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.’

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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.

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

Trinity College Joins The Browning Letters Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Robert Browning to Frances Davenport Perkins, 11 July 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Introducing…The Victorian Collection at the Armstrong Browning Library: a Baylor Libraries Digital Collection—Religion and Politics

By Melinda Creech, PhD, Graduate Assistant 

Marie Ada Molineux (1856-1936), Author, Bacteriologist, Psychologist, Charter Member of the Boston Browning Society. Nell Pomeroy O'Brien, painter. 1936. Courtesy of the Armstrong Browning LibraryThe 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. The letters and manuscripts in this growing collection can be browsed and searched by date, author, keyword, or first line of text. Letters from the collection are currently on display in Hankamer Treasure Room.

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Religion

Many of the letters in the Victorian Collection are from clergymen. The letters run the gamut of different types of Christian faith. There are letters from Catholics, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Universalists, Friends, Brethren, “High” Church, “Low” Church, “Broad” Church, and even Baptists, written by such well-known correspondents at John Henry Newman, Charles Kingsley, William Johnson Fox, Frederick Temple, and John Keble.

One album of letters that is particularly interesting contains a group of letters collected by Charles Room. Room was a student at the Baptist College in Bristol, presided over the Baptist Church in Evesham, Worcestershire and was assistant pastor to Dr. John Rippon at New Park Street Baptist Chapel in Southwark and minister of the Baptist Church, Meeting House Alley, Portsea.

In this letter R. W. Overbury, pastor of the Baptist Church at Eagle Street, London from 1834 until his death in 1868, invites Charles Room to preach at his church.

Letter from R. W. Overbury to Charles Room. Undated. Page 1.

Letter from R. W. Overbury to Charles Room. Undated. Page 2.

*****

Rev. John Rooker, an Anglican minister, was the Director of the Church Missionary Children’s Home, Highbury Grove, Islington, and vicar of St. Peter’s, Clifton Road, Bristol. The letters he collected in the Rooker Album consist of a large number of letters to and from clergy, including this letter from Brooke Foss Westcott, biblical scholar, theologian, Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, and Bishop of Durham. He is perhaps most well known for co-editing, with Fenton John Anthony Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek in 1881. In this tender letter Westcott answers Rooker’s question about a reference in a book responding:

My great hope is that I may perhaps sometimes encourage a young student to linger with patient faith over the words of Scripture and hear then the message which he needs. We need all of us to write out the promise εν τη υπομονη κτησασθαι τας ψυχας.

[“In patience possess your souls” Luke 21:19]

Letter from B. F. Westcott to John Rooker. 9 August 1884. Page 1.

Letter from B. F. Westcott to John Rooker. 9 August 1884. Pages 2 and 3.

*****

The ABL has many letters from Anglican bishops, including letters from Christopher Wordsworth, youngest brother of William Wordsworth and Bishop of Lincoln. In this letter to an unidentified correspondent, Wordsworth mentions his publication, “Pastoral to the Wesleyans.”

Letter from Christopher Wordsworth, Bishop of Lincoln to an Unidentified Correspondent. 13 March 1870. Page 1.

Letter from Christopher Wordsworth, Bishop of Lincoln to an Unidentified Correspondent. 13 March 1870. Pages 2 and 3

*****

Comparative religion was an important focus in the nineteenth century as scholars such as Edwin Arnold began to introduce research on world religions. In this letter Emily Marion Harris, English novelist, poet, and educationist, finds a point of comparison between the Book of Common Prayer and prayers that Arnold described in his book, Pearls of Our Faith.

Letter from Emily Marion Harris to Elizabeth Purefoy Fitzgerald. 21 November [No year]. Page 1.

Letter from Emily Marion Harris to Elizabeth Purefoy Fitzgerald. 21 November [No year]. Page 2.

Letter from Emily Marion Harris to Elizabeth Purefoy Fitzgerald. 21 November [No year]. Page 3.

*****

Another interesting set of letters and manuscripts come from Dryden Phelps. Dryden Phelps was the nephew of William Lyon Phelps, Browning scholar and founder of the Fano Club, an annual gathering of Browning aficionados who have visited “The Guardian Angel” painting in Fano, Italy, about which Robert Browning wrote a poem. Dryden Phelps, a missionary to China, reveals in this letter his missions strategy of using the poetry of Browning and Tennyson to introduce his Chinese students to English literature and the tenets of Christianity. Dryden attributes Browning’s popularity in China to the fact that he is “terse, succinct, witty, epigrammatic, unique in a brilliant use of words, profound, a lover of nature, and of human nature, a lover of life.” A Chinese poetry scholar with whom he had studied commented that “he [Browning] is like one of our own poets!” Dryden surmises that one of the highest services we can render China at this moment is to open their eyes to such men as Browning.”

Letter from Dryden Phelps to A. J. Armstrong. 3 May 1928. Page 1.

Letter from Dryden Phelps to A. J. Armstrong. 3 May 1928. Page 2.

Letter from Dryden Phelps to A. J. Armstrong. 2 October 1928. Page 1.

Letter from Dryden Phelps to A. J. Armstrong. 2 October 1928. Page 2.

*****

The following manuscripts are Phelps’s students’ efforts to translate the poetry of Browning and Tennyson into Chinese.

Chinese Manuscript by an Unidentified Author. Undated.

“Then Welcome Each Rebuff” by Robert Browning, Translated by an Unidentified Author. Undated. Recto.

“Then Welcome Each Rebuff” by Robert Browning, Translated by an Unidentified Author. Undated. Verso.

“Flower in a Crannied Wall” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Translated by Paul Liu. Undated.

“Flower in a Crannied Wall” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Translated by Ghipi C. Chang. Undated.

*****

Scholars in the nineteenth century were very interested in archeology and reclaiming antiquities. Many letters describe trips to the Middle East to search for treasures. This letter from the Director of the British Museum records a contribution by Mrs. Norris toward the purchase of the Codex Sinaiticus, a manuscript written over 1600 years ago, containing the Christian Bible in Greek, including the oldest complete copy of the New Testament. Edwin L. Norris was a British philologist, linguist, and orientalist who wrote or compiled numerous works on the languages of Asia and Africa. It is unclear what relationship Mrs. R. Norris had to Edwin Norris, if any. Arundell James Kennedy Esdaile was a British librarian, and Secretary to the British Museum from 1926 to 1940.

Letter from Arundell Esdaile to Mrs. Norris. 30 October 1934.

*****

In this letter Thomas Hill Lowe, English cleric and Dean of Exeter (1839-1861), responds to Henry Phillpotts’s criticism of his sermon about changing the Athanasian Creed in the Book of Common Prayer. Henry Phillpotts was the Bishop of Exeter from 1830–1869.

Letter from Thomas Hill Lowe to Henry Phillpotts. 21 February 1852. Page 1.

Letter from Thomas Hill Lowe to Henry Phillpotts. 21 February 1852. Page 2.

*****

Joseph Barber Lightfoot, an English theologian, Bishop of Durham, and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, writes to and T. G. Bonney, an English geologist, president of the Geological Society of London, and tutor at St. John’s College, Cambridge, bemoaning the rivalry between Trinity and St. John’s. He is also annoyed by religious newspapers, writing:

I quite agree with you about religious newspapers. Nothing more nearly drives me to despair than the correspondence in the _______ and _____. I think possibly that St. Paul would also have failed to recognize any likeness to himself in the pictures of him which are drawn by many of our German friends

Todd Still, Dean and Professor of Christian Scriptures at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University, suggests that one of the newspapers could be The Church Times. He adds, “As for Lightfoot’s remark regarding ‘German friends,’ this is his gracious way of saying that he categorically disagrees with the portrait of St. Paul being painted by F. C. Baur and the Tubingen School.”

Letter from Joseph Barber Lightfoot to T. G. Bonney. 18 May 1875. Page 1.

Letter from Joseph Barber Lightfoot to T. G. Bonney. 18 May 1875. Pages 2 and 3.

 

Politics

Political letters also comprise a large portion of the Victorian Letters Collection. Our collections contains letters from Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, William Ewart Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli, and others. The collection also contains many letters from military leaders. The following are only a sampling of the many.

In this letter Lilian Whiting, American journalist, editor, poet, short story writer, and member of the Boston Browning Society, writes about her attendance at a dinner in New York on March 1, 1912 honoring William Howells’s seventy-fifth birthday. Howells was an American novelist, literary critic, and playwright. President Taft and Winston Churchill gave speeches there. Winston Churchill was a young man of thirty-eight who had just become First Lord of the Admiralty the previous year. Whiting comments on and quotes a from Churchill’s speech, rather uncomplimentarily. She writes

Excepting the President, the host, the guest of honor & Mrs. [Alden], – the speeches were unspeakably & ludicrously poor! Winston Churchill’s was as common & as cheap as a table waiter might have made – “As a midshipman”, he preceded to give a chapter of cheap reminiscences of himself – the only link with Mr. Howells being that he had a copy of ‘Silas Lapham’ & “climbed the mast with [it] Howells went up & has been going up ever since” & the copy of ‘Silas’ fell out of his pocket to the deck & that is the only time Howells ever went down!

Letter from Lilian Whiting to Miss Carrie. 5 March 1912. Page 1.

Letter from Lilian Whiting to Miss Carrie. 5 March 1912. Page 2.

*****

In this letter to an Unidentified Correspondent, Benjamin Disraeli, then serving his second term as Prime Minister of Great Britain, mentions two residences, Marlboro House, the residence of the Prince and Princess of Wales, and Portland Place, the residence of the unidentified correspondent.

Letter from Benjamin Disraeli an Unidentified Correspondent. 23 May 1879. Page 1.

Letter from Benjamin Disraeli an Unidentified Correspondent. 23 May 1879. Page 2.

*****

The Armstrong Browning Library has several letters written by William Ewart Gladstone, British statesman and Prime Minister.

This letter was accompanied a pamphlet on vivisection. Gladstone explains that the subject is one “I have never been able to examine with all the care it deserves but I have always had & expressed the opinion that the practice, . . . ought to be confined within the limits of strict & well defined necessity.”

Letter from William Ewart Gladstone to [J. E. Walker]. 27 September 1878. Page 1.

Letter from William Ewart Gladstone to [F. E. Walters]. 27 September 1878. Page 2.

*****

This letter, written to Charles Lee Lewes, may perhaps be referring to Essays and Leaves From a Notebook, by George Eliot, early essays written by Eliot, published posthumously. She had bequeathed all her literary rights to Charles Lee Lewes, the eldest son of George Henry Lewes, her residuary legatee and sole executor of her estate.

Letter from William Ewart Gladstone to C. L. Lewes. 23 October 1889. Page 1.

Letter from William Ewart Gladstone to C. L. Lewes. 23 October 1889. Page 2.

*****

In this letter, Gladstone reports that he has no occasion for the works sent by Clement Sadler Palmer, a London publisher and antiquarian bookseller.

Letter from William Ewart Gladstone to Clement Sadler Palmer. 3 August 1895. Page 1.

Letter from William Ewart Gladstone to Clement Sadler Palmer. 3 August 1895. Page 2.

*****

Robert Peel, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for a second term in 1841, writes to Frederick Marryat, a Royal Navy officer and novelist, complimenting him, assuring him that he has received his letter, but stating that it is not in his power to speak to him on the subject of his letter

Letter from Robert Peel to Frederick Marryat. 11 July 1841. Page 1.

Letter from Robert Peel to Frederick Marryat. 11 July 1841. Page 2.

*****

This manuscript, written by Napoleon III, provides a guardian for the chateau of his mother.

Letter from Napoleon III to an unidentified correspondents. Undated.

*****

This fragment in German written from Konigsburg is signed by Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, known as the “Romantic” monarch.

Unidentified Manuscript, signed by Friedrich Wilhelm IV. 1844.

*****

In this undated letter, found in the DeCastro Album, William Pitt the Younger, British statesman, declines an “excursion up the river” with  Walter Scott, Scottish novelist, poet, historian, and biographer, but invites him to London to discuss some business.

Letter from  William Pitt to Sir Walter Scott. 15 August [Undated]. Page 1.

Letter from William Pitt to Sir Walter Scott. 15 August [Undated]. Pages 2 and 3.

On the verso of the letter is a note in an unidentified hand that reads: “To my father.”

Letter from William Pitt to Sir Walter Scott. 15 August [Undated]. Verso.

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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

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

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

Heather Hind at the Armstrong Browning Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Star Lines–Titanic Connections at the ABL–Charles Sumner and the RMS Baltic

by Melinda Creech
Graduate Assistant, Armstrong Browning Library

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

Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner (1811-1874) was an American politician, a senator from Massachusetts, and leader of the anti-slavery forces in the state. He traveled to Europe in 1872 for the last time and returned on SS Baltic.

RMS Baltic

The following letter was written while he was aboard the SS Baltic. It is addressed to Lily Benzon.

Charles Sumner to Lily Benson, 17 November 1872.

In the letter Sumner mentions the Smalleys, John Bright, and the Storys. The Benzons, Smalleys, and Storys were correspondents of Robert and Elizabeth Browning, and Sumner himself had been acquainted with Brownings in Florence in 1859[1].

Sumner described the beginning of his trip thus:

The steamer is moving with dignified calm, like a [Lord] [Morgan’s] [panama], & we have the promise of a pleasant voyage. I breakfasted this morning at the table. In no former voyage from Liverpool have I seen the table from the leaving of the Mersey to the sight of Boston Light.

However, the trip did not continue so peacefully. According to the records of the White Star Line (http://www.norwayheritage.com/p_ship.asp?sh=balt1) he arrived in New York on the morning of November 27 with severe storms having been reported.

The SS Baltic was an ocean liner owned and operated by the White Star Line, one of the first four ships ordered by the White Star Line from shipbuilders Harland and Wolff after Thomas Ismay bought the company. The Baltic was originally to be the Pacific, but her name was changed at the time of her launching due to another vessel, owned by a different shipping line, named the Pacific that had recently struck an iceberg and sank resulting in multiple deaths. White Star quickly changed the name to the Baltic, or most likely no one would have booked passage on her, because people were quite superstitious in those days. The Baltic was a state-of-the-art ship for her day, carrying 1,000 passengers and accommodating 1st, 2nd and 3rd class passengers. In 1888, this vessel came under the command of Edward J. Smith, later the Captain of the Titanic. It was his first command in the White Star Line. In 1889, after the SS Teutonic entered service, the Baltic was sold to the Holland America Line and renamed the Veendam after the Dutch city of that name. On 6 February 1898, the Veendam hit a derelict ship and sank, with all on board saved.

In 1903 another ship was built by the White Star Line and named the Baltic.

RMS Baltic (1903)

That ship sailed from 1904 until 1933. At 1.40 p.m. on 14 April 1912 the SS Baltic sent this message to RMS Titanic:

Captain Smith, Titanic. Have had moderate variable winds and clear fine weather since leaving. Greek steamer Athinai reports passing icebergs and large quantity of field ice today in latitude 41.51 N, longitude 49.52 W.

At 1:15am on 15 April the SS Baltic responded to the distress call, turned around and made its way to help with the recovery effort after the sinking of the RMS Titanic. After the ship had traveled 134 miles, it was advised to turn around and return to Liverpool. The Carpathia had picked up the 20 boatloads of survivors from the Titanic and was returning to land.

[1] Browning, Robert. Selections from the Poems and Plays of Robert Browning. Scott. Foresman, 1919, 23.

White Star Lines–Titanic Connections at the ABL–Sarah Flower Adams and “Nearer, My God, To Thee”

By Melinda Creech
Graduate Assistant, Armstrong Browning Library

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

This post, although not directly related to the steamers, draws a connection between the author of “Nearer My God to Thee,” the song reported to have been played on the sinking Titanic, and the Armstrong Browning Library’s collection.

Postcard of “Nearer my God to Thee and the Titanic

It was purported by several passengers, including Mrs. Vera Gillespie Dick (1894-1973), that “Nearer my God to Thee” was the song that the band was playing as the Titanic sank. Able to board a lifeboat, Mrs. Dick later reported

Even in Canada, where we have such clear nights . . . I have never seen such a clear sky. The stars were very bright and we could see the Titanic plainly, like a great hotel on the water. Floor after floor of the lights went out as we watched. It was horrible, horrible. I can’t bear to think about it. From the distance , as we rowed away, we could hear the band playing ‘Nearer , My God To Thee.’

        Logan, 238

The bandleader on the Titanic, Wallace Hartley (1879-1912), was reported to have said to a friend that if he were on a sinking ship, “Nearer, My God, to Thee” would be one of the songs he would play (Barczewski, Stephanie. Titanic: A Night Remembered. Bloomsbury Academic, 2006, 132). There are, of course, arguments against the “Near my God to Thee” story, and it is likely that the tune, which might have been either Horbury or Propior Deo, was not the one that we recognize today, written my Lewis Carey.

Image of Sarah Flower Adams

However, the words, based on the story of Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28:11–12, were written by Sarah Flower Adams in November of 1840

Sarah Flower Adams.”Nearer My God To Thee” from Conway, Moncure Daniel. Centenary History of the South Place Society:Based on Four Discourses given in the Chapel in May and June, 1893. London, 1894.

and first published in Hymns and Anthems by W. J. Fox, 1841. Sarah Flower Adam had eleven hymns published in the book, and “Nearer My God to Thee” is No. 85.

“Nearer My God to Thee” in  Hymns and Anthems by W. J. Fox, 1841.                         Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Robert Browning was a childhood friend of Sarah and her sister Eliza. They often discussed religion. Robert Browning writes in a letter to Eliza, Sarah’s sister, circa 1841, that “all this music I shall be so thoroughly gratified to hear,” referring to the Hymns and Anthems. Robert Browning himself had a hymn in the book, No. 146, based on his poem Paracelsus:

                                                             I stoop
into a dark tremendous sea of cloud,
It is but for a time ; I press God’s lamp
Close to my breast ; its splendour, soon or late,
Will pierce the gloom : I shall emerge one day

The Armstrong Browning Library has a letter written by Sarah Flower when she was twenty-two years old and Robert Browning was fourteen.

Sarah Flower to William Johnson Fox, 31 May 1827.

Sarah Flower to William Johnson Fox, 31 May 1827.

Sarah Flower to William Johnson Fox, 31 May 1827.

Sarah Flower to William Johnson Fox, 31 May 1827.

The very large letter written on one sheet of paper begins: “What in the name of fortune is the girl going to do with this tremendous sheet of paper?” She then proceeds to fill the entire sheet with words, front and back. In the letter Sarah says: “I wonder what I am to be when I go into that other state, —whatever it is? I have often fixed on a bird, a blossom, a star, it all depends on my mood—.” This resonates with the words she later wrote in her hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee”—

Or if on joyful wing, cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upwards I fly,

This letter is important to the Armstrong Browning Library, because it also contains Sarah’s transcript of two of Robert Browning’s earliest poems.

Sources:

Marshall, Logan. The Tragic Story of the Empress of Ireland: An Authentic Account of the Most Horrible Disaster in Canadian History Constructed from the Real Facts Obtained from Those on Board Who Survived and Other Great Sea Disasters. John C. Winston Company, 1914.

Conway, Moncure Daniel. Centenary History of the South Place Society:Based on Four Discourses given in the Chapel in May and June, 1893. London, 1894.

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

By Melinda Creech
Graduate Assistant, Armstrong Browning Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guardian Angel by Guercino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denae Dyck, PhD Candidate, University of Victoria, Canada

Denae Dyck, PhD Candidate, University of Victoria, Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Katie Mackenzie, Museum Studies Summer Intern

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

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

Front cover of Whittier Family Autograph Album.

Back cover of Whittier Family Autograph Album.

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

Lizzie H. Whittier
From her brother
Char.

Autograph. Charles Whittier to Elizabeth Whittier Pickard.

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

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

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

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

Autograph. Nora Perry to Elizabeth Whittier Pickard.

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

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

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

Autograph. Lucy Larcom to Elizabeth Whittier Pickard.

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

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

                                                                   M.F. Whittier

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

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

Autograph. Ulysses S. Grant. 21 May 1872.

Autograph. Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Autograph. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 20 February 1874.

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

My dear sir,

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

                         Two, proud to be so numbered,

                                 Elizabeth Barrett & Robert Browning

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

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

Dear Greenleaf,

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

                                                 Thy Uncle,

                                                      John G Whittier

Letter to Greenleaf Whittier Pickard from John Greenleaf Whittier.

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