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Chapter 14

1861-1863

Miss Blagden--Letters from Mr. Browning to Miss Haworth and Mr.
Leighton--His Feeling in regard to Funeral Ceremonies--Establishment
in London--Plan of Life--Letter to Madame du Quaire--Miss Arabel
Barrett--Biarritz--Letters to Miss Blagden--Conception of 'The Ring and
the Book'--Biographical Indiscretion--New Edition of his Works--Mr. and
Mrs. Procter.

The friend who was nearest, at all events most helpful, to Mr. Browning
in this great and sudden sorrow was Miss Blagden--Isa Blagden, as she
was called by all her intimates. Only a passing allusion to her could
hitherto find place in this fragmentary record of the Poet's life; but
the friendship which had long subsisted between her and Mrs. Browning
brings her now into closer and more frequent relation to it. She was
for many years a centre of English society in Florence; for her genial,
hospitable nature, as well as literary tastes (she wrote one or two
novels, I believe not without merit), secured her the acquaintance of
many interesting persons, some of whom occasionally made her house their
home; and the evenings spent with her at her villa on Bellosguardo live
pleasantly in the remembrance of those of our older generation who were
permitted to share in them.

She carried the boy away from the house of mourning, and induced his
father to spend his nights under her roof, while the last painful duties
detained him in Florence. He at least gave her cause to deny, what has
been so often affirmed, that great griefs are necessarily silent. She
always spoke of this period as her 'apocalyptic month', so deeply poetic
were the ravings which alternated with the simple human cry of the
desolate heart: 'I want her, I want her!' But the ear which received
these utterances has long been closed in death. The only written
outbursts of Mr. Browning's frantic sorrow were addressed, I believe, to
his sister, and to the friend, Madame du Quaire, whose own recent loss
most naturally invoked them, and who has since thought best, so far as
rested with her, to destroy the letters in which they were contained. It
is enough to know by simple statement that he then suffered as he did.
Life conquers Death for most of us; whether or not 'nature, art,
and beauty' assist in the conquest. It was bound to conquer in Mr.
Browning's case: first through his many-sided vitality; and secondly,
through the special motive for living and striving which remained to
him in his son. This note is struck in two letters which are given me to
publish, written about three weeks after Mrs. Browning's death; and we
see also that by this time his manhood was reacting against the blow,
and bracing itself with such consoling remembrance as the peace and
painlessness of his wife's last moments could afford to him.


Florence: July 19, '61.

Dear Leighton,--It is like your old kindness to write to me and to say
what you do--I know you feel for me. I can't write about it--but there
were many alleviating circumstances that you shall know one day--there
seemed no pain, and (what she would have felt most) the knowledge of
separation from us was spared her. I find these things a comfort indeed.

I shall go away from Italy for many a year--to Paris, then London for a
day or two just to talk with her sister--but if I can see you it will be
a great satisfaction. Don't fancy I am 'prostrated', I have enough to do
for the boy and myself in carrying out her wishes. He is better than one
would have thought, and behaves dearly to me. Everybody has been very
kind.

Tell dear Mrs. Sartoris that I know her heart and thank her with all
mine. After my day or two at London I shall go to some quiet place in
France to get right again and then stay some time at Paris in order to
find out leisurely what it will be best to do for Peni--but eventually I
shall go to England, I suppose. I don't mean to live with anybody, even
my own family, but to occupy myself thoroughly, seeing dear friends,
however, like you. God bless you. Yours ever affectionately, Robert
Browning.


The second is addressed to Miss Haworth.


Florence: July 20, 1861.

My dear Friend,--I well know you feel as you say, for her once and for
me now. Isa Blagden, perfect in all kindness to me, will have told you
something perhaps--and one day I shall see you and be able to tell you
myself as much as I can. The main comfort is that she suffered very
little pain, none beside that ordinarily attending the simple attacks
of cold and cough she was subject to--had no presentiment of the result
whatever, and was consequently spared the misery of knowing she was
about to leave us; she was smilingly assuring me she was 'better',
'quite comfortable--if I would but come to bed,' to within a few minutes
of the last. I think I foreboded evil at Rome, certainly from the
beginning of the week's illness--but when I reasoned about it, there
was no justifying fear--she said on the last evening 'it is merely the
old attack, not so severe a one as that of two years ago--there is no
doubt I shall soon recover,' and we talked over plans for the summer,
and next year. I sent the servants away and her maid to bed--so little
reason for disquietude did there seem. Through the night she slept
heavily, and brokenly--that was the bad sign--but then she would sit
up, take her medicine, say unrepeatable things to me and sleep again. At
four o'clock there were symptoms that alarmed me, I called the maid and
sent for the doctor. She smiled as I proposed to bathe her feet, 'Well,
you _are_ determined to make an exaggerated case of it!' Then came what
my heart will keep till I see her again and longer--the most perfect
expression of her love to me within my whole knowledge of her. Always
smilingly, happily, and with a face like a girl's--and in a few minutes
she died in my arms; her head on my cheek. These incidents so sustain
me that I tell them to her beloved ones as their right: there was no
lingering, nor acute pain, nor consciousness of separation, but God took
her to himself as you would lift a sleeping child from a dark, uneasy
bed into your arms and the light. Thank God. Annunziata thought by her
earnest ways with me, happy and smiling as they were, that she must have
been aware of our parting's approach--but she was quite conscious, had
words at command, and yet did not even speak of Peni, who was in
the next room. Her last word was when I asked 'How do you feel?'
--'Beautiful.' You know I have her dearest wishes and interests to
attend to _at once_--her child to care for, educate, establish properly;
and my own life to fulfil as properly,--all just as she would require
were she here. I shall leave Italy altogether for years--go to London
for a few days' talk with Arabel--then go to my father and begin to try
leisurely what will be the best for Peni--but no more 'housekeeping'
for me, even with my family. I shall grow, still, I hope--but my root is
taken and remains.

I know you always loved her, and me too in my degree. I shall always be
grateful to those who loved her, and that, I repeat, you did.

She was, and is, lamented with extraordinary demonstrations, if one
consider it. The Italians seem to have understood her by an instinct.
I have received strange kindness from everybody. Pen is very well--very
dear and good, anxious to comfort me as he calls it. He can't know his
loss yet. After years, his will be worse than mine--he will want what he
never had--that is, for the time when he could be helped by her wisdom,
and genius and piety--I _have_ had everything and shall not forget.

God bless you, dear friend. I believe I shall set out in a week. Isa
goes with me--dear, true heart. You, too, would do what you could for us
were you here and your assistance needful. A letter from you came a day
or two before the end--she made me enquire about the Frescobaldi Palace
for you,--Isa wrote to you in consequence. I shall be heard of at 151,
rue de Grenelle St. Germain. Faithfully and affectionately yours, Robert
Browning.


The first of these displays even more self-control, it might be thought
less feeling, than the second; but it illustrates the reserve which, I
believe, habitually characterized Mr. Browning's attitude towards men.
His natural, and certainly most complete, confidants were women. At
about the end of July he left Florence with his son; also accompanied by
Miss Blagden, who travelled with them as far as Paris. She herself must
soon have returned to Italy; since he wrote to her in September on the
subject of his wife's provisional disinterment,* in a manner which shows
her to have been on the spot.

* Required for the subsequent placing of the monument
designed by F. Leighton.


Sept. '61.

'. . . Isa, may I ask you one favour? Will you, whenever these dreadful
preliminaries, the provisional removement &c. when they are proceeded
with,--will you do--all you can--suggest every regard to decency and
proper feeling to the persons concerned? I have a horror of that man
of the grave-yard, and needless publicity and exposure--I rely on you,
dearest friend of ours, to at least lend us your influence when the
time shall come--a word may be invaluable. If there is any show made,
or gratification of strangers' curiosity, far better that I had left
the turf untouched. These things occur through sheer thoughtlessness,
carelessness, not anything worse, but the effect is irreparable. I won't
think any more of it--now--at least. . . .'


The dread expressed in this letter of any offence to the delicacies of
the occasion was too natural to be remarked upon here; but it connects
itself with an habitual aversion for the paraphernalia of death, which
was a marked peculiarity of Mr. Browning's nature. He shrank, as his
wife had done, from the 'earth side' of the portentous change; but truth
compels me to own that her infinite pity had little or no part in his
attitude towards it. For him, a body from which the soul had passed,
held nothing of the person whose earthly vesture it had been. He had no
sympathy for the still human tenderness with which so many of us regard
the mortal remains of those they have loved, or with the solemn or
friendly interest in which that tenderness so often reflects itself in
more neutral minds. He would claim all respect for the corpse, but he
would turn away from it. Another aspect of this feeling shows itself in
a letter to one of his brothers-in-law, Mr. George Moulton-Barrett, in
reference to his wife's monument, with which Mr. Barrett had professed
himself pleased. His tone is characterized by an almost religious
reverence for the memory which that monument enshrines. He nevertheless
writes:


'I hope to see it one day--and, although I have no kind of concern as to
where the old clothes of myself shall be thrown, yet, if my fortune be
such, and my survivors be not unduly troubled, I should like them to lie
in the place I have retained there. It is no matter, however.'


The letter is dated October 19, 1866. He never saw Florence again.

Mr. Browning spent two months with his father and sister at St.-Enogat,
near Dinard, from which place the letter to Miss Blagden was written;
and then proceeded to London, where his wife's sister, Miss Arabel
Barrett, was living. He had declared in his first grief that he would
never keep house again, and he began his solitary life in lodgings
which at his request she had engaged for him; but the discomfort of this
arrangement soon wearied him of it; and before many months had passed,
he had sent to Florence for his furniture, and settled himself in the
house in Warwick Crescent, which possessed, besides other advantages,
that of being close to Delamere Terrace, where Miss Barrett had taken up
her abode.

This first period of Mr. Browning's widowed life was one of unutterable
dreariness, in which the smallest and yet most unconquerable element was
the prosaic ugliness of everything which surrounded him. It was fifteen
years since he had spent a winter in England; he had never spent one in
London. There had been nothing to break for him the transition from the
stately beauty of Florence to the impressions and associations of the
Harrow and Edgware Roads, and of Paddington Green. He might have
escaped this neighbourhood by way of Westbourne Terrace; but his
walks constantly led him in an easterly direction; and whether in an
unconscious hugging of his chains, or, as was more probable, from the
desire to save time, he would drag his aching heart and reluctant body
through the sordidness or the squalor of this short cut, rather than
seek the pleasanter thoroughfares which were open to him. Even the
prettiness of Warwick Crescent was neutralized for him by the atmosphere
of low or ugly life which encompassed it on almost every side. His
haunting dream was one day to have done with it all; to have fulfilled
his mission with his son, educated him, launched him in a suitable
career, and to go back to sunshine and beauty again. He learned by
degrees to regard London as a home; as the only fitting centre for the
varied energies which were reviving in him; to feel pride and pleasure
in its increasingly picturesque character. He even learned to appreciate
the outlook from his house--that 'second from the bridge' of which so
curious a presentment had entered into one of the poems of the 'Men and
Women'*--in spite of the refuse of humanity which would sometimes yell
at the street corner, or fling stones at his plate-glass. But all this
had to come; and it is only fair to admit that twenty-nine years ago the
beauties of which I have spoken were in great measure to come also. He
could not then in any mood have exclaimed, as he did to a friend two or
three years ago: 'Shall we not have a pretty London if things go on in
this way?' They were driving on the Kensington side of Hyde Park.

* 'How it strikes a Contemporary'.

The paternal duty, which, so much against his inclination, had
established Mr. Browning in England, would in every case have lain very
near to his conscience and to his heart; but it especially urged itself
upon them through the absence of any injunction concerning it on his
wife's part. No farewell words of hers had commended their child to his
father's love and care; and though he may, for the moment, have imputed
this fact to unconsciousness of her approaching death, his deeper
insight soon construed the silence into an expression of trust, more
binding upon him than the most earnest exacted promise could have been.
The growing boy's education occupied a considerable part of his time and
thoughts, for he had determined not to send him to school, but, as far
as possible, himself prepare him for the University. He must also, in
some degree, have supervised his recreations. He had therefore, for the
present, little leisure for social distractions, and probably at first
very little inclination for them. His plan of life and duty, and the
sense of responsibility attendant on it, had been communicated to Madame
du Quaire in a letter written also from St.-Enogat.


M. Chauvin, St.-Enogat pres Dinard, Ile et Vilaine: Aug. 17, '61.

Dear Madame du Quaire,--I got your note on Sunday afternoon, but found
myself unable to call on you as I had been intending to do. Next morning
I left for this place (near St.-Malo, but I give what they say is the
proper address). I want first to beg you to forgive my withholding so
long your little oval mirror--it is safe in Paris, and I am vexed at
having stupidly forgotten to bring it when I tried to see you. I shall
stay here till the autumn sets in, then return to Paris for a few
days--the first of which will be the best, if I can see you in the
course of it--afterward, I settle in London.

When I meant to pass the winter in Paris, I hoped, the first thing
almost, to be near you--it now seems to me, however, that the best
course for the Boy is to begin a good English education at once. I shall
take quiet lodgings (somewhere near Kensington Gardens, I rather
think) and get a Tutor. I want, if I can (according to my present
very imperfect knowledge) to get the poor little fellow fit for the
University without passing thro' a Public School. I, myself, could never
have done much by either process, but he is made differently--imitates
and emulates and all that. How I should be grateful if you would help me
by any word that should occur to you! I may easily do wrong, begin ill,
thro' too much anxiety--perhaps, however, all may be easier than seems
to me just now.

I shall have a great comfort in talking to you--this writing is stiff,
ineffectual work. Pen is very well, cheerful now,--has his little horse
here. The place is singularly unspoiled, fresh and picturesque, and
lovely to heart's content. I wish you were here!--and if you knew
exactly what such a wish means, you would need no assuring in addition
that I am Yours affectionately and gratefully ever Robert Browning.


The person of whom he saw most was his sister-in-law, whom he visited, I
believe, every evening. Miss Barrett had been a favourite sister of Mrs.
Browning's, and this constituted a sufficient title to her husband's
affection. But she was also a woman to be loved for her own sake. Deeply
religious and very charitable, she devoted herself to visiting the
poor--a form of philanthropy which was then neither so widespread nor so
fashionable as it has since become; and she founded, in 1850, the first
Training School or Refuge which had ever existed for destitute little
girls. It need hardly be added that Mr. and Miss Browning co-operated in
the work. The little poem, 'The Twins', republished in 1855 in 'Men and
Women', was first printed (with Mrs. Browning's 'Plea for the Ragged
Schools of London') for the benefit of this Refuge. It was in Miss
Barrett's company that Mr. Browning used to attend the church of Mr.
Thomas Jones, to a volume of whose 'Sermons and Addresses' he wrote a
short introduction in 1884.

On February 15, 1862, he writes again to Miss Blagden.


Feb. 15, '62.

'. . . While I write, my heart is sore for a great calamity just
befallen poor Rossetti, which I only heard of last night--his wife, who
had been, as an invalid, in the habit of taking laudanum, swallowed
an overdose--was found by the poor fellow on his return from the
working-men's class in the evening, under the effects of it--help was
called in, the stomach-pump used; but she died in the night, about a
week ago. There has hardly been a day when I have not thought, "if I
can, to-morrow, I will go and see him, and thank him for his book, and
return his sister's poems." Poor, dear fellow! . . .

'. . . Have I not written a long letter, for me who hate the sight of
a pen now, and see a pile of unanswered things on the table before me?
--on this very table. Do you tell me in turn all about yourself. I shall
be interested in the minutest thing you put down. What sort of weather
is it? You cannot but be better at your new villa than in the large
solitary one. There I am again, going up the winding way to it, and
seeing the herbs in red flower, and the butterflies on the top of the
wall under the olive-trees! Once more, good-bye. . . .'


The hatred of writing of which he here speaks refers probably to the
class of letters which he had lately been called upon to answer, and
which must have been painful in proportion to the kindness by which
they were inspired. But it returned to him many years later, in simple
weariness of the mental and mechanical act, and with such force that he
would often answer an unimportant note in person, rather than make the
seemingly much smaller exertion of doing so with his pen. It was the
more remarkable that, with the rarest exceptions, he replied to every
letter which came to him.

The late summer of the former year had been entirely unrefreshing, in
spite of his acknowledgment of the charms of St.-Enogat. There was more
distraction and more soothing in the stay at Cambo and Biarritz, which
was chosen for the holiday of 1862. Years afterwards, when the thought
of Italy carried with it less longing and even more pain, Mr. Browning
would speak of a visit to the Pyrenees, if not a residence among them,
as one of the restful possibilities of his later and freer life. He
wrote to Miss Blagden:


Biarritz, Maison Gastonbide: Sept. 19, '62.

'. . . I stayed a month at green pleasant little Cambo, and then came
here from pure inability to go elsewhere--St.-Jean de Luz, on which
I had reckoned, being still fuller of Spaniards who profit by the new
railway. This place is crammed with gay people of whom I see nothing
but their outsides. The sea, sands, and view of the Spanish coast and
mountains, are superb and this house is on the town's outskirts. I stay
till the end of the month, then go to Paris, and then get my neck back
into the old collar again. Pen has managed to get more enjoyment out of
his holiday than seemed at first likely--there was a nice French family
at Cambo with whom he fraternised, riding with the son and escorting
the daughter in her walks. His red cheeks look as they should. For me, I
have got on by having a great read at Euripides--the one book I brought
with me, besides attending to my own matters, my new poem that is about
to be; and of which the whole is pretty well in my head,--the Roman
murder story you know.

'. . . How I yearn, yearn for Italy at the close of my life! . . .'


The 'Roman murder story' was, I need hardly say, to become 'The Ring and
the Book'.

It has often been told, though with curious confusion as regards the
date, how Mr. Browning picked up the original parchment-bound record of
the Franceschini case, on a stall of the Piazza San Lorenzo. We read
in the first section of his own work that he plunged instantly into the
study of this record; that he had mastered it by the end of the day; and
that he then stepped out on to the terrace of his house amid the sultry
blackness and silent lightnings of the June night, as the adjacent
church of San Felice sent forth its chants, and voices buzzed in the
street below,--and saw the tragedy as a living picture unfold itself
before him. These were his last days at Casa Guidi. It was four years
before he definitely began the work. The idea of converting the story
into a poem cannot even have occurred to him for some little time, since
he offered it for prose treatment to Miss Ogle, the author of 'A Lost
Love'; and for poetic use, I am almost certain, to one of his leading
contemporaries. It was this slow process of incubation which gave
so much force and distinctness to his ultimate presentment of the
characters; though it infused a large measure of personal imagination,
and, as we shall see, of personal reminiscence, into their historical
truth.

Before 'The Ring and the Book' was actually begun, 'Dramatis Personae'
and 'In a Balcony' were to be completed. Their production had been
delayed during Mrs. Browning's lifetime, and necessarily interrupted by
her death; but we hear of the work as progressing steadily during this
summer of 1862.

A painful subject of correspondence had been also for some time engaging
Mr. Browning's thoughts and pen. A letter to Miss Blagden written
January 19, '63, is so expressive of his continued attitude towards the
questions involved that, in spite of its strong language, his family
advise its publication. The name of the person referred to will alone be
omitted.


'. . . Ever since I set foot in England I have been pestered with
applications for leave to write the Life of my wife--I have refused--and
there an end. I have last week received two communications from friends,
enclosing the letters of a certain . . . of . . ., asking them for
details of life and letters, for a biography he is engaged in--adding,
that he "has secured the correspondence with her old friend . . ." Think
of this beast working away at this, not deeming my feelings or those of
her family worthy of notice--and meaning to print letters written years
and years ago, on the most intimate and personal subjects to an "old
friend"--which, at the poor . . . [friend's] death fell into the hands
of a complete stranger, who, at once wanted to print them, but desisted
through Ba's earnest expostulation enforced by my own threat to take
law proceedings--as fortunately letters are copyright. I find this woman
died last year, and her son writes to me this morning that . . . got
them from him as autographs merely--he will try and get them back. . . ,
evidently a blackguard, got my letter, which gave him his deserts, on
Saturday--no answer yet,--if none comes, I shall be forced to advertise
in the 'Times', and obtain an injunction. But what I suffer in feeling
the hands of these blackguards (for I forgot to say another man has been
making similar applications to friends) what I undergo with their paws
in my very bowels, you can guess, and God knows! No friend, of course,
would ever give up the letters--if anybody ever is forced to do that
which _she_ would have writhed under--if it ever _were_ necessary, why, _I_
should be forced to do it, and, with any good to her memory and fame,
my own pain in the attempt would be turned into joy--I should _do_ it at
whatever cost: but it is not only unnecessary but absurdly useless--and,
indeed, it shall not be done if I can stop the scamp's knavery along
with his breath.

'I am going to reprint the Greek Christian Poets and another
essay--nothing that ought to be published shall be kept back,--and this
she certainly intended to correct, augment, and re-produce--but _I_ open
the doubled-up paper! Warn anyone you may think needs the warning of the
utter distress in which I should be placed were this scoundrel, or
any other of the sort, to baffle me and bring out the letters--I can't
prevent fools from uttering their folly upon her life, as they do on
every other subject, but the law protects property,--as these letters
are. Only last week, or so, the Bishop of Exeter stopped the publication
of an announced "Life"--containing extracts from his correspondence--and
so I shall do. . . .'


Mr. Browning only resented the exactions of modern biography in the
same degree as most other right-minded persons; but there was, to
his thinking, something specially ungenerous in dragging to light any
immature or unconsidered utterance which the writer's later judgment
would have disclaimed. Early work was always for him included in this
category; and here it was possible to disagree with him; since the
promise of genius has a legitimate interest from which no distance
from its subsequent fulfilment can detract. But there could be no
disagreement as to the rights and decencies involved in the present
case; and, as we hear no more of the letters to Mr. . . ., we may
perhaps assume that their intending publisher was acting in ignorance,
but did not wish to act in defiance, of Mr. Browning's feeling in the
matter.

In the course of this year, 1863, Mr. Browning brought out, through
Chapman and Hall, the still well-known and well-loved three-volume
edition of his works, including 'Sordello', but again excluding
'Pauline'. A selection of his poems which appeared somewhat earlier, if
we may judge by the preface, dated November 1862, deserves mention as a
tribute to friendship. The volume had been prepared by John Forster and
Bryan Waller Procter (Barry Cornwall), 'two friends,' as the preface
states, 'who from the first appearance of 'Paracelsus' have regarded its
writer as among the few great poets of the century.' Mr. Browning had
long before signalized his feeling for Barry Cornwall by the dedication
of 'Colombe's Birthday'. He discharged the present debt to Mr. Procter,
if such there was, by the attentions which he rendered to his infirm old
age. For many years he visited him every Sunday, in spite of a deafness
ultimately so complete that it was only possible to converse with him in
writing. These visits were afterwards, at her urgent request, continued
to Mr. Procter's widow.


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