia at the ABL has helped me to think about the task of interpretation from some new angles.

Among the many intriguing materials at the ABL, the autograph manuscript of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s (EBB’s) A Drama of Exile (her poetic engagement with the biblical narrative of humankind’s expulsion from Eden) held special interest for me because this poem is one of the primary texts that I am analyzing in my dissertation. Beginning where the third chapter of Genesis concludes—the fallout of the fall, if you will—EBB’s dramatic poem of 2272 lines takes up questions about the order of the cosmos and the meaning of suffering, the very questions raised by biblical wisdom literature, especially the book of Job. First published in 1844, A Drama of Exile incorporates elements of an earlier, unpublished piece entitled “Adam’s Farewell to Eden in His Age,” which is also held at the ABL and which has recently been published in the fifth volume of The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (2010). Through studying the manuscript of A Drama of Exile at the ABL, I was able to further trace the development of EBB’s thought.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Manuscript of A Drama of Exile. Page 25. [D0216]

Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Manuscript of A Drama of Exile. Page 25. [D0216]

The experience of transcribing EBB’s small (and sometimes untidy) handwriting gave me the thrill of seeing familiar lines made strange: her manuscript differs from the published text in subtle yet interesting ways. As I found, seemingly small changes in word choice or sentence structure often reflect larger patterns and themes. For instance, whereas this manuscript compares the angelic songs heard by Adam and Eve in the wilderness to a “healing rain,” the published poem likens this music to a “watering dew,” a simile that brings Edenic imagery into the wilderness. Changes such as these intensify EBB’s overall emphasis on divine immanence within the mortal, material world. Although this manuscript does not include the entire poem, I was delighted to find that it contains two variants of EBB’s first scene with Adam and Eve. Comparing these versions against each other and against the published text of A Drama of Exile shows the non-linear elements of EBB’s writing process: even though one draft had more similarities to the final text than the other, the published poem includes distinctive elements from both fragments. One page from what I take to be the latter of these two versions offers an exciting glimpse into EBB’s thought. In the margins of a speech wherein Eve declares “since I was the first in the transgression, with my little foot / I will be the first to tread from this sword-glare / Into the outer darkness of the waste,” EBB has pencilled in an “x” and commented at the bottom of the page, “I do not like ‘little’ – it is almost coquettish—with my firm foot?” In the published version, the line reads “with a steady foot” (l. 547). This substitution reinforces EBB’s reinterpretation of Eve from the original sinner blamed in centuries of patriarchal exegesis to a figure of strength and insight.

While this annotation shows the dialogue of the poet’s mind with itself, I was able to further explore the exchange of ideas that shaped A Drama of Exile through perusing unpublished letters to EBB from her cousin John Kenyon. Reading these letters allowed me to fill in some of the missing pieces from the multi-volume collection of The Brownings’ Correspondence, which contains EBB’s letters to Kenyon but not all of his to her. Kenyon played an interesting role in the poem’s formation: when EBB fell into despair and felt inclined to burn her manuscript, her cousin intervened by offering to give her his honest opinion, as EBB explains to her scholarly mentor H.S. Boyd in a letter that is included in The Brownings’ Correspondence (volume 8, pp. 267-68). The letters from Kenyon at the ABL, which date from sometime after this incident, provide both encouragement and critique. He tells EBB, “The more I read of your poem the more I admire & love it”; nevertheless, he also questions some of her archaic diction choices (“Why do you – who taught me to say – between – say betwixt?”) and makes suggestions involving characterization. These letters reinforce that the process of composition does not take place in a vacuum.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Detail of Marginalia in Xenophon’s Memorabilia. Page 181. [ABLibrary Brownings’ Library XBL 888.3x55m]

Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Detail of Marginalia in Xenophon’s Memorabilia. Page 181. [ABLibrary Brownings’ Library XBL 888.3x55m]

In addition to manuscripts and unpublished letters, the ABL has a large collection of books from the library of EBB and Robert Browning that show the breadth and depth of these two poets’ intellectual engagement—all the more so because many of these volumes contain marginal notes. For instance, EBB’s markup in her four-volume set of Henry Hallam’s Introduction to the Literature of Europe of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries (1837) critiques Hallam’s arguments on subjects ranging from the Protestant Reformation to John Donne’s poetry. Such marginal commentary underscores the fact that creative writing is often a form of rewriting—A Drama of Exile, for instance, responds not only to biblical texts but also to John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), along with other literary precedents. Given my interests in hermeneutics and wisdom literature, I was curious about the Brownings’ volumes of Socratic dialogues and their notations therein. As I discovered, these notes highlight points of intersection between classical and biblical traditions. In her copy of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, EBB likens Socrates’ words about the duties of a general to the pastoral advice given in 1 Timothy chapter 3. The holdings from the Brownings’ library also include their copy of Introduction to the Dialogues of Plato (1836) by Friedrich Schleiermacher, the theologian whose work brought together religious and secular hermeneutics. The pencil markings in this book call attention to Schleiermacher’s view of dialogue not merely as a rhetorical trick but, more importantly, as a method for catalyzing the search for knowledge.

George MacDonald. Marginalia in Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day: A Poem, by Robert Browning. London: Chapman and Hall, 1850. Page 15. [ABLibrary Rare X821.83 P5 C466c c.13]

George MacDonald. Marginalia in Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day: A Poem, by Robert Browning. London: Chapman and Hall, 1850. Page 15. [ABLibrary Rare X821.83 P5 C466c c.13]

Of further interest to me were the marginal notations in George MacDonald’s first edition of Robert Browning’s Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day (1850), two dramatic monologues that wrestle with the topics raised by the higher criticism. In “Christmas-Eve,” the speaker moves from a satiric rejection of what he regards as a misguided sermon to a sympathetic recognition of all interpretation as imperfect, going on a supernatural night-time journey that takes him from a British dissenting chapel to a Roman catholic church to a German lecture hall—not unlike the journey of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843). Engaging with this comic yet thoughtful poem at the level of both sound and sense, MacDonald indicates stressed and unstressed syllables in select lines and writes “remark” or “remarks” in the margins of key passages. These notes lay the foundation for MacDonald’s review of this poem in The Monthly Christian Spectator (May 1853), as well as for the lectures he gave on Browning in subsequent decades.

Robert Browning. Marginalia in Sartor Resartus, by Thomas Carlyle. Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1837. Page 72. [ABLibrary Brownings’ Library X BL 824.8 C286s 1837]

Robert Browning. Marginalia in Sartor Resartus, by Thomas Carlyle. Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1837. Page 72. [ABLibrary Brownings’ Library X BL 824.8 C286s 1837]

Browning’s own influences can be seen in his copy of the 1837 edition of Thomas Carlyle’s experimental prose essay Sartor Resartus. This densely allusive text emphasizes the challenge of interpretation, as Carlyle adopts the metafictional guise of an English editor translating the work of a German professor. In addition to tracking some of Carlyle’s references to writers such as Jonathan Swift or William Shakespeare, Browning’s notes thicken the book’s intertextual dialogue. In a chapter where Carlyle discusses wonder with reference to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796), Browning writes, “In wonder all knowledge begins – in wonder it ends & admiration fills up the interspace. But the first wonder is the child of ignorance – the last is the parent of admiration – the first is the birth-throe of knowledge: the last its culmination & apotheosis.” These sentences paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s words in a passage from Aids to Reflection (1829), a collection of aphorisms that quote from and comment on various theologians and philosophers in what amounts to a Victorian equivalent to the book of Proverbs. Here, Browning comments on Carlyle’s reflections on Goethe by evoking Coleridge (who, in turn, develops arguments from Aristotle’s Metaphysics) . . . and so on.

These examples are just few of the gems held at the ABL. Other items that I had the chance to look at included pages of EBB’s unpublished girlhood writings that show the growth of her literary ambitions, as well as a notebook of additional manuscript material from the 1840s containing drafts of poems that vary in interesting ways from her published pieces. The rare books collection at the ABL features two illustrated versions of MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858), his first fairy tale for an adult audience: one set of illustrations by John Bell (1894) and the other by Arthur Hughes (1905), each of which offer very different visual interpretations of this story. The library also holds MacDonald’s copy of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection, which shows evidence of longstanding and affectionate use: the inside cover has the bookplate of MacDonald’s son, while other front matter bears the signature of MacDonald’s father, as well as what appears to be an unpublished sonnet from George MacDonald dated 5 November 1847 and addressed to Louisa Powell, whom he married on 8 March 1851. (My thanks go to manuscript specialist Melinda Creech for helping me to identify this handwriting).

As a result of my time at the ABL, I have not only uncovered additional content for my dissertation but also deepened the way that I understand this content. In addition to informing my current research, the materials here have provided me with ideas for further study that I hope to pursue at a later date. My experience was made all the more enriching by the hospitality of the ABL faculty and staff, who made me feel welcome and generously shared their expertise with me in the kind of conversations that are the very best part of intellectual inquiry.

Reflections from a Summer Intern – Stories from Victorian Letters: The Whittier-Family Autograph Album

By Katie Mackenzie, Museum Studies Summer Intern

In the past few days of my internship I have been able to work on transcriptions for an extraordinary album.

The first thing that stood out to me was the album’s beautiful deep red cover. The gold lettering of the word “Autograph” and the picture of a book and quill that announce the album’s purpose is beautiful.

Front cover of Whittier Family Autograph Album.

Back cover of Whittier Family Autograph Album.

This Victorian era autograph album contains the signatures of many famous people of the day. Most of the dated signatures are from around the time of the American Civil War. It belonged to Elizabeth Whittier Pickard (1846-1902), who was the niece of the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). The album was given to Elizabeth by her brother, Charles Whittier (1843-1909).

Lizzie H. Whittier
From her brother
Char.

Autograph. Charles Whittier to Elizabeth Whittier Pickard.

Her uncle, John Greenleaf Whittier, as a famous poet, may have helped to fill the album with the autographs of his famous friends and correspondents. There are a few letters that are written to John Greenleaf Whittier included in the album.

There are several types of autographs found in the book. Some of the autographs simply include the person’s name. Some of the autographs are attached to a letter, or cut out of one. But what I found most interesting were the names that came with a quote. When a signer added a quote it was sometimes from their own work.

The autograph from Nora Perry, an American writer, came with a quote from her own poem. The excerpt of her poem “The Love-Knot” reads,

Tying her bonnet under her chin
She tied a young man’s heart within
Nora Perry

Autograph. Nora Perry to Elizabeth Whittier Pickard.

But most often a famous quote came from another source, such as the Bible, and usually contained a moral message.

Very rarely, the quote comes in the form of a unique poem. One of my favorite quotes in the album was a unique poem written just for Elizabeth. This poem was written by the American author and poet Lucy Larcom (1824-1893). The poem reads,

For the name thou bearest
Tender love thou sharest.
Hold it sacred unto death
The dear name – Elizabeth.

Autograph. Lucy Larcom to Elizabeth Whittier Pickard.

Elizabeth probably did hold her name as something very sacred to her, as she was named after a beloved and much admired aunt. This admiration can be seen in a letter that her father, M. F. Whittier, who was the younger brother of John Greenleaf Whittier, wrote to her on December 4, 1864. The letter reads,

As far as your nature will allow imitate the beautiful life of the dear Aunt whose name you bear. Strive to love all God’s creatures as she did. Like her be charitable towards the erring – – remembering that “to err is human – to forgive is Divine.”

                                                                   M.F. Whittier

Letter from M. F. Whittier to Elizabeth Whittier Pickard. 4 December 1864.

Some of the most famous autographs in the album are the type that are simply signatures. Examples include Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Autograph. Ulysses S. Grant. 21 May 1872.

Autograph. Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Autograph. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 20 February 1874.

I was excited to find Robert Browning’s autograph in a letter he wrote to John Greenleaf Whittier in 1856. Elizabeth Browning must have been nearby as her husband wrote the letter, as Robert Browning writes to Whittier that, “I speak for my wife.” The letter is a thank you note to John Greenleaf Whittier for the kind words he wrote of them in a book. The letter reads,

My dear sir,

On returning to England this summer we found a book of manly and beautiful verse, and our names (I speak for my wife in this letter) written, with a kind and gratifying word of sympathy from yourself, in the first page. We are just leaving England again, but you must take our hasty thanks as if they had been more worthily expressed: they are hearty and sincere, at all events – – since acknowledging that you have thus numbered with your friends

                         Two, proud to be so numbered,

                                 Elizabeth Barrett & Robert Browning

Letter to John Greenleaf Whittier from Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 20 October 1856.

The autograph letters are some of my favorite because, as well as the autograph, they also included snippets of the everyday life of the person. For example, one of the letters is from John Greenleaf Whittier to Greenleaf Whittier Pickard, who was Elizabeth Whittier Pickard’s son. John writes to his great nephew, telling him that he will collect stamps so that Greenleaf can put them in his stamp album. He also reminds Greenleaf to do well in school. I love letters like this that seem so familiar even to modern eyes. The letter reads,

Dear Greenleaf,

I send a few stamps for thy album, and will try to save more for thee, I hope thee go to school and learn well.

                                                 Thy Uncle,

                                                      John G Whittier

Letter to Greenleaf Whittier Pickard from John Greenleaf Whittier.

This autograph album allowed me to learn about many Victorian people who I hadn’t known before. It was so fun to be able to research all the people inside of the book and to learn their stories.

Making Connections: Literary Networks in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

In fall 2016, students in Dr. Kristen Pond’s upper-level English course, “Literary Networks in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” explored the relationships between writers of the Romantic, Victorian, and Modernist Periods and the influences they had on each other’s works. “Authors did not, in fact, work alone,” Dr. Pond argued, “but often collaborated, either directly by each person contributing something to the final piece or indirectly through the influence of conversations, interactions, or from reading one another’s works.” Utilizing the letters, manuscripts, rare books, and other collection materials at the Armstrong Browning Library, the students ended their semester by curating an exhibition that uncovered connections between one particular literary figure and Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning—the centers of the literary network for the course—or another significant literary figure.

The exhibition Making Connections: Literary Networks in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries is on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room, Armstrong Browning Library, until April 21, 2017.

The Armstrong Browning Library would like to thank Dr. Kristen Pond and the students who made this exhibition possible:

Marcus Appleyard, Rebecca Causey, Victoria Corley, Annie Dang, Taylor Ferguson, Casey Froehlich, Madelynn Lee, Mollie Mallory, Anne McCausland, Emily Ober, Shannon Ristedt, Chris Solis, Alexander Stough, Alex Ueckert, Baylee Versteeg, and Jonathan White.

Seeing Many Beautiful Things: John Ruskin and the Brownings

By Melinda Creech
Graduate Assistant, Armstrong Browning Library

The Armstrong Browning Library holds twelve letters recounting the correspondence between John Ruskin and the Brownings.

The earliest, [16 October 1855], is a letter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Ruskin apologizing to him for not being able to see him before they leave for Paris.

In his letter to Ruskin of [1 February 1856], Robert Browning discusses Modern Painters.

In Ruskin’s letter to Robert Browning of 29 August 1856, he apologizes for “mangling” Browning’s  “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church” in Modern Painters and describes his tired, “vegetative” state.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes to John Ruskin’s mother on 18 October 1856, thanking her for her gifts of a netted scarf, flowers, and a box of preserves. Elizabeth also thanks her for her attention to her son Pen and for reading his poems that Elizabeth had sent to Mrs. Ruskin.

John Ruskin replies to Elizabeth on 18 October 1856, saying that he intends to send a gift to Pen. He also talks about his admiration for the poetry of both Brownings.

In a letter of 3 June 1859, Elizabeth recommends an artist, Mr. Page, to Ruskin. She also thanks Ruskin for speaking kindly about Italy, whose political situation is not looked on favorably by many people in England.

Robert informs Ruskin in a letter of [Mid-May 1862] that he will be at the National Gallery under the Portico of the Entrance to the Old Masters on Friday at five and hopes to have tea with him.

John Ruskin to Mrs. Johnson. [31 January 1865].

John Ruskin to Mrs. Johnson. [31 January 1865].

Ruskin mentions to Mrs. Johnson in a letter of [31 January 1865] that he has not written to Browning for a long time. He writes, rather cryptically: “Leave granted at once by Browning. I had not written to him for a long time and had to tell him why, and couldn’t at the time your letter came.”

The Armstrong Browning Library holds an envelope from Ruskin to Browning, 6 February 1865. The letter, which invites Browning to dinner at five on Wednesday, is located at The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

In this letter, [26 March 1866], Browning regrets he cannot accept Ruskin’s invitation.

Browning invites Ruskin to view Pen’s paintings in this letter of 28 March 1880.

In this letter of 12 August 1884 Browning forwards a letter from Mrs. Bloomfield Moore, author and art collector, to Ruskin.

In addition to these letters The Browning Letters project provides access to twenty Ruskin letters held by the Ransom Center at the University of Texas and three letters from Special Collection at the Margaret Clapp Library at Wellesley College. There are thirty-four references to John Ruskin in The Browning Letters.

Among the items in the John Ruskin Collection at the ABL are Ruskin’s copies of the Brownings’ works. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s The Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets bears Ruskin’s bookplate: “Ex Libris/John Ruskin/Brantwood.” Robert Browning’s translation of The Agamemnon of Aeschylus bears the same bookplate.

ruskins-bookplate

John Ruskin’s bookplate in Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets. London: Chapman & Hall, 1863.

ruskins-copy-of-ebb2

Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets. London: Chapman & Hall, 1863.

ruskins-copy-of-ebb1Ruskin’s copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Greek Christian Poets contains an annotation regarding the provenance of the book, indicating that Dr. and Mrs. Armstrong secured the book from Ruskin’s Coniston House.

John Ruskin’s bookplate in Aeschylus. The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, Transcribed by Robert Browning. London: Smith Elder & Co., 1877.

John Ruskin’s bookplate in Aeschylus. The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, Transcribed by Robert Browning. London: Smith Elder & Co., 1877.

ruskins-copy-of-rb2

Aeschylus. The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, Transcribed by Robert Browning. London: Smith Elder & Co., 1877.

In a letter to Miss Carrie, 15 June 1914, Mrs. Lilian Whiting, an American journalist and biographer of the Brownings, relates this story recalled by Pen Browning about his father and John Ruskin.

Some six years before Mr. Barrett Brofning’s [sic] death (in July of 1912) he bought one of the old Medici villas that are scattered about Tuscany, , one called “La Torre All’ Antella”, about five miles out of Florence, and began “restoring” it. (That was his favorite amusement, and contributed largely to his dying a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in debt.) But to the last he had only two rooms that were habitable, and in those he camped out, so to speak, the rest of the house being in the hands of workmen. It was left in a totally unfinished state. In an outhouse he had packed all the furniture. He took me into the storehouse to see it, – the sofa, as high as a catafalque, on which he remembered seeing his father and Ruskin sitting side by side, with their feet dangling.

Robert Browning's snuff box

Robert Browning’s snuff box.

Robert Browning’s snuff box of Georgian silver is a crescent-shaped, engine turned box made in Birmingham in 1797 with R. B. monogrammed on the lid. It was reputedly given by Browning’s daughter-in-law, Fannie Coddington Browning, to John Ruskin and was still in his possession at his death in 1900.

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In the Footsteps of the Brownings in Italy

By Jennifer Borderud, Associate Director and Access and Outreach Librarian

Josh and Jennifer Borderud in front of the Pantheon, Rome

Josh and Jennifer Borderud in front of the Pantheon, Rome

On this day—June 29—in 1861, poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence, Italy, and was buried two days later in the English Cemetery there. In March of this year—2016—my husband Josh and I had the opportunity to travel to Italy, the place Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning called home during their 15 years of marriage, with faculty, students, and friends of Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. The nine-day trip, which included stops in Rome, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Florence, was part of a course on early Roman Christianity taught by our good friend Dr. Joel Weaver.

The itinerary was full with guided tours of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, the Basilica of St. John Lateran, and the Catacombs of St. Sebastian in Rome; St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City; the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum at the foot of Mount Vesuvius; and the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Piazza della Signoria, and the Accademia Gallery in Florence. Despite the ambitious agenda, my husband and I (and at times an interested seminarian or two) used the free time we were given in Rome and Florence to seek out sites related to the Brownings and their circle.

Letter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Richard Horne on display at the Keats-Shelley House

Letter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Richard Horne on display at the Keats-Shelley House

In Rome, we visited the Keats-Shelley House, a museum dedicated to the English Romantic poets who were enamored with and influenced by Rome. John Keats died in this house in 1821 in a room on the second floor overlooking the Spanish Steps. On display throughout the house were books, manuscripts, and other items relating to the lives and works of Byron, Shelley, and Keats. There were items relating to the Brownings as well.

After our visit to the museum, a short walk took us to the doorstep of Bocca di Leone 43, where the Brownings lived during extended winter stays in Rome. A plaque at the corner of the street commemorates the Brownings’ residency.

Via Bocca di Leone, Rome

Via Bocca di Leone, Rome

Angel of Grief by William Wetmore Story, Non-Catholic Cemetery, Rome

Angel of Grief by William Wetmore Story, Non-Catholic Cemetery, Rome

Heading quickly back toward the Spanish Steps, we had just enough time to take a taxi to Rome’s Non-Catholic Cemetery (Il Cimitero Acattolico di Roma). Located adjacent to the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, the Non-Catholic Cemetery is the burial place of both John Keats and Percy Shelley. American sculptor and Browning friend William Wetmore Story and his wife Emelyn are also buried there. I had seen photographs of the grave stone Story designed for his wife, called the Angel of Grief, and was particularly interested in seeing it in person. It was stunningly beautiful. Not long after we returned to Waco from Italy, I learned that a replica of Story’s Angel of Grief could be found in Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery, practically in my own backyard.

We only spent a day and a half in Florence, but we had just enough free time to make two important stops. After walking across the Ponte Vecchio, we found our way to Casa Guidi, the Brownings’ primary home in Italy, which has been restored to look as it did when the Brownings lived there. We stood in the salon where Elizabeth spent time writing Casa Guidi Windows and Aurora Leigh, and we walked along the balcony where Robert and Elizabeth would take walks and where Elizabeth watched processions celebrating political victories.

Casa Guidi, Piazza San Felice 8, Florence

Entrance to Casa Guidi at Piazza San Felice 8, Florence

Jennifer Borderud with Julia Bolton Holloway (left) and a Roma woman who takes care of the cemetery (center)

Jennifer Borderud with Julia Bolton Holloway (left) and a Roma woman who takes care of the cemetery (center)

We did not have time to visit the nearby Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens, which were frequented by the Brownings. However, we did visit the Protestant Cemetery (Cimitero degli Inglesi), where we met Julia Bolton Holloway, the custodian of the cemetery, who works with the Roma people to maintain the cemetery and grounds. We also laid flowers on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s grave to honor her life and work.

Laying flowers on Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Grave

Laying flowers on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Grave

We had a wonderful week, and while there are more Browning sites to see, we understand why they loved Italy. We also made sure to rub the bronze boar’s snout in the Mercato Nuovo to ensure our return to Florence and another opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the Brownings.

Thank you to Dr. Joel Weaver and Dr. Steve Reid and to the students and friends of the George W. Truett Theological Seminary for letting us explore Italy with you.

Faculty, students, and friends of the George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Vatican City, 8 March 2016

Faculty, students, and friends of the George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Vatican City, 8 March 2016

 

 

Reflections from a Visiting Scholar

By Duc Dau, Research Fellow in English and Cultural Studies, The University of Western Australia

Duc Dau

Dr. Duc Dau, Research Fellow in English and Cultural Studies, The University of Western Australia

In this blog post I hope to provide readers with an insight into some of my recent experiences as a visiting scholar at the Armstrong Browning Library (ABL) and the extraordinary privilege of being able to access unpublished or incredibly rare and precious manuscripts.

I am a research fellow in English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia (yes, it’s very far away from Waco!). I specialise, among other things, in Victorian literature and theology, and am working on a book about the reception of the Song of Songs in Victorian literature and culture. I was awarded a visiting library fellowship at the ABL which I took up in February-March 2016. It was my first trip to both the ABL and Baylor University, and I hope it won’t be my last.

Last year Dr Joshua King, the Margarett Root Brown Chair in Robert Browning and Victorian Studies at the ABL, informed me that the library had strong holdings not simply on Robert Browning (RB) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB), but also on Michael Field. Michael Field is the pen name of an aunt-niece couple, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who wrote poetry and drama and kept a multi-volume journal. The ABL has a good number of first editions of their works as well as microfilm copies of their 30 volumes of journal material and 8 bound volumes of correspondence, held in the British Library. Most of the diary material and the letters remain unpublished. Given that I had started writing about the religion and love in EBB’s poetry and about death and conversion in Michael Field’s journals and poems, I decided to apply for a library fellowship and am grateful to have been successful.

One of the best things about being a researcher is having the opportunity to visit the most extraordinary libraries and to gain access to rare and priceless collections. The ABL is one such library. The ABL’s Belew Scholars’ Room is a beautiful and well-resourced location for scholarly research and contemplation. Within minutes of requesting material, the helpful staff are at one’s desk with the items. At the end of the day, the material is placed in one’s own cabinet. One rarely receives this kind of service elsewhere. Staff at the ABL have the wonderful opportunity of locating and purchasing nineteenth-century materials from around the world, and I have been regaled with stories of some of these purchases. Indeed, I have noticed that staff have a strong interest and investment in the library’s holdings and in the Brownings. This passion for the subject matter translates into their work and in their desire to help one make the most of one’s visit to the ABL.

Sonnet 43

“Sonnet 43,” in EBB’s hand, from Sonnets from the Portuguese (D0876)

Researchers are afforded the privilege of accessing and touching (and, for some of us, secretly smelling) handwritten manuscripts and letters written by long-dead authors. These items are usually locked away and not normally available to the general public. For the tactile among us, there’s a certain thrill at the experience of touching these manuscripts and bits of paper. It’s a thrill that few, apart from literary scholars or die-hard fans, would understand, let alone know existed. I was able to view and touch one of the ABL’s most precious items, one of only three extant copies of EBB’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, written in her hand. The sonnets are now part of popular culture and are known and treasured by readers worldwide. In fact, I had emailed a friend and colleague at my university, telling her about the quiet pleasures of being able to access something such as EBB’s handwritten Sonnets from the Portuguese. A few days later she emailed to inform me that when she mentioned my trip to a friend of hers, her friend immediately gushed that she had been reading EBB, admired her work, and thought how wonderful it would be to read the original letters between EBB and RB.

Alas, EBB’s handwriting can sometimes be difficult to decipher and therefore the pleasure of seeing and feeling the pages is blunted by a degree of frustration, at least for me, at the inability to read the words. Such was the case when I first encountered her writing: her notes on two of her Bibles housed at a library elsewhere. I was therefore pleased to discover at the ABL that all her poems have all now been published, so I could divert my attention elsewhere, such as the wealth of secondary materials and historical reviews relating to EBB’s poetry.

Line Upon Line

A page from Line upon Line in which EBB has altered the text to meet her approval (ABLibrary Brownings’ Lib X BL 220.95 H362l v.1-2)

The ABL has acquired items from EBB and RB’s library over the years, and one of the most fascinating books that ABL librarian Cynthia Burgess found for me was a two-volume religious instruction guide for their son Pen. Line upon Line; or, a Second Series of the Earliest Religious Instruction the Infant Mind is Capable of Receiving interprets the Bible through a Christian lens, acting as a didactic tool for children. What I found most fascinating was the fact that EBB had altered select passages to her liking. Every so often a word, several words, or even an entire sentence, would be altered, whited out, to meet her approval. Sometimes these sections are left blank, but usually EBB has written (legibly) over them. Ever the poet, she would occasionally seek to improve on the didactic rhymes dotted throughout the two volumes. Thus, being able to access such items owned and altered by EBB offers scholars an insight into her religious thinking and indeed her personality. At the ABL I was able to delve deeper into my work on the kinds of romantic, religious, and communal love based on Song of Songs imagery in EBB’s works.

I had worked with the original Michael Field material at the British Library, but left much of it untouched as a result of time restraints. At the ABL I had free access to the collection on microfilm, which saved me a great deal of time. My work on Michael Field focuses on how passages from the Song of Songs appear when the authors write about death, particularly at the deaths of Edith’s mother, their mentor and literary hero RB, and their beloved dog Whym Chow. At the ABL I focused on their letters to Browning and on their journal entries written around the time of their conversion to Roman Catholicism and Edith’s final months before her death from cancer. While Edith and Katharine wrote their journal for posterity and publication, they could not have known the identities of their future readers and that I would be one of them, scrolling through their journals in the small microfilm room at the ABL.

Edith and Katharine’s grief at the loss of loved ones is profound in their journals and letters. Their writing about grief furnishes scholars with compelling insights into Victorian mourning, their love of animal companions, and the complex feelings associated with the conversion experience. The poets’ grief at the death of Whym Chow runs over many, many pages, much of it unpublished. They expressed their wish to be reunited with him after death. They wrote a book of poems about him titled Whym Chow: Flame of Love. He was the “flame of love,” whose death, they believed, was the tragedy that brought them into the arms of the church.

For scholars, researching about death and writings concerned with death is never a happy task. It was poignant to see Edith Cooper’s writing deteriorating noticeably in the months leading up to her death from cancer. She had refused painkillers and was in extreme pain. Unlike a novel, a journal does not have a typical beginning or ending; as she wrote she could not have known when her last breath would be. At one point, Edith talks about receiving Viaticum, the Eucharist given to a person in danger of death. At the time she must have thought she was living her final hours. But she was to live and suffer for a few more months.

In the final months she wrote often about flowers, whether they be from the garden, or gifts, or offerings on the altar. She often spoke about lilies and roses. On the day she wrote about “my Solemn Vow of Chastity” Edith says, “So the crucifix is ‘inter lilia’, as the Beloved is among the spouses in Paradise; & ‘inter lilia’ in His real earthly Presence, as the Holy Host, He will rest when he comes to our Home.” The Latin phrase “inter lilia” means “among the lilies,” and derives from the Song of Songs. In this entry, the poet uses the biblical reference to describe lilies on a shrine and then progresses to its rich, theological significance about spiritual purity, union with the divine, and the incarnation. Elsewhere in the journal, Edith reflects on prematurely blossoming roses, “[t]heir rich, marvellous blossoming [that] fades as a very dream.” One feels that she might also have been reflecting on her own premature demise; she would die relatively young, at the age of 51.

Field inscription to RB

RB’s copy of The Father’s Tragedy, Etc., by Michael Field, inscribed: “R. Browning Esq./with sincere regards./Michael Field./June 8th 1885.” (ABLibrary Brownings Lib X BL 821.89 F445f)

I’d like to conclude by saying that, while much of the intellectual work at the ABL occurs among books and manuscripts (among the lilies of the library, as it were), I also found many moments of intellectual stimulation from the lively conversations about poetry, religion, politics, relationships, and Texas with staff and graduate students in the reading rooms, corridors, and kitchen. I was also able to meet or catch up with some of the leading scholars in my field at the library’s fantastic “The Uses of ‘Religion’ in 19th Century Studies” Conference, held in the final week of my visit. All these factors contributed to making my trip to the ABL so pleasurable and memorable.

Dr Duc Dau is a research fellow in English and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia, whose position is funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award. Author of Touching God: Hopkins and Love (2012) and co-editor of Queer Victorian Families: Curious Relations in Literature (2015), her articles have appeared in such journals as Literature and Theology, Religion and Literature, The Hopkins Quarterly, Victorian Literature and Culture, and Victorian Poetry.

To learn more about the Armstrong Browning Library’s Visiting Scholars Program, visit our website.