By 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. 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.
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.
As any reader of Casa Guidi Windows knows, the Brownings were resident in Florence during Austrian occupation before the Risorgimiento. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 W. R. Greg, “Why Are Women Redundant?” National Review 14, April 1862, 434-460. Reprinted in 1871 as a pamphlet.
 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.
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.