Feeling weary, stale and unprofitable, I’d vowed to give up blogging for a while, but the always happy thought of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning has spawned this self-indulgence.
As I mentioned before, I was named after Browning’s Pippa Passes, and immersed by my mother in the love story of Robert and Elizabeth while I was growing up, Flush the spaniel and all. For a long time, as happens with history’s celebrities, their romantic personae overshadowed the value of their individual work.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Field Talfourd, chalk, 1859 © National Portrait Gallery, London. She was about fifty-three when this likeness was taken; allowing for artistic flattery, she retained an astonishing girlish beauty, despite fragile health and a laudanum addiction.
If ever there was one, theirs appeared to be a marriage of true minds. It is painful to consider the possibility that in reality he had a restricting effect on her writing, specifically on her social and political freedom of thought. Robert had trouble stopping Elizabeth from dressing their only child, their son Pen, as a girl. Ignore, ignore, forget, forget, facts are only the dreary letter, not the spirit of truth.
And, anyway, Pen grew up filial, amiable and cheerful, a lover of Italy, a restorer of a palazzo, a painter and a bon vivant. He did not inherit his parents’ intellectual genius or determination, he was not in the least poetic, but he did not implode, either.
Robert Browning by Field Talfourd, chalk, 1859 © National Portrait Gallery, London. Browning’s affiliation to Team Jacob must not distract us from appreciating that he was considered an irresistibly handsome man by mid-Victorians, who favoured the whiskered werewolf look over the clean-shaven vampires of later in the 19th century.
More embarrassing to admit is that, when I was very small, without Luixe’s Genealogy of Style to guide me, my mother and I took our enthusiasm so far as to sing along to the 1960s musical Robert and Elizabeth in which June Bronhill surpassed the highest notes previously known in musical theatre. She could, and did, shatter glass.
I still secretly enjoy it, but I wouldn’t dare recommend it. My father was disgusted with us, and thought the music was some of the worst ever composed. We didn’t care. We were in love with Robert and Elizabeth.
The name Pippa, incidentally, has an honourable literary genealogy of its own going back to the Renaissance, as a stand-alone diminutive of Philippa or Felippa, not a mere nickname, and it is very irritating to a Pippa’s sense of identity when people insist otherwise.
Literary Pippas have erred on the whimsical side, far away from party planning and stratospheric social mobility, or worldly success of any kind.
In Browning’s verse-drama (1841) Pippa is an unconscious life force; in Aretino’s satirical Ragionamenti (1534-36), reflecting on sexual morality and civilization, fourteen year old Pippa is being schooled in whoredom by her sophisticated mother, the Roman courtesan Nanna.
Portrait of a Young Lady, previously identified as Antea, a Roman courtesan beloved by the painter and mentioned by Aretino, by Parmigianino, c.1535, oil on canvas, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples. Image source: WGA
In Gerhart Hauptmann’s very odd psychological dreamplay Und Pippa tanzt! (“And Pippa dances!” 1906), also set in Italy, she is again not grown up, not even real, she’s a symbol, an elusive object of desire, shattered like Venetian glass by the obsessive self-gratification of one of the four men who want her to dance. That, at any rate, is ein bisschen gleaned with my limited German. When Pippa dances, she dies.
Die Jungfrau by Klimt, oil on canvas, 1913, Národni Galerie, Prague
Image source: Wikipedia
Und Pippa tanzt! is weird, obscure, seldom if ever performed as far as I know, probably for good reasons, but the sexology sounds more convincing than Fifty Shades of Grey. The meaning suddenly becomes clearer when you find out from Wikipedia that shortly before he wrote it, in his early forties, Hauptmann was having an extra-marital affair with a 16 year old actress.
Out of this lot, the only Pippa you would want to be named after is Browning’s, as she skips carefree on the dew-pearled hillsides, free of interference from anybody, giving accidental inspiration to the people she passes. “God’s in His Heaven – All’s right with the world!”, indeed. Poor cow, as my father once said in another context.
Enough of Pippa. Back to Luixe’s blog.