on 15 June 2013
Thought the Victorians were stuffy and prudish? That Elizabeth Barrett was a wimp and Robert Browning incapable of clear expression?! Read these and think again!
I came to these having to do a crash course in Browning to teach at A Level and this correspondence unlocked the man for me. The 19th century is definitely Not My Period and some of the poems made me want to grab RB by the lapels and demand "What do you *mean*, you idiot man?!" Through the letters, I got to know more about him and he made sense - well, more sense. I found myself unable to put the book down and read through the lot (and Vol 2) in an unreasonably short time. How can you not like a man who laughs at EBB's tale of another couple's stormy marriage and demands 'just throw a coffee cup at me and see what you get!'? Whose first letter to EBB after actually meeting her (after an intense correspondence) was so passionate and unguarded that she forbade him to write so again - it was destroyed (alas!).
Both parties to the correspondence come alive, concerned about health (she wonders if he ought to have showers - perhaps they are what are giving him headaches; he, more rationally, is concerned about her intake of opium), about visitors, about timings and the minutiae of daily life. Crucially, however, is the sense of striving to represent themselves clearly to each other. Neither will rest until they feel that they have made clear some point of thought or principle and sometimes, the sense that words just aren't enough is burningly obvious.
Another aspect of the exchange I came to delight in was RBB's total assumption of - well, not equality, as he thought EBB far above him - but his assumption of her equality as a human being. He didn't ever patronise her with the usual lover's fudges. He expected her to be as rigorous as he in terms of thought and principle; he didn't pretend that she hadn't hurt him when she did and although he tried to soften some of his stances in preference to hers, there is a strong sense that he is doing it because he feels that she might be right, rather than that he is giving into her because he doesn't want to upset her with opposition to her views...
It's an exciting period for them, maintaining their relationship against the force of Mr Barrett's opposition of marriage for any of his children and the letters can be dramatic, or mundane. Either way, they are vital and fascinating and give a strong sense of the times and the people writing.