Five Browning Letters Related to Chartism and the Working Classes

EBB to Henrietta Moulton-Barrett (Document ID in The Brownings’ Correspondence: Letter 2724)

EBB to John Kenyon (Document ID in The Brownings’ Correspondence: Letter 2730)

EBB to Julia Martin (Checklist Number in The Browning Letters: 58054-00)

Gerald Massey to Robert Browning (Checklist Number in The Browning Letters: 73040-00)

Robert Browning to Gerald Massey (Checklist Number in The Browning Letters: ND292-00)

Rare Item Analysis: Five Browning Letters Related to Chartism and the Working Classes

By Lindsay Fenton

EBB to Henrietta Moulton-Barrett (Document ID in The Brownings’ Correspondence: Letter 2724)

This letter is addressed to Henrietta Moulton-Barrett, one of EBB’s sisters. EBB wrote the letter from Florence between March 15 and April 1, 1848. It is comprised of five primary sections. In the first, EBB describes her recent illness and recovery. In the second, she speaks of the current revolution in France, explaining at some length her own view of the subject. In the third section, EBB provides updates on various friends and the scene in Florence. She then presents her excuses for not having written to her uncle Hedley, with a request that Henrietta will write to inform her of the Hedleys’s whereabouts and well-being. Finally, EBB wraps up with a miscellany of brief greetings, inquiries, and well wishes.

EBB’s letter to Henrietta is of scholarly significance chiefly on account of the information EBB provides about her own political views, especially in relation to the revolution in France. That the French Revolution of 1848 and the various revolutions it inspired throughout Europe are the occasion of her reflections is immediately evident: “What an extraordinary state of the times, to be sure!” she exclaims. “Every morning as Robert goes to the post & to look at the newspapers, I say ‘Bring me back news of a revolution.’ And generally, he brings me news of two!” Concerning these revolutions, EBB offers qualified support. “One thing is plan,” she asserts, “that men see one of God’s truths, .. & that, under the lightning of it, the whole edifice of political falsehood is crumbling down on all sides.” “I cannot but rejoice for my part,” she continues, “far more than I am frightened by the thunderous sound of the falling ruins.” EBB supports equal opportunity for upward social mobility and the end of hereditary distinction. She opposes, however, the confiscation of property, enforced social equality (in contradistinction to equal social opportunity), and the destruction of titles that recognize public service (in contradistinction to those based exclusively on hereditary distinction). While EBB by no means urges revolution in England, she does criticize England for its own complacency and wonders “how long England [will] bear on, & submit to be miles behind the rest of the world.”

The manuscript is part of the Camellia Collection, London.

EBB to John Kenyon (Document ID in The Brownings’ Correspondence: Letter 2730)

This letter, written from Florence May 1, 1848, is addressed to John Kenyon. EBB begins the letter lamenting the lately scant correspondence between her and Kenyon. She follows the lament with an exhortation that they should write again “[r]eal” letters “as [they] used to do.” Modeling the form she wishes Kenyon to follow, she then enters into a lengthy discussion of her own political opinions, particularly in relation to the revolutions that have recently spread across Europe. She explicitly rejects the suggestion that she and Robert are communists, speaks of her love of France, and notes her support for the Chartists in England. Finally, she updates Kenyon on hers and Robert’s plans (rather, their indecision regarding their plans) for the summer months and presses Kenyon to visit them soon and write to them sooner.

Like the above letter to Henrietta Moulton-Barrett, EBB’s letter to Kenyon is significant for its political discussion. In May of 1848, the revolutions in France and across Europe were still in swing. The Chartists’ mass meeting on Kennington Common was less than one month’s history, and Marx and Engels Communist Manifesto had just been published in London. EBB thus observes that, since she last wrote to Kenyon, “the world has turned over on its other side.” As in the letter to Henrietta, EBB expresses some optimism concerning the outcome of these revolutions, for she hopes they will result in “some happy change in the dream.” While she sympathizes with the revolutionaries to some extent, however, she draws her lines. She and Robert, she declares, “are not communists.” She “admit[s] the wisdom of voluntary association in matters of material life, among the poorer classes,” but she objects to legislation “on such points, to “all intermeddlings of governments with domesticities,” and to the “growth of absolutism.” EBB supports government efforts to “educate the people,” but she believes that there ought to be “room for the individual to develop himself freely.” “Nothing can be more hateful to me,” she therefore concludes, “than this communist idea of quenching individualities in the mass.”

Another point of significance (and similarity to the above letter to Henrietta Moulton-Barrett) is EBB’s criticism of England. She tells Kenyon, “What… I do seem least of all to comprehend, is your hymn of triumph in England.” According to EBB, the only reason the English persist in singing their triumphal hymn is because they “have a lower ideal of liberty than the French people have.” She suggests that even “in Louis Phillipe’s time,” – that is, in the time of the monarch recently overthrown – “France was… in many respects more advanced than England is now – property better divided,.. hereditary privilege abolished!” “Are we to blow the trumpet because we respect the ruts while everywhere else they are mending the roads?” she asks with fervor. Far from denouncing wholesale the revolutions on the continent and fearing their influence in England, EBB calls for change in England. That is, she criticizes England’s complacency and stagnation even while acknowledging and opposing what she considers the revolutions’ dangerous, absolutist tendencies.

In criticizing England, EBB specifically expresses support for the Chartists, who had marched on Parliament from Kennington Common less than one month before: “As to the Chartists, it is only a pity, in my mind, that you have not more of them.”

The manuscript is housed at the Margaret Clapp Library, Wellesley College.

EBB to Julia Martin (Checklist Number in The Browning Letters: 58054-00)

This letter, written from Florence May 14, 1858, is addressed to EBB’s childhood friend, Julia Martin. EBB discusses three subjects in the section of this letter that is housed at Wellesley College. (The conclusion of the letter is at Aukland Public Library.) First, she clears up confusion regarding a misplaced lithograph of Hope End (EBB’s childhood home) that Martin had meant to send EBB, but which EBB had not received. EBB then updates Martin on her health and on hers and Robert’s travel plans for the summer. In the final section of this excerpt, she expresses appreciation for Martin’s attention to Aurora Leigh and refers to a lecture to be given by Gerald Massey on “Aurora Leigh and the woman’s question.”

The significance of this letter lies chiefly in its mention of Gerard Massey’s lecture on Aurora Leigh, which had been published in 1856. Massey, a Chartist and a poet, lectured throughout England on various topics concerning literature and the arts. That he titles his lecture on EBB’s epic poem “Aurora Leigh and the woman’s question” tells us of the contemporary reception of the poem – namely, that is was viewed as bearing directly on “the woman’s question.” While this may be no surprise to twenty-first century readers, EBB herself expresses some surprise. “I did not fancy that this poem would be so identified as it has been, with that question, which was only a collateral object with my intentions in writing,” she tells Julia Martin. On the one hand, then, the title of Massey’s lecture gives us reason to consider EBB’s famous work in connection with this question while, on the other, EBB’s own comment on that connection bids us not let her work be boxed in by it. However much Aurora Leigh has to do with the woman’s question, we learn from EBB that to think of the poem only or even primarily in terms of that question would, from EBB’s perspective, be limiting its scope. This letter discourages a potentially reductive reading of Aurora Leigh.

Gerald Massey to Robert Browning (Checklist Number in The Browning Letters: 73040-00)

This letter, written from Ward’s Hurst, March 12, 1873, is addressed to Robert Browning. After reminding Browning that Browning once heard him lecture at Ashridge, Massey requests from Browning “a word of Commendation” to help him establish connections for his upcoming American lecture tour.

While this letter is brief, it is of great significance for anyone interested in the career of Gerald Massey simply for the question it prompts: What did Massey lecture about in America?

The answer to the first of these questions – On what did Massey lecture while in America? – invites the reader into deeper consideration of the development not only of Massey’s career but also of how his religious beliefs shaped that career, for the topics on which he lectured in the early 1870s in America are not the same sort of topics about which he began lecturing two decades before. In the beginning of his career, Massey focused on politics and poetry. In February of 1848, he joined the Chartist movement and began to associate with the Christian socialists, led by Frederick Denison Maurice. In the same year, he published his first collection of poems, entitled Poems and Chansons. As the decades passed, however, it seems that Massey’s interests began to change. As David Shaw observes in his biography of Massey (Gerald Massey: Chartist, Poet, Radical and Freethinker), Massey was an “avowed spiritualist by 1871 (Shaw 167). Whereas he used to lecture on topics such as the Pre-Raphaelites or “Aurora Leigh and the woman’s question,” from the beginning of the 1870s on, his lectures focused more on spiritualism and religious questions than on literature and art. Among the titles of the lectures he gave during his 1873-1874 American tour are “Why does not God Kill the Devil?”, “A Spirit World Revealed to the Natural World,” “Why am I a Spiritualist?”, “An Inquiry Concerning the Spirit World…”, “The Coming Religion,” and “The Serpent Symbol: its Spiritual and Physical Significance” (Shaw 178, 180, 186). The change in focus invites those interested in Massey to ask whether Massey simply turned his back on his earlier beliefs and interests, or whether there is a thread that weaves together his early politics and poetry with his late spiritualism.

Passages from the transcripts of Massey’s American lectures suggest that there is indeed such a thread and that it is double stranded. The first of these strands is his fervor for social justice, and the second is his objection to orthodox theology, which he thought obstructed that justice. In 1871, two years prior to the start of his American tour, Massey tells an audience of nearly 900 at St. George’s Hall, Langham Place,

I find the mass of so-called religious people don’t want to believe in the spirit-world save in the abstract or otherwise than as an article of their creed. They accept a sort of belief in it, on authority – a grim necessity; it’s best to believe in case it does exist after all; but they give the lie to that belief, in their lives, and in presence of such facts as we place before them. Our orthodox spiritual teachers have arrested and made permanent the passing figure, and permitted the eternal essence of the meaning to escape. They have deified the symbol on earth instead of the God in heaven. They have taken hold of Christ by the dead hand and lost sight of the living Lord… (qtd. in Shaw 167-168).

Massey’s belief that orthodoxy itself had lost its way, had ceased to be orthodox, prompted him toward spiritualism. The relationship between his objection to orthodox theology and his fervor for social justice is evident in the Chicago Daily Times review of one Massey’s 1874 lectures. The newspaper understood Massey’s unorthodoxy as “a protest against a social condition in which oppression, poverty, misrule, suffering, are rampant everywhere, and the only remedy offered us such a misty one as is promised in some future state of everlasting psalm singing and praise” (qtd. in Shaw 186). Massey believed that both the spirituality and the justice of that future state belong also to the here and now. He was frustrated with those who put either off until the next life. Thus, while the same sorts of impulses motivated Massey in both his early and late careers, those impulses manifested themselves differently as he understood them more deeply. In January of 1874, Massey told members of the Franklin Typological Society in Boston, “The man I see reflected in the mirror is the boy of twenty-five years ago who sang the songs of love, and labour’s chivalry. But all I care for now is to get something done – help on the living deed rather than set words to music… I maintain that the first practical attempt at practical Christianity is the co-operation of capital and labour and the unification of these interests in one” (qtd. in Shaw 182-183). Thus, while at first glance it might seem that Massey abandoned his early interests, further study – prompted by a simple letter from Massey to Robert Browning in 1873 – reveals that it was Massey’s pursuit of those very interests that led him in such a seemingly different direction later in his career.

This letter is housed at the Armstrong Browning Library, Baylor University.

Robert Browning to Gerald Massey (Checklist Number in The Browning Letters: ND292-00)

Only a fragment of this letter remains. In the extant excerpt, Browning refers severally to the works of Shakespeare, as well as to a book of Massey’s to which Browning has subscribed but not yet found time to read. This book was surely one of the several editions of Massey’s work on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The first edition, entitled Shakespeare’s Sonnets Never before Interpreted was published in 1866. Massey tried to publish a second edition in 1872. It is likely that this is the edition to which Browning refers in this letter, given the letter’s date of 1873 and the fact that Massey had worked hard in 1872 to obtain the subscriptions necessary for its publication.

The primary scholarly significance of this letter is its confirmation of Massey’s relationship (however slight) with Browning. As Shaw observes, Browning was one of Massey’s favorite poets. While Massey was probably not one of Browning’s, this letter confirms that Browning was aware of Massey’s work.

This letter fragment is housed at the Armstrong Browning Library, Baylor University.

Massey to Browning

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Browning to Massey

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