Removal to Hatcham; some Particulars--Renewed Intercourse with the
second Family of Robert Browning's Grandfather--Reuben Browning--William
Shergold Browning--Visitors at Hatcham--Thomas Carlyle--Social Life--New
Friends and Acquaintance--Introduction to Macready--New Year's Eve
at Elm Place--Introduction to John Forster--Miss Fanny Haworth--Miss
Martineau--Serjeant Talfourd--The 'Ion' Supper--'Strafford'--Relations
with Macready--Performance of 'Strafford'--Letters concerning it
from Mr. Browning and Miss Flower--Personal Glimpses of Robert
Browning--Rival Forms of Dramatic Inspiration--Relation of 'Strafford'
to 'Sordello'--Mr. Robertson and the 'Westminster Review'.
It was soon after this time, though the exact date cannot be recalled,
that the Browning family moved from Camberwell to Hatcham. Some such
change had long been in contemplation, for their house was now too
small; and the finding one more suitable, in the latter place, had
decided the question. The new home possessed great attractions. The
long, low rooms of its upper storey supplied abundant accommodation for
the elder Mr. Browning's six thousand books. Mrs. Browning was suffering
greatly from her chronic ailment, neuralgia; and the large garden,
opening on to the Surrey hills, promised her all the benefits of country
air. There were a coach-house and stable, which, by a curious,
probably old-fashioned, arrangement, formed part of the house, and were
accessible from it. Here the 'good horse', York, was eventually put up;
and near this, in the garden, the poet soon had another though humbler
friend in the person of a toad, which became so much attached to him
that it would follow him as he walked. He visited it daily, where it
burrowed under a white rose tree, announcing himself by a pinch of
gravel dropped into its hole; and the creature would crawl forth, allow
its head to be gently tickled, and reward the act with that loving
glance of the soft full eyes which Mr. Browning has recalled in one of
the poems of 'Asolando'.
This change of residence brought the grandfather's second family, for
the first time, into close as well as friendly contact with the first.
Mr. Browning had always remained on outwardly friendly terms with
his stepmother; and both he and his children were rewarded for this
forbearance by the cordial relations which grew up between themselves
and two of her sons. But in the earlier days they lived too far apart
for frequent meeting. The old Mrs. Browning was now a widow, and,
in order to be near her relations, she also came to Hatcham, and
established herself there in close neighbourhood to them. She had then
with her only a son and a daughter, those known to the poet's friends
as Uncle Reuben and Aunt Jemima; respectively nine years, and one year,
older than he. 'Aunt Jemima' married not long afterwards, and is chiefly
remembered as having been very amiable, and, in early youth, to use
her nephew's words, 'as beautiful as the day;' but kindly, merry
'Uncle Reuben', then clerk in the Rothschilds' London bank,* became a
conspicuous member of the family circle. This does not mean that the
poet was ever indebted to him for pecuniary help; and it is desirable
that this should be understood, since it has been confidently asserted
that he was so. So long as he was dependent at all, he depended
exclusively on his father. Even the use of his uncle's horse, which
might have been accepted as a friendly concession on Mr. Reuben's part,
did not really represent one. The animal stood, as I have said, in Mr.
Browning's stable, and it was groomed by his gardener. The promise of
these conveniences had induced Reuben Browning to buy a horse instead of
continuing to hire one. He could only ride it on a few days of the week,
and it was rather a gain than a loss to him that so good a horseman as
his nephew should exercise it during the interval.
* This uncle's name, and his business relations with the
great Jewish firm, have contributed to the mistaken theory
of the poet's descent.
Uncle Reuben was not a great appreciator of poetry--at all events of
his nephew's; and an irreverent remark on 'Sordello', imputed to a more
eminent contemporary, proceeded, under cover of a friend's name, from
him. But he had his share of mental endowments. We are told that he was
a good linguist, and that he wrote on finance under an assumed name. He
was also, apparently, an accomplished classic. Lord Beaconsfield is said
to have declared that the inscription on a silver inkstand, presented to
the daughter of Lionel Rothschild on her marriage, by the clerks at New
Court, 'was the most appropriate thing he had ever come across;' and
that whoever had selected it must be one of the first Latin scholars of
the day. It was Mr. Reuben Browning.
Another favourite uncle was William Shergold Browning, though less
intimate with his nephew and niece than he would have become if he had
not married while they were still children, and settled in Paris, where
his father's interest had placed him in the Rothschild house. He is
known by his 'History of the Huguenots', a work, we are told, 'full of
research, with a reference to contemporary literature for almost every
occurrence mentioned or referred to.' He also wrote the 'Provost of
Paris', and 'Hoel Morven', historical novels, and 'Leisure Hours', a
collection of miscellanies; and was a contributor for some years to
the 'Gentleman's Magazine'. It was chiefly from this uncle that Miss
Browning and her brother heard the now often-repeated stories of their
probable ancestors, Micaiah Browning, who distinguished himself at the
siege of Derry, and that commander of the ship 'Holy Ghost' who conveyed
Henry V. to France before the battle of Agincourt, and received the
coat-of-arms, with its emblematic waves, in reward for his service.
Robert Browning was also indebted to him for the acquaintance of M. de
Ripert-Monclar; for he was on friendly terms with the uncle of the young
count, the Marquis de Fortia, a learned man and member of the Institut,
and gave a letter of introduction--actually, I believe, to his brother
Reuben--at the Marquis's request.*
* A grandson of William Shergold, Robert Jardine Browning,
graduated at Lincoln College, was called to the Bar, and is
now Crown Prosecutor in New South Wales; where his name
first gave rise to a report that he was Mr. Browning's son,
while the announcement of his marriage was, for a moment,
connected with Mr. Browning himself. He was also intimate
with the poet and his sister, who liked him very much.
The friendly relations with Carlyle, which resulted in his high estimate
of the poet's mother, also began at Hatcham. On one occasion he took
his brother, the doctor, with him to dine there. An earlier and much
attached friend of the family was Captain Pritchard, cousin to the noted
physician Dr. Blundell. He enabled the young Robert, whom he knew from
the age of sixteen, to attend some of Dr. Blundell's lectures; and this
aroused in him a considerable interest in the sciences connected with
medicine, though, as I shall have occasion to show, no knowledge of
either disease or its treatment ever seems to have penetrated into his
life. A Captain Lloyd is indirectly associated with 'The Flight of the
Duchess'. That poem was not completed according to its original plan;
and it was the always welcome occurrence of a visit from this gentleman
which arrested its completion. Mr. Browning vividly remembered how the
click of the garden gate, and the sight of the familiar figure advancing
towards the house, had broken in upon his work and dispelled its first
The appearance of 'Paracelsus' did not give the young poet his just
place in popular judgment and public esteem. A generation was to pass
before this was conceded to him. But it compelled his recognition by the
leading or rising literary men of the day; and a fuller and more varied
social life now opened before him. The names of Serjeant Talfourd,
Horne, Leigh Hunt, Barry Cornwall (Procter), Monckton Milnes (Lord
Houghton), Eliot Warburton, Dickens, Wordsworth, and Walter Savage
Landor, represent, with that of Forster, some of the acquaintances made,
or the friendships begun, at this period. Prominent among the friends
that were to be, was also Archer Gurney, well known in later life as the
Rev. Archer Gurney, and chaplain to the British embassy in Paris.
His sympathies were at present largely absorbed by politics. He was
contesting the representation of some county, on the Conservative side;
but he took a very vivid interest in Mr. Browning's poems; and this
perhaps fixes the beginning of the intimacy at a somewhat later date;
since a pretty story by which it was illustrated connects itself with
the publication of 'Bells and Pomegranates'. He himself wrote dramas and
poems. Sir John, afterwards Lord, Hanmer was also much attracted by the
young poet, who spent a pleasant week with him at Bettisfield Park. He
was the author of a volume entitled 'Fra Cipollo and other Poems', from
which the motto of 'Colombe's Birthday' was subsequently taken.
The friends, old and new, met in the informal manner of those days, at
afternoon dinners, or later suppers, at the houses of Mr. Fox, Serjeant
Talfourd, and, as we shall see, Mr. Macready; and Mr. Fox's daughter,
then only a little girl, but intelligent and observant for her years,
well remembers the pleasant gatherings at which she was allowed to
assist, when first performances of plays, or first readings of plays and
poems, had brought some of the younger and more ardent spirits together.
Miss Flower, also, takes her place in the literary group. Her sister had
married in 1834, and left her free to live for her own pursuits and her
own friends; and Mr. Browning must have seen more of her then than was
possible in his boyish days.
None, however, of these intimacies were, at the time, so important to
him as that formed with the great actor Macready. They were introduced
to each other by Mr. Fox early in the winter of 1835-6; the meeting is
thus chronicled in Macready's diary, November 27.*
* 'Macready's Reminiscences', edited by Sir Frederick Pollock;
'Went from chambers to dine with Rev. William Fox, Bayswater. . . . Mr.
Robert Browning, the author of 'Paracelsus', came in after dinner; I was
very much pleased to meet him. His face is full of intelligence. . . .
I took Mr. Browning on, and requested to be allowed to improve my
acquaintance with him. He expressed himself warmly, as gratified by the
proposal, wished to send me his book; we exchanged cards and parted.'
On December 7 he writes:
'Read 'Paracelsus', a work of great daring, starred with poetry of
thought, feeling, and diction, but occasionally obscure; the writer can
scarcely fail to be a leading spirit of his time. . . .'
He invited Mr. Browning to his country house, Elm Place, Elstree, for
the last evening of the year; and again refers to him under date of
'. . . Our other guests were Miss Henney, Forster, Cattermole, Browning,
and Mr. Munro. Mr. Browning was very popular with the whole party; his
simple and enthusiastic manner engaged attention, and won opinions from
all present; he looks and speaks more like a youthful poet than any man
I ever saw.'
This New-Year's-Eve visit brought Browning and Forster together for the
first time. The journey to Elstree was then performed by coach, and the
two young men met at the 'Blue Posts', where, with one or more of Mr.
Macready's other guests, they waited for the coach to start. They eyed
each other with interest, both being striking in their way, and
neither knowing who the other was. When the introduction took place at
Macready's house, Mr. Forster supplemented it by saying: 'Did you see a
little notice of you I wrote in the 'Examiner'?' The two names will
now be constantly associated in Macready's diary, which, except for
Mr. Browning's own casual utterances, is almost our only record of his
literary and social life during the next two years.
It was at Elm Place that Mr. Browning first met Miss Euphrasia Fanny
Haworth, then a neighbour of Mr. Macready, residing with her mother at
Barham Lodge. Miss Haworth was still a young woman, but her love and
talent for art and literature made her a fitting member of the genial
circle to which Mr. Browning belonged; and she and the poet soon became
fast friends. Her first name appears as 'Eyebright' in 'Sordello'. His
letters to her, returned after her death by her brother, Mr. Frederick
Haworth, supply valuable records of his experiences and of his feelings
at one very interesting, and one deeply sorrowful, period of his
history. She was a thoroughly kindly, as well as gifted woman, and much
appreciated by those of the poet's friends who knew her as a resident in
London during her last years. A portrait which she took of him in 1874
is considered by some persons very good.
At about this time also, and probably through Miss Haworth, he became
acquainted with Miss Martineau.
Soon after his introduction to Macready, if not before, Mr. Browning
became busy with the thought of writing for the stage. The diary has
this entry for February 16, 1836:
'Forster and Browning called, and talked over the plot of a tragedy,
which Browning had begun to think of: the subject, Narses. He said that
I had _bit_ him by my performance of Othello, and I told him I hoped I
should make the blood come. It would indeed be some recompense for the
miseries, the humiliations, the heart-sickening disgusts which I have
endured in my profession, if, by its exercise, I had awakened a spirit
of poetry whose influence would elevate, ennoble, and adorn our degraded
drama. May it be!'
But Narses was abandoned, and the more serious inspiration and more
definite motive were to come later. They connect themselves with one
of the pleasant social occurrences which must have lived in the young
poet's memory. On May 26 'Ion' had been performed for the first time and
with great success, Mr. Macready sustaining the principal part; and the
great actor and a number of their common friends had met at supper at
Serjeant Talfourd's house to celebrate the occasion. The party included
Wordsworth and Landor, both of whom Mr. Browning then met for the first
time. Toasts flew right and left. Mr. Browning's health was proposed
by Serjeant Talfourd as that of the youngest poet of England, and
Wordsworth responded to the appeal with very kindly courtesy. The
conversation afterwards turned upon plays, and Macready, who had ignored
a half-joking question of Miss Mitford, whether, if she wrote one, he
would act in it, overtook Browning as they were leaving the house, and
said, 'Write a play, Browning, and keep me from going to America.' The
reply was, 'Shall it be historical and English; what do you say to a
drama on Strafford?'
This ready response on the poet's part showed that Strafford, as a
dramatic subject, had been occupying his thoughts. The subject was in
the air, because Forster was then bringing out a life of that statesman,
with others belonging to the same period. It was more than in the air,
so far as Browning was concerned, because his friend had been disabled,
either through sickness or sorrow, from finishing this volume by the
appointed time, and he, as well he might, had largely helped him in its
completion. It was, however, not till August 3 that Macready wrote in
'Forster told me that Browning had fixed on Strafford for the subject of
a tragedy; he could not have hit upon one that I could have more readily
A previous entry of May 30, the occasion of which is only implied, shows
with how high an estimate of Mr. Browning's intellectual importance
Macready's professional relations to him began.
'Arriving at chambers, I found a note from Browning. What can I say upon
it? It was a tribute which remunerated me for the annoyances and cares
of years: it was one of the very highest, may I not say the highest,
honour I have through life received.'
The estimate maintained itself in reference to the value of Mr.
Browning's work, since he wrote on March 13, 1837:
'Read before dinner a few pages of 'Paracelsus', which raises my wonder
the more I read it. . . . Looked over two plays, which it was not
possible to read, hardly as I tried. . . . Read some scenes in
'Strafford', which restore one to the world of sense and feeling once
But as the day of the performance drew near, he became at once more
anxious and more critical. An entry of April 28 comments somewhat
sharply on the dramatic faults of 'Strafford', besides declaring the
writer's belief that the only chance for it is in the acting, which, 'by
possibility, might carry it to the end without disapprobation,' though
he dares not hope without opposition. It is quite conceivable that his
first complete study of the play, and first rehearsal of it, brought to
light deficiencies which had previously escaped him; but so complete
a change of sentiment points also to private causes of uneasiness and
irritation; and, perhaps, to the knowledge that its being saved by
collective good acting was out of the question.
'Strafford' was performed at Covent Garden Theatre on May 1. Mr.
Browning wrote to Mr. Fox after one of the last rehearsals:
May Day, Lincoln's Inn Fields.
Dear Sir,--All my endeavours to procure a copy before this morning have
been fruitless. I send the first book of the first bundle. _Pray_ look
over it--the alterations to-night will be considerable. The complexion
of the piece is, I grieve to say, 'perfect gallows' just now--our _King_,
Mr. Dale, being . . . but you'll see him, and, I fear, not much applaud.
Your unworthy son, in things literary, Robert Browning.
P.S. (in pencil).--A most unnecessary desire, but urged on me by Messrs.
Longman: no notice on Str. in to-night's True Sun,* lest the other
papers be jealous!!!
* Mr. Fox reviewed 'Strafford' in the 'True Sun'.
A second letter, undated, but evidently written a day or two later,
refers to the promised notice, which had then appeared.
No words can express my feelings: I happen to be much annoyed and
unwell--but your most generous notice has almost made 'my soul well and
I thank you, my most kind, most constant friend, from my heart for your
goodness--which is brave enough, just now. I am ever and increasingly
yours, Robert Browning.
You will be glad to see me on the earliest occasion, will you not? I
shall certainly come.
A letter from Miss Flower to Miss Sarah Fox (sister to the Rev. William
Fox), at Norwich, contains the following passage, which evidently
continues a chapter of London news:
'Then 'Strafford'; were you not pleased to hear of the success of one
you must, I think, remember a very little boy, years ago. If not, you
have often heard us speak of Robert Browning: and it is a great deal to
have accomplished a successful tragedy, although he seems a good deal
annoyed at the go of things behind the scenes, and declares he will
never write a play again, as long as he lives. You have no idea of
the ignorance and obstinacy of the whole set, with here and there an
exception; think of his having to write out the meaning of the word
'impeachment', as some of them thought it meant 'poaching'.'
On the first night, indeed, the fate of 'Strafford' hung in the balance;
it was saved by Macready and Miss Helen Faucit. After this they must
have been better supported, as it was received on the second night
with enthusiasm by a full house. The catastrophe came after the fifth
performance, with the desertion of the actor who had sustained the
part of Pym. We cannot now judge whether, even under favourable
circumstances, the play would have had as long a run as was intended;
but the casting vote in favour of this view is given by the conduct of
Mr. Osbaldistone, the manager, when it was submitted to him. The diary
says, March 30, that he caught at it with avidity, and agreed to produce
it without delay. The terms he offered to the author must also have been
considered favourable in those days.
The play was published in April by Longman, this time not at the
author's expense; but it brought no return either to him or to his
publisher. It was dedicated 'in all affectionate admiration' to William
We gain some personal glimpses of the Browning of 1835-6; one especially
through Mrs. Bridell-Fox, who thus describes her first meeting with him:
'I remember . . . when Mr. Browning entered the drawing-room, with a
quick light step; and on hearing from me that my father was out, and
in fact that nobody was at home but myself, he said: "It's my birthday
to-day; I'll wait till they come in," and sitting down to the piano,
he added: "If it won't disturb you, I'll play till they do." And as he
turned to the instrument, the bells of some neighbouring church suddenly
burst out with a frantic merry peal. It seemed, to my childish fancy, as
if in response to the remark that it was his birthday. He was then slim
and dark, and very handsome; and--may I hint it--just a trifle of a
dandy, addicted to lemon-coloured kid-gloves and such things: quite "the
glass of fashion and the mould of form." But full of ambition, eager for
success, eager for fame, and, what's more, determined to conquer fame
and to achieve success.'
I do not think his memory ever taxed him with foppishness, though he may
have had the innocent personal vanity of an attractive young man at his
first period of much seeing and being seen; but all we know of him
at that time bears out the impression Mrs. Fox conveys, of a joyous,
artless confidence in himself and in life, easily depressed, but quickly
reasserting itself; and in which the eagerness for new experiences
had freed itself from the rebellious impatience of boyish days. The
self-confidence had its touches of flippancy and conceit; but on this
side it must have been constantly counteracted by his gratitude for
kindness, and by his enthusiastic appreciation of the merits of other
men. His powers of feeling, indeed, greatly expended themselves in this
way. He was very attractive to women and, as we have seen, warmly loved
by very various types of men; but, except in its poetic sense, his
emotional nature was by no means then in the ascendant: a fact difficult
to realize when we remember the passion of his childhood's love for
mother and home, and the new and deep capabilities of affection to be
developed in future days. The poet's soul in him was feeling its wings;
the realities of life had not yet begun to weight them.
We see him again at the 'Ion' supper, in the grace and modesty with
which he received the honours then adjudged to him. The testimony has
been said to come from Miss Mitford, but may easily have been supplied
by Miss Haworth, who was also present on this occasion.
Mr. Browning's impulse towards play-writing had not, as we have seen,
begun with 'Strafford'. It was still very far from being exhausted. And
though he had struck out for himself another line of dramatic activity,
his love for the higher theatrical life, and the legitimate inducements
of the more lucrative and not necessarily less noble form of
composition, might ultimately in some degree have prevailed with him if
circumstances had been such as to educate his theatrical capabilities,
and to reward them. His first acted drama was, however, an interlude to
the production of the important group of poems which was to be completed
by 'Sordello'; and he alludes to this later work in an also discarded
preface to 'Strafford', as one on which he had for some time been
engaged. He even characterizes the Tragedy as an attempt 'to freshen
a jaded mind by diverting it to the healthy natures of a grand epoch.'
'Sordello' again occupied him during the remainder of 1837 and the
beginning of 1838; and by the spring of this year he must have been
thankful to vary the scene and mode of his labours by means of a first
visit to Italy. He announces his impending journey, with its immediate
plan and purpose, in the following note:
To John Robertson, Esq.
Good Friday, 1838.
Dear Sir,--I was not fortunate enough to find you the day before
yesterday--and must tell you very hurriedly that I sail this morning
for Venice--intending to finish my poem among the scenes it describes.
I shall have your good wishes I know. Believe me, in return, Dear sir,
Yours faithfully and obliged, Robert Browning.
Mr. John Robertson had influence with the 'Westminster Review', either
as editor, or member of its staff. He had been introduced to Mr.
Browning by Miss Martineau; and, being a great admirer of 'Paracelsus',
had promised careful attention for 'Sordello'; but, when the time
approached, he made conditions of early reading, &c., which Mr. Browning
thought so unfair towards other magazines that he refused to fulfil
them. He lost his review, and the goodwill of its intending writer; and
even Miss Martineau was ever afterwards cooler towards him, though his
attitude in the matter had been in some degree prompted by a chivalrous
partisanship for her.