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Chapter 1

Origin of the Browning Family--Robert Browning's Grandfather--His
position and Character--His first and second Marriage--Unkindness
towards his eldest Son, Robert Browning's Father--Alleged Infusion
of West Indian Blood through Robert Browning's Grandmother--Existing
Evidence against it--The Grandmother's Portrait.

A belief was current in Mr. Browning's lifetime that he had Jewish blood
in his veins. It received outward support from certain accidents of his
life, from his known interest in the Hebrew language and literature,
from his friendship for various members of the Jewish community in
London. It might well have yielded to the fact of his never claiming the
kinship, which could not have existed without his knowledge, and which,
if he had known it, he would, by reason of these very sympathies, have
been the last person to disavow. The results of more recent and more
systematic inquiry have shown the belief to be unfounded.

Our poet sprang, on the father's side, from an obscure or, as family
tradition asserts, a decayed branch, of an Anglo-Saxon stock settled,
at an early period of our history, in the south, and probably also
south-west, of England. A line of Brownings owned the manors of
Melbury-Sampford and Melbury-Osmond, in north-west Dorsetshire; their
last representative disappeared--or was believed to do so--in the time
of Henry VII., their manors passing into the hands of the Earls of
Ilchester, who still hold them.* The name occurs after 1542 in different
parts of the country: in two cases with the affix of 'esquire', in two
also, though not in both coincidently, within twenty miles of Pentridge,
where the first distinct traces of the poet's family appear. Its cradle,
as he called it, was Woodyates, in the parish of Pentridge, on the
Wiltshire confines of Dorsetshire; and there his ancestors, of the third
and fourth generations, held, as we understand, a modest but independent
social position.

* I am indebted for these facts, as well as for some others
referring to, or supplied by, Mr. Browning's uncles,
to some notes made for the Browning Society by Dr. Furnivall.

This fragment of history, if we may so call it, accords better with our
impression of Mr. Browning's genius than could any pedigree which more
palpably connected him with the 'knightly' and 'squirely' families whose
name he bore. It supplies the strong roots of English national life
to which we instinctively refer it. Both the vivid originality of that
genius and its healthy assimilative power stamp it as, in some sense,
the product of virgin soil; and although the varied elements which
entered into its growth were racial as well as cultural, and inherited
as well as absorbed, the evidence of its strong natural or physical
basis remains undisturbed.

Mr. Browning, for his own part, maintained a neutral attitude in the
matter. He neither claimed nor disclaimed the more remote genealogical
past which had presented itself as a certainty to some older members of
his family. He preserved the old framed coat-of-arms handed down to him
from his grandfather; and used, without misgiving as to his right to do
so, a signet-ring engraved from it, the gift of a favourite uncle, in
years gone by. But, so long as he was young, he had no reason to think
about his ancestors; and, when he was old, he had no reason to care
about them; he knew himself to be, in every possible case, the most
important fact in his family history.

Roi ne suis, ni Prince aussi,
Suis le seigneur de Conti,

he wrote, a few years back, to a friend who had incidentally questioned
him about it.

Our immediate knowledge of the family begins with Mr. Browning's
grandfather, also a Robert Browning, who obtained through Lord
Shaftesbury's influence a clerkship in the Bank of England, and entered
on it when barely twenty, in 1769. He served fifty years, and rose to
the position of Principal of the Bank Stock Office, then an important
one, and which brought him into contact with the leading financiers
of the day. He became also a lieutenant in the Honourable Artillery
Company, and took part in the defence of the Bank in the Gordon Riots
of 1789. He was an able, energetic, and worldly man: an Englishman, very
much of the provincial type; his literary tastes being limited to the
Bible and 'Tom Jones', both of which he is said to have read through
once a year. He possessed a handsome person and, probably, a vigorous
constitution, since he lived to the age of eighty-four, though
frequently tormented by gout; a circumstance which may help to account
for his not having seen much of his grandchildren, the poet and his
sister; we are indeed told that he particularly dreaded the lively boy's
vicinity to his afflicted foot. He married, in 1778, Margaret, daughter
of a Mr. Tittle by his marriage with Miss Seymour; and who was born
in the West Indies and had inherited property there. They had three
children: Robert, the poet's father; a daughter, who lived an uneventful
life and plays no part in the family history; and another son who died
an infant. The Creole mother died also when her eldest boy was only
seven years old, and passed out of his memory in all but an indistinct
impression of having seen her lying in her coffin. Five years later the
widower married a Miss Smith, who gave him a large family.

This second marriage of Mr. Browning's was a critical event in the life
of his eldest son; it gave him, to all appearance, two step-parents
instead of one. There could have been little sympathy between his father
and himself, for no two persons were ever more unlike, but there was yet
another cause for the systematic unkindness under which the lad grew
up. Mr. Browning fell, as a hard man easily does, greatly under the
influence of his second wife, and this influence was made by her
to subserve the interests of a more than natural jealousy of her
predecessor. An early instance of this was her banishing the dead lady's
portrait to a garret, on the plea that her husband did not need two
wives. The son could be no burden upon her because he had a little
income, derived from his mother's brother; but this, probably, only
heightened her ill-will towards him. When he was old enough to go to a
University, and very desirous of going--when, moreover, he offered to
do so at his own cost--she induced his father to forbid it, because,
she urged, they could not afford to send their other sons to college. An
earlier ambition of his had been to become an artist; but when he showed
his first completed picture to his father, the latter turned away and
refused to look at it. He gave himself the finishing stroke in the
parental eyes, by throwing up a lucrative employment which he had held
for a short time on his mother's West Indian property, in disgust at the
system of slave labour which was still in force there; and he paid for
this unpractical conduct as soon as he was of age, by the compulsory
reimbursement of all the expenses which his father, up to that date, had
incurred for him; and by the loss of his mother's fortune, which, at the
time of her marriage, had not been settled upon her. It was probably
in despair of doing anything better, that, soon after this, in his
twenty-second year, he also became a clerk in the Bank of England. He
married and settled in Camberwell, in 1811; his son and daughter were
born, respectively, in 1812 and 1814. He became a widower in 1849; and
when, four years later, he had completed his term of service at the
Bank, he went with his daughter to Paris, where they resided until his
death in 1866.

Dr. Furnivall has originated a theory, and maintains it as a conviction,
that Mr. Browning's grandmother was more than a Creole in the strict
sense of the term, that of a person born of white parents in the West
Indies, and that an unmistakable dash of dark blood passed from her to
her son and grandson. Such an occurrence was, on the face of it, not
impossible, and would be absolutely unimportant to my mind, and, I think
I may add, to that of Mr. Browning's sister and son. The poet and his
father were what we know them, and if negro blood had any part in their
composition, it was no worse for them, and so much the better for the
negro. But many persons among us are very averse to the idea of such
a cross; I believe its assertion, in the present case, to be entirely
mistaken; I prefer, therefore, touching on the facts alleged in favour
of it, to passing them over in a silence which might be taken to mean
indifference, but might also be interpreted into assent.

We are told that Mr. Browning was so dark in early life, that a nephew
who saw him in Paris, in 1837, mistook him for an Italian. He neither
had nor could have had a nephew; and he was not out of England at the
time specified. It is said that when Mr. Browning senior was residing on
his mother's sugar plantation at St. Kitt's, his appearance was held
to justify his being placed in church among the coloured members of the
congregation. We are assured in the strongest terms that the story has
no foundation, and this by a gentleman whose authority in all matters
concerning the Browning family Dr. Furnivall has otherwise accepted
as conclusive. If the anecdote were true it would be a singular
circumstance that Mr. Browning senior was always fond of drawing negro
heads, and thus obviously disclaimed any unpleasant association with
them.

I do not know the exact physical indications by which a dark strain is
perceived; but if they are to be sought in the colouring of eyes, hair,
and skin, they have been conspicuously absent in the two persons who in
the present case are supposed to have borne them. The poet's father had
light blue eyes and, I am assured by those who knew him best, a clear,
ruddy complexion. His appearance induced strangers passing him in the
Paris streets to remark, 'C'est un Anglais!' The absolute whiteness
of Miss Browning's skin was modified in her brother by a sallow tinge
sufficiently explained by frequent disturbance of the liver; but it
never affected the clearness of his large blue-grey eyes; and his hair,
which grew dark as he approached manhood, though it never became black,
is spoken of, by everyone who remembers him in childhood and youth,
as golden. It is no less worthy of note that the daughter of his early
friend Mr. Fox, who grew up in the little social circle to which he
belonged, never even heard of the dark cross now imputed to him; and a
lady who made his acquaintance during his twenty-fourth year, wrote a
sonnet upon him, beginning with these words:

Thy brow is calm, young Poet--pale and clear
As a moonlighted statue.

The suggestion of Italian characteristics in the Poet's face may serve,
however, to introduce a curious fact, which can have no bearing on the
main lines of his descent, but holds collateral possibilities concerning
it. His mother's name Wiedemann or Wiedeman appears in a merely
contracted form as that of one of the oldest families naturalized in
Venice. It became united by marriage with the Rezzonico; and, by a
strange coincidence, the last of these who occupied the palace now owned
by Mr. Barrett Browning was a Widman-Rezzonico. The present Contessa
Widman has lately restored her own palace, which was falling into ruin.

That portrait of the first Mrs. Browning, which gave so much umbrage
to her husband's second wife, has hung for many years in her grandson's
dining-room, and is well known to all his friends. It represents a
stately woman with an unmistakably fair skin; and if the face or hair
betrays any indication of possible dark blood, it is imperceptible to
the general observer, and must be of too slight and fugitive a nature
to enter into the discussion. A long curl touches one shoulder. One
hand rests upon a copy of Thomson's 'Seasons', which was held to be
the proper study and recreation of cultivated women in those days. The
picture was painted by Wright of Derby.

A brother of this lady was an adventurous traveller, and was said to
have penetrated farther into the interior of Africa than any other
European of his time. His violent death will be found recorded in a
singular experience of the poet's middle life.

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