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.

*****

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.

*****

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.”

*****

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)

*****

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.

*****

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.

Fano Club to Reunite in 2021

 

Each year the Armstrong Browning Library hosts a dinner and meeting of the Fano Club to celebrate Robert Browning’s birthday. The Fano Club was established in 1912 by William Lyon Phelps, a Browning scholar at Yale, and later passed on to Baylor professor A.J. Armstrong in 1943. Its membership shares Robert Browning’s experience of traveling to the small town of Fano, Italy, on the Adriatic coast. There, Browning walked into the Church of San Agostino and saw Guercino’s masterpiece, The Guardian Angel. Inspired by its beauty, Browning penned the eponymous poem that is read by the youngest Fano Club member at each year’s meeting.

This year out of concern for our Fano Club members amidst the ongoing spread of the coronavirus, we will not meet. We will, however, reunite in 2021 to introduce the over 30 new members who joined in 2019, share memories of Fano together, and once again hear Browning’s famous poem. Those interested in joining what has been called “the most exclusive club in the whole world” need only do three things: Visit Fano, see The Guardian Angel painting (which now hangs in the Civic Museum), and send a postcard postmarked from Fano to the Armstrong Browning Library.

While we await next year’s meeting, please consider the following request. We have heard that Fano is one of the areas that has been hit hard by COVID-19. A Fano Club member with family currently living in Fano reached out to tell us of the severity of the conditions there and asked if we would share a link to a GoFundMe campaign to purchase an additional respirator for a hospital in the Marche region of Italy. Here is the link for those who wish to contribute: https://www.gofundme.com/f/coronavirusaiutiamo-gli-ospedali-delle-marche

We look forward to welcoming the Fano Club to the Armstrong Browning Library once again next year and to meeting members new and old.

 

 

 

Reflections from a Visiting Scholar: The “Minor English Poets Collection”: National Memory and Ecocritical Poetry

By Jerome Wynter, PhD, Adjunct Assistant Professor, BMCC, City University of New York

Jerome Wynter, PhD, Adjunct Assistant Professor, BMCC, City University of New York

Jerome Wynter, PhD, Adjunct Assistant Professor, BMCC, City University of New York

The Armstrong Browning Library (ABL) at Baylor University boasts an archive of nineteenth-century poetry entitled “The Minor English Poets’ Collection.” Purchased in 1986 from Pickering and Chatto, it contains 249 works of verse and dramatic verse published in the Age of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). My examination of this little-explored collection reveals that the title appears to be a misnomer. The collection features the poetry of authors whose writings appeared in print only occasionally, such as the members of the Glasgow Ballad Club, John Stuart Blackie (1809-1895), John Christopher Fitzachary, James Rennell Rodd (1858-1941) and Charles Whitworth Wynne (1869-1917). But it also includes the works of poets who were well established in their day and who have received serious critical attention in ours, including George Meredith (1828-1909) and William Ernest Henley (1849-1903). Many of the poets also identify themselves as Scots and Irish in their prefaces, and several of the poems are composed in a regional dialect of Celtic or Gaelic origin.

This anomaly notwithstanding, the collection is a rich resource. My purpose in exploring the work of these mid- to late-Victorian “minor” poets was to discover their contribution to the aesthetic, political and social poetic practices to the literature and culture of the period. Kirstie Blair reminds us that with the recovery of so many minor poets “much remains to be said about them and their importance in the literary cultures of their time, not to mention the political, social and religious contexts” (2013: 3). Blair is referring to laboring- and working-class poets, but her remark points to the need for a greater renewal of interest in the study of the work of Victorian minor poets of all social classes.

Reading upwards of twenty volumes of poetry, I investigated how these “minor English” poets might be a corrective to the viewpoint of the canonical poets. I charted the broad themes of daily life. Invariably, these are concerned with poverty, economic disparity between classes, death and loss, and the Christian faith. I also explored the poets’ engagement with local and contemporary politics, national histories and the representation of nature and the environment. It is the final two of these themes that I wish to focus on briefly, paying special attention to two works of ecocritical poetry.

National Memory

This photo from Earle’s Home Poems accompanies the poem “At the Grave of the Nation” (1900)

This photo from Earle’s Home Poems accompanies the poem “At the Grave of the Nation” (1900)

Many of the poems in the archive focused on national history with a concentration on the themes of national memory, patriotism and nostalgia for bygone times. There are tributes to English and Scottish heroes, both historical and literary: Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596), Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), the Duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley, 1769-1852), Robert Burns (1759-1796) and Lord Alfred Tennyson (1802-1892). Irish nationalism, on the other hand, is revived mainly through the poetic treatment of legends. In a patriotic homage to Sir Francis Drake in Ballads of the Fleet and Other Poems (1897), for example, Rodd represents the infamous pirate as a hero whose life on the seas is peerless, in “San Juan De Lua” written in two-line stanzas of heroic couplets. In another unapologetically patriotic poem Home Poems (1899), Walter Earle congratulates England for its successful wars, colonial history, and territorial expansion. His goal, it seems, is to bolster national pride and self-confidence. In one poem entitled “The New Century,” the speaker announces, “Well-done, good Land! thou hast another hundred years to go” (Stanza 4), concluding that “So shall our Empire be the Champion of the Right, – / Our Flag unstained, our Name upheld; – then come what may” (Stanza 6). Remarkably, Earle’s poems ignore the effects of colonization and England’s wars during the century.

Ecocritical Poetry

Robert, Earl of Lytton (1831-1891)

Robert, Earl of Lytton (1831-1891)

Poets whose work engages with nature and environment are far less nationalistic. Many of their poems evoke Romantic tropes of nature and the wilderness, but few could be considered ecocritical poetry, which The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2012) defines as “related to the broader genre of nature poetry but can be distinguished from it by its portrayal of nature as threatened by human activities.” Two notable examples of ecocritical writing that denounce the threat human activities posed to the non-human world are the poems After Paradise or Legends of Exile and Other Poems (1887) and Ad Astra (1900) by Robert, Earl of Lytton (1831-1891) and Whitworth Wynne, respectively. Both poets tackle man’s progress and degradation of the natural world, though they do not necessarily foreground the natural world or wilderness. Commenting on poetry of this kind, Karla Armbruster and Kathleen R. Wallace assert that one of the ecocritic’s most important tasks today is to consistently “address a wider spectrum of texts” that are less obviously about “natural” landscapes (2001:2).

This hybrid poetry is represented by the work of both Lytton and Wynne. Writing under the pseudonym Owen Meredith, Lytton’s title poem “After Paradise” comprises several independent sections. The first, The Titlark’s Nest: A Parable, is a fifteen-stanza modified form of the ottava rima that obliquely celebrates nature’s reclamation of the space occupied by a now abandoned temple. Colossally and splendidly built on a Greek island, it had displaced the whistling meadow pipit or titlark, the Tmetothylacus tenellus. The first stanza describes the church “high on the white peak of a glittering isle” (Stanza 1). However, it now stands “a ruin’d fane within a wild vine’s bowers,” a vine that muffles “its marble-pillar’d peristyle” (Stanza 1). Beautifully rendered, these lines capture the irony of a once opulent place of worship, “girt by priests and devotees” where “[a] god once gazed upon the suppliant throng” (Stanza 3) that has been left to rot:

The place was solitary, and the fane

Deserted save that where, in saucy scorn

Of desolation’s impotent disdain,

The reveling leaves and buds and bunches born

From the wild vine along a roofless lane

Of mouldering marble columns roam’d, one morn

A titlark, by past grandeur unopprest,

Had boldly built her inconspicuous nest. (Stanza 2)

The stanza juxtaposes the dead and desolate church building with the emerging life of plant (“buds and bunches born”) and animal (“A titlark”). The diction is one of degradation and the tone is resentful. This is conveyed through the alliterative “saucy scorn / Of desolation’s impotent disdain.” However, this tone gives way to another contrasting and conflicting one: an expression of triumph enacted by the “revelling” of the leaves amid the “buds and bunches born / From that wild vine.” The poet reconciles the former oppressive “grandeur” of the temple with the victory of “one small bird” (Stanza 3). This is a poem of contrasts and repetition, and Lytton seems to emphasize the success of the non-human world over the intrusiveness of man-made structures and the degradation which follows their reckless desolation. In Whitworth Wynne’s Ad Astra, the speaker reflects on man’s torrid relationship with God and nature, and the disastrous effects of his achievements and progress in the last few decades of the expiring century. Written in iambic pentameter, the poem consists of 227 seven-line stanzas, rhyming ababbcc. The speaker is critical of the many advancements man has made in the last decade, especially in electricity in 1887, and ponders:

XXXI

And Man, to what achievements doth he move!

Who shall foretell his boundless destiny!

Out of the earth what untold treasure-trove!

What realms await him in the trackless sky!

The stored lightnings at his bidding fly,

The circuits of the World their bounds decrease

Before the smile of universal Peace.

Initial Findings

Lytton’s and Whitworth Wynne’s ecocritical poetry aside, the majority of the volumes in the Collection, especially by the 1890s poets, that I read reveal a widespread engagement with patriotism and celebration of national history, foreshadowing Rudyard Kipling’s poetic response to empire in The Five Nations (1903). Several poets commemorate the life of Lord Alfred Tennyson (“mighty of heart or brain”), some employing the language of empire to represent the poet laureate as “Warders of Empire’s outposts.” These are but a few of the many themes to be explored in “The Minor Poets’ Collection.” Overall, my initial investigation shows that the “minor English poets,” writing in the final two decades of the nineteenth century, present no clear break with the poetry of the canonical poets of the period, with some original reviewers commenting that the work of Lord Lytton and Whitworth Wynne (pseudonym for Charles Cayzer) is imitative of Tennyson and Robert Browning.

Through the generosity of the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University, which awarded me a visiting research fellowship in 2019, I am grateful for the first privilege of sampling this impressive collection of writings by “minor English poets” as part of a second major project. I thank all who made my time at the ABL and Baylor a success, in particular Christi Klempnauer, who was always available to make sure my needs were well seen to, and Assistant to the Curators Melvin Schuetz and the Director Jennifer Borderud.

Works Consulted

Armbruster, Karla, and Kathleen R. Wallace, eds. (2001). Beyond Nature Writing:  Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism. (Charlottesville, NC and London: University Press of Virginia).

Blair, Kirstie, and Mina Gorji, eds, (2013). Class and the CanonConstructing Labouring-Class Poetry and Poetics, 1750-1900. (London: Palgrave Macmillan. Introduction, 1-15).

Boos, Florence (2002). “Working-Class Poetry,” in Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman and Antony H. Harrison, eds., A Companion to Victorian Poetry. Malden, Mass. and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., pp. 204-228.

Hoppen, K. Theodore. (1998). The Mid-Victorian Generation, 1846-1886. (Oxford: UOP).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Body and Soul: ABL’s Research Fellow Analyzes the Physical and Spiritual Impacts of Hunger in 19th-Century Britain

By Abby Sowder, Public Relations Intern for Baylor Libraries

Dr. Lesa Scholl, Armstrong Browning Library Three-Month Research Fellow

Dr. Lesa Scholl, Armstrong Browning Library Three-Month Research Fellow

Hunger can indicate several things: an appetite, a desire, a yearning. Whichever a human experiences, hunger signals need for nourishment.

Dr. Lesa Scholl has travelled over nine thousand miles to study just that. After a one-month fellowship in 2017, Scholl returned to Armstrong Browning Library from the University of Adelaide in Australia to pursue her research on hunger and fasting as a three-month research fellow.

“Some say there’s a ghost that haunts the halls of ABL,” Scholl joked. “I think it specifically targets scholars to entice them to continue their research. On the last day of my first fellowship, I stumbled upon on a tract from the 19th century that inspired my current project.”

The tract, titled “Remarks on Fasting,” presented a dialogue between a physician and a clergyman discussing food restrictions. Interestingly, the clergyman was against fasting, and the physician was for it. Since her discovery in 2017, Scholl has identified the clergyman, and is “determined to find out” the identity of the physician.

This foundational piece led Scholl to explore the relationship between medicine and religion when it comes to fasting for religious or moral purposes. Scholl seeks to find what the body really needs, in a nutritional and a spiritual sense. It has been noted the science and religion fields fields have historically been at odds, but her work disproves that sentiment in regard to her field of research.

“There really is a strong conversation between the medical doctors and theologians. Instead of these two areas being separated, they’re working together,” Scholl said. “It’s an encouraging thing to see.”

Scholl’s research is focused in the 19th century from an Anglican viewpoint, but she uses contemporary words such as “food insecurity” and “food deserts” to help her modern audiences fully understand the subject matter. While her research is historically distant and is focused in another country, Scholl hopes her work allows her audiences to reflect on how it relates to the prevalent issue of hunger today.

“I think it’s much more useful for people to draw those conclusions themselves instead of someone telling them that they should think in a particular way,” she said.

Hunger is an issue that has affected societies for centuries, and it hits close to home in the Waco community, as 28 percent of its residents are currently living below the poverty line. In addition to her ABL fellowship, Scholl also serves as a research fellow for the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, which partners with the Texas Hunger Initiative to conduct research that determines the best practices and programs to effectively address hunger and poverty, and coordinates these efforts in local communities.

“The idea behind this fellowship isn’t really to have someone sitting up in the reading room and not connecting with anyone else. It’s about discovering ways to contribute beyond Baylor,” she said. “That’s one of the things I love about Baylor. We’re working to make the world a better place.”

Scholl will present her research, “Healthy Bodies, Healthy Souls: 19th-Century Medicine, Religion, and Literature,” at ABL’s annual Benefactors Day celebration on Friday, Nov. 15. The event begins at 3:30 p.m. and will be held in the Hankamer Treasure Room.

Benefactors Day 2019

Reflections from a Visiting Scholar: Adventure in the Archives

By Cheri Larsen Hoeckley, Ph.D., Professor of English, Westmont College

Cheri Hoeckley

Cheri Larsen Hoeckley, Ph.D., Professor of English, Westmont College

Like many great adventures, this one involved a passport. Actually, it involved several passports, and none of them were mine. Nor did any of them really resemble the uniform-sized, differently colored booklets I have seen while passing through customs lines.

Before the passports were in front of me, my adventure actually started—as many other great adventures do—with a database. I had come to the Armstrong Browning Library to research the language Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her circle used to describe their travel through Europe to and from Italy. I was curious how Barrett Browning’s travel descriptions formed her imagination of Aurora and Marion Erle’s journeys in Aurora Leigh, and about how that poetic reflection might have informed her lived experience as a woman living outside her country of birth. Some history of every-day English was guiding my search. For instance, the Brownings relocated to Florence before “expatriate” was a noun in English and at a point when English speakers used the verb “migrate” only metaphorically when speaking of humans. Furthermore, Barrett Browning travelled in the specific context that prompted W. R. Greg in 1862 to coin the term “redundant woman” to identify what he saw as a social problem of an excess of single women in England, and his solution was to send those women abroad in search of husbands.[1] I arrived at Baylor enthusiastically anticipating technological assistance with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s everyday language about her journey to Florence and her life away from England. The Armstrong Browning Library’s Wedgestone Database for the Brownings’ twenty-six volumes of known correspondence promised precise guiding through that dauntingly vast linguistic landscape. Those digital explorations were fruitful, but a side trip into material objects for travel from two Victorian men proved equally productive.

This adventure, then, took me through a series of observations of beautiful objects that I had not expected to find, but that helped to piece together the bureaucratic conditions Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and many women like her, would have confronted when they left England for travel on the Continent. The adventure also gave me insight into how various forms of social capital–Englishness, masculinity, middle-class status, celebrity–helped travelers to navigate those conditions.

Guided by the database, that first nineteenth-century passport I discovered did not belong to either of the Brownings. It belonged to a much less remembered Irishman, William Henry Darley. A painter and frequent traveler, Darley was a long-time friend of Joseph Milsand. Because Darley asked Milsand to serve as his executor, Darley’s passports made their way to the Armstrong Browning Library with Milsand’s extensive papers. Darley’s passport was one of those research turns down an unmarked road that became a highlight of the journey because of the insight they provided on nineteenth-century European travel and surveillance. The focus of my adventure narrowed from language of travel for Victorian women to the variety of international legal mechanisms that regulated their Continental travel in the mid-nineteenth century.

William Henry Darley's British passport, dated 1852

William Henry Darley’s passport, dated 1852 (ABL/JMA V008)

The Joseph Milsand Archive actually holds two of William Henry Darley’s passports. One was issued in 1852 by the British Ambassador to Paris, and the other by the French government on 10 July 1835.  Anglo-Irish colonial history explains Darley’s possession of an English passport, rather than an Irish one. My first impression, though, was that it seemed a little cloak-and-dagger that he would have an earlier French passport, as well. Jennifer Borderud stepped in and added to that element of international intrigue when she brought me an 1834 Russian passport issued to Robert Browning (translated in German on the reverse), and an 1856 Austrian passport issued to him written primarily in Italian.

Passport for Robert Browning’s travels in Russia, issued at St. Petersburg on 31 March 1834 (left), with German translation on second folio sheet (right) (Browning Guide #H0629)

As any reader of Casa Guidi Windows knows, the Brownings were resident in Florence during Austrian occupation before the Risorgimiento.[2] So, while they rightly imagined themselves in an Italian city, they needed Austrian visas to stay there or to travel. I digressed again away from both the database and material objects at this point to look into the history of European passports. That side trip revealed that before the first World War, passports were not proof of national identity, but rather documents granting permission to travel.[3] French nationals, then, carried passports through France. British subjects, whether Irish or English, applied to the British government for documents giving them permission to travel and often expected those documents to be honored by other national governments. Travelers from Continental regions were less likely to expect that courtesy from local officials when they were away from home.

Darley’s French passport details some of those international mechanisms with a list of ten “Regulations required by the French government to be observed by Foreigners in France” printed in French on one side and in English on the reverse.  According to regulation #2: “Every foreigner, on arriving in a sea-port or frontier-town, is to present himself before the local authorities, to produce his passport, and deposit it in their hands.” So, Darley would have surrendered his British document and acquired the French “passport” after arriving in Paris that would enter him into a bureaucratic system of surveillance as he traveled around the country from there. Regulations 3 & 4 describe that process of submitting original travel documents at the traveler’s port of entry and acquiring new ones in Paris. The new French document is not necessarily permission to travel that British travelers often anticipated, but it is documentation necessary for foreigners who want to travel. The later British passport is one he acquired at the British consulate in Paris as a courtesy request for unencumbered travel on his return to England. Darley’s passports, that’s to say, make clear the difference between many passports issued on the Continent in the first half of the nineteenth-century and the privilege that British subjects imagined in passports for freer travel.

Darley's passport, dated 1835

William Henry Darley’s passport, dated 1835 (ABL/JMA V008)

The presence of identifying information also differs among passports. Darley’s British passport carries his signature as the only protection against the use of stolen documentation. His French passport carries both his signature and a column to fill in traits of physical description. For instance, “Age” (He was 36 years old.); “Taille” (He was 1 meter 85 centimeters.); “Cheveux” (He was blond.); “Visage” (He had an oval face.); “Yeux” (He had blue eyes); “Nez” (His nose was medium.). The final entry for “signes particuliers” is blank, suggesting that he has no particular identifying marks.  Browning’s Russian passport includes a similar column to fill in ten physical traits, or “kennzeichen” as the German translation calls them. That document informs customs officers that Browning is of middle height with a normal face, adding no specificity to the description with a blank in the final item asking about special marks. Browning took his 1834 journey to St. Petersburg by invitation from and in the company of Chevalier George de Benckhausen, the Russian consul-general. The imprimatur of his traveling companion seems to have diminished the need for rigorous identifying information.

RB Austrian passport

Passport issued to Robert Browning by Austrian Embassy in London on 18 October 1856 (Browning Guide #H0631)

Contrasting with the large, visa-marked, single-sheet documents from the 1830’s, as well as with Darley’s British passport from 1852 , Browning’s Austrian passport is a diminutive booklet–4 ½” by 2 ½,” of forty pages with different stamps, handwritten certifications, or visas on each page, plus a cover of the same paper with a sewn binding. Most pages have a four- or five-digit number in one of the upper corners, suggesting that the issuing consulate was centrally recording visas or entrances.

RB Austrian passport with Tuscan Consulate Stamp

Page 2 of passport issued to Robert Browning by Austrian Embassy in London on 18 October 1856 with Tuscan Consulate stamp (Browning Guide #H0631)

The second page indicates that the passport was supported by the Tuscan Consul General in London. The close juxtaposition of the Tuscan authority with the Austrian governing presence brought home the military occupation that surrounded the Brownings’ movements for a period of their life in Florence. The voice from Casa Guidi’s windows sometimes had to move among German speaking military men to leave Florence, or even to move through the city. A passport, of course, can’t answer the question of whether the Brownings’ English  accents and British travel documents carried them outside the fray, or simply positioned them differently in it. Comments in their letters about the exhaustion of travel to other Italian locations come into sharper focus, though, with the passport’s concrete representation of life in a conflict zone.

I had come to the Armstrong Browning Library to think specifically about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s language for life outside England and how it helped understand women who traveled in a time when W. R. Greg and others often categorized these extra-domestic women as social problems. None of the passports I was looking at seemed to belong to women. Robert Browning’s Austrian passport, however, made clear that nineteenth-century coverture practices—where the husband’s identity legally covers that of his wife—held in international travel, as well as in property, suffrage, and child rearing. In the small booklet, a few visas have similar lines written after “Signior Roberto Browning”:  “la sua consorte, un figlio, l’annunziata cameriera Lena” translated as “the spouse, one son, and a maid named Lena Annunziata”–or some variation of that household description. Lena Annunziata was Barrett Browning’s maid from 1857-61. Her name also appears on the cover of the booklet, whether she is explicitly named because she was not a legal member of the family she traveled with or because she was Florentine is not clear. It’s also not clear how Lena would have returned securely to Florence without the Brownings and their travel documents if she were fired or needed to quit. What is clear is that Robert’s person represented the household when they traveled so that Elizabeth’s and Pen’s names are irrelevant. The well known female English poet registers in the passport only as “la sua consorte”—his wife.

Passport issued to Robert Browning by Austrian Embassy in London on 18 October 1856 with statement “sua consorte, un figlio, l’annunziata cameriera Lena” (right) (Browning Guide #H0631)

In England just after their marriage, as Robert and Elizabeth hastily and covertly planned their departure for Italy, a detail in one of Robert’s letters indicates that English officials shared the practice of giving husbands family travel documents. On 17 September, Robert writes “I will take out a passport” (letter 2609, emphasis added). That single indefinite article didn’t really strike me until after I had looked through the Florentine documents. That first shared English passport—albeit materially lost to the archives—gets frequent mention in Elizabeth’s letters to Arabella as a source of anxiety after they lost track of it in Havre. The Brownings’ eventual ability to replace their travel documents in Paris is an adventure for another story. One wonders, though, how or whether her name appeared on the English travel papers.

This stage of the adventure leaves me with more thoughts to explore on femininity, class, and travel in the nineteenth-century Europe. Does femininity make a difference for travelers when married women might not have their own passport? Does it make a difference for single women when a passport of their own would announce to a border agent that they were not married? What kind of difference might it make in how one imagined oneself when one appeared at the border as the servant of a household with one’s name, like Lena Annunziata, written on the passport of a man she was not legally related to? Of course, these relationships were all part of the daily lives of people in the Brownings’ Anglo-Florentine circle under coverture laws and middle-class domestic practices. The existence or lack of passports did not make the relationships so.  However, official documents do have a way of bringing to the forefront effects of one’s identity that might otherwise remain unarticulated. Documents of the import of national identification and travel permission can shape one’s self understanding as empowered or disempowered. How would that official paper influence how one imagined entering Florence, or Paris, or leaving London? At the end of the adventure, I return to young Aurora’s fear of the “stranger with authority,” (I 224) who frightens the child by tearing her away from her “cameriera” and putting her on board the ship that will take her England. And later of Marian Erle’s life in the shadows of Paris. And of the single poet Aurora’s ability to help her find refuge in Italy. As well as of the nearly magical ease with which Romney finally appears in Florence. Poetry, of course, doesn’t demand documents, but its imaginative worlds might help us understand the impact of those documents.

I am grateful to the staff of the Armstrong Browning Library for using their authority to grant me the freedom to take this adventure. Along with my fellow visiting scholars, they made the journey possible and deeply pleasurable.

[1] W. R. Greg, “Why Are Women Redundant?” National Review 14, April 1862, 434-460. Reprinted in 1871 as a pamphlet.

[2] For a helpful overview of Italian conflict at mid-century, see Alison Chapman, “On Il Risorgimento,” Branch Collective, https://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=alison-chapman-on-il-risorgimento Accessed 15 June 2019.

[3]For an example of discussions of European and British passports post-Napoleanic Wars, see Martin Anderson’s “Tourism and the Development of the Modern British Passport, 1814-1858”  Journal of British Studies 49 (April 2010): 258-282.

 

“Preserve All Opinions”: Elizabeth Barrett and Critical Conversation at the ABL

By Rachael Isom, Assistant Professor of English, Arkansas State University

Rachael Isom, PhD, Assistant Professor of English, Arkansas State University

Rachael Isom, PhD, Assistant Professor of English, Arkansas State University

In recent years, many published authors have taken to Twitter to promote their work and engage with readers. We might think about popular writers like Celeste Ng or Lin-Manuel Miranda, both of whom maintain active online presences and tweet about everything from book signings to traffic jams. Social media has given us more immediate access to the thoughts of people who write them down for a living, but these kinds of author-reader exchanges aren’t new. Authors were concerned about how to present their work publicly and respond to criticism long before the Internet made it so easy. As I observed during my recent residence as a Visiting Scholar at the Armstrong Browning Library (ABL), many 19th-century writers took care to construct literary personae, to monitor how those public selves were received, and sometimes even to respond.

My current project analyzes how “enthusiasm”—a term that, in the 18th century, signified both religious zeal and poetic fervor—captured the interest of British women writers in the early 19th century. Enthusiasm was an important concept for describing personal experience but also for presenting a public self. I’m interested in how women used the figure of the female enthusiast to engage with a Romantic poetic theory that had made it difficult for them to respectably claim inspired genius and powerful emotion. At the ABL, I took both broad and targeted approaches to this question. I explored the 19th-Century Women Poets collection to see how women were writing about enthusiasm in the 1820s and 1830s; then I consulted the ABL’s materials to better understand how this legacy influenced Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s self-presentation and response to critique. This post analyzes one such moment of exchange in EBB’s early career.

EBB, Preface to An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (D0247)

EBB, Preface to An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (D0247)

In 1826, EBB published anonymously An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, and the event came with high expectations from the poet and her parents. The title poem—the fair copy of which resides at the ABL—is a philosophical essay in blank verse. The preface anticipates its reception: “the imputation of presumption is likely to be attached to me, on account of the form and title of this production” (iv). EBB heads off critique here but also implies that readers will find a way to “attach” undesirable qualities to her even with no name on the title page. She was already thinking about how this poem would affect her career once her authorship was discovered.

So was Mary Moulton-Barrett. Keen to collect reviews of her daughter’s poetry, she wrote to EBB on April 4, 1826: “Take care of Miss P’s note because I want to preserve all opinions I can collect of the poem (BC, I, 242). The “care” taken by Mary—and enjoined on EBB—demonstrates the family’s desire to establish a thorough record of public opinion.

EBB, An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826) ABL Rare X 821.82 Q D912 e c. 6

EBB, An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826) ABL Rare X 821.82 Q D912 e c. 6

EBB took her mother’s advice to document the reception of her poems. As she told Hugh Stuart Boyd in March 1827: “[N]o one can be more solicitous to obtain, or more earnest in valuing, fair & candid criticism” (BC, II, 36). Here, I’ll showcase two such critiques of An Essay on Mind. The first consists of marginalia by Arabella Graham-Clarke, EBB’s maternal aunt; the other includes commentary from the Reverend Henry Cotes (1759?-1835), who received a detailed response from a young poet eager to defend her work and hone her craft.

The ABL holds seven first-edition copies of An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems. Copy 6 is a particularly interesting one, as the only name on the title page is that of the owner, not the author.

EBB, An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826), Copy 6; see also Browning Guide #C0028

EBB, An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826), Copy 6; see also Browning Guide #C0028

We can imagine Arabella Graham-Clarke receiving this volume and proudly placing it alongside her copy of EBB’s first published work, The Battle of Marathon (also at the ABL). But Graham-Clarke didn’t just collect her niece’s poems—she annotated them. Take, for example, her quibble with the musical metaphor on page 58:

EBB, An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826), Copy 6

EBB, An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826), Copy 6

“Concord of Sounds I believe is called Harmony, a pleasing succession of them is Melody –”

Or her suggestion that EBB substitute “setting” for “pilgrim” on page 88:

EBB, An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826), Copy 6

EBB, An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826), Copy 6

These annotations register thoughts many of us have when reading poetry. We ask why a poet uses one metaphor instead of another; we mentally rewrite a particular line. But one aspect of Graham-Clarke’s marginalia surprised me: her astute commentary on form. A good example of this occurs on pages 22-23, where she notes many “bad dactyls, & very few good” in EBB’s poem (22). A dactyl is made of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables—not an easy metrical foot to use in English—but EBB’s aunt pulls no punches in her critique:

EBB, An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826), Copy 6, pp. 22-23, with “illustrate” underlined on p. 22 and marked with metrical notations on p. 23

EBB, An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826), Copy 6, pp. 22-23, with “illustrate” underlined on p. 22 and marked with metrical notations on p. 23

This pair works like a footnote. EBB’s aunt underlines the faulty phrase and then explains her objection to it in the lower margin: “I was sorry to see in a Poem of so original a cast & one that gives so great a promise, such a dactyl as ill as that made” (23). It’s a backhanded compliment followed by an in-depth explanation of EBB’s mistake. We might expect this sort of commentary from Sir Uvedale Price, a respected classical scholar who noted the same “bad dactyl” in a letter of July 1826 (BC, I, 252; scan HERE), but its presence in this marginalia is significant because it shows Graham-Clarke’s technical expertise and knowledge of literary history.

My favorite instance of her marginalia isn’t technical at all. On page 9, pictured here, EBB calls the Romantic poet Lord Byron “the Mont Blanc of Intellect.” Her aunt underlines the metaphor.

EBB, An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826), Copy 6

EBB, An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826), Copy 6

“A high degree of eminence even for Byron,” she writes, simultaneously acknowledging Byron’s fame and questioning whether he deserves so much of it. After that, she pivots abruptly: “I wish the loftiest summit of the Alps had a more poetical name & not a French one.” Graham-Clarke’s thoroughly British disdain of anything French takes a literary turn: she wishes that the mountain featured in many Romantic-era poems could be free of its French name. The comment is light, humorous, but also fascinating in terms of political and literary histories. If EBB read these notes, I like to imagine that this particular page made her chuckle as it did me.

In addition to sharing her own criticism of EBB’s volume, Graham-Clarke appears to have been instrumental in securing a second reader in Henry Cotes, Vicar of Bedlington and a published author himself (see BC, II, 112n). As Cotes explains to EBB later, on March 17, “my Criticisms upon your Poem were elicited by your Aunt they were not exactly voluntary. She requested my full & firm & clear Opinion upon that Work – She did not say by whom written” (Ms. D0250; see also BC, II, 391-92).

Henry Cotes to Elizabeth Barrett, March 17, 1828 (D0250)

Henry Cotes to Elizabeth Barrett, March 17, 1828 (D0250)

From this comment, we learn that Cotes, like many of EBB’s early readers, approached Essay with no knowledge of its author and no expectation of a response. He was clearly surprised to receive what is now Ms. D0250, a spirited letter from the 22-year-old poet, on March 8, 1828:

Elizabeth Barrett to Henry Cotes, March 8, 1828 (D0250)

Elizabeth Barrett to Henry Cotes, March 8, 1828 (D0250)

“I received yr criticisms from Mrs. Hedly who was unwilling that I shd lose such an opportunity of being interested & instructed . . . . I sincerely thank you for a good opinion rendered so valuable to me by the openness & unreserve with which you have mentioned what you departed from & condemned. May I venture to speak to you with great freedom – and to explain exactly exactly [sic], when I at once submit to ‘kiss to rod’ and where I shd. like to escape doing so.” (BC, II, 112; scan HERE)

Along with this autograph letter, the ABL holds Cotes’s notes (which appear in a large hand on small sheets of paper) and return correspondence. Essentially, we have the full picture of this moment in EBB’s reception history, which I’ll present briefly by returning to a couple of the passages mentioned above and showing how EBB contended with Cotes’s feedback.

Henry Cotes, Comments of EBB’s An Essay on Mind, [Early March 1828] (D0250))

Henry Cotes, Comments of EBB’s An Essay on Mind, [Early March 1828] (D0250)

Cotes, too, observes EBB’s praise of Byron, but he harshly calls it “All Trash.” EBB responds: “At page 9 & 10, you have written with reference to the eulogy on Ld. Byron, “all trash” which I propose reading “half trash” inasmuch as half the eulogy (or the half containing yr. quotation) is applied to Campbell. If I had said that Ld. Byron ‘touched the heart and won the judgement too’, my trash wd. have been unquestionable . . . But as the verses stand, I do not think I do this.”

Elizabeth Barrett to Henry Cotes, March 8, 1828 (D0250)

Elizabeth Barrett to Henry Cotes, March 8, 1828 (D0250)

EBB’s defense is light yet firm—she is willing to admit flaws in her poem, but she also points out that Cotes’s primary objection comes from his misreading, not her poor writing. I suspect that EBB is also deflecting a rebuke that had become tiresome to her. As a Byron devotee in her youth, she would have contended often with those who viewed her admiration as inappropriate, even sinful. Thus, she qualifies: “I speak of the passion & sublimity of Ld. Byron’s genius, not of his moral & pious characteristics.” Though she imagines Cotes “will not admit any further modification of [his] decision,” she finishes the exchange with a playful flourish: “if they remain half trash, I may console myself with kinder assurance of half’s being better than the whole.”

This isn’t the only place where EBB is willing to meet Cotes halfway. For example, in the case of that deplorable dactyl, “illustrate,” EBB responds to Cotes almost as an editor. She considers his suggestion of “verify” but, finding it unsatisfactory, chooses a third option: “vindicate”:

Henry Cotes, Comments of EBB’s An Essay on Mind, [Early March 1828] (L0080.1) and Elizabeth Barrett to Henry Cotes, March 8, 1828 (D0250)

Top: Henry Cotes, Comments of EBB’s An Essay on Mind, [Early March 1828]; bottom: Elizabeth Barrett to Henry Cotes, March 8, 1828 (D0250)

In this reply letter to Cotes, we can see that EBB viewed “candid criticism” as an opportunity for reflection and revision, but also that she sought to retain control of her work amid critiques from various readers. I don’t think they minded. In fact, Cotes’s second letter advises EBB, “consult your own MIND; don’t mind what I say, who am not one Under Authority.” An Essay on Mind was never republished in EBB’s lifetime, but she certainly faced similar challenges to her later work and to her evolving public persona. Our access to these conversations illuminates EBB’s relationship with the literary marketplace of her day. And perhaps in learning more about her acts of self-fashioning, we can understand our own reading experiences as conversations, too. Whether we respond to an author’s work with marginal notes, a list of critiques, a blog post, or silent musings, we engage in a mode of intellectual exchange that has a long, rich history.

By way of conclusion, I want to express my gratitude to the Armstrong Browning Library for supporting my research on 19th-century women’s poetry. I’m especially grateful to the ABL’s staff for the kind hospitality and invaluable expertise they shared during my stay, and to my fellow Visiting Scholars for the many stimulating conversations we enjoyed in the halls of the ABL. As I’ve tried to show in this post, these are the kinds of exchanges that make scholarship interesting, productive, and incredibly fun.

Introducing…The Victorian Collection at the Armstrong Browning Library: A Baylor Libraries Digital Collection

The Armstrong Browning Library is pleased to announce the release of The Victorian Collection online. This new digital collection contains over 3,000 letters and manuscripts connected to prominent and lesser known British and American figures and complements the Armstrong Browning Library’s unparalleled collection of materials relating to the Victorian poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Below is a Q&A with Dr. Melinda Creech, Graduate Research Assistant at the Armstrong Browning Library and the driving force behind this digitization project. In the interview, Dr. Creech discusses how this project came about and highlights some of her favorite items in the collection.

The Armstrong Browning Library will celebrate the release of this new digital collection with short presentations by Dr. Creech and Darryl Stuhr, Associate Director, Digital Preservation Services, Library and Academic Technology Services, on Thursday, November 29 at 3:30 pm in the Armstrong Browning Library Lecture Hall. A reception will follow in the Mary Armstrong Seminar Room.

Melinda Creech

Melinda Creech organizes and describes letters from the Armstrong Browning Library’s Victorian Collection

How did you become involved in the project to digitize the Victorian Collection and what role did you play in the project?

I first came to work at the Armstrong Browning Library in the summer of 2011. One of my first jobs was to transcribe the letters in the Kenyon/Frizell Album that had been purchased in June of that year. The album had one letter from Robert Browning to John Kenyon, and two letters from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to John Kenyon. John Kenyon, an English poet and philanthropist, was Elizabeth’s distant cousin and introduced her to Robert. He became their dear friend. However, in addition to these three letters, there were eighty-three other letters in the album. Several were from other notable authors of the nineteenth century: Dickens, Carlyle, and Thackeray. As I struggled to read the handwriting of so many correspondents, I began to realize that although they may not have had the notoriety of the Brownings, all these people had led interesting lives and had fascinating stories to tell.

I continued to pay attention to interesting Victorian letters that I ran across. This led to the creation of a several exhibits and blog posts, “Beyond the Brownings,” “Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers A Voice and a Face,” “Seeing Many Beautiful Things,” “They Asked for a Paper,” and “White Star Lines: Titanic Connections at the ABL.”

There was not a comprehensive list of the Victorian letters. I remember asking about how many Victorian letters were thought to be in the collection. When I was told about 500, I was surprised, based on my personal experience with the letters, and asked if I could  create a more comprehensive list of the Victorian letters, those not directly related to the Brownings. In the summer of 2014, I began the Victorian Letters Project. That summer Kara Long helped me to create a schema for collecting the metadata, and I spent the summer collecting the metadata from existing card catalogues, and continued adding letters discovered in albums, tipped into books, and hidden in other collections. In January of 2017, having collected all the metadata on almost 4000 letters, we began to make plans for digitizing the letters and manuscripts.

Sarah Rude

Sarah Rude digitizes letters from the Armstrong Browning Library’s Victorian Collection at the Riley Digitization Center

Who were some of your collaborators and what roles did they play in making this digital collection possible?

Jennifer Borderud, new director of the ABL, Darryl Stuhr, Assistant Director for Digital Projects, Allison Riley, Digitization Coordinator, and Kara Long, Metadata and Catalog Librarian, and I finalized plans for digitizing the Victorian Letters Collection at the ABL in January, and the work began. The letters had to be properly identified, transcribed, if necessary, housed, and transported to the Riley Digitization Center. I was not involved in the process at the Digitization Center, which involved scanning the letters, editing and saving the images, processing the images, archiving them, recording all the processes, and returning the letters to the ABL. Once the letters were returned they had to be checked in and returned to their storage area. Many graduate assistants and paid staff, both at the ABL and the Riley Digitization Center, were instrumental in the completion of the project. I’m not sure I can recall everyone, but here are some who helped: Darryl Stuhr, Allyson Riley, Michael Galindo, Katherine MacKenzie, Sarah Rude, B.J. Thome, Evangeline Eilers, Josh Pittman, and Meagan Anthony.

What aspects of the project were the most rewarding?

The most rewarding part of the project was bringing to light letters and manuscripts that had been hidden for a long time. Finding the Dowden letters was thrilling. Mrs. Dowden had been a correspondent of the Brownings and of Dr. Armstrong. She lived in Ireland during a time of great unrest in the early part of the twentieth century. After corresponding with Dr. Armstrong for a while, she decided that her letters would be safer at the ABL. She sent the letters of her husband, Edward Dowden, first, and eventually sent her letters also to Dr. Armstrong, with the stipulation that they were only to be published after her death. The letters, almost 400, are filled with contemporary literary criticism. Prof. Dowden was the first English literature professor in Ireland. The letters had been safely stored in the vault at the ABL, and were undisturbed, I think, until I opened the drawer in 2016.

I often write to scholars all over the world with questions about letters, and those questions have, in some cases, opened new avenues of research for them. Sometimes scholars responded to blogs that I had written about the Victorian Letters, and a lively correspondence grew between us. Those correspondents included a Dickens scholar in Ireland, a science historian in Germany, a religious biographer in Florida, a maritime museum curator in Greenwich, a Purefoy-Fitzgerald scholar at the Bodleian, Wordsworth and Carlyle scholars in Grasmere, and a Hopkins scholar in York.

What aspects of the project were the most challenging?

Four thousand letters are a lot of letters. Just collecting the metadata on that many letters seems an almost impossible job for one person to do. I suppose one of the most frustrating moments came after all 1100 letters that had been housed in the filing cabinets in the vault had been prepared, sent to digitization, returned, and refiled, when I received word that the scanning machine at the digitization center had not been working properly, and all the letters would have to be returned and scanned again. That was pretty discouraging, but the rescanning took a lot less time the second time around.

Percy Florence Shelley Letter

Letter from Percy Florence Shelley to Tom Taylor, dated 11 January 1871, in the Armstrong Browning Library’s Victorian Collection

What item or items in the collection are the most interesting to you?

There have been many, many interesting stories associated with the letters. I remember how excited I was one afternoon as I was making my way through a bundle of letters that were related to the cartoonist Tom Taylor. Most of the letters were letters of condolences to his wife after his death. However among the letters I found one signed “Percy Shelley.” A quick bit of research revealed the letter was from the poet’s son, Percy Florence Shelley, and unlocked a fascinating story about the plays he produced in a theater in his own house. There was a letter from the artist and writer John Ruskin to his protégé, Lilias Trotter, who became a life-long missionary to Algeria. This was timely, because we were showing a film about Lilias Trotter’s life here at the ABL at the time. Her biographer was thrilled to find this bit of correspondence between Ruskin and Lilias. There are letters from writers, artists, musicians, scientists, explorers, clergy (even Baptists), statesmen, soldiers, and even cricket players. There are many letters related to scientists and explorers, artists and musicians, clergymen and politicians, and actors and stage managers. My hope is that digitizing these letters, which are outside the purview of the literary world of the ABL, will provide scientists, artists, musicians, and historians a new glance into the life of someone in their particular field for whom they have a passion.

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For the complete series of blog posts on the Victorian Collection:

Literary figures represented in the Victorian Collection are covered in the blog series: Beyond the Brownings