Under the hammer: letters that reveal Robert Browning's private heartache

The clandestine courtship and secret marriage of the poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett is one of the fabled love affairs of English literature. Their passionate romance inspired extraordinary poetry and when Elizabeth died in 1861, at the age of 55, her lovelorn husband vowed never to wed again.

But an archive of letters which academics had presumed lost has now emerged, revealing how Browning later found solace in an intense friendship with Julia Wedgwood, a member of the famous pottery dynasty who was 21 years his junior.

Until now, the letters have been known to just a handful of scholars through inaccurate transcriptions made in the 1930s before the Wedgwood family put the sensitive correspondence up for auction in New York.

They were bought by an American man of letters, Halsted B Vander Poel, who, in the 1930s and 1940s, created one of the greatest literary collections of the 20th century, with an estimated value today of £2.5m.

The letters then remained locked away in crates, unseen, for more than 40 years until Mr Vander Poel died last year. Only now will scholars get their first chance to glimpse the original correspondence when the collection - including some letters thought never to have been made public before - is sold at Christie's in London on 3 March.

There are more than 70 letters between Browning and Ms Wedgwood, a plain but clever woman who was the grand-daughter of Josiah Wedgwood. They were drawn together in 1863 in mutual sympathy after the death of Ms Wedgwood's brother, only a couple of years after Browning lost his wife.

Ms Wedgwood responded quickly to Browning's warmth while he appeared to revel in intellectual debate with a woman more than capable of questioning leading thinkers of the time such as Charles Darwin, her uncle by marriage. They discussed contemporary writers, and Browning spoke movingly of his love for Elizabeth and moments such as his first reading of her Sonnets from the Portuguese. He was a regular visitor at the Wedgwood family home, and the greater frequency of letters from Ms Wedgwood suggests she was even keener on the friendship than he.

In June 1864, he recalled his wife's death but told Ms Wedgwood: "Be assured that your friendship has always been precious to me, and that while I live it will be the most precious ... Wherever I may be of the slightest good to you, it will be my pride and privilege when you count on me." A month later, he admitted: "I am unused to this way of direct transfusion of souls."

But their friendship stopped suddenly, under pressure from Ms Wedgwood's family to avoid scandal. "I have been intending to write to you for several days dear friend, to say ... that it would be better that we did not meet again just now, at least that you did not come here ... I have reason to know that my pleasure in your company has had an interpretation put upon it that I ought not to allow," she told Browning in March 1865.

It resumed when he sent her a copy of his new work, The Ring and the Book, in 1868, although never with the same warmth and even with the occasional irritation. In one of her last letters to him, she remarks: "You owe us an adequate translation of what your wife was to you." He strongly denied any obligation.

After their correspondence ceased in 1870, Browning lived for a further 19 years, enjoying similar, though less intense, friendships with a number of women. Julia Wedgwood lived to 1913 when she died aged 80, having continued to live in London society where she was known as a writer, critic and historian.

Tom Lamb, a manuscripts specialist at Christie's, said what was particularly intriguing about the collection was that it included Wedgwood's drafts, in which she blamed her family for the cessation of the correspondence. These more sensitive documents appeared to have been acquired privately by Mr Vander Poel from the Wedgwood family several years after the New York auction and may never have been made public before. It appeared that the family had requested the return of Wedgwood's letters to Browning on account of the potential controversy.

"It's exciting because this has really not been in the public eye," Mr Lamb said yesterday. "The drafts acquired from the family show her saying, 'You can write to me but you can never see me at my house because people are saying it's not the done thing.' She tried to be more diplomatic in the final letters to him."

The friendship was in no sense a love affair, he said. "None of his women friends were permitted to forget that his love was reserved for Elizabeth. But these letters reveal for the first time the sad story of a friendship between two great intellectuals of the Victorian age, broken by gossip and moral strictures."

Daniel Karlin, a Browning scholar and professor at University College, London, said the resurfacing of the original letters was "really, really important". He explained: "Richard Curle included a facsimile of one of the letters [in his 1937 book] which made clear he wasn't copying the letters very well, so your confidence in him is much diminished. I thought the originals didn't exist any longer, but this raises the possibility of being able to retranscribe them in a more accurate form."

One of the most important parts of their correspondence was Ms Wedgwood's criticism of the violence and sordidness in The Ring and the Book, which prompted a strong defence from Browning, one of the few cases where he discusses and explains his art. "If there are new letters, that will be really interesting," Professor Karlin said.

Iain Finlayson, the author of a biography of Browning published this month, said the correspondence with Ms Wedgwood was valuable for the light it showed on Browning's character in middle to late age. "Browning's letters to Julia are much more intellectual than his gossipy letters or formal letters to other friends, and there's an undertow of latent eroticism in the correspondence that Julia cuts short very abruptly when she realises her heart has become engaged rather more quickly and deeply than she had expected," he said yesterday.

"But Julia is much more conventional in her Victorian attitudes than Elizabeth Barrett. Julia could never have run away to Italy with a lover."

Browning's heart remained devoted to Elizabeth's memory, he said, and the correspondence could not stand comparison with the courtship letters between Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. "Julia is never as light-hearted as Elizabeth, though at the beginning her approach to Browning stimulated his interest. Now and again he tried to cajole her into some merriment but her petticoats remained pretty much unruffled."

The Browning-Wedgwood letters are expected to fetch between £70,000 and £100,000 when they are sold as one of more than 360 lots next month.

The Vander Poel collection also includes manuscripts, letters and books relating to John Donne, Samuel Johnson, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, Charlotte Brontë and Albert Einstein among others.

Tom Lamb said the range and quality of the material was likely to attract huge interest. "It is, quite simply, one of the great private literary collections formed in the mid-20th century - and the finest of its kind to appear on the market for several decades."

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE VANDER POEL ARCHIVE COLLECTION

OSCAR WILDE

* A notebook from his philosophy course at Magdalen College, Oxford, circa 1876-78 Estimate: £20,000-£30,000

* A first edition copy from 1899 of The Ballad of Reading Gaol inscribed to Robert Ross, his first homosexual lover

Estimate: £8,000-£12,000

ALEXANDER POPE

* The earliest poem by Pope, written aged 12

Estimate: £10,000-£15,000

T E LAWRENCE (Lawrence of Arabia)

* A furious letter complaining about the unauthorised publication of the last three chapters of The Mint, a book about his experiences in the RAF which had incensed the Air Ministry

Estimate: £4,000-£6,000

JOSEPH CONRAD

* The manuscript, proposal and synopsis for his novel The Rescue

Estimate: £7,000-£10,000

ALBERT EINSTEIN

* First edition of his theory of relativity in German signed by the author and with a six-line inscription

Estimate: £3,000-£5,000

WILLIAM MORRIS

* A copy of his book, The Earthly Paradise, inscribed to his friend, W M Rossetti

Estimate: £3,000-£5,000

JOHN DONNE

* A letter of condolence to Lady Kingsmill, one of the first women poets published in Britain

Estimate: £80,000-£120,000

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