“How do I love thee?” collateral

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.

NPG 322; Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Field TalfourdElizabeth 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.

NPG 1269; Robert Browning by Field TalfourdRobert 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. Continue reading