Reflections from a Visiting Scholar: The Irreverent Eye

By Laura McNeal

Laura McNeal

Laura McNeal in the Belew Scholars’ Room, Armstrong Browning Library

The hardest part about bringing Victorians to a modern reader is their reverence. They insist that whatever has been done wrong will be more easily endured or rectified if they never explicitly describe it. In our time, we have the opposite approach: talk talk talk about it, show show show it all, every terrible thing, every violation, every outrage, every shame. All our contemporary discourse–our movies, novels, poems, newspaper articles, and songs—aim to comprehend and heal by having no secrets and almost no taboos. Victorians, however, were very good at keeping secrets and very serious about taboos. They were bound by social and religious constraints that urged reverence for certain ideals, including monogamy, chastity, and dutifulness. We seem (collectively, in the aggregate) to want to tell the truth, whatever it is. They (collectively) wanted to protect a rigid, powerfully idealistic vision of human life.

I came to the Armstrong Browning Library determined, as I suppose most scholars are, to pierce silences, peer into cracks, make new comparisons, illuminate dark spaces, and tell a fresh and somehow edifying truth. I’m not a scholar, though. I write fiction. What I want to find when I read Victorian letters, diaries, reminiscences, articles, and footnotes—especially footnotes, which often lead me to obscure diaries–is an encounter that could be dramatized in a scene. To write that scene I must invent what we can never, ever know: what these actual, once-living people really said to each other at the time and what they thought but couldn’t say because they didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or be ostracized by others, or they simply, reflexively thought it best to suppress it. What I have been doing for six years now as I read and write about the Barretts and Brownings is at once a huge violation of their privacy and a rescue attempt. Look at them, I want to say to the world. Look at them, at these earnest, reverent, suffering, fallible, astonishing people who built the ladder and the scaffold and the foundation on which we all stand. What did they do, what did they wish, what did they accomplish, and how did they manage?

Thanks to the continuous efforts of readers and scholars all over the world, and especially, in this area of study, because of the lifelong dedication of Dr. A.J. Armstrong and Philip Kelley, the Armstrong Browning Library offers, in book form and in a vast, searchable database, not only what the poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote and the millions (or billions) of pages that have been written about what they wrote, but also what their relatives and friends and important or unimportant acquaintances reported in their diaries and letters, the locks of hair they labeled and saved, the brooches they wore, the paintings they painted, and the inkwells they stared at while the ink dried on the tips of their upheld pens. The volume of material here is staggering and inspiring and accessible, and it’s housed in the most reverent building imaginable. I approached the library on foot every day like a person who knows she has only so long at the buffet. I had been given four generous weeks, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.: all you can eat. After those four weeks, at 5 p.m. exactly, the door to the buffet would be closed to me, and home I would have to go. It was heaven, and I ate everything in sight. I was insatiable. I asked for things and they were brought. I looked up “darling” in the database. I looked up “Domett” and “Bracken” and “Henriette Corkran” and “Mary Gladstone” and “Joseph Milsand” and “Mr. G.D. Giles.” Up floated the letters, the vanished hours, the twilights and fogs. I looked through the magnifying glass, squinted into dark cases. Always at my back was the swiftly approaching end: I would have to go home, and I would have to lay out for myself the million tiny pieces of the Mystery. And I would have to dare to make the dead speak.

Historical fiction is a paradox. I need dates, I need addresses, I need descriptions of drawing rooms and suppers. I have itineraries, I have descriptions of sunsets and rains and walks and feelings and opinions. But I will be using those fragments to conjure the rest. When and where did it happen? certain Norse folk tales end. When and where did it not happen? Those words became a koan in my head while I typed my notes at the Library Buffet. I wrote down every date, every name, every city, every source, and I put it in a file, in a notebook, in a photograph, in a timeline, knowing that while I claim to revere the past I am strip-mining it, running rapaciously through its ruins in search of my materials.

Is this wrong? I comfort myself by remembering that this is what Robert Browning did nearly every day of his life: Sordello is historical fiction. So is Paracelsus. So is The Ring and the Book. Robert Browning burned piles and piles of letters we wish we had, he dreaded the rapacity of biographers, and yet he craved an audience, adored reading his poems to people and longed, as we all do, for immortality, which is what he will have only if people keep writing intrusive stories and essays and dissertations about him. The best I can do is sift my sources carefully. I read and look and read and look and read and look again, taking each reported comment and observation and weighing it for bias. How truthful did other people in the Brownings’ circle think this person was? What motives did the writer have in recording what he or she said? Was there competition of any kind, or a sense of duty and reverence, between the writer and the subject? Were there any past hurts or sleights? If a claim about someone has a whiff of scandal, is there any corroboration? By whom?

Picture of Pen Browning, age 13

Picture of Pen Browning, age 13, in Browning Society Notes, vol. 22, December 1994. ABL Periodicals

Which brings me to Pen. My month at the buffet was proposed and accepted as a deep and wide consideration of Robert and Elizabeth’s only son, Pen-Penini-Wiedeman, also known as Robert Barrett Browning, who “died without issue” and without (and this determined what people were willing to say about him while he was alive and after he was dead) the glorious, sanctifying esteem enjoyed by his parents. He was not revered as they were for many reasons. One is that he outlived the Victorian age: until 1912. Another is that he didn’t have a glorious love affair and marriage; he had a tepid, dispassionate, unhappy one. He was the target of all the malice and scorn that people tend to feel in our time about the children of celebrities, who having been given money and access to the houses of the rich and powerful are expected to deserve it. Are they as good-looking, original, smart, humble, hard-working, and brilliant as we expect? Does Genius + Genius = Genius? No? Why not? Two poets with bizarrely high levels of self-motivation and linguistic facility who were also loving and faithful and true had a boy they dressed like a girl, or rather, in his mother’s mind, like a “child of poetry,” and for twelve years they raised him in Italy and then, right at the exact moment when he was changing from a boy to a man, his mother died, and while he was adjusting to being a boy who had a living mother to a boy whose mother was dead, he also had to change from being Italian to being English, and from not being in school at all to being in school the way upper-class English boys were in school. What was that like for him? For his father? And is there a way to tell that story without unfairly filling in the blanks where gracious Victorian propriety intersected with vicious Victorian gossip?

During my month at the buffet, I circled around and around these questions, around Pen and his father, his father and Pen, through their departure from Florence to Pen’s failure at Oxford to Pen’s artistic education to Pen’s engagement to a girl Robert told him not to marry to Pen’s marriage to a woman who seemed to love only Pen’s borrowed fame to Robert’s death in Venice to Pen’s death in a messy Florentine villa to the long, long aftermath, which has no terminal point. And every day, four times a day, I took the stairs.

In the stairwell of the Armstrong Browning Library, there are several paintings by Pen, one large and one enormous, and their placement seemed both fitting and sad. “The Abbé with his Books” and “Delivery to the Secular Arm” hang in the stairwell of a shrine built to the memory of his parents, not in the Louvre, not in the National Gallery, not in the Smithsonian, but at least they hang somewhere. They were not destroyed, as some of his paintings were. They are not in a secondhand store in Palm Springs or rolled up in the basement of a small state museum. As I clomped up the linoleum steps, I couldn’t take my eyes away from “The Abbé with his Books” or “Delivery to the Secular Arm.” I wondered, mostly, what makes a good painting great and a great painting famous. I imagined Pen standing in his atelier with a paintbrush, dabbing a little more paint on the edge of a fold of cloth, highlighting the perfect white edge on the collar of the farthest monk to the left, which struck me as supremely beautiful. It takes so long to paint anything. The years of learning how to sketch, how to apply paint, the thousand decisions about what to put in and what to leave out, of who should model for the face of the girl, the face of the inquisitor, the soldiers, the monks, and what expressions they should have on their faces, what their shoes looked like, what pattern to make on the rug. Whose hands modeled for those hands? Did they ever see it, and what did they say? Was there anything Pen might have done to lift the painting beyond its present place in the world, which is a good and noble place, but not the best place, if you’re the artist.

Delivery to the Secular Arm

Robert Barrett Browning’s Delivery to the Secular Arm. Armstrong Browning Library. Photo by Laura McNeal.

For me, though, the placement was ideal. It was instructive to see the Abbé and the heretic four times a day, twenty times a week, eighty times in all, each morning or afternoon having expanded my knowledge of their creation by reading different, sometimes contradictory gossip about Pen’s friends, his father’s friends, the patroness who first bought “Delivery to the Secular Arm,” the reviews his paintings received, the troubles Pen had with his eyes and his hands, the remedies his father recommended, and the way it petered out, his artistic ambition.

By my last trip down the stairs, looking at the white light on the monk’s collar–at that perfect illumination of a man’s un-famous, un-hallowed life as an artist–I felt both invigorated and afraid. The library had done its part, answering every question I asked it. Now it was, terrifyingly, my turn. How could I possibly fit all of it in–the disappointment, hope, bitterness, desire, and rage–while maintaining the veil that keeps Victorians Victorian?

Close up of Delivery to the Secular Arm

Close up of the monk’s collar in Robert Barrett Browning’s Delivery to the Secular Arm. Armstrong Browning Library. Photo by Laura McNeal.

One of the last things I copied out word for word into my phone, so I could read it anywhere I go, was this bit of a letter from Henry James to a novelist named Violet Paget (her pen name was Vernon Lee) on May 16, 1885, with his thoughts on her novel, Miss Brown.

…It will probably already have been repeated to you to satiety that you take the aesthetic business too seriously, too tragically, and above all with too great an implication of sexual motives. There is a certain want of perspective and proportion. You are really too savage with your painters and poets and dilletanti; life is less criminal, less obnoxious, less objectionable, less crude, more bon infant, more mixed and casual, and even in its most offensive manifestations, more pardonable, than the unholy circle with which you have surrounded your heroine. And then you have impregnated all those people too much with the sexual, the basely erotic preoccupation: your hand had been violent, the touch of life is lighter. 

…You have proposed to yourself too little to make a firm, compact work—and you have been too much in a moral passion! That has put certain exaggerations, overstatements, grossissements, insistences wanting in tact, into your head. Cool first—write afterwards. Morality is hot—but art is icy!

I haven’t read Miss Brown, not yet, but James seems to be answering my own question about the preoccupations of our time. Life is less criminal, less obnoxious, less crude, more mixed and casual, than we often depict it as being, both then and now. As soon as I can sort all these painters and poets and dilletanti I will set to work, being not too savage, I hope, and trying for a firm, compact work. Meanwhile, if you are in need of inspiration, go to Waco, Texas, on a weekday between 9 and 5. Go to the meditation room in the Armstrong Browning Library to see what immortality looks like. For a glimpse of mortality, though, which can be just as moving, take the stairs.

Reflections from a Visiting Scholar: The Best Laid Schemes

By Joshua Brorby, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Associate, English, Washington University in St. Louis; now Visiting Assistant Professor of English, University of Missouri

Joshua Brorby, PhD

Joshua Brorby, PhD

When I began planning my research visit to the Armstrong Browning Library, the COVID pandemic was in its early days. I thought that by summer 2020 things might be opening back up, and if not in summer, then perhaps by Thanksgiving. As waves came and went, I deferred my plans several times. Finally in June 2021 I arrived in Waco, TX ready to delve into the archive, though with one minor problem: the dissertation I had begun when I initially applied for the fellowship was nearly finished. My research priorities had changed.

Between the drafting of the dissertation prospectus, the arduous writing of the first chapter, and the final stages of revision before the defense or viva, one’s arguments, investments, and critical apparatus are bound to change—sometimes drastically. As much as a dissertation is a verifiable contribution to a field of knowledge, it is also an exercise in self-knowledge, in coming to know one’s capacities as a critic and one’s fixations as a scholar. My dissertation-writing experience was no different. When I first considered visiting the ABL, my dissertation was focused on exploring and elucidating the myriad (often hidden) theories of translation that contributed to the omnivorous body of English literature in the nineteenth century. Think Edward FitzGerald, for example. Think Richard Burton. As I dug into this body of work—all the time keeping in the back of my mind Terry Hale’s claim that Victorian translations were often anonymous or “concealed” as adaptation—I discovered that a great deal of energy concerning translation as a process, with no guarantee of success, could be located in religious writing.

I began reading about F. Max Müller, the philologist and “scien[tist] of religion” who directed the Sacred Books of the East, a massive project to translate forty-nine Middle, South, and East Asian religious texts into English. And I scoured the writings and letters of George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë for clues to their thoughts on their own work as translators. Familiar mid-Victorian crises of hermeneutics and biblical interpretation, like the publication of Essays and Reviews and the controversy around Bishop Colenso’s The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua Critically Examined, provided compelling contexts for my developing arguments. Thus, the ABL’s Theological Pamphlets Collection and its Tract Collection seemed the perfect archives in which to explore the religious milieux of the writers central to my dissertation, Faith in Translation: Rewriting Secularity in the British Empire.

By June 2021, as I made revisions to my fourth chapter and my introduction, my project had already started to change. I was looking ahead to the book manuscript, now in progress, which would begin to emerge from my dissertation. (I have changed the subtitle to Imagined Religious Pluralism in Victorian Literature.) In reading about the translation of non-Christian sacred texts into English, as well as the rediscovery of diverse Greek sources for the Christian Bible, I recognized a pattern in the work of both translators and novelists: they are often engaged in defining or imagining visions of pluralism that might come to actually exist in an unstable imperial context. They ask not only how Christian parties at odds might reconciliate—Protestants and Catholics, e.g., or Anglicans High, Low, and Broad—but whether the impetuses for religious belief and the yearning for something transcendent might be found across religious traditions and throughout religious history. How alike are Manu and Moses, as Eliot and others have asked? Does the literary, flexible reading of the Bible, suggested by Benjamin Jowett and Matthew Arnold, indeed disclose something universal about inspiration?

The Higher Criticism

Cyprian T. Rust’s The Higher Criticism. London: William Hunt and Company, 1878. ABL 19th Cent OVZ BS1225 .R875x 1878

My search through the Pamphlets and Tract Collections became a search into the ways believers in the nineteenth century wrote about pluralism (not as the holding of multiple benefices in the Church of England, but as the conditions in which multiple religions coexist). The ABL’s organization of each of these collections by denomination was incredibly helpful. Much of the extant work in my dissertation concerned mainline Anglicans. With the ABL’s flexible search functions, I was able to dig specifically into materials from Roman Catholics, as well as anti-Catholic tract writers, and Unitarians—the latter of which were especially keen on discussing the problems of interfaith apprehension and overlap. James Martineau’s assertions for the authority of Reason over that of Scripture proved compelling. And I was pleased to find a book by his atheist sister Harriet Martineau—herself a translator of Comte—addressing itself “to the disciples of Mohammed.” Martineau’s 1833 essay anticipates some of the almost pantheistic claims Müller would make half a century later; in a dialogue between a Christian and Muslim, she declares, “There is no God but God,” uniting these two Abrahamic faiths under a banner of similitude. But as the essay progresses, Martineau takes a turn toward familiar Victorian supersessionism, based in the view that Protestantism lies at the endpoint of a quasi-natural development of religious evolution. Other religions merely pave the way for the message of Christ. This isn’t far from Müller’s own position. They are each of them pulled by this tension: between assertions of similitude and superiority.

J.S. Banks's Christianity and the Science of Religion

J.S. Banks’s Christianity and the Science of Religion. London: Wesleyan Conference Office, 1880. ABL 19th Cent OVZ BR 127 .B3

The ABL’s religious texts collections also proved useful for exploring the “science of religion” as it was developed or criticized by writers not party to Müller and his extensive research network. The Rev. Cyprian T. Rust and the Rev. J.S. Banks—two figures with whom I was unfamiliar until coming to the ABL—both produced responses to the nascent science of religion in 1878 and 1880, respectively, that I uncovered in the archives. These Anglican hermeneuts each provide a window onto a mode of religious inquiry growing out of the earlier German higher criticism. As I found myself lingering over texts by names I had never read, I also found that the ABL was providing different pathways: both to new research and to opportunities to enrich old research. For instance, the plenitude of anti-Catholic tracts held by the ABL greatly added to my existing chapter on Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. A translated 1869 tract by M. Sauvestre gave my chapter a nice historicist twist, by which I might consider how anti-Catholic writing pitched celibate priests, nuns, etc. as having no family ties and, thus, disrupted the domestic organization of the state as based in the family. Considering Lucy Snowe’s total non-narration of her own family history in Villette, this correspondence to Catholic stereotype has continued to spur my thinking.

My time at the ABL was in part a personal sojourn from life in St. Louis during a pandemic. In June 2021 things had really lulled. And finally my partner and I were able to get out of St. Louis with our infant—his first big trip!—and explore a new city. Jennifer, Laura, and Christi at the ABL were incredibly helpful not only in my research but in planning family outings (a recurrent theme in some of these blog posts). Traveling to Waco brought us a sigh of relief. I think that in spending so much time scheming out my diss in its early days, I had closed off potentially fruitful avenues for further research. The wide-ranging collections at the ABL, along with its helpful finding aids and its fantastic staff, rekindled my interest in expanding on my project, something that may not have happened had I been able to visit when I first planned. What was needed, in a sense, was time away before revisiting my existing work. Such sojourns are a boon, especially when what waits on the other side is a rich and exciting archive brimming with possibility.

Reflections from a Visiting Scholar: Archival Expectations and Unexpected Surprises

By Kevin A. Morrison, PhD, Provincial Chair Professor, University Distinguished Professor, and Professor of British Literature in the School of Foreign Languages at Henan University

Professor Kevin A. Morrison in the Belew Scholars' Room at the Armstrong Browning Library

Professor Kevin A. Morrison in the Belew Scholars’ Room at the Armstrong Browning Library

Walking into an archive or a special collections reading room, the researcher carries more than a laptop (to record notes) or smart phone (to take pictures of the newspaper cuttings, correspondence, or rare books one is examining). The researcher also brings to bear on the examined material a range of expectations—from the epistemological and the ideological to the identificatory and the mundane. Indeed, perhaps the greatest allure of the archive is not the prospect of obtaining more complete knowledge of one’s subject, aided by a little luck (such as finding an uncatalogued letter, diary entry, or manuscript that solves whatever interpretative mystery has drawn one there in the first place), but of uninterrupted time in which to write and think.

When I arrived at Baylor at the end of April 2021, I (half) expected that life would stop. After all, I had spent the preceding fourteen months under mandated and self-imposed lockdowns. Like many scholars whose work is based in archives, I found such conditions stymying. I would often joke to colleagues that I didn’t know which I was looking forward to more at the conclusion of the pandemic: no longer wearing a mask or no longer having to use HathiTrust. As it happens, over my month-long stay in Waco, both were achieved: I could, once again, hold physical objects from the past in my hands as well as experience, however briefly before the Delta variant took hold, the pleasures of reading in a building without my glasses fogging up.

What I did not experience, however, was undisturbed time in which to work. Instead, family health crises, complicated childcare arrangements, and a flat tire competed with my research priorities and, on occasion, burst my expectational bubble. If the staff of the Armstrong Baylor Library could not solve medical problems, however, they were more than happy to help me get driving again or to offer suggestions of things to do in Waco with children (such as Wacotown Chalk + Walk and the wonderful Mayborn Museum). Nevertheless, I welcomed the opportunity to make progress on a project that, owing to the pandemic, I had deferred for more than a year.

A Peep into a Gin Shop

A peep into a gin shop! (19thCent Oversize HV5182 .P44 1825)

In 2019 I was commissioned by Routledge to produce a five-volume compendium of primary source materials titled Charity and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century Britain. The nineteenth century in Britain was a markedly philanthropic and charitable age. Building on trends that began in the 1700s, philanthropic activity and charitable practices became widespread, often institutionally organized and directed, and targeted an astonishingly diverse array of fields: education and child welfare, the arts, family planning, animal welfare, medical reform, and the eradication of social ills. The sources in this five-volume edition will provide a foundational basis for studying the many reasons for giving during this period and the varied practices associated with giving. Each volume will cover a diverse array of fields and, to the extent possible, include national, regional, and local material.

While I will be drawing on material in other archives, for the first volume, tentatively titled “The Spur of Religion,” I was particularly eager to consult the ABL’s collections of tracts and theological pamphlets. Although the concept of charity is arguably rooted in the Old and New Testaments, and the notion of philanthropy emerges in the seventeenth century, it was only in the nineteenth century that both assumed their modern form. The materials in the first volume will provide essential context for understanding the role of religion in nineteenth-century charity and philanthropy. The tracts touch on a range of charitable themes, while the pamphlets provide insight into the religious dimensions of charity and philanthropy. Director Jennifer Borderud helped me navigate these large, and therefore daunting, collections by organizing the material around a number of key terms central to the volumes, including temperance, vivisection, and abolitionism.

Sermon Preached at Saint Peter's, Cornhill

A sermon preached at Saint Peter’s, Cornhill. (19thCent Oversize BX5133.C38 S47 1839)

After two weeks of working with the tracts and pamphlets, I had one of those epiphanic archival moments that significantly changed how I spent the duration of my visit. Just before the coronavirus pandemic was declared, I was finishing a book manuscript, tentatively titled Studies of Provincial Life: Mitford, Gaskell, Eliot. Although Mary Russell Mitford, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot were near contemporaries, spanning two generations, and were celebrated for their representations of rural life, the three authors have never been extensively studied together. Readers often considered that the authors’ glimpses of rural life were based on their individual experiences, and their works were marketed accordingly. Yet when Elizabeth Gaskell undertook in 1851 to write the literary sketches for Household Words: A Weekly Journal Conducted by Charles Dickens that would later appear as Cranford (1853), she looked to Mitford. In Our Village (1824–32) Mitford established the prototype of a new genre to which many writers throughout the century attributed aspects of their craft. In turn, when Marian Evans—who had been a journalist, translator, and editor—tried her hand at fiction, the future George Eliot drew inspiration from Cranford and from the thematic and formal techniques of both Gaskell and Mitford. Tracing this chain of influence, my book demonstrates that Mitford, Gaskell, and Eliot, all of whom have often been employed in service to projects of restorative nostalgia that seek to reconstruct the present in the image of the past, worked within a reflective strain that accepted the pastness of the past and embraced change, however reluctantly and wistfully.

By March 2020, I had a working draft of the manuscript. What I did not possess were the many images I had hoped to incorporate. Over the course of writing, I had also come up with a number of very specific questions about the primary sources with which I was working that could be answered only by undertaking significant fact checking. Because I had to scrap my planned summer 2020 trip to London, where I intended to finish the manuscript at the British Library, the project had been on the back burner for more than a year. On a lark, midway through my time in Waco, I decided to see whether the ABL held any of the titles I needed to consult, such as the original eight parts of Eliot’s Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life or various biographies of Eliot, Gaskell, and Mitford. My heart rate quickened as each title I looked up in the catalog was found in the collection. With Jennifer’s gracious willingness to allow me to switch my focus, I spent my remaining days at the ABL bringing the project to completion.

Playing with bubbles

Playing with bubbles in Christi Klempnauer’s Office

Life may not stop at the doors of the archive. But this does not lessen the pleasures of immersing oneself in a subject (or two!). Nor does it diminish the thrill of discovering something new. In my case, the many intrusions of life also enabled me to learn more about the librarians and staff members who are primarily there to assist researchers with their work. Having brought my kids to the ABL one afternoon, I discovered that Christi Klempnauer, the library’s administrative coordinator, carries a bottle of bubbles with a wand in her purse! If my expectational bubble about undisturbed time was burst on days when I had to contend with a flat tire or a sick family member, the shrieks of delight my children emitted as they ran around the administrative office—and thus, the unexpected and joyful integration of my personal and professional lives—offered more than recompense.

Reflections from a Visiting Scholar: About Time

By Lindsey N. Chappell, PhD, Assistant Professor of English, Georgia Southern University

Dr. Lindsey N. Chappell in the Belew Scholars' Room at the Armstrong Browning Library.

Dr. Lindsey N. Chappell in the Belew Scholars’ Room at the Armstrong Browning Library.

It’s always a good idea to have a plan before going to an archive. This is the advice I give my students because, as I tell them, funny things happen to time in these places. You compress your research, sprinting through (or frantically photographing) primary sources, and new ideas and objects will lead you into rabbit holes. You will be perpetually perplexed about what month it is. You will lose an entire Wednesday. In an archive, then, you want to be flexible enough to accommodate exciting discoveries but prepared enough that you don’t waste time wondering where to start.

I believe this is, in general, good advice. I’m sure someone else gave it to me (probably Helena Michie, whose graduate seminar first required me to work with archival material). And being a responsible scholar—is it possible to fail grad school retroactively?—I did have a plan when I applied for a visiting fellowship at the ABL. I swear.

However, finally arriving (fully vaccinated!) at Baylor in May 2021, a year after my originally scheduled visit, my research projects had changed. I’d moved on from some projects and changed priorities with others. I had an initial research question, but I wasn’t sure what I would do with the things I found, especially since my book project (currently titled Temporal Forms: British Heritage Discourse and the Nineteenth-Century Mediterranean) was a year—ok, a pandemic year—further along than when I had originally planned my visit.

My book is about three Mediterranean regions that were central to the making of Western cultural heritage—Italy, Greece, and the so-called “Holy Land”—in British literature. The Mediterranean, I argue, enables us to ask how historical narratives intervened in geopolitics, how antiquarianism sparked scientific innovation, and how classical and biblical heritage shaped British imperialism. I trace the contours of what I call “heritage discourse”—narrative that constructs or challenges imperial identities by reshaping antiquity—across nineteenth-century British texts about the Mediterranean. Heritage discourse, I argue, functions via time, and often in counterintuitive and paradoxical ways. If assertions of political, cultural, and eventually racial supremacy were the end of this Mediterranean heritage discourse, then time was the means through which it could be (and perhaps still is) deployed and resisted. Temporal Forms reveals how recalculations of time on a geological scale, subsequent new histories of human civilization, radical reinventions of time, trajectories of cultural development, and growing skepticism toward long-held Enlightenment and biblical accounts all converged in British representations of the Mediterranean.

When I applied to be a visiting fellow at the ABL, I planned to start working on the Italy section of Temporal Forms and especially to write a chapter about Florence. My initial research questions were: What are the temporal forms that organize Florence and its inhabitants/visitors? How did people imagine/conceive of Florence around the Risorgimento, and how did that shape the ways they experienced time and constructed it narratively? By 2021, though, I had already decided to focus the Florence chapter on syncretism as a temporal form, and I had a working draft completed. Still, I wanted to see what I could find about the Anglo-American community in Italy and especially the abstract idea of “liberty” in the late 1850s and early 1860s, which I discuss at the end my Italy section. I don’t write much about the Brownings themselves, whose Italy connections have been so well trod in scholarship already (though EBB’s Poems before Congress and RB’s Old Pictures in Florence inform my Italy section, and I looked at editions of both in the ABL). Because the Brownings lived in Florence, though, their archives contain a wealth of material on the broader nineteenth-century Anglo-American community in Italy.

During my fellowship, I read material by and about: John Ruskin, Arthur Hugh Clough, Vernon Lee, and the American sculptor Hiram Powers. I hunted for the Horner family, who feature in my Florence chapter, and Sarah Parker Remond, a Black anti-slavery activist who moved to Florence in 1867 and became a physician. In the case of the former, I found materials in the 19th-Century Collection, the Browning Letters, and especially in the newspaper archive databases available through Baylor (for example, the obituary Susan Horner wrote for her father, reviews of her many publications on Italian art and politics, information on societies and people she mentions in her journals). In the case of the latter, I found no trace (did Remond cease speaking publicly after the US Civil War? After she moved to Italy? Or did the Italian newspapers not report on her the way the British and American ones had? I couldn’t find her in Florence, though I did find a letter she published in the American National Anti-Slavery Standard written from Florence in 1866).

In my hunt for Remond, the Horners, and the wider Anglo-American community in Florence, I consulted the ABL’s holdings of the Florentine newspaper La Nazione. But “consulted” is reductive of the physical experience of accessing and reading La Nazione. The bound volumes are huge. And heavy. And crumbling. I admired Jennifer Borderud, Director of the ABL, even before I witnessed her fearlessness and enthusiasm in the pursuit of knowledge. She didn’t weep when I requested these volumes—didn’t even flinch—but, as she explained, fetching them was a multiple-person operation. I accompanied Jennifer (and a sturdy cart) into storage where we proceeded to wrestle several volumes out for my perusal.

I have gotten used to (all right, spoiled by) digital newspaper archives. Yes, of course I will romanticize the material artifact, the smell and feel of decaying paper, as much as any self-respecting Victorianist. I love old books. But part of me—the part aware of my month-long fellowship steadily ticking away—longed for a search box. La Nazione was founded in Florence by Bettino Ricasoli in 1859 as a daily political newspaper. For me, that meant skimming 365 numbers per year of small print in Italian, hoping I would notice when my eyes passed over a name or event of interest to me.

A volume of La Nazione containing part of 1859—a research endeavor.

A volume of La Nazione containing part of 1859—a research endeavor.

Nineteenth-century issues of La Nazione organize news geographically into “Notizie Italiane” (“Italian News,” subsectioned by regions within Italy, in its earliest numbers still an aspirational national designation) and “Notizie Estere” (“Foreign News,” subsectioned by country and/or city or region—the scale of the geographical designations is sometimes irregular). An “America” section might contain US Civil War news and news from Peru; sometimes there is a very specific location heading (such as “New York” or “Hong Kong”) and sometimes a more sweeping designation (“Asia”). And sometimes broad headings like “France” contain only news of Paris. I am endlessly interested in what might be contained in these kinds of geographic labels (and what might be left out).

La Nazione 11 October 1862, reporting the Emancipation Proclamation in the U.S. alongside news from Paris and London about Risorgimento efforts.

La Nazione 11 October 1862, reporting the Emancipation Proclamation in the U.S. alongside news from Paris and London about Risorgimento efforts.

Of special interest to me were the London news segments; in the early numbers especially, these were often Italian translations of what British periodicals were saying about Italy, including reprints of calls for English readers to support the Italian independence efforts. Similarly, much of the “America” news reprinted selections from the Italian-American paper Eco d’Italia (published in Italian in New York City), making La Nazione’s reprints an echo of an echo as they captured nineteenth-century immigration networks and shared concerns for “liberty” as Italy pursued independence from foreign rule and the U.S. fought a civil war over slavery.

And there was also news that, to me, bore no immediate relevance to Italian politics: a lecture given at the Museum of Natural Science in February 1867 showcased dicksonia antarctica, the Australian tree fern (I do love a nice tree fern). The issue for 17 June 1873 noted that Great Britain had a population of 22,712,000 in 1871 and 135,004 convictions for drunkenness (I have no idea why this might have mattered in Florence, but I look forward to your emails explaining it). I did say there were rabbit holes.

Nor were diversions limited to the contents of La Nazione. What is the use, one might ask, of having a research plan when there is a book in the archives called Strange Visitors written in 1869 “by the Spirits of Irving, Willis, Thackeray, Bronte, Richter, Byron, Humboldt, Hawthorne, Wesley, Browning, and others now dwelling in the spirit world. Dictated through a clairvoyant, while in an abnormal or trance state”? Did I know Charlotte Brontë posthumously dictated a short story called “Agnes Reef” to a clairvoyant? As the editor Henry J. Horn describes, “For weeks and months the unseen visitors were punctual to their appointments, and this novel-mode of book making proceeded steadily in interest and variety until the volume was completed” (viii).

You may be thinking, to borrow a phrase from Bleak House, “What connexion can there be?” But I did plan to research temporality, and here was an assertion that spirits observed human-time—at least while Horn was making his book (which went through at least three editions).

From Italy (and Strange Visitors), I moved on to Austen Henry Layard, Harriet Martineau, and biblical archaeology and history, gathering material for the “Holy Land” section of Temporal Forms. In addition to books, I consulted the ABL’s theological tracts collection. Here were many texts engaged in British efforts to find and to date biblical sites like Nineveh. I looked at a lavishly illustrated American book, Antiquities of the Orient Unveiled, by M. Wolcott Redding. Despite the creepy pun on “Unveiled,” this book engages the scientific rhetoric of nineteenth-century archaeology. As in Layard’s publications on Nineveh, there is here an insistence on describing historical sites as they are “now,” while most of the illustrations are strangely timeless. The first chapter, “Jerusalem,” includes two facing images. The first (and largest, consisting of a fold-out page) shows “Jerusalem as it was in the time of Solomon—Population 150,000.” The second, “Jerusalem as it is—Population 20,000.” It’s an invitation to compare then and now, but the comparison is thwarted by the difference in the pictures’ sizes (does the larger picture reflect the larger population of “old” Jerusalem? Its greater importance for readers of Antiquities who are gazing on this “Orient” “Unveil[ed]—with or without consent?) and in their different orientations (old Jerusalem is formatted horizontally; new is formatted vertically, so a reader would have to rotate the book to look at each, meaning either then or now is always the wrong way up.

Two pictures of Jerusalem, Antiquities of the Orient Unveiled, by M. Wolcott Redding.

Two pictures of Jerusalem, Antiquities of the Orient Unveiled, by M. Wolcott Redding

Many materials I accessed in the archive were digital but not available through my own institution. To me, being a visiting fellow at the ABL meant not only working with old material things like La Nazione (The Archive, à la A.S. Byatt) but also accessing resources available to me as a temporary member of this research community. This part of the visiting fellowship was invaluable to me as a scholar without regular access to an R1 library or time dedicated to using it.

Even though the pandemic is not “over” (whatever that might come to mean), in my memory I am already registering it as an event with concrete edges. My pandemic memory is bookended by two scholarly occasions: the Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies conference in March 2020 and my fellowship at the ABL more than fourteen months later, where I first traveled and took off my mask in public. I am so grateful to the ABL staff for supporting my work, for assisting (and cleaning up after) my research, and for inviting me to write this reflection, where I could revel briefly in all the things that caught my interest but that may never have otherwise “counted” as research.

Mayor of Fano, Italy Surprises Armstrong Browning Library Fano Club

Massimo Seri, mayor of Fano, Italy, was a surprise guest at this year’s annual meeting of the Armstrong Browning Library’s Fano Club on Saturday, May 15. Seri joined the virtual meeting from the Museo Archeologico e Pinacoteca del Palazzo Malatestiano in Fano which houses Guercino’s painting, The Guardian Angel, that inspired Robert Browning’s poem, “The Guardian Angel — A Picture at Fano.”

Situated in front of Guercino’s masterpiece, the mayor celebrated the long-standing relationship between the city of Fano, the Fano Club, and the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University. “I would like to be able to strengthen the bond between our city and your club, maintaining a constant and continuous relationship and, if possible, also trying to organize joint initiatives aimed at enhancing our artistic heritage with the hope of seeing one another again soon.” He also offered the possibility of hosting a meeting of the Fano Club in Italy in 2022 and visiting Waco and the Armstrong Browning Library in the near future.

Mayor Massimo Seri

Screenshot of Massimo Seri, Mayor of Fano, Italy, addressing the Fano Club on Zoom on May 15, 2021

Armstrong Browning Library Director Jennifer Borderud appreciated the mayor making himself available to speak to Fano Club members. “The Fano Club was thrilled to hear from Mayor Seri at this year’s meeting. I am grateful to him for his kindness and for taking the time to talk with us about the history of Fano, its artistic and cultural heritage, and the unique connection our two cities share. I look forward to finding new ways to collaborate with the city of Fano and to encouraging Baylor students and Browning enthusiasts to visit.”

The Fano Club was established in 1912 by William Lyon Phelps, a Browning scholar at Yale, and later passed to Baylor professor A.J. Armstrong in 1943. Its membership shares Robert Browning’s experience of traveling to Fano, Italy, on the Adriatic coast and seeing Guercino’s Guardian Angel. Postcards mailed from Fano to the Armstrong Browning Library establish membership in the club, which gathers annually in Waco, Texas, for a dinner to share their experiences of Fano and to hear Browning’s poem read aloud. The Armstrong Browning Library houses a copy of Guercino’s Guardian Angel as well as a stained-glass rendering of this work of art created in 1924.

“Not Death But Love”: A Poetry Video Homage to Elizabeth Barrett Browning

By Gerard Wozek

In anticipation of the Armstrong Browning Library & Museum’s Browning Day Celebration on April 16, we are excited to present a recently completed video poem titled, “Not Death But Love,” produced by myself, Gerard Wozek as writer, and directed by artist Mary Russell in collaboration with Rob Kurland. In this brief film collage, it is our intention to honor the buried personal history of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. By reimagining her meditative garden strolls, our poetry video seeks to reveal her abiding love with her husband Robert Browning, her deep affinity for nature, her later experiments with the occult, and her ability to transcend the boundaries of time.

My creative partner Mary Russell and I have had the idea for years to develop a tribute video that honors Elizabeth Barrett Browning, her life as a writer and what informed her creative process.  Our keen interest in the life of the poet really hit a peak when we were teaching in a study abroad program offered through our university that took us to Florence, Italy. There we discovered Barrett Browning’s attraction for long strolls in the Florentine Boboli Gardens and her life at Casa Guidi. We were so enchanted with what we discovered about the life of the poet in Italy, that we at once began to put together the idea of “restaging” and reimagining her walks alongside a narrative that would serve as an homage to the poet’s craft and genius.

Still frame from “Not Death But Love”

I developed a tribute poem that would take the reader and listener on a journey through various elements and time periods inhabited by Barrett Browning. I wanted the viewer to feel as though they were walking alongside the poet, in order to not only see what she might be encountering in the Boboli Gardens of Florence, but also to feel and connect with her internal creative vision:

We listen for Pan’s pipes. A leopard’s growl as it grazes the bark of an overgrown cypress. Your hushed voice moving through the lines of a sonnet.

Elizabeth! Your handwriting is the black-ink edge of a storm cloud curling into infinity.

Puffs of red dust that once clung to your petticoat, now stain our sandal straps as we make our way to the Egyptian obelisk.

Poetry video is a unique way of expressing this particular kind of tribute to a poet. Also known as videopoems, cine-poetry, or poetry films, poetry video unites spoken text (or sometimes text that is written on the screen or text that is simply interpreted by the visual artist) with imagery and music. Situated somewhere between installation art and music video, poetry video is an evolving genre. When a resonant image couples with the poet’s text, alchemy can occur between the two disciplines of poetry and film. The visual images often deepen the author’s meaning, provide startling contrast, or locate new alliances within the inherent metaphors of the poet’s text. Stills, animation, computer graphics, and filmed imagery, complimented often by a soundtrack and/or the poet’s voice, can broaden and enhance the experience of the listener/viewer.

Jamie Stoik as Elizabeth Barrett Browning in “Not Death But Love”

“Not Death But Love,” which was completed earlier last year, will screen this summer at the 2021 International Poetry Video Festival in Athens, Greece. We were so thrilled that Jennifer Borderud, Director of the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University, offered us an opportunity to share our newly completed work with the community at Baylor, and most especially with those individuals who will celebrate the University’s annual Browning Day held virtually on April 16, 2021.

The video is available below. You can also contact me at Gerard.Wozek@gmail.com for more information about the video.

The Armstrong Browning Library & Museum’s annual Browning Day Celebration will be held virtually this year on April 16. For more information, visit baylor.edu/library/browningday.

Armstrong Browning Library Looks Forward to Welcoming Visiting Scholars

Pandemic-permitting, the Armstrong Browning Library (ABL) looks forward to welcoming the following visiting scholars to the Library during the 2020-2021 academic year:

  • Joshua Brorby, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri
  • Lindsey Chappell, Georgia Southern University
  • Michael Meredith, Eton College, United Kingdom
  • Fabienne Moine, University of Paris Nanterre, France
  • Kevin Morrison, University of Connecticut and Henan University, China
  • Jordan Welsh, University of Essex, United Kingdom

These scholars will spend one month at the ABL conducting research in the Library’s collections to advance their current book or dissertation projects and will provide a summary of their findings on the Armstrong Browning Library & Museum blog. Visiting scholars also often have opportunities to attend on-campus events and interact with Baylor faculty and graduate students who share their research interests.

To learn more about the Visiting Scholars Program, visit our website. You can also read blog posts by recent visiting scholars on the Library’s blog.

For questions, please contact Jennifer Borderud, Director of the Armstrong Browning Library, via email at Jennifer_Borderud@baylor.edu.

Reflections from a Visiting Scholar: In Pursuit of the Brownings as Readers of Balzac

By Michael Tilby, PhD, Selwyn College, Cambridge, UK

And why shouldn’t Balzac have a beard?
EBB to Mary Russell Mitford, 11 February 1845

On my tombstone may be written ‘ci-gît the greatest novel reader in the world’
EBB to Henry Fothergill Chorley, [10] March 1845

Michael Tilby

Michael Tilby, PhD, at the Armstrong Browning Library

The extremely productive and enjoyable month I spent as a Visiting Fellow at the Armstrong Browning Library (ABL) was devoted to researching the response of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning to the works of the French novelist Honoré de Balzac, whom they never met in person but read avidly.  The declaration in Bishop Blougram’s Apology ‘All Balzac’s novels occupy one shelf/The new edition fifty volumes long’, which would later be cited by various writers and essayists concerned to advance Balzac’s literary reputation in Victorian England, harked back to an ambition the Brownings had harboured from early in their Italian sojourn and which EBB described to Mary Russell Mitford in her letter of [4] July 1848: ‘When Robert & I are ambitious, we talk of buying Balzac in full some day, to put him up in our bookcase from the convent–if the carved wood angels, infants & serpents shd not finish mouldering away in horror at the touch of him.  But I fear it will be rather an expensive purchase even here,’ though, for all their obvious humour, her words are also illustrative of a readiness to relish Balzac’s reputation as a dangerous or forbidden author, most of whose works had indeed been placed on the Papal Index.

Bishop Blougram's Apology

Lines 108-109 of Browning’s “Bishop Blougram’s Apology” from Men and Women, Chapman and Hall, 1855. ABL Rare Collection X821.83 P7 C466m v. 1.

The Brownings’ fascination with Balzac’s works, initially conceived and pursued independently and then, following their engagement and marriage, jointly, has long been recognized by Browning scholars, receiving, for example, relatively detailed illustration in Roy E. Gridley’s helpful ‘chronicle’ The Brownings and France (1982).  As a Balzac specialist, my concern has been to analyse the phenomenon from a complementary perspective, examining it less in respect of the bearing it has on an understanding of RB and EBB’s poetic principles and practice and more in relation to the reception of Balzac in nineteenth-century England.  From this perspective, the Brownings’ reflections on their reading of the French author are of exceptional interest.  Although caution is needed with regard to the impression sometimes given that they had read most, if not all, of what Balzac wrote, the number of his novels they are known to have read may justly be considered uncommonly high. What makes their position unique is the prominence they accorded to discussing their reading of them.  This, at a time when the paucity of translations of his work meant that many English readers were more likely to have read accounts of Balzac in the periodical press than actually to have read examples of his work.  Although the Brownings were not alone amongst Victorian literati to possess a more or less adequate reading knowledge of French, they can be seen to demonstrate a rare appreciation of Balzac’s creative disregard for linguistic and literary norms.  If  Aurora Leigh’s confidence ‘I learnt my complement of classic French /(Kept pure of Balzac and neologism)’ may fairly be regarded as an instance of her creator in strictly autobiographical mode, it was indirect acknowledgement by EBB of how far her familiarity with the French language had developed  since the equivalent stage in her own linguistic education.

From the perspective of Balzac studies, consideration is needed not only of what the Brownings did read but also of the French author’s works they appear not to have read and of which they may even have been unaware, though the absence of reference to such titles in the letters of theirs to have survived does not constitute categorical proof.  That notwithstanding, the construction on that basis of a list of EBB’s Balzac reading, at least, contains both some surprising inclusions and some surprising omissions, at the level of individual titles and category alike.  Tracing their reading of his work in both cases reveals its essentially haphazard nature.  Awareness of his writings was acquired unsystematically and was dependent on chance mentions in the periodical press or the personal recommendations of others. Obstacles to knowledge were sometimes encountered, if only temporarily, as a result of Balzac’s partiality for re-naming his novels and stories in subsequent editions.  Regardless of whether or not the original title was retained, later editions invariably represented revised versions that were sometimes significantly expanded.  Works were read as and when they proved available.  The two enthusiasts for Balzac were subject to the vagaries of booksellers and the proprietors of circulating libraries.  Although some of his titles were serialized in newspapers to which the Brownings had ready access, others appeared in organs that were less accessible.

Still more importantly, coming to the enquiry from a position of familiarity with Balzac’s oeuvre encourages analysis that goes beyond the reproduction of comments which, when considered in isolation from the individual work that provoked them, largely restricts their import to an illustration of the extent of the Brownings’ enthusiasm for the author and the overall importance they assigned to his writing.  A more analytical assessment, rooted in a concern to pinpoint further, more specific, levels of significance, requires recognition of the remarkable diversity of Balzac’s compositions.  There is no one comprehensively typical Balzac novel.  There is therefore a need to take into account the particular characteristics of the form and subject matter of the composition in question and the weighting of its various compositional elements, with attention paid to potentially relevant factors in the work’s genesis and the novelist’s advertised intentions, both internal and external to the text.  Also pertinent to the discussion is the extent to which the novel or story is to be seen as distinctive or typical when viewed in relation to the author’s oeuvre as a whole.  Rather than treating a single observation as if it were a considered, not to say definitive, judgment, it is more appropriate to see it as part of an unfolding discussion in need of chronological reconstruction.  In this way, the various pronouncements acquire significance from the position they occupy on a scale running between, on the one hand, continuity and, on the other, tensions or contradictions.  Ultimately, it is a question of also bringing into play what RB and EBB do not say.  Their preferences within his disparate oeuvre, the works they come to prioritize, provide, in other words, instructive pointers to what they find significant or important in his writing,

At the same time, the importance of a reflection on the status of the documentary evidence became increasingly clear as my research progressed.  At one level, it is simply a matter of identifying errors or misunderstandings committed by the Brownings or by one of their correspondents or acquaintances.  More important, especially with regard to the predominance of letters from EBB, is to recognize the imbalance (and potential distortion) stemming from the lacunary nature of the correspondence and, as is the case with the exchanges between RB and EBB, the transition from letters to oral discussions that survive, if at all, only in the odd reference in a letter to a third party.  As with all correspondence, the tone and content of the remarks will reflect a degree of sensitivity to the identity and character of the recipient.  (This is separate from the absence of letters containing reference to Balzac from certain other figures who had strong opinions both for and against his worth as a writer; of these the acerbic Thomas Carlyle is one likely to have communicated his view of Balzac to RB particularly forcefully, whether by letter or face-to-face.)  This leads to the most important factor of all, namely that these letters are not embryonic critical essays designed for publication.  The reflections on Balzac they contain, especially those of EBB, are the responses of readers rather than critics, even if it can be shown that they were often provoked by views disseminated by the literary critical fraternity.

Following on from that observation, two further forms of context are essential in determining the significance of the Brownings’ assertions on the subject of Balzac.  Together they take us beyond the realm of personal literary preferences and allow their cult of Balzac to be seen as part of the wider picture of the reception of Balzac in Victorian England.  The first is the Brownings’ commitment (echoed by Mary Russell Mitford) to assessing Balzac’s novels in relation to those of a group of other novelists regarded as belonging, with Balzac, in a ‘new school of French literature’, namely George Sand, Victor Hugo, Eugène Sue, Alexandre Dumas, Frédéric Soulié, Jules Janin, and Charles de Bernard.  EBB strode into an already established debate as to whether Balzac or Sand was the greater writer.  There is evidence to suggest that in the 1830s and 1840s in England Sand was the more highly acclaimed of the two.  She certainly appears to have been the more popular.  Writing in 1844, G.H. Lewes reported that he had been told by a prominent foreign bookseller in London that scarcely a day passed without his being asked for a work of Sand’s, whereas Balzac’s works, with the exception of his latest title, were rarely asked for.  There exist statements by EBB that, if taken in isolation and at face value, provide strong support for Juliette Atkinson’s contention, in her magisterial 2017 study French Novels and the Victorians, that the author of Aurora Leigh placed Sand above Balzac, but it can also be argued that the totality of EBB’s remarks on the question, expressed over a period, betray a certain hesitation and ambivalence, and that the nature of her engagement with Balzac’s writing was such as to imply a recognition of his greater importance.

EBB to Mary Russell Mitford 11 February 1845

Letter from EBB to Mary Russell Mitford, dated 11 February 1845. Original housed at Wellesley College, Margaret Clapp Library, Special Collections.

The second of these two additional contexts, of which the first was, in fact, a consequence, was constituted by the assessment of Balzac’s writings in critical essays and reviews in the English periodical press, principally George Moir [Bussey], John Stuart Mill, John Wilson Croker, Henry Fothergill Chorley, G.W.M. Reynolds, G.H. Lewes, and Jules Janin, together with certain authors of unsigned articles who remain to be identified. (Some of these essays and reviews are widely known, but others have not previously been adduced in relation to either the Brownings or the reception of Balzac in Victorian England.)  Although some of the journalist-critics in question aspired to the title of aristarch, the articles were not universally negative.  In some cases, it is possible to detect instances of a particular essay shaping EBB’s responses, even if her evaluation of Balzac ended up being diametrically opposed to that of the critic in question.  Atkinson has perceptively noted that EBB tempers her laudatory assessment of his work by appending what one might term a ‘moral health warning’ that retains from Balzac’s contemporary English denouncers elements of their outrage, but I am inclined to go beyond seeing this as either genuine queasiness or an expedient attempt at disculpation (with reference to a verbal sketch of Alfred de Musset EBB sent to Mitford in 1852, Elisabeth Jay, in British Writers and Paris 1830-1875 (2016) speaks of her managing ‘the neat trick of maintaining her reputation for moral probity […] by providing a brief coda of disapprobation to her salacious inventory of gossip’) and argue for its being part of a thinly disguised delight in the very ‘wickedness’ of the majority of his novels.  At the same time, with reference to Balzac, Charles de Bernard and Soulié, she insisted, in her letter to Mitford of 11 February 1845: ‘if you had not a pleasure just as I have, in abstract faculty & power, you would not bear one of these writers…& scarcely one of their works.’

*****

My research has focused on four main areas as follows:

1. RB’s early works and Balzac’s philosophical fictions
2. EBB and Mary Russell Mitford as readers of Balzac
3. RB and EBB’s shared interest in Balzac
4. RB and Balzac: the later years

 1. RB’s early works and Balzac’s philosophical fictions

Hovelaque

Manuscript inscription to Dr. Armstrong in the presentation copy of Henri-Léon Hovelque’s La Jeunesse de Robert Browning. ABL Foreign Languages Collection Fr 821.83 D H845j.

It has proved profitable here to re-open the question of Balzac’s Louis Lambert as a significant element in the genesis of Pauline, starting from a re-consideration of the claims made in 1932 by the Belgian academic Henri-Léon Hovelaque. That these should have been given short shrift by subsequent Browning scholars is understandable in the light of the demonstrable shortcomings in Hovelaque’s presentation of his thesis.  His fundamental belief is nonetheless supported by certain observations contained in a previously unidentified nineteenth-century lecture that was obscured from view by the combination of an incorrect attribution and the absence of bibliographical information, though, in turn, some of that author’s suggested textual parallels harking back to Balzac’s are invalidated by dint of being additions Balzac made to his text after the publication date of Pauline. It has also been necessary to revisit, in context, RB’s assertion, made to Ripert-Monclar in 1835, that he did not know Balzac’s work as well as he would have wished.  The rehabilitation of Louis Lambert in this connection does not however invalidate the relevance that RB’s editors are inclined to accord La Peau de chagrin in relation to the poem. The discovery of a hitherto unrecorded unsigned review of Pauline can be used as additional support for their view.  This leaves the question of how Browning became aware of La Peau de chagrin (1831).  His personal contact with his uncle, William Shergold Browning, in Paris and his French tutor in London are possible sources of information. In the case of the former, his neglected miscellaneous writings betray a certain awareness of contemporary French writing, though they contain no reference to Balzac.  There are grounds on which to consider also John Stuart Mill, whose close engagement with Browning’s poem in preparation for a review that never reached publication was accompanied by an early interest in all things French. (Although the author of Pauline may not have known Mill personally at that point, he was an intimate of W. J. Fox and Eliza Flower.)  Above all to be taken into account, though, are various accounts of La Peau de chagrin that had appeared in the English periodical press immediately prior to the composition of RB’s poem.  Certain textual details of RB’s poem can likewise be shown to echo at least one of Balzac’s contes philosophiques from the same period, while Paracelsus parallels the same author’s frequent mentions of the physician and alchemist.

2. EBB and Mary Russell Mitford as readers of Balzac

EBB to Mitford 08 February 1847

EBB’s handwritten list of Balzac titles appended to her letter to Mary Russell Mitford, dated 8 February [1847]. Original housed at Wellesley College, Margaret Clapp Library, Special Collections.

As indicated above, my concern here is to analyse in detail this unique exchange of letters both chronologically and in context in order to tease out the significance of the way Balzac is viewed by the two correspondents and how it evolved over time from initial doubts and even hostility to a shared passion that was nonetheless able to accommodate temporary instances of dissension. This evolution, in which Le Père Goriot was a watershed experience for EBB, requires also to be seen against shifts of emphasis in their allegiance to the principal French rivals for their admiration.  In addition to re-evaluating the elements of moral disapprobation and highlighting the piecemeal way in which they acquired familiarity with Balzac’s writings; the interaction of their discussion of their reading with the critical reception of his work in early Victorian England; and their concern to rank Balzac, Sand and their contemporaries in order of importance, the aim has been to identify the elements of Balzac’s writing to which they were particularly drawn. Thus, notwithstanding their (and especially EBB’s) self-confessed, though unrealized, desire to read his entire oeuvre, they were especially enthused by the many works of his in which a major concern was with writers (or journalists), creative genius, or the predicament of single women, themes which were not infrequently interwoven.

D1204

Draft MS of EBB’s translation of a poem (‘Chant d’une jeune fille’/’The Song of a Young Girl’) ascribed to the fictional poet Canalis in Balzac’s Modeste Mignon. D1204.

Of particular significance in the case of each correspondent is her reaction to reading Béatrix (featuring a character obviously modelled in part on George Sand), Modeste Mignon, the tripartite Illusions perdues (with, in the second part, its notorious attack on journalists which was at the root of the subsequent spat between Balzac and Janin) and the first three parts of its sequel, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, which presented the eagerly awaited answer to the question of the destiny of the failed poet Lucien de Rubempré.  In addition to providing a portrait of another poet of questionable merit, Modeste Mignon featured in its eponymous heroine a character who sets to music a poem that EBB would translate into English, a draft of her version being preserved in ABL. This requires to be related to the discussion in these letters of translating Balzac and, indeed, of his ‘untranslatability’.  Especially noteworthy, in a wider context that is dominated by moral anxiety, is the responsiveness of EBB and Mitford to Balzac, George Sand, and Victor Hugo’s creative extension of the possibilities of the French language, though it would be to RB that she would most eloquently express Balzac’s pre-eminence in this regard.  At the same time, a would-be complete appreciation of these letters needs to acknowledge that on a personal level, the reading of Balzac for EBB and Mitford was a prism through which to create a sentimental relationship sustained by the cultivation of a shared sense of moral boldness and linguistic and cultural superiority.  Every opportunity was seized by them to drop the name of ‘our Balzac’, or some such phrase, even in contexts unlinked to him or his works.  The picture is further completed by consideration of Mitford’s observations on Balzac in letters to others and in her 1855 volume of reminiscences.

3. RB and EBB’s shared interest in Balzac

Beatrix

First installment of Béatrix in Le Siècle, 13 April 1839. Available online via Gallica.

The first concern here is to establish the extent to which RB, like EBB, developed a familiarity with Balzac’s novels prior to their relationship. In the years after the publication of Pauline and Paracelsus, he eagerly followed the serialization of the first part of Béatrix in Le Siècle in 1839, though it was the initial chapters describing the small Breton town of Guérande and its environs that exerted a particular attraction. He would have been unaware, however, that the version he was reading had been doctored out of respect for the susceptibilities of a mass audience. It may be that he read in this format some or all of the other works of Balzac that were serialized in the same newspaper. There is, on the other hand, no trace of his having read the short story Un drame au bord de la mer (1834), which was set in the same area in Brittany and offered the added interest of employing Louis Lambert as narrator.  Unlike EBB, RB showed no sign of wishing to proselytize with regard to Balzac’s compositions; it was Hugo’s work in this period that he pressed upon the attentions of Alfred Domett. In the letters the Brownings exchanged prior to their marriage, Balzac is prominent and it may be assumed that discussion of works such as La Recherche de l’absolu continued during his visits to Wimpole Street. It is difficult to imagine EBB not being as wide-ranging in her later references to his work as she was in her letters to Mitford.  Balzac’s pre-eminence in their estimation was bolstered by the fact that RB did not share his wife’s admiration of Sand, though his objections to Consuelo were not phrased in the reprehensible language to which Carlyle had recourse when denouncing her writings a few years previously.  He was quick to pick up on any reference to Balzac in the press, especially hostile mentions in English literary periodicals, and was keen to read any work of his, whether new or less recent. And only partly out of knowledge that this was guaranteed to please EBB and provide a fertile topic of conversation. Although textual evidence is relatively scant for the years separating their departure for Italy and EBB’s death, it is clear that both continued to read Balzac’s novels and remained committed to making them fundamental reference points in their discussions, though it was probably EBB who ensured that this was so.  This was in spite of obstacles in the way of reading Balzac in Italy that were both logistical and the result of censorship. Their shared interest in the writer and his work was kept alive by several expatriate residents or visitors who had either known him or were keen to share their own interest in him. The most easily documented example is that of Margaret Fuller Ossoli. The Brownings’ joint reading of Le Cousin Pons in 1850 merits particular attention.  EBB reported that they were both greatly affected by Balzac’s death a few months’ later, an event that deprived them of making his acquaintance during their Parisian sojourn of 1852, when, however, they attended one of Sand’s ‘evenings’.   At the same time, there are signs that, to a certain extent, they employed different yardsticks in their assessment of Balzac as a creative artist, though this can only have served to provide a basis for stimulating debate.  The view frequently advanced that, following their reading of Madame Bovary in 1858, Balzac was toppled from the pedestal on which RB had placed him nonetheless invites qualification.

4. RB and Balzac: the later years

Beatrix 2

Page from the opening chapter of the first edition of Béatrix containing references to Guérande, Batz, and Le Croisic. Available online via Gallica.

The principal focal point in this period is RB’s discovery of the area of Brittany that Balzac had immortalized in Béatrix and which he himself went on to celebrate in The Two Poets of Croisic (1878). The same place names are present in both works: Guérande, Batz, and Le Croisic.  A closer comparative study of the two works can certainly be envisaged, though Balzac recalls druidic monuments in other of his works of fiction as well.  There is no reason to challenge Mrs Orr’s statement: ‘His [RB’s] allegiance to Balzac remained unshaken, though he was conscious of lengthiness when he read him aloud.’  An entry in Evelyn Barclay’s Venice diary a month before RB’s death records a visiting French art historian and historian of literature professing that ‘he had never met any one, who had such a deep and thorough knowledge of french literature’ before going on to state categorically that RB’s ‘favourite french author was Balzac.’  It is notable that RB’s later works, e.g. The Inn Album and Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, stimulate such author-critics as Swinburne, Stevenson, W.E. Henley, John Addington Symonds, Arthur Symons, Saintsbury (in the 1911 edition of Britannica) and Gerard Manley Hopkins (albeit with regard to the opening of The Ring and the Book in a comment that was unflattering to both writers) to propose parallels with Balzac’s novels, while the forgotten minor French poet, Charles des Guerrois, who translated poems by both RB and EBB, stands out by virtue of his claim in 1885 that ‘Aurora Leigh me fait penser par moments à notre Balzac.’ (The previous year an Italian critic had emphasized the Balzac-like detail of RB’s descriptions.)  Although the probing of such affinities lies outside the scope of my study, certain shared characteristics suggest themselves for further consideration, amongst them a positive form of prolixity and a penchant for neologism and stylistic hybridity, together with an intellectual and cultural eclecticism that results in evocative bric-à-brac or clutter and poses interpretative difficulties of an epistemological nature. Also ripe for further comparison are the effects created on occasion by each author’s embedding of a central narrative in a related secondary one.

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Literary-historical research invariably has unintended consequences.  In my case, a fascination with the French novel in Pen Browning’s French Abbé Reading at the top of the staircase at ABL resulted in an additional project that has continued on my return from Baylor in the form of an article with the working title ‘Pen Browning’s French abbé revisited.’

French Abbe Reading

French Abbé Reading by Robert Barrett Browning, 1875. Armstrong Browning Library.

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My research at the Armstrong Browning Library was made possible by the award of a Visiting Research Fellowship funded by Baylor University.  It is with pleasure that I extend warmest thanks to the Director, Jennifer Borderud, and her staff, all of whom went out of their way to ensure that my time at ABL was as enjoyable as it was rewarding.  Melvin Schuetz not only brought research materials to my table with preternatural rapidity, but willingly placed his unrivalled knowledge of the collections and their history at my disposal.  No question of a practical nature was either too great or too trivial for Christi Klempnauer, who unfailingly produced information or a solution with the warmest of smiles.  It was a privilege to be able to work undisturbed in such comfortable surroundings.  Immediate access to key works and the remarkable Wedgestone online edition of The Brownings Correspondence (including content not generally available) made for extremely efficient working practices, especially for someone new to the bibliography.  As for the richness of the specialized holdings, I was able to make a number of related discoveries that would not have been possible in any other single library.  A supplementary pleasure was afforded by an awareness of the provenance of certain volumes, especially those that had been presented by their author to Dr Armstrong.  Along with all other Visiting Fellows, I imagine, I felt it was incumbent on me to end up producing a study that he would have approved of.  Since my return, Philip Kelley has shown great kindness in revealing to me not only the facts behind an enigmatic 1961 newspaper report of the discovery of a Pen Browning painting that turned out to be his portrait of Joseph Milsand and which is now in ABL, but also the extraordinary story of his own involvement in establishing the sitter’s identity and the provenance of the painting was well as keeping track of its whereabouts prior to its long-delayed appearance at auction.  He has also been equally generous in drawing my attention to several items related to my main topic of research of which I would otherwise have remained unaware.

Melvin Schuetz Retires After 26 Years of Service to Baylor University

Melvin Schuetz

Melvin Schuetz, Assistant to the Curators at the Armstrong Browning Library, retired May 1 after 26 years of service to Baylor

On May 1, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic, Melvin Schuetz, assistant to the curators at the Armstrong Browning Library (ABL), retired after 26 years of service to Baylor University.

As a skilled internet sleuth, Melvin was instrumental in contributing to the growth of the Library’s collections by discovering Browning letters, manuscripts, library books, presentation and association volumes, photographs and other likenesses, artwork, artifacts, and miscellaneous Browingiana in library catalogs and on auction and bookseller websites. His expertise and assistance were also respected and appreciated by Browning scholars and scholars of the nineteenth century from around the world.

Melvin's Retirement Celebration

Colleagues celebrated with Melvin during a retirement reception online

A collector in his own right Melvin amassed a personal library of first editions of the Brownings’ works. He installed an exhibition featuring a chronological display of his British first editions of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning works in the ABL’s Hankamer Treasure Room in February of this year.

Melvin is also passionate about the space program and the work of space artist Chesley Bonestell. He authored A Chesley Bonestell Space Art Chronology, published in 1999; collaborated on an illustrated book The Art of Chesley Bonestell in 2001 for which he received a Hugo Award; and co-produced a multi-award winning documentary on Bonestell, Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future, in 2018.

Collecting the BrowningsThe Armstrong Browning Library wishes Melvin a happy retirement, but his collegiality, curiosity, and dedication will be missed!

Collecting the Brownings, an exhibition curated by Melvin H. Schuetz, originally scheduled to close at the end of July, will remain on display through December 2020 in the Hankamer Treasure Room of the Armstrong Browning Library.

 

Trinity College Joins The Browning Letters Project

By Eric Stoykovich, PhD, of the Watkinson Library, Trinity College (Hartford, Connecticut)

The Armstrong Browning Library (ABL) at Baylor University is responsible for curating The Browning Letters project, a collaboration to make the correspondence written by and to the Victorian poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning digitally viewable in high-resolution. Recently, the Watkinson Library at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, contributed to this effort by digitizing several unique items in its manuscript holdings with the main purpose of making them widely available for the first time through The Browning Letters project. Within its large holdings of rare books, manuscripts, and archives, the Watkinson Library, a public research library, preserves a number of collections which touch upon the lives and works of the Brownings. The two now-digitized autograph letters penned by the poets – Elizabeth’s November 1836 letter, written in London before her marriage, is addressed to publisher Samuel Carter Hall, and Robert’s July 1862 letter to Frances Davenport Perkins, written after his wife’s death – reside in separate but related collections at the Watkinson.

Elizabeth B. Browning to Samuel Carter Hall, November 22, 1836

Elizabeth’s letter to Hall, who was then in London working as editor of The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, deals partly with two poems – “The Romaunt of Margret” and “The Poet’s Vow” – which Hall had just published. Elizabeth apologized for the appearance of her unresponsiveness to Hall’s previous letters, as well as her inability to enclose forthwith “the poem I am at present engaged upon,” namely “The Seraphim.” Instead she substituted “one of a simpler character,” probably “The Island,” published in January 1837 in the same periodical. Elizabeth’s letter is part of the William R. Lawrence Papers, an autograph collection assembled by Lawrence (1812-1855), son of industrialist Amos Lawrence. It is unknown how they arrived at the Watkinson.

Even if comprised of just 1 cubic feet of material, the Lawrence Papers bring together quite a few notable British literary figures, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Her November 1836 letter appears to have entered the Lawrence collection in March 1852 directly from Samuel Carter Hall. Someone, perhaps Lawrence himself, then took time to write brief descriptions of the individuals whose autographed letters are represented in the collection. Portraying Elizabeth as a highly unusual poet (even in an era of published females), that commentator praised the poet’s work:

“The Poetess, resides in London. Her productions are unique in this age of lady authors. Her excellence is her own; her mind is colored by what it feeds on; the fine tissue of her flowing style comes to us from the loom of Grecian thought. She is the learned poetess of the day, familiar with Homer, and Aeschylus and Sophocles.”

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Robert Browning to Frances Davenport Perkins, 11 July 1862

Robert Browning’s July 11, 1862, letter is part of the Watkinson’s British Notables Collection, which also includes letters and manuscripts penned by clergy, soldiers, and authors such as William Makepeace Thackeray, George Bernard Shaw, Charlotte M. Yonge, and William Cobbett. It seems to have been partly the creation of the aforementioned Samuel Carter Hall (1800–1889) and his wife, Anna Maria Hall (née Fielding, 1800–1881), both noted authors in their day.

Browning’s letter was written to Frances Davenport Perkins (née Bruen, 1825–1909), then residing at Rome with her husband, Charles Callahan Perkins, her unmarried sister, Mary Lundie Bruen, and mother, Mary Ann Bruen. As the black border of Browning’s letter indicates, he was still in mourning for the loss of his wife some twelve months earlier: “With this you will get the Hair you ask for, & which I give with all my heart. Also, three photographs for your sister & mother as well as yourself.”

A lock of Elizabeth B. Browning’s hair (in locket) with Satin Box (Browning Guide #H0481)

The “hair” is Elizabeth’s—one of eleven known locks that have surfaced. With the letter is a slip of paper, originally enwrapping EBB’s hair, on which Browning wrote: “For Mrs Bruen—from RB.” The lock is now encased in a garnet-bordered locket, housed in a blue satin box, from the house of Shreve Crump & Low, Boston. One may confidently surmise that the locket was acquired after the family returned to Boston following the American Civil War. The Perkinses and Bruens disembarked from the “S.S. Russia” in New York City on June 29, 1869, the eighth anniversary of Mrs. Browning’s death (Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, NY, 1820-1897, June 29, 1869).

Robert Browning’s owner’s inscription, dated April 27, 1889, less than eight months before Robert Browning’s death on December 12, 1889.

The locket and box with Elizabeth’s hair, the letter from Robert, and one of the three photographs of Robert which he sent to Mrs. Perkins, all came to the Watkinson Library in a single donation in early 1973, along with a number of other important literary works from the Victorian era and the twentieth century. The donor, Arthur Milliken, former headmaster of a private school in Simsbury, Connecticut, also gave 27 first editions of Robert Browning’s works, including the eight-volume “Bells and Pomegranates,” as well as Browning’s own inscribed copy of a set of “Life and Works” by Robert Burns. A Yale graduate, Milliken nevertheless thought that his collection would be treasured more by a smaller college like Trinity (Hartford Times, March 1973).

Robert Browning’s “Balaustion’s Adventure” (1871), in The Statue and the Bust (copy printed after 1880).

While the manuscripts that Milliken donated to the Watkinson Library were apparently added to the mixed-provenance British Notables Collection, the over 100 books he donated were catalogued separately. One of Milliken’s books is especially intriguing: a copy of “The Statue and the Bust” contains eight lines of Robert Browning’s “Balaustion’s Adventure,” dated November 22, 1871, authentically handwritten by Browning himself, while in London, and tipped into the front matter. However, the printed and bound parts of the book actually consist of a skillful forgery of The Statue and the Bust by famous Victorian hoaxer Thomas J. Wise. The authentic manuscript may have been placed strategically to distract attention from the post-1880 print forgery, later detected by its type and its esparto with chemical wood paper.

Robert Browning, The Statue and the Bust (forged copy by Thomas J. Wise, after 1880)

Robert Browning, The Statue and the Bust (forged copy by Thomas J. Wise, after 1880)

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The Watkinson Library in Hartford, Connecticut, serves as a public research library, as well as the rare book library, special collections, and archives of Trinity College. Started in 1858 as a non-circulating reference library for all citizens of Hartford and other visitors to Connecticut, the Watkinson Library has been transformed by its 70-year partnership with Trinity College into a place for many types of instruction, research, and collaboration with local community members and global scholars. It has a number of collecting strengths, particularly in books of hours, incunables, Americana, ornithology, American Indian languages, Hartford socialites and authors, early 20th-century posters, artists’ books, and college records which date prior to 1823, the founding of Trinity College.  The vision of the Watkinson Library is to create a welcoming space for all to encounter and interact with the cultural materials held by it, and to facilitate creative and intellectual production based on or inspired by its collections.

The first four images above are courtesy of Amanda Matava, Digital Media Librarian, Trinity College Library, who deserves thanks for the high-quality photography of multi-dimensional artifacts. The author scanned the final three images. The author would also like to thank Philip Kelley for his editorial and research assistance.

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The Armstrong Browning Library is grateful to Trinity College for its participation in The Browning Letters project. Institutions and individuals interested in making their Browning letters accessible by joining this project can contact ABL Director Jennifer Borderud.