Books: A marriage of true minds
Why did Mr Barrett, the stern patriarch of Wimpole Street, try to stop his children marrying? Margaret Forster on a sensational new theory
Saturday 14 October 1995
There is no mystery as to why the courtship of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning has always attracted so much attention. It is, after all, one of the great love stories, full of drama and emotion and with that thrilling exit from Wimpole Street as the climax - what more could anyone want? But the marriage has been another matter. Those 15 years have, by comparison, been passed over quickly. Marriage is staid, marriage is dull, marriage - even in the case of the romantic Brownings - is surely too boring to record. In fact, it is not. The marriage is every bit as fascinating, if not as obviously exciting, as the courtship.
Why, then, you are bound to ask, has it not become as well known? The answer lies in one word: sources. The courtship has the advantage of incomparable primary source material, those magnificent letters Robert and Elizabeth wrote to each other, which were later published by their son in 1899 and have ever since been plundered greedily by scholars and writers. The whole story is in those letters with every line open to several interpretations. Never has so much emotion and intelligence been compressed into so short a time span and the effect is exhilarating. But the marriage lacks that kind of charting. The Brownings, being together, naturally did not write to each other. Robert hardly wrote letters at all, or at least not in comparison with Elizabeth, who spread herself over a large number of correspondents. Not all her letters are published and persistence is needed to collect even those which are available. This in itself has effectively controlled the amount written about this period.
Julia Markus, however, has not been discouraged. She has spent 20 years in the Brownings' "field" and has herself published a fine modern edition of Casa Guidi Windows (Elizabeth's long poem about the Italian struggle for liberty). She has gathered together the scattered sources for the marriage years with enthusiasm and scrutinised them diligently. Her interest is not in the day-to-day life of the Brownings - it is curious, but no real impression of what this was like emerges - but in the broader question of how the marriage functioned at different times. In the early years, she chooses to focus on the continuing influence of Mr Barrett. Elizabeth might have seemed, by marrying Robert, to be showing that she loved him more than her father. Nevertheless, her feeling for this difficult parent was still strong, and could have wrecked her marriage, if she had let it, and if Robert had not been so supportive. Appreciating this, Julia Markus takes the basic problem about Mr Barrett: why did he not wish any of his children to marry?
As far as his daughters were concerned, it has always been possible to make a stab at justifying Mr Barrett's objections, since none of the suitors were exactly suitable, especially Robert Browning. But what about his sons? Why did he not want them to marry and continue the family line? Julia Markus's theory, which she drops like a bomb into the middle of an otherwise straightforward account of the Brownings' early married years, is that he was afraid he would have a black grandchild. She cites Elizabeth as declaring she believed she had slave blood in her (though the quotation on which she bases this seems open to other interpretation) and invites incredulity, not to say ridicule, by saying that there was "nothing" in Elizabeth's appearance "to mitigate her own belief in her African blood". It is certainly an interesting tangent to go off at, and the discussion of the Barretts' West Indian background, which it entails, is full of well-researched detail, though to use an analysis of the poem, "The Runaway Slave" to boost this theory seems carrying speculation too far.
There are several other speculative areas in the book which, though lively in themselves, result in a strange lack of balance. There is a jumpy feeling to the shape and style which makes for an uneasy read. In order to float, and try to prove, her theories, Markus has to make space for them by compressing a great deal of the rest of her material. She seems to collapse exhausted after long, discursive passages of the above kind, so much so that she is regularly reduced to one-word exclamations and three-word verbless sentences. It is a relief when she has passed the point of the middle years and comes at last to what she really has to offer. Thereafter, she manages a smooth narrative.
The prize she has to give us is access to 115 unpublished letters from Elizabeth to her sister Arabel, hitherto in family hands. Half of these are already in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library, but it has always been supposed that the other half contained far more revealing information. A knowledge of Arabel's character - she was very religious and devoted herself to charity work - did suggest that there would be no startling intimacies in Elizabeth's letters to her (she would not wish to shock the spinster Arabel) but, even so, the two were close enough to exchange real confidences. Such excitement, then, to have these letters at last.
And they do genuinely add to what was already known of the one real difference of opinion between the Brownings, even if it is only a matter of degree. Robert was always furious at his wife's belief in spiritualism and did everything possible to prove she was being hoodwinked. In these new letters, the full extent of the battle between them is made clear and so is the part played by Sophie Eckley, an American woman deeply involved in spiritualism under whose spell Elizabeth fell for a while. Julia Markus goes so far as to allege that "a woman came between the Brownings", which has suggestive connotations she afterwards, luckily, dispels. She sees the pair overcoming this unpleasantness, as indeed they did, and remaining true to each other until the very end. I was relieved at this verdict.
In fact, I was relieved by the whole book, written as it is with real passion and dedication. It may seem an odd thing to confess, especially at the end of a review, but I think it is not generally realised how those who have written on a particular subject approach the writings of others on the same topic with a mixture of dread and eagerness. Biographers, especially, remain forever possessive, hardly able to bear the possibility of anyone else knowing more than they do. Yet, at the same time, through knowing so much and being so familiar with the material, they make dangerous reviewers, judging everything by the most exacting standards.
Coming to this book as someone who has written a biography of Elizabeth, I looked for accuracy (and found it) and empathy (which was lacking) but also for something new, something to justify another book (though I had no right whatsoever to ask for such justification). Julia Markus gave me that, if not enough of it - much more use will surely be made of these new letters - and, in addition, she has helped to bring the Brownings' marriage as well as their courtship to greater attention.
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