Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Did Browning Murder His Beloved Wife?

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Did Browning Murder His Beloved Wife?

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael Meredith

TODAY is the 150th anniversary of the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In the early hours of June 29, 1861, she died in the arms of her husband, Robert, at Casa Guidi, their home in Florence. Although she had been in frail health for a long time, neither she nor her family had any idea the end was so near, but eventually her weak lungs failed and so, quietly and painlessly, her life, and with it a famous love story, came to an end.

Robert Browning was inconsolable in his grief. At Elizabeth's funeral in Florence's English cemetery two days later, he stood, tears streaming down his face, holding the hand of their young son, Pen, hardly aware of the small crowd of fellow mourners.

He then insisted on returning to Casa Guidi, where, for the next fortnight, he lived alone among the possessions they had assembled in the previous 15 years -- possessions which told the story of their marriage: the secret wedding in St Marylebone parish church, their elopement and hazardous journey to Italy, Elizabeth's partial return to health and the poetry they had written in each other's company.

Their marriage, in spite of minor disagreements, had been perfect for them both. Elizabeth with her dying breath exclaimed: "My Robert, my heaven, my beloved."

She had much to thank him for. He had taken her from her overheated prison of a sickroom in Wimpole Street and given her new hope and a new life. In return she had given him a muchneeded self-belief, and encouraged him to persevere with his poetry, which she greatly admired; she also helped him control his impetuous, excitable nature, which on several occasions before their marriage had got the better of him.

In some ways Robert never recovered from Elizabeth's death, even though he lived for another 28 years. He dedicated his most famous poem, The Ring and the Book, to her memory, and subsequently there was always something missing in his life. He suffered from an emotional loneliness even when living an outwardly busy social life, and memories of Elizabeth forced themselves into his later poetry.

He never remarried, and, once back in London, would always show visitors to his home examples of his wife's delicate handwriting. In his desk he kept a stack of carte-de-visite photographs of Elizabeth, which he would distribute to friends and acquaintances.

With this knowledge, a few years ago I was at Casa Guidi talking to a group of Italian undergraduates about the Brownings when one asked me whether it was true, as she had been told by her English professor, that Robert had murdered Elizabeth.

Robert Browning a murderer? The question was as unexpected as it was extraordinary.

I set to work and soon came across a website which attempted to substantiate this claim. It seems a small group of English academics believe that the poet who had written My Last Duchess, in which a Renaissance Duke of Ferrara exacts revenge on a wife he believes to be unfaithful, was himself a killer.

Noting that Robert was in the habit of administering Elizabeth's medicines himself, his accusers claim that towards the end of her life he increased the daily dosage of laudanum to a fatal level.

"How important it would be to see the pharmacy prescriptions concerning EBB's laudanum's dosage," wrote one of the academics, suggesting that Robert went well beyond the dosage recommended by her doctor. And it is true that towards the end of her life, her English doctor did prescribe stronger medication to alleviate Elizabeth's symptoms of suffocation, irregular heart action and severe coughing fits.

But why would Robert want to kill the woman he loved? His motive, we are told, was a mixture of frustration and jealously -- frustration because his wife's illness was impeding his own creativity, and jealousy because her work was more successful than his. According to his modern accusers, Robert went beyond murder. …

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