Victorian Print Culture and Pet Culture

By Allison Scheidegger, PhD Student, Department of English, Baylor University

This spring, the Armstrong Browning Library is hosting “Puppy Love: An Exploration of Victorian Pet-Owner Relationships,” an exhibition on dog ownership and depictions of dogs in the Victorian period, with a focus on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, Flush. January 15, 2022 – August 15, 2022.

A stack of 4 books on a ladder.

Victorian Print Culture and Pet Culture

Both print culture surrounding pets and pet ownership in the Victorian era reflect a hunger for status in the midst of increasing affluence. As the middle class became more able to afford luxuries, print culture and pet ownership experienced corresponding economic trends. Middle-class pet owners purchased dogs with carefully documented bloodlines from dog breeders (sometimes called dog “fanciers”). These dogs could become ladies’ lapdogs or gentlemen’s sporting dogs; either way, they offered their owners more than usefulness or affection: they offered prestige. Pedigreed pets became status symbols—no one wanted to be seen walking a mutt! Like owning a lapdog, owning a gilded album revealed the owner’s wealth. The nineteenth century saw the flourishing of ornate collector’s books featuring—or even dedicated to—more frivolous topics like pets. Just as a lady’s lapdog was considered a frivolous pet, such collections would not have been considered serious literature. This blog post highlights some of the ornate artifacts included in the “Puppy Love” exhibit, along with some not included, reconsidering them in the light of Victorian print culture and pet culture.

 

The Poetic Album: Containing the Poems of Alfred Tennyson, Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Alexander Smith. Philadelphia: Willis P. Hazard, 1854.

Back board, spine, and front board of a green cloth bound books with gilt title and ornamentation.

The Poetic Album. 1854.

The Poetic Album is an excellent example of a collector’s album meant to be a status purchase. The Poetic Album is a collection of “minor poems” (in this case meaning shorter poems) by Tennyson, Browning, and Smith. The covers of The Poetic Album are ornate, and it is extravagantly illustrated with eight engravings of fine ladies. These engravings, which are modeled after illustrations by “the best artists,” according to the book’s title page, have no clear connection with the poems they accompany. In the preface, the publisher Willis P. Hazard classifies these three poets as “three of the best poets of this century.” Hazard also adds that the poems in the collection were selected by “a lady of taste”—a word choice which suggests that purchasing this album could be a way of asserting one’s own gentility.

In a decorative collection like this one, there is room for pet poems which might be considered frivolous elsewhere. Both of E. B. Browning’s Flush poems—“Flush or Faunus” and the earlier “To Flush, My Dog”—appear in this collection, whereas in many collections of Browning’s work only “To Flush” is included. Browning’s note below “To Flush” acknowledges both the personal and monetary value of Flush.  Customers who could afford to purchase this ornate gift book likely could also afford the expenses of buying and caring for a purebred dog, and therefore would be interested in such poems.

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Findens’ Tableaux: A Series of Picturesque Scenes of National Character, Beauty, and Costume. Edited by Mary Russell Mitford. Engraved by William and Edward Finden. 1838.

Findens’ Tableaux is a collection of illustrations and stories edited by Mary Russell Mitford, the friend who would give E.B. Browning her spaniel Flush in 1841. Like The Poetic Album, Findens’ Tableaux presents ornate illustrations. Each engraved illustration becomes a tableau, or still picture, that acts out, in freeze-frame, the story or poem it accompanies. The 1838 volume of the Tableaux focuses on stories set in various countries of the world. “Scotland: Sir Allan and his Dog,” the story featured here, was written by Mitford herself. Although the buyers of such a collection would have been very comfortably wealthy, Mitford herself struggled financially (Taneja 131-2). For “ladies of taste” who lacked money, editing collections like the Tableaux and The Poetic Album became a helpful source of income.

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I considered Findens’ Tableaux for inclusion in the exhibit, but ultimately had to omit it due to space constraints: the book is 15 inches tall by 11 ½ inches wide.

 

Friendship’s Forget-Me-Not. London: Thomas Nelson, 1849.

On my trips to the ABL stacks, I noticed that ornamental books—much like prized breeds of dog—tend to be either very large or very small. On the opposite end of the size spectrum from Findens’ Tableaux is Friendship’s Forget-Me-Not, measuring 4 ¾ inches tall by 3 ¼ inches wide. Friendship’s Forget-Me-Not was designed to be a memento given to a friend upon parting. This book was not included in the exhibit because it reprints E. B. Browning’s most frequently anthologized dog poem, “To Flush, My Dog”—a very appropriate choice for a collection of poems sharing the themes of friendship and gifts. Like this ornate gift book, Flush was an extravagant gift between friends.

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As the detailed description of the poem establishes, Flush is a highly decorative spaniel: Browning revels in his “fringed” feet, “tasselled ears,” and “silver-suited breast.” In a similar way that the gilding of Friendship’s Forget-Me-Not can indicate the quality of a friendship, Flush’s beauty serves to demonstrate the quality of Browning’s relationship with Mitford and, in turn, to enhance Browning’s relationship with Flush. Although linking friendship with consumerism in this way might seem problematic, in “To Flush” at least Browning affirms that love, not appearance, is the primary thing.

While Mary Russell Mitford and Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote dog literature for adults (albeit “light” literature), the majority of animal writing throughout the 1800s is written for children. The “Puppy Love” exhibit highlights several examples of animal writing in children’s literature (click here INSERT LINK TO SURVEY POST for a survey of the exhibit’s content). The following two collections (which appear in the exhibit) focus exclusively on animal stories and target an audience of children rather than adults. But as with the ornate collector’s books written for adults, publishers marketed these colorfully illustrated and gilded books in the hope of inducing rich parents to buy.

 

Aunt Louisa’s Choice Present: Comprising Famous Horses, Noted Horses, Famous Dogs, Noted Dogs (or Horses & Dogs). Illustrated by John Frederick Herring, Sr., and Sir Edwin Landseer. Twenty-Four Pictures Printed in Colours by J. Butterfield. London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1876.

This decorative collection presents 24 color pictures of horses and dogs, printed by J. Butterfield from illustrations by Herring and Landseer, who were prominent animal painters of the Victorian period. Although as the preface notes, these paintings were not originally intended to be paired with text, the accompanying narratives comment on society through the stories of these animals, with the intent of making these images interesting and educational for children. The displayed story questions whether the “high life” of a lady’s pet is the life this dog would choose.

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Mary Louisa Molesworth’s Lucky Ducks and Other Stories. Illustrated by W. J. Morgan. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1891.

Book's front board is blue with title in gilt and author's name in red. There is an illustrattion of a young woman feeding several ducks in a field.

Molesworth’s Lucky Ducks and Other Stories. 1891.

Mary Louisa Molesworth’s story of the pampered, naughty dog Dandy parallels the story of Fido in Horses and Dogs: a lady’s dog must live in confined circumstances when he would like to run in the countryside and chase geese. Click here INSERT LINK TO SURVEY POST to see more of the inside of Lucky Ducks! Though Molesworth invites children to notice how pets’ desires and emotions might differ from their owners’, she characterizes Dandy’s actions as naughtiness rather than natural canine behavior. She does not acknowledge that perhaps Dandy’s “lapdog existence” is not best for him, and thus tacitly affirms the upper-class treatment of lapdogs. Although Molesworth herself was born into middle-class circumstances, she tended to write about upper-class concerns (Avery). For a generation of middle- and upper-class children, Molesworth’s animal stories reinforced popular assumptions about status, class differences, and the treatment of animals.

 

Works Cited

Aunt Louisa’s Choice Present: Comprising Famous Horses, Noted Horses, Famous Dogs, Noted Dogs (or Horses & Dogs). Illustrated by John Frederick Herring, Sr., and Sir Edwin Landseer. Twenty-Four Pictures Printed in Colours by J. Butterfield. London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1876.

Avery, Gillian. “Molesworth [née Stewart], Mary Louisa (1839–1921), Novelist and Children’s Writer.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-37776

Findens’ Tableaux: A Series of Picturesque Scenes of National Character, Beauty, and Costume. Edited by Mary Russell Mitford. Engraved by William and Edward Finden. 1838.

Friendship’s Forget-Me-Not. London: Thomas Nelson, 1849.

Molesworth, Mary Louisa. Lucky Ducks and Other Stories. Illustrated by W. J. Morgan. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1891.

The Poetic Album: Containing the Poems of Alfred Tennyson, Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Alexander Smith. Philadelphia: Willis P. Hazard, 1854.

Taneja, Payal. “Gift-Giving and Domesticating the Upper-Class Pooch in Flush.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, vol. 49, no. 1, 2016, pp. 129-144.

 

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “‘Puppy Love’: An Exploration of Victorian Pet-Owner Relationships“:

“Puppy Love”: Inside the Process

By Allison Scheidegger, PhD Student, Department of English, Baylor University

This spring, the Armstrong Browning Library is hosting “Puppy Love: An Exploration of Victorian Pet-Owner Relationships,” an exhibition on dog ownership and depictions of dogs in the Victorian period, with a focus on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, Flush. January 15, 2022 – August 15, 2022.

When friends asked me what I was doing this past summer, and I replied, “I’m curating a museum exhibit about dogs,” I always got one of two responses: “How cool!” or “How odd!” Both have been accurate. I should admit it: I’ve never been a pet person. I’ve kept a safe distance from dogs all my life, but I love the Brownings, and came to Baylor intending to write my dissertation on Robert Browning. When I saw the opportunity to spend time browsing the ABL archives and immersing myself in the Browning atmosphere, I immediately applied for the internship. I figured I could tolerate the dogs for the sake of the Brownings. I’ll tell the story of my personal puppy love journey in a later blog post, but for now, I want to share a peek into my process of researching Victorians’ interactions with their dogs.

Female PhD student seated at a table with several books in front over her.

Inspecting an edition of E. B. Browning’s Poems.

“Puppy Love” began with the idea that it would be fun to do an exhibit on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, Flush. As I explored Flush’s story alongside secondary sources on pet ownership, I realized that Flush’s story reflects major themes of nineteenth-century pet ownership. And once I expanded my focus to include Victorian dogs more broadly, I realized how much we have in common with the Victorians.

Two women seated outdoors with their backs to one another. The woman facing the reader is petting a dog.

“Scotland,” from Findens’ Tableaux. 1838.

Our modes of expressing our affections have morphed—the Victorians wrote poems; we make posts on doggy Instagram accounts—but the sentiments haven’t. We own “fur babies,” call ourselves “dog moms/dads,” and, like the Victorians, lavish time, money, and energy on our pets. We also face similar social, economic, and ethical issues as a result of the large role of pets in our lives: we have to carefully evaluate if we can make the commitment to caring for a dog; we lament the inhumane breeding practices of puppy mills and worry about dogs left unadopted in shelters. As an increasingly wealthy middle class became interested in the companionship and status that dogs could offer, dog ownership spiked in the Victorian era, leading to the emergence of these same issues.

Because I tend to become bogged down in the details, I tried to keep long-term goals in mind in order to maximize my research time. I first read secondary articles about Flush to get a broad view of his story and the current scholarly conversations surrounding him. Instead of beginning by working through all of E. B. Browning’s letters looking for mentions of Flush, I used the digitized letters database, which provides both scans and transcripts of the Browning letters. Using the database greatly reduced the number of artifacts that had to be brought out of the archives: I could quickly isolate and evaluate relevant letters with simple keyword searches for “Flush” or “dog.”

Once I’d identified and retrieved potential artifacts, it was time to do mock exhibit layouts!

My initial layouts were very rough, and I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of decisions to be made. But in the end, doing physical layouts was the most challenging and exciting part of curating the exhibit. In most of my academic projects, I only arrange words. I enjoyed working with objects that have texture, color, and shape, and I learned so much about effective communication through the process of designing the physical layout. So many factors have to be considered: the space constraints of the exhibit cases, the fragility of the artifacts, the best way to display artifacts. Often, I would come to a layout with a plan in mind, only to realize that my plan wouldn’t work in the exhibit space. The practical limitations of my space and my materials kept my project grounded in practical communication concerns: I had to consider, above all, what would be most interesting and accessible to my audience. Thinking within the genre of the museum exhibit has trained new communication muscles. Often in writing for an academic audience, I don’t think about whether I am expressing myself as clearly as possible, but this project has taught me that clarity and accessibility should always be a primary concern. If my audience isn’t engaged by my writing, why write?

While curating this exhibition has challenged me as a thinker and writer, it will challenge me most as a teacher. I teach English composition at Baylor, and will teach British literature in the future. Curating this exhibit has made me rethink the way I structure my classes, forcing me to ask questions like “Am I stating the main point as clearly and simply as possible? Are the time blocks, sequencing, and activities in a class period all contributing to meaningful student interaction with our learning objective?” My internship also made me aware of opportunities for connecting students with the resources the Armstrong Browning Library offers. Many students who are accustomed to using only online resources are intimidated by the prospect of walking into a library and requesting physical artifacts. This summer, I learned that the ABL offers instruction sessions and teaching fellowships for faculty and graduate instructors who want their students to work with rare items relating to their class theme. I plan to use these resources when I begin teaching British literature next year.

 

Work Cited

Findens’ Tableaux: A Series of Picturesque Scenes of National Character, Beauty, and Costume. Edited by Mary Russell Mitford. Engraved by William and Edward Finden. 1838.

 

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “Puppy Love’: An Exploration of Victorian Pet-Owner Relationships“:

Victorian Pet-Owner Relationships in the ABL’s Archive

By Allison Scheidegger, PhD Student, Department of English, Baylor University

This spring, the Armstrong Browning Library is hosting “Puppy Love: An Exploration of Victorian Pet-Owner Relationships,” an exhibition on dog ownership and depictions of dogs in the Victorian period, with a focus on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, Flush. January 15, 2022 – August 15, 2022.

Curious about what their pets were thinking and feeling, Victorian authors lent animals emotions, thoughts, and even voices in their writing. Elizabeth Barrett Browning tried twice to represent Flush’s thoughts and emotions in poetry, and included tales of his antics in her letters. Although nineteenth-century literature about pets was often dismissed as frivolous, the issues raised were serious. As the increasing wealth of middle- and upper-class Victorians enabled them to purchase pets, a surge in dog ownership brought accompanying problems of misguided canine care and the use of pedigreed dogs as status symbols. Meanwhile, dognapping rings sought to profit from owners’ emotional and economic investment in their dogs. The stories of Flush and other Victorian dogs reveal both the possibilities and problems of pet ownership. Interacting with pets as fellow-creatures can increase humans’ capacity to give and receive love; however, the relationship is always imperfect. Like Victorian pet owners, we struggle at times to understand and meet our pets’ needs.

Flush and Friendship

The exhibition is divided into three sections. The first section focuses on E. B. Browning’s relationship with Flush and how that relationship fostered other friendships. Flush became a living symbol of the friendship between Browning and fellow author Mary Russell Mitford. When Mitford sent Flush as a gift to comfort Browning after the death of her brother Edward, Flush succeeded in rousing Browning from deep depression. Although as an invalid Browning lived a secluded life, she communicated with Mitford and other friends through letters in which she described Flush’s looks, emotions, and antics.

E. B. Browning’s “To Flush, My Dog,” in The Poetic Album. 1854.

E. B. Browning’s “To Flush, My Dog,” in The Poetic Album. 1854.

Browning first shared Flush with her reading public through the poem “To Flush, My Dog.” After reading “To Flush ,” one of Browning’s fans, fellow poet Thomas Westwood, took courage to begin corresponding with Browning. In the first section of the exhibit, a pair of letters between Browning and Westwood reveals how Flush became a mediator between Browning and the outside world—owning a dog was a shared experience that enabled Browning to connect with others.

Social Issues: Breeding and Dognapping

The second section examines cultural issues that arose from the pedigreed pet craze in Victorian England. As more middle- and upper-class citizens became dog owners, interest in dog breeding grew exponentially. Although authors like Eliza Cook insisted that a mutt without a pedigree could be as lovable and loyal as an expensive spaniel, for many Victorians, a pedigreed pet was a status symbol. Valuable ladies’ pets like Flush led lives of luxurious confinement, eating sweets and lying on couches nearly all day. In addition to their unhealthy lifestyles, on their brief walks, these pets faced the threat of dognapping. Because the rich lived alongside the poor in London, poorer Londoners watched the rich parade their expensive pets along the sidewalks. London dognapping gangs grew wealthy by capturing pedigreed dogs and threatening to kill them unless their owners paid a ransom. E. B. Browning’s spaniel Flush became a victim of these socioeconomic trends, as Browning announces in a letter to her cousin John Kenyon.

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Depicting Animals

The third section considers broader trends of animal writing in the nineteenth century. In the Victorian period, stories about pets were often written for the purpose of teaching children. Because to Victorian pet owners, pets seemed nearly human in their personalities and emotional responsiveness, many of these stories engage in anthropomorphism, the imagining of animals as human. Writers of animal stories experimented with giving animals voices and perspectives that tend to resemble human voices and perspectives. While many nineteenth-century authors like Mary Louisa Molesworth seem confident in their ability to accurately portray pets’ unique personalities, modern authors such as Virginia Woolf still struggle with the question of how to represent pets’ thoughts and feelings.

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Works Cited

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Letter to John Kenyon. 2 September 1846. Browning Correspondence.

—. “To Flush, My Dog.” In The Poetic Album: Containing the Poems of Alfred Tennyson, Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Alexander Smith. Philadelphia: Willis P. Hazard, 1854.

Molesworth, Mary Louisa. Lucky Ducks and Other Stories. Illustrated by W. J. Morgan. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1891.

Woolf, Virginia. Flush: A Biography. London: Hogarth Press, 1933.

 

 

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “‘Puppy Love’: An Exploration of Victorian Pet-Owner Relationships“:

 

Reflections on Installing ‘The Brownings In Our World’ Exhibit

by Joy Siler, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

A sculpture of a man and woman's hands clasped together.

Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, Clasped Hands of Elizabeth and Robert Browning, 1853; Plaster, 3 1/4 x 8 1/4 x 4 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Molly F. Sheppard

At the start of the Fall 2020 semester, I was very excited to work closely with Dr. King’s English senior seminar, The Brownings In Our World. I was just beginning my work as a graduate research assistant at the ABL and it was a great way to introduce me more intimately to the Brownings, to the excellent collections here, and to the role of being a research resource for the students. I truly enjoyed handling the objects and provided digitization services for the course. This specifically was needed for the images the students utilized in an online exhibition they created during the semester. The exhibit displayed the analysis that they had conducted about certain pieces in the ABL collections and used themes found in the Brownings’ works for application to current societal issues.

Book open displaying two pages.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Cry of the Children” in ‘Blackwoods Magazine’ (August 1843).

Being familiar with the materials that they used in their class exhibit and the details of the course, I was a great fit to help transition the digital exhibit into a physical one for display at the ABL. I had never created an official exhibit like this before, so it seemed like a large undertaking to organize it and write all of the official text. The most difficult part of this process was making edits that remained true to the student’s original work while also preparing it to the professional standards of the museum. The students made their dialogue accessible and appropriate for the digital platform of the class exhibit as an academic work; however, there are specific ways that the explanation for the physical objects must change to fit a face-to-face medium for a museum. Though a professional exhibit, the information has to be appropriate for a diverse audience with a wide age and educational range. The pieces also require 3D spacing and labels that provide context for the research. For someone who is unfamiliar with what they are looking at, having that additional information in plain language is crucial for fully understanding the object and its significance.

A very exciting moment was finally arranging the objects in their cases in the Hankamer Treasure Room. No matter how much you prepare an exhibit, it can’t truly work until you know if it will all fit and be arranged properly in your space. If something is too large, if your amount of text becomes overwhelming, or the flow of the exhibit does not feel natural, then it is back to the drawing board! Multiple arrangements were tested before the final day to avoid any major last-minute changes. Once it began to take shape, I began to truly feel excited about the end result!

Exhibit cases with items in the Hankamer Treasure Room of the Armstrong Browning Library.

Exhibit cases displaying artifacts from ‘The Brownings in Our World’ in the Hankamer Treasure Room of the Armstrong Browning Library.

As the last item was placed on the black velvet in the case, that moment was the ultimate culmination of the work completed by the students and I over the last several months. It was a satisfying feeling to see it all through to the end and to have completed my first professional exhibit! All of the details fell into place nicely and provided a very valuable and practical learning experience.

 

‘The Brownings in Our World’ exhibit will be on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room from April 1st through June 20th.

The Brownings In Our World: Exhibit Introduction

by Joy Siler, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

A sculpture of a man and woman's hands clasped together.

Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, Clasped Hands of Elizabeth and Robert Browning, 1853; Plaster, 3 1/4 x 8 1/4 x 4 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Molly F. Sheppard

Our newest exhibit at the Armstrong Browning Library, The Brownings In Our World, began as a digital exhibition curated by Baylor students. During the Fall 2020 semester, an English senior seminar of the same name—ENG 4364: The Brownings In Our World—was taught by Dr. Joshua King and hosted at the ABL. This particular course was in perfect harmony with its surroundings as it explored how the lives and writings of the Browning poets might have important connections to major challenges in our modern world. Both Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning often reflected on complex subjects of life throughout their poetry, including injustice, relations to nature, and debated faith. The class studied the poets with these ideas in mind and published their findings in a digital exhibit created over the course of the semester. Each student chose artifacts or pieces of poetry found in the ABL’s collections that they analyzed and presented with various digital media.

As they held class here and utilized rare items from our collections, it seemed fitting to create a physical showcase to bring their research to a broader audience on campus, in our local community, and to all visitors of the library. A single item from each student’s presentation was selected to represent their thematic research and has been arranged for viewing in the Hankamer Treasure Room. The collective work of the class and the exhibit show the Brownings’ poetry as valid contemporary commentary for societal issues of today and promotes the research that can be found at our library. This kind of dialogue lines up directly with our mission of providing these materials expressly for the appreciation and understanding of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in a grander context.

We invite you to visit The Brownings in Our World exhibit that is now available to view digitally at https://blogs.baylor.edu/thebrowningsinourworld/ and in person at the Armstrong Browning Library in the Hankamer Treasure Room from April 1st through June 20th.

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Themes as Explored in the Exhibits:

Power and (In)Justice:

The Brownings’ often wrestled with their own ties to the systematic racial, gender, and class injustices that shaped their lives and Victorian society. Despite these personal connections and even benefitting from some of them, Robert and Elizabeth advocated for those experiencing these inequalities and protested the perpetuation of these conditions through their poetry.

Relating to Nature:

Influenced by natural beauty and the romanticism of the previous generation, the Brownings’ utilized nature to express complex feelings of love and appreciation. They included flowers and natural scenes in much of their poetry, often appreciative of its effects on their quality of life. They also recognized that deplorable, unhealthy living environments could be detrimental and worked to bring attention to those experiencing poverty and terrible working conditions.

Debated Faith:

Robert and Elizabeth featured many religious ideas and diverse interpretations of sacred text in their works. Spiritualism and increasing debates about religion at the time created new definitions of faith that had profound influence on both of the Brownings. Their followers have even taken to devoting themselves almost religiously to their body of works.

 

‘The Brownings in Our World’ exhibit will be on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room from April 1st through June 20th.

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.

 

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Things Not Shown

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World

The exhibition explores the intersection of religious and ecological concerns in nineteenth-century literature and art, from William Wordsworth to Gerard Manley Hopkins. You can read more about its content here. The exhibit was curated by Molly Lewis, a doctoral student of English at Baylor University during a ten-week summer internship through the Armstrong Browning Library.

Things Not Shown: What Didn’t Make It into the Exhibit

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” from New Poems. London: Macmillan and Co, 1867.

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” from New Poems. London: Macmillan and Co, 1867.

The Armstrong Browning Library holds a first edition of Matthew Arnold’s New Poems, including what is perhaps his most famous, “Dover Beach.” Hardly an argument for religion’s advocacy for ecological care, “Dover Beach,” provides a sobering counterpoint to many of the texts displayed in this fall’s exhibition, “‘Every common bush afire with God: Divine Encounters with the Living World.” While most of the exhibition’s writers and artists advocate for creation care because of nature’s participation in the grace and presence of God, Arnold’s poem argues the reverse. Rather than being “afire with God,” the natural world is empty of divine purpose or presence:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world. (113)

Arnold’s image of the “Sea of Faith…Retreating” represents for many what religious faith in the nineteenth century looked like. In the face of scientific and industrial progress, little room was left for the mystery of a divine Creator.

 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s A Drama of Exile, London: George G. Harrap & Co, 1900.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s A Drama of Exile, London: George G. Harrap & Co, 1900.

But other writers not only held to their Christian faith; they were moved by it to care for the world around them and create art and poetry that reflected that world’s beauty, fragility, and dignity. One could argue that Elizabeth Barrett Browning acknowledges Arnold’s perspective in A Drama of Exile. Written as a theatrical narrative of Adam and Eve, A Drama of Exile explores the broken relationship between nature and humanity as a consequence of the fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. At one point, Eve laments her separation from nature, remembering what she had been in the Garden:

…was I not, that hour,

The lady of the world, princess of life,

Mistress of feast and favour? Could I touch

A rose with my white hand, but it became

Redder at once? (72-73)

In sinlessness, Eve’s presence made nature more fully itself—the roses more red, the grass more green, the leaves of the trees more quivering with life, the birdsong more glad. In turn, she was more herself as well, more “princess of life, / Mistress of feast and favour.” Eve’s separation from God places her at odds with the natural world, limiting its capacity to communicate divine grace.

It is precisely because of this distance that poets like Barrett Browning must remind us through their poetry that nature has its own unique relationship with God, and that the common material of the world around us is also more than material. The distance incurred by the fall keeps God’s presence in the ordinary world from being self-evident. In her introduction to A Drama of Exile, Barrett Browning argues against those who would separate religious concerns from common life, “As if life were not a continual sacrament to man, since Christ brake the daily bread of it in His hands!… As if the word God were not, everywhere in His creation, and at every moment in His eternity, an appropriate word!” (6).

 

William Blake’s “The Lamb,” from Songs of Innocence and Experience. London: W. Pickering, 1839.

William Blake’s “The Lamb,” from Songs of Innocence and Experience. London: W. Pickering, 1839.

Poets like Barrett Browning who wished to speak prophetically on the state of nature in nineteenth-century imagination drew heavily on William Blake’s poetic works. Blake’s familiar poem, “The Lamb” from Songs of Innocence and Experience, is one such reminder, not only that God made the “Little Lamb,” but that “he calls himself a Lamb” (11). The poem is a gentle, childlike reminder that nature shares in God’s blessings, and that all of God’s creatures are his children—not humanity alone. God can be known and understood by humanity through his other creatures.

 

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” from Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1st Edition. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” from Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1st Edition. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918.

Much later in the century, Gerard Manley Hopkins expands beautifully on this idea in his poem “God’s Grandeur.” In it, he describes how the whole earth is “charged with the grandeur of God,” but that we fail to feel his presence because “the soil / Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod” (26). This line echoes the narrative in Exodus in which God commands Moses to remove his sandals before approaching the bush burning with divine presence. The ABL’s current exhibition displays Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s prose novel Aurora Leigh, showing the famous passage quoted in the exhibit’s title: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God: / But only he who sees, takes off his shoes” (304). Christina Rossetti’s poem “Tread Softly,” from A Pageant and Other Poems is displayed next to Aurora Leigh, which also alludes to the Mosaic narrative: “Tread softly! All the earth is holy ground. / It may be, could we look with seeing eyes, / This spot we stand on is a Paradise” (153). In Hopkins’s poem, our failure to “tread softly” is directly related to our excessive concern with false progress. We have stripped the soil of its fruitfulness and beauty through “trade” and “toil”—both consequences of the fall, like Eve’s distance from the created world—and in the process we’ve “shod” our feet as well.

Hopkins’s poem ends in confidence, however, that “nature is never spent.” Looking back with twenty-first-century hindsight, it’s difficult to have such a hope. His poem “Binsey Poplars,” featured early in the exhibition, seems more honest about the irretrievable loss of nature as a result of human carelessness and destruction. To have hope, we need to take more seriously the possibility that the “grandeur of God” lies within all of nature. We need to believe with Barrett Browning that our deepest humanity is found in recognizing our participation in the natural world, not in setting ourselves at odds with it. Until then, it’s small wonder that Arnold’s poem rings true for so many readers. We have failed to take off our shoes.

 

 

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World“:

Literary Networks in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries Class Exhibit: Mary Shelley

On December 9th at 9:05am, Dr. Kristin Pond’s English 3351: Literary Networks in the Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Centuries course will be presenting their Great Exhibition. This is a class project which requires students to explore what artifacts, including original letters, manuscripts and books, photographs, and actual objects exist at the Armstrong Browning Library related to each student’s assigned author.

The exhibition will be on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room for the entire morning December 9th, 2019.

To prepare for the exhibition, students wrote a short biography of their author and practiced analyzing an artifact for what it reveals about their author. A sample of one student’s preliminary research follows.

 

Mary Shelley – Life, Writings, and Browning Correspondence

Mary Shelley, daughter of political radical William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (writer of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), was born in 1797. Sadly, her mother died due to an internal bacterial infection following childbirth. Possibly to escape a troubled household and a horrible stepmother, 16-year-old Mary eloped in 1814 with the then-married romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Through her husband Percy, Mary Shelley continued to receive encouragement on her writing, as she had for most of her life under the watch of her intellectual father. On the point of Percy’s influence, however, there have been a number of misunderstandings – all at the expense of Mary Shelley’s creative reputation.

In her biography Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters, author Anne Mellor analyzes Mary Shelley’s writings and journals through a feminist lens, validating Mary’s standing as an independent writer of Frankenstein, a gothic masterpiece. Contrary to what some may believe, Percy was an avid supporter – not a controlling editor – of his wife’s writings.

Prior to the 21st century, scholars had assumed that Percy had essentially taught his wife how to write well. This assumption may be based on the fact that one of Mary’s copies of Frankenstein contains several grammatical and syntax edits by Percy. In one edition of Frankenstein, Percy actually wrote the novel’s preface as if he was Mary. Moreover, Mary’s writing contains a description of Mont Blanc which some have linked with Percy’s “Mont Blanc” poem. To make matters worse, due to the constraints of the time, the first copies of Frankenstein were actually published under Percy Shelley’s name.

That being said, however, Mary Shelley did craft the vast majority of Frankenstein, not to mention her other works. Being as independent and nonconformist as her feminist mother, Mary most likely would not have permitted over-involved literary edits on Percy’s part. In her History of a Six Weeks’ Tour, when describing the natural world about her, Mary says, “God has not reduced our dwelling-place – as Puritans would his – to a bare meeting-house, all there is radiant in glorious colours” (12). Through her criticism of Puritan religion and her gushing over natural beauty, Mary not only reveals her open-minded, non-conformist attitude towards history and society but also her idealistic writer’s heart.

A romantic spirit, Mary found her soulmate and escape from the world in Percy Shelley, who viewed her as his intellectual equal. For the eight years they lived together, Percy Shelley was deeply in love with Mary, to the point that he sometimes expressed wishes to retreat onto an island with her and his child, them against the world. Evidence of a mutually constructive literary relationship can be found in their correspondence. For example, in a letter by Mary Shelley to a friend, Percy interposes, writing “Poor Mary’s book has come back with a refusal which has put me in rather ill spirits.” In another letter, Percy writes to Mary, “Be severe in your corrections, & expect severity from me, your sincere admirer. – I flatter myself you have composed something unequalled in its kind.” Rather than lead Mary’s writing endeavors, Percy avidly supported them, offering constructive criticisms. His prefaces to Mary’s Frankenstein and History of a Six Weeks’ Tour were part of a collaborative effort, not of a failing on Mary’s part. In turn, Mary offered up her own support and criticisms of Percy’s writing, including his poems “The Witch of Atlas” and “Rosalind and Helen,” which Percy might not have published if not for her encouragement. Following Percy’s tragic drowning in 1822, Mary edited and published Percy’s works posthumously.

Through Frankenstein and Mary Shelley’s account of Frankenstein’s creation, Mary Shelley reveals herself to be curious, conscientious, and sensitive, channeling her life’s questions, worries, and griefs into her writing. In 1816, Mary Shelley received an awaited opportunity to prove her worth as a writer when Lord Byron suggested to his Shelley friends that they each write a ghost story. Having been the only one of her peers to take Byron’s story prompt seriously, Mary Shelley was finally inspired after a period of much creative anxiety. Drawing from her recent grief and nightmares about childbirth, Mary Shelley “gave birth” to a “hideous progeny,” in the form of Victor Frankenstein’s monster. In 1817, at the age of nineteen, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein following the suicide of Percy Shelley’s wife Harriet, the suicide of Mary Shelley’s half-sister Fanny, and the death of Mary Shelley’s infant daughter. Undoubtedly, these deaths influenced the macabre tone and themes of the novel.

Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mary Shelley was a key component of a 19th century network of feminist writers. Just as Elizabeth Browning wrote poems in honor or in critique of other female writers, such as her “Stanzas Addressed to Miss Landon,” Mary Shelley likely looked up to a network of precursing female gothic writers as literary models. These writers included Ann Radcliffe (writer of The Mysteries of Udolpho) and Charlotte Dacre (writer of The Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer).

Yet, in spite of their female literary backgrounds, very little communication existed between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mary Shelley. Despite her success as an author, it appears that Mary Shelley was overshadowed by Percy Shelley in the Brownings’ eyes. While Percy Shelley’s writings and beliefs heavily influenced Robert Browning (he became an atheist vegetarian after reading Percy’s Queen Mab), Browning’s only mention of Mary Shelley in his letters was of her sorry state following Percy Shelley’s death. An 1845 letter to Elizabeth Barrett Browning is the only published letter in which Robert Browning writes of her. In this letter, Browning recalls:

The ‘Mary dear’ with the brown eyes, and Godwin’s daughter and Shelley’s wife, and who surely was something better once upon a time…when she and the like of her are put in a new place, with new flowers, new stones, faces…[she] wisely saying ‘ who shall describe that sight ! ‘ — Not you, we very well see…

Robert Browning then goes on to say:

But once she travelled the country with Shelley on arm; now she plods it, Rogers in hand…but she is wrong every where, that is, not right, not seeing what is to see, speaking what one expects to hear — I quarrel with her, for ever, I think.

In spite of Mary Shelley’s success as a writer, Robert Browning saw her as a sort of soft-eyed sweetheart, consumed by grief to the point that she was annoying to be around. Rather than refer to her as “author of Frankenstein” or something more flattering, Browning identifies Mary Shelley by her radical writer relations. Briefly, he does recognize Mary Shelley’s past accomplishments when he says, “something better once upon a time.” Otherwise, he is annoyed by her apparent inability to say or write anything interesting or insightful.

This characterization of Mary Shelley is surprisingly harsh, considering that the Brownings may have respected Mary Shelley’s works. In fact, at least two of the books in their library were ones that Mary Shelley had either written or edited: History of a Six Weeks’ Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Posthumous Poems. That being said, they did not own a copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which may explain their misperception of grieving gothic Mary as overly sweet or passive. If only the Brownings knew that Mary had saved the heart of Percy, a small organ wrapped in a sheet of posthumous poetry and tucked away inside her desk drawer.

Works Cited

Browning, Robert, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Letters of Robert Browning and  Elizabeth Barrett Barrett. Vol. 1, New York and London, Harper and Brothers, Publishers, 1899. 2 vols.

Creech, Melinda. “Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face — Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley [née Godwin] (1797–1851).” Armstrong Browning Library and Museum, Baylor University, 23 July 2013, blogs.baylor.edu/armstrongbrowning/tag/frankenstein/. Accessed 23 Sept. 2019.

Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York and London, Routledge, 2009.

Mercer, Anna. “The Literary Collaboration of Mary and Percy Shelley.” Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum, Wordsworth Trust, 2017, wordsworth.org.uk/blog/2015/02/15/mine-own-hearts-home-the-literary-collaboration-of-mary-and-percy-bysshe-shelley/. Accessed 24 Sept. 2019.

Poetry Foundation, editor. “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.” Poetry Foundation, edited by Poetry Foundation, 2019, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mary-wollstonecraft-shelley. Accessed 24 Sept. 2019.

Pottle, Frederick A., M.A. Shelley and Browning: A Myth and Some Facts. Pembroke Press, 1923.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. History of a Six Weeks’ Tour. London, T. Hookam, 1817.

Shelley, Percy. Letter to Mary Shelley. 10 Aug. 1821. Letters. Edited by Frederick L. Jones, vol. 324. Oxford University, 2015.

Shelley, Percy. Letter to Mary Shelley. 15 Aug. 1821. Letters. Edited by Frederick L. Jones, vol. 339. Oxford University, 2015.

Theisen, Colleen. “Mary and Percy Shelley Letter Mentions Frankenstein Rejections.” The University of Iowa Libraries, U. of Iowa, 8 Oct. 2012, blog.lib.uiowa.edu/speccoll/2012/10/08/special-collections-mary-and-percy-shelley-letter-mentions-frankenstein-rejections/. Accessed 24 Sept. 2019.

Literary Networks in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries Class Exhibit: John Keats

On December 9th at 9:05am, Dr. Kristin Pond’s English 3351: Literary Networks in the Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Centuries course will be presenting their Great Exhibition. This is a class project which requires students to explore what artifacts, including original letters, manuscripts and books, photographs, and actual objects exist at the Armstrong Browning Library related to each student’s assigned author.

 

The exhibition will be on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room for the entire morning December 9th, 2019.

 

To prepare for the exhibition, students wrote a short biography of their author and practiced analyzing an artifact for what it reveals about their author. A sample of one student’s preliminary research follows.

 

John Keats

The April 1818 edition of The Quarterly Review reads “Keats is unhappily a disciple of the new school [of] Cockney poetry; which may be defined to consist of the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language (1).”

Before John Keats reached worldwide fame, he could not escape being a subject of harsh criticisms such as the sentiment above. The Quarterly Review, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, and other prominent literary magazines all branded Keats into a pejorative group known as the Cockney school. This group included English writers such as Leigh Hunt, William Hazlitt, and Percy Shelly, and they were all collectively criticized for a number of shaky reasons. Keats in particular was attacked because of his lower-class upbringing; an editor of The Quarterly Review particularly disapproved highly of the working class meddling with intellectual forms such as poetry. The Review’s editor labels Keats an ‘uneducated and flimsy stripling’ and slams Endymion as an “imperturbable drivelling idiocy” before concluding that “It is a better and wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John. (2)” We cannot be sure exactly how Keats reacted to this virulence. It’s possible that he was completely undeterred, and it is possible that it adversely affected his health (Shelly actually thought that the criticism contributed to his early death (3)). Whatever the reaction of Keats, the latter opinion was loud enough to cause Blackwood Magazine to go on the defense after his death, writing:

Mr. Keats died in the ordinary course of nature. Nothing was ever said in this Magazine about him, that needed to have given him an hour’s sickness; and had he lived a few years longer, he would have profited by our advice, and been grateful for it, although perhaps conveyed to him in a pill rather too bitter. Hazlitt, Hunt, and other unprincipled infidels, were his ruin. Had he lived a few years longer, we should have driven him in disgust from the gang that were gradually affixing a taint to his name. His genius we saw, and praised; but it was deplorably sunk in the mire of Cockneyism (4).

Although having never corresponded to Keats (not surprising as she was only fourteen when he passed away), Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a staunch believer that the heavy criticism of Keats lead to adverse effects later on in his life. She detested how the “Cockney School” writers, especially Keats, had scurrilous attacks lobbed at them. Even when she later figured out the identity of one of the anonymous authors who took part in the harsh criticism was someone she respected, she still sided with Keats and said they erred in their criticism. She pitied the poet greatly for being “slain outright & inglouriously by the quarterly review’s tomahawk (5)”. As a poet herself Elizabeth Barrett Browning must have known the importance of a poet’s reputation. Keats was financially unstable throughout his life, and his all his earnings came from his poetry. In this sense, his reputation was not just his reputation, but also his living. Seeing a fellow poet slandered caused a justifiable outlash in several of Browning’s letters.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning could see that people did not recognize Keats’ genius. To Browning, Keats was a “grand exception from among the vulgar herd of juvenile versifiers. (6)” Keats was “a seer… Who [wrote] the things you were speaking of yesterday. (7)” He was too ahead of the times to really be appreciated at the start of the nineteenth century. To Browning, the world did not deserve such a prominent and determined poet as Keats. She notes “as singers sing themselves out of breath, he sang himself out of life (8).” Keats put every last ounce of effort into crafting his work, and nowhere was a similar sentiment expressed by his ignorant critics. According to Browning, “Nobody who knew very deeply what poetry is… could draw any case against [Keats]” (9). Keats’ critics did not hold the intellectual ability to truly appreciate his work, making their criticism against the poet inevitable. Browning felt that Keats’ critics’ imaginations could not allow them to ever dream up what Keats, “a poet of the senses” could (9). The dream expressed in “Eve of St Agnes” or anything else so creatively imagined was simply not accessible to their closed minds. Those who criticized Keats were unable to attain such “senses idealized” (9). To Browning, Keats was simply “a fine genius, – too finely tuned for the gross dampness of our atmosphere. (8)”

That Elizabeth Barrett Browning shouted such praise for someone she did not know personally might seem strange and surprising. That said, Browning had definitely become knowledgeable about his work as numerous references to Keats’ writing are sprawled throughout her letters. Robert Browning had a period where he would read Keats to a sick friend every two days, so his work was definitely present in Elizabeth’s life. But still, she never knew him personally (10). Browning’s literary circle did help fill in some knowledge of Keats’ personality, but ultimately, she was left to judge Keats based on his work alone. Sadly, this means that the connection between Keats and Elizabeth Barrett Browning was solely Elizabeth’s posthumous praise for and defense of Keats. The strength of her defense speaks to the genius of Keats’ writing, and how great writers have the potential to influence and inspire and communicate even after their deaths.

To sum up, Elizabeth Barrett Browning felt as if there were already enough burdens weighing down on Keats’ life without the criticism, as the poet’s life leads one to experience “wearing anxieties” regardless of how one’s work is received. Yet sadly Keats died before his work was honored; consequently, this makes Browning ask whether praise is necessary, and even if Keats would have been jealous of the future fame of his works. Browning obviously cannot ask for Keats’ answer, but she dreams something akin to this: Praise would just be “redundant to his content” that Keats got from the joy of creating and the “exercise of art” (11).  There is comfort in such thinking.

 

 

Numbered Sources

  1. Wilson, John. “Review of Keats’s Endymion.” Quarterly Review, Apr. 1818, pp. 204–208.
  2. Lockhart, John. “Endymion Review.” Quarterly Review, Apr. 1818, p. 524.
  3. Shelly, Percy. “Preface.” Adonais, Methuen & Co., 1821, pp. 3–4.
  4. Wilson, John. “Lord Bryon and His Contemporaries.” Blackwood Magazine, 1828, pp. 403–404.
  5. Browning, Elizabeth. “Letter 866.” Received by Mary Mitford, 26 Oct. 1841, London.
  6. Browning, Elizabeth. “Letter 1672.” Received by John Kenyon, Aug. 1844, London.
  7. Browning, Elizabeth. “Letter 2025.” Received by Robert Browning, 7 July 1846, London.
  8. Browning, Elizabeth. “Letter 1029.” Received by Benjamin Haydon, 20 Oct. 1842, London.
  9. Browning, Elizabeth. “Letter 2025.” Received by Robert Browning, 7 July 1846, London.
  10. Browning, Elizabeth. “Letter 4252.” Received by Anna Brownell Jameson, 5 October 1858, Paris.
  11. Browning, Elizabeth. “Letter 1829.” Received by Robert Browning, 3 Feb. 1845, 50 Wimpole Street.

Additional Sources

Keats, John. John Keats. Edited by Elizabeth Cook, Oxford University Press, 1990.

Browning, Elizabeth. “Letter 4252.” Received by Anna Brownell Jameson, 5 October 1858, Paris.

Browning, Elizabeth. “Letter 2472.” Received by Robert Browning, 7 July 1846, London.

Browning, Elizabeth. “Letter 2025.” Received by Robert Browning, 7 July 1846, London.

Browning, Elizabeth. “Letter 1706.” Received by Mary Mitford, 3 Sept. 1844, London.

Browning, Elizabeth. “Letter 1105.” Received by Mary Mitford, 30 Dec. 1842, London.

Literary Networks in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries Class Exhibit: William Wordsworth

On December 9th at 9:05am, Dr. Kristin Pond’s English 3351: Literary Networks in the Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Centuries course will be presenting their Great Exhibition. This is a class project which requires students to explore what artifacts, including original letters, manuscripts and books, photographs, and actual objects exist at the Armstrong Browning Library related to each student’s assigned author.

The exhibition will be on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room for the entire morning December 9th, 2019.

To prepare for the exhibition, students wrote a short biography of their author and practiced analyzing an artifact for what it reveals about their author. A sample of one student’s preliminary research follows.

 

William Wordsworth

Biography     

William Wordsworth was born in 1770 in England, and he would grow up to become a well-renowned poet by the time of his death in 1850. Achieving that honor, however, required a great deal of financial strife first. Orphaned at an early age, impoverished throughout his youth, and dissatisfied with his college education at Cambridge, Wordsworth fumbled through his earlier years (Mason, 1-3). He had always been interested in writing, but he did not produce much poetry during this period. However, he did develop a very close relationship with his sister Dorothy. As adults, they eked out an impoverished existence together in a house called Racedown in Dorset, England. It was here, under the influence of his likewise literary-minded sister, that Wordsworth grew into the title of poet, increasing his output by four times as much as he had written in earlier years. As Worthen writes, “…having discovered a way of working with [Dorothy], he now preferred not to write without her” (Worthen, 113-117). This clearly drew Wordsworth into a particularly close emotional bond with his sister. Perhaps more significantly, this new era in his writing might never had come about if not for Dorothy’s support. As he continued writing, she critiqued his work, and “it was [her] propensity for aesthetic judgement, as well as her unwavering emotional support, that Wordsworth most respected, and her comments inspired him to improve his writing” (Mason, 5). Dorothy played a formative role in Wordsworth’s beginnings as a poet, pushing him ever-forwards toward greatness.

As Wordsworth developed as a poet, he formed another important relationship: a friendship with Samuel Coleridge. The two writers “were immediately enamored with each other,” and they soon moved within a few miles of each other. The two (and Dorothy) spent a lot of time together, often taking long walks during which they wrote and talked about poetry (Mason, 7). All evidence points to the fact that Wordsworth and Coleridge were fast friends with much in common. They clearly stimulated each other’s minds and got along quite well, not to mention the fact that Coleridge aided Wordsworth in getting his early work published. Also, in her biographical work on Wordsworth, Emma Mason describes in detail the writing relationship between Coleridge and Wordsworth: “Coleridge… tasked Wordsworth with the writing of a new Miltonic philosophic epic.” This would grow into Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem, “The Prelude.” The pair also co-wrote a book of poetry, aptly titled Lyrical Ballads, and traveled Europe together (Mason, 8). Coleridge was not only a good friend but a good writing partner, bolstering Wordsworth’s writing and, like Dorothy, propelling him towards progress. Their friendship began to sour, however, as Coleridge became addicted to opium and began to push Wordsworth away. Finally, Coleridge broke off the friendship over petty hearsay (Mason, 10-11, 16). Wordsworth, though hurt by this abrupt end to such a long and devoted friendship, moved on and kept writing.

In 1802, Wordsworth would marry Mary Hutchinson (after having a love-affair and a child with a Frenchwoman, Annette), and the two had what appeared to be a loving, relatively happy marriage. The two lived with Dorothy, who remained close with her brother throughout their lives (Mason, 10-13). And, after years of little financial success as a poet, Wordsworth gradually gained widespread recognition as a great poet. In 1843, Wordsworth became Poet Laureate of Britain, the crowning glory of several literary honors that he received. He died in 1850 (Mason, 22).

 

 

Letters

In an 1808 letter to Dorothy Wordsworth (and his wife, Mary), Wordsworth begins the letter by addressing his “Dearest Loves.” He recounts his travels, focusing in particular on the people he has encountered and how they are doing. He mentions Coleridge multiple times, clearly expressing worry about Coleridge’s health (by this time, the latter was well into his opium addiction). Wordsworth also writes that “Coleridge has just had a long Letter, in which is related the fate of Sally’s parents. It has much affected me, and we must do for Sally what we can” (Wordsworth, 1808). This letter is rife with evidence of affection towards Dorothy and Mary, and even more impressive compassion towards his old friend Coleridge and even towards his former servant, Sally. In this letter, Wordsworth comes across as a loving man who tries fervently to love and take care of those around him.

Interestingly, within the same letter, Wordsworth reveals his negative opinion on publishing his work. In distinct contrast to the gentle way he refers to those that he is familiar with, he writes of the “wretched and stupid Public.” He describes how, though he desires to use his writing to benefit the public, he still somehow detests the idea of publishing his work (Wordsworth, 1808). Here the reader receives an intriguing insight into why Wordsworth was slow to publish his work.

Although, as mentioned above, some of Wordsworth’s most significant literary attachments were to his sister Dorothy and to Samuel Coleridge, he also was connected to the Brownings. In a letter to John Kenyon, William Wordsworth references some poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that Kenyon sent Mrs. Wordsworth, and he compliments Barrett Browning’s “Genius and attainments” (Wordsworth, 1839). In this letter, he reports his admiration for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s intelligence and literary accomplishments. Though the indirectness of this compliment toward Elizabeth Barrett Browning might seem to suggest that they were unfamiliar with each other in person, a letter written three years prior (in 1836) disproves this idea. In this letter, written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning herself, she also describes Wordsworth in a complimentary fashion: “I… must have told you that one of my privileges has been to see Wordsworth twice. He was very kind to me, and let me hear his conversation…. His manners are very simple; & his conversation not at all prominent – if you quite understand what I mean by that” (Browning, 1836). It seems that the warm feelings and respect between William Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were definitively mutual. Barrett Browning also gives the reader further clue into Wordsworth’s personality, describing him as kind and “simple,” which I interpret as meaning that he came across as modest despite the literary fame he had achieved by that time. Though Wordsworth and Barrett Browning may not have known each other well, they did appear to deeply respect each other, both in personality and in literary accomplishments.

 

Works Cited

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett to Julia Martin. December 7th, 1836 in The Brownings’ Correspondence, https://www.browningscorrespondence.com/correspondence/621/?rsId=168911

Mason, Emma. The Cambridge Introduction to William Wordsworth, Cambridge University Press, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bayloru/detail.action?docID=564466.

Wordsworth, William to Dorothy Wordsworth. March 26th, 1808 in Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, https://www-oxfordscholarlyeditions-com.ezproxy.baylor.edu/view/10.1093/actrade/9780198185239.book.1/actrade-9780198185239-div2-10

Wordsworth, William to John Kenyon. February 26th, 1839 in The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. Ernest de Selincourt et al., 2nd ed., https://www.browningscorrespondence.com/supporting-documents/1147/?rsId=168867&returnPage=1

Worthen, John. Wiley Blackwell Critical Biographies : Life of William Wordsworth: a Critical Biography, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bayloru/detail.action?docID=1603102.