Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Article excerpt

Once again a new volume of The Brownings' Correspondence (Winfield, KS: Wedgestone Press, 2014) sets the highwater mark as the year's most exciting contribution to studies of the Brownings. Volume 21, edited by Philip Kelley, Scott Lewis, Joseph Phelan, Edward Hagan, and Rhian Williams, includes letters written by and to the Brownings from November 1854 to November 1855. These letters touch on matters public and private, demonstrating how fully the Brownings--both despite and because of living in Italy--were immersed in the international events of their time and the web of literary and cultural relationships connecting England, Europe, and the U.S. With EBB writing most of the letters, and as usual the longest and most detailed, the documents express the Brownings' reactions to

the Crimean War; EBB's views of Louis Napoleon and judgment that the French government was the most democratic in Europe, despite its "despotic element" (112); her preoccupation with the spiritualist movement sweeping America and England; and their absorption in the Italian independence movement. Her letters reiterate her unease in England and her sense that (like her five-year-old son Pen) "'I'm an Italian'" (13), that "my particular star shines best ... in Italy" (332). She painfully remarks her father's continued estrangement, even when he sees her young son Pen playing at Wimpole Street (230), and she mourns his disowning her brother Alfred upon his marriage (making Alfred "the third exile from Wimpole Street--the course of true love running remarkably rough in our house," 225). These letters record the Brownings' busy social life during their second visit to London since they married and left for Italy in September 1846: they are "taken in a black cobweb, like flies!!" (217), for "People want to see if Italy has cut off our noses ... or what!" (225). The letters also relate their removal to Paris for the winter before returning to London the next summer, an interlude when she can scarcely enjoy the city because of her ill health and their inadequate accommodations.

The volume affords perspective on the Brownings' disagreements over spiritualism. While EBB reiterates RB's skepticism and admonishes correspondents not to spark domestic controversy by writing to them about spiritualism, she also records his interest in hearing of their friends' encounters with the spirit world. Writing to their friend Elizabeth Kinney in July 1855, RB in an uncharacteristically long letter recounts the well-known seance conducted by the celebrated American medium Daniel Douglas Home at which ostensible spirit hands set a wreath on EBB's head (211-15). Three months later, EBB reports, when Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton called on them in Paris, RB prodded her to "Speak of the spirits" and agreed they should all visit a medium the next day. With Bulwer Lytton RB evinced a receptiveness to hearing the opinions of a believer in spiritualism whom he deemed rational. Although EBB praises RB for his "magnanimous" capacity to change his mind when he has been wrong (324), she contrasts his inability to tolerate her views with her own more generous capacity "to tolerate the differing opinions of one another" (268), and she remained reluctant "to take up a cudgel conjugally," a "somewhat difficult and delicate" matter (332).

With regard to the Crimea, EBB admires Florence Nightingale but also insists that celebrating women as hospital nurses ("'angelical she's'" "carrying lint") undermines progress on "the woman's question," undercutting women's stature as thinkers and artists. She jests ironically to her friend, art historian Anna Jameson, "For the future I hope you will know your place & keep clear of Raffaelle & criticism: & I shall expect to hear of you as an organisor [sic] of the gruel-department in the [naval] hospital at Greenwich" (84-85). More seriously, she contrasts preoccupation with the war to society's neglect of "forty thousand wretched women" in London: "The silent writhing of them is to me more appalling than the roar of the cannons" (311). …

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