John Brett - Elizabeth Barrett Browning
As a fledgling writer in the mid-seventies, I was a member of The Browning Society of London which met regularly in rooms at St Marylebone Parish Church where Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning made their clandestine vows. It was, and still is, my ambition to write a novel about them. The tale is well-worn, but glitters and gleams with so many interesting facets that I believe there is room for at least one more. Since vintage years have begun to loom and life has furnished some pertinent insights, I feel better qualified to attempt the venture!
It isn't a project I shall be free to begin yet awhile, but the story of Mary Cole winds up in the Victorian era and I hope to continue writing about those times in a European context.
The destinies of the two poets collided a few months after the Countess of Berkeley died. Coincidentally, Lady Ashburton, who later gave enthusiastic recitals of Mr Browning's work, (and even proposed to him after they were both widowed) was connected to Mary posthumously through the marriage of her sister, Susan, with Charles Baring, her ladyship's kinsman. Indeed, Louisa Ashburton's father-in-law, the 1st Baron Ashburton, had proposed to Susan Cole in America and had been accepted. He sent to England for his cousin, Charles, to draw up the nuptial agreement whereupon the fast fellow promptly fell head-over-heels in love and snaffled her himself! Susan had already enjoyed a string of distinguished lovers and had buried a husband, but soon settled down to a long and eventful life at Flat Rock, North Carolina, where her generous eccentricities were fully indulged and appreciated. She died one week before Robert and Elizabeth were married in the same church she had wed her first husband, James Heyward, half-brother of the American Independence signatory, Thomas Heyward.
Despite the limitations imposed by Elizabeth's health, the Brownings boasted a coruscating circle of friends and were at the hub of all that was avant-garde in the Arts, Philosophy and Politics. They numbered among their friends Mary Russell Mitford, Thomas Carlyle, George Sand and Frederic Chopin, Gerard Manley Hopkins to name a fine few. Browning was a cordial socialite, but it was his wife who was celebrated as the poet.
Entering their world again recently, I sought out a quotation written by Elizabeth when Browning was first suing to visit her after receiving his first volume of her poems.
What strikes is the sheer modesty of female writers of the day and Elizabeth was true to form. If inclined to an excess of humility, she speaks the truth of the matter as regards the creative process. It is a far remove from the culture of conflated idolatry we know now. I love it.
"There is nothing to see in me; nor to hear in me.--I never learned to talk as you do in London... If my poetry is worth anything to any eye, it is the flower of me. I have lived most and been most happy in it, and so it has all my colours; the rest of me is nothing but a root, fit for the ground and dark."
Arthur Hughes - A scene from Aurora Leigh
© © Rosy Cole 2009, 2014