BIOGRAPHY IN BRIEF
Sunday 14 January 1996
Julia Markus's most startling assertion, that Barrett pere's refusal to allow his adult children to marry was due to his fear of having black grandchildren, was aired in a 1993 short story by Kingsley Amis, "Mr Barrett's Secret". Both Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning were dark-complexioned, and had West Indian links. Certainly she suspected that the family's activities in Jamaica had enriched their genes as well as their pockets: in a note accompanying a photograph sent to her sister Arabel in 1860, Barrett Browning commented that she was "not ... pleased to look either black or old". Markus suggests that, from the evidence of her poem "The Runaway Slave", Barrett Browning considered the taint of the white seducer more shameful than the blood of the oppressed negro.
Despite any such fears, when the 43-year-old Barrett Browning, now in Florentine exile, gave birth to a son, "Penini", he proved to be a golden- haired, blue-eyed charmer. This did not placate Papa Barrett. On a secret trip to England and to Wimpole Street, young Pen was playing in the hall with his Uncle George when "Papa came out of the dining-room and stood looking for two or three minutes ... 'Whose child is that?' 'Ba's child.' 'What is the child doing here?' Not a word more - not a natural movement or quickening of the breath," Arabel reported.
Barrett Browning's odd childhood is skipped through with pluperfect impatience, and though Markus takes pains over the love affair and elopement, she doesn't really get into her stride until the pair are safely ensconced in Florence. Even then, the story is written in a strangely circuitous manner. On page 140 Markus discusses the death of Browning's mother, hard on the heels of Pen's birth. On page 160, Markus tells us again: "Their own supreme happiness and relief after the birth of their healthy son ... was badly shaken by the death of Browning's mother." On page 151, the poetess falls out of a chair, hitting her forehead: "One falls out of a chair into the arms of destiny," EBB writes. This is too good to leave alone. On page 154, we are told once more: "The unveiled prophetess had a nasty bruise on her forehead. Only two days before she had fallen from her chair and towards her destiny."
As the subtitle suggests, Julia Markus is not offering analysis of the two poets' work but an account of their per-sonal relationship, and her portrait of the neurotic, son- smothering, morphine-swigging anorexic of Casa Guidi is a good deal more sympathetic than the one painted by Germaine Greer in Slipshod Sybils. There are some ill-advised passages of reported speech: "Many a marriage has been undone in picturesque climes, with 'I told you so!' ringing in the air," simpers Markus. "Why did we rush into rooms with no sun? It was your idea. My idea? You mean you didn't bargain with the landlord? Pay him until he finds a new tenant? We'll go broke!" Despite such effusions, this is at least an enthusiastic retelling of the 19th century's most famous love story.
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