Victorian Poetry 43.4 (2005) 411-434
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Stranded at the Border:
Browning, France, and the Challenge of Cosmopolitanism in Red Cotton Night-Cap Country
Christopher M. Keirstead
Robert Browning's periods of residence and travel on the Continent coincided with some of the great political upheavals of the time, but the closest the poet may have ever come to being in any personal danger due to such unrest was in the late summer of 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War. At the time, Browning and his sister Sarianna were enjoying a seaside holiday at St. Aubin-sur-Mer on the Normandy coast. His good friend Joseph Milsand lived in a cottage only "two steps off," Browning wrote to Isa Blagden, while they stayed in "another of the most primitive kind on the sea-shore–which shore is a good sandy stretch for miles and miles on either side."1 During previous summers in Brittany, Browning had developed an enthusiasm for swimming which he now indulged almost daily, although he confessed that the "sadness of the war & its consequences go far to paralyse all our pleasure" (p. 342). If convinced that France was being justly punished for its misplaced faith in Napoleon III, Browning still felt a vague attachment to the struggling nation that compelled him to remain on the scene: "I am glad to be in France rather than elsewhere just now" (p. 344). His sympathy was also quickened, no doubt, by witnessing Milsand's difficult efforts to secure his home and belongings in Paris.
But even as German armies began a steady advance toward the capital after capturing the emperor himself, Browning remained confident that they could make it back to the safety of England without difficulty: "We can reach Havre from Caen in a few hours—& thence get to Southampton when we please," he wrote to Blagden in mid September, "so I think we have decided to remain till the end of the month" (p. 345). Within a week of penning these reassuring words, however, Browning began a frantic departure from France. Milsand was concerned that the poet might have already been mistaken for a German spy by restless villagers. State authorities were also on the lookout for French nationals trying to leave the country, which had been forbidden by [End Page 411] government order. As a result, the boat to Le Havre, along with most trains and coaches, was no longer in service. Only through Milsand's last-minute efforts were the Brownings able to secure passage out of the country, at midnight, on a cattle boat bound for Southampton.2
How near Browning truly came to being detained or arrested is not entirely clear, but, at the very least, the shock to the psyche of this suddenly accidental tourist must have been profound. The incident is telling in other ways as well, and reveals something of what inspired Red Cotton Night-Cap Country (1873), perhaps Browning's most ambitious attempt to inscribe contemporary French culture and his own presence within it. Recounting a more placid vacation two summers later in St. Aubin, the poem takes the form of a dramatic monologue spoken by Browning to a fellow traveler, Anne Thackeray, in which he rhapsodizes over the peacefulness of the landscape before introducing a darker, hidden truth. Not far from where they were staying, Antoine Mellerio (1827-1870), the wealthy son of a Parisian jeweler, had committed suicide by leaping from a tower on his estate. As the poem explains, Mellerio seems to have been motivated by a desperate religious faith that compounded his guilt over an extra-marital affair (in an earlier effort to atone for his sins, Mellerio had destroyed his love letters—and his hands—by holding them over a fire). With the help of Milsand, who had first told Browning of the incident, the poet examined press reports and court records associated with the case, and eventually decided that he had hit upon "a capital brand-new subject" (p. 385) for a poem, one that...