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Victorian Poetry 40.3 (2002) 290-302

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Guide to the Year's Work

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Marjorie Stone

"Mrs. Ogilvy wanted to be with me, very kindly, but I would have nobody . . . Then, Robert was with me the whole time till the last five minutes, when Dr. Harding sent him away—he lay on the bed, & I nearly pulled his head off, as the pains came." The most significant contribution to EBB scholarship in a number of years is without doubt The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Her Sister Arabella (2002), edited by Scott Lewis and handsomely produced by Wedgestone Press in two volumes running to more than twelve hundred pages in total. This is a major new resource for Victorian scholars, not only because so many of these letters are here published for the first time (a good many of the manuscripts are still in the possession of the Moulton-Barrett family, while the majority of the others are in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library), but also because Arabella was EBB's most intimate and important correspondent after her marriage in 1846.The intimacy is reflected in glimpses like the above (1:356) of the moments leading up to the birth of Wiedeman or "Pen," the Browning's beloved only child, suggesting a scene very different from the conventional image of the climax to a Victorian "confinement."

As Lewis points out, 239 letters were written to Arabella by the Brownings after they left England in September 1846; most of these are from EBB (17 were solely by Browning) and were written, on average, every three weeks, with some interruptions, up to her death on June 29, 1861 (1:xxxviii). While EBB wrote more letters to Mary Mitford— "around 500 in all, of which 497 are extant" (p. 12)—they are less intimate in [End Page 290] many respects, if more exclusively literary in their subject matter. And while EBB also wrote frequently to her other sister, Henrietta, after the latter's marriage on April 6, 1850 she told Arabella, "I shall henceforth write rather the oftener to you, Arabel, because she has more to amuse her now" (1:325). As Lewis notes, "After Henrietta's marriage there are 90 extant letters from EBB to her compared with 174 to Arabella" (1:327). The Brownings did not "entirely agree" on the issue of whether letters should be published or not, and Browning was "especially anxious that the letters to Arabella be suppressed" (1:xxxv). "At this distance in time," however, as Lewis suggests, "there is no question of the benefit to be derived from printing the text in full" (1:xxxix). Scholars will surely agree.

What makes the correspondence with Arabella especially valuable is that it simultaneously reflects both the private and public facets of EBB's life—both the woman and the writer—given the close familial bond between the two sisters, and Arabella's evident cultivation, intelligence, and interest in both literary and public affairs. It was to Arabella that EBB most frankly confessed her hopes, pain, and increasing bitterness concerning her father's response to her marriage. Not until 1856, ten years after the event, did she state that she had "come to have no hope" of a reconciliation with him (2:204), although even then the news of his death in April of 1857 "without a word, without a sign" struck her hard: "Its like slamming a door on me as he went out" (2:298). It was also to Arabella that EBB turned in relation to literary matters such as attending to the proofs of her 1850 Poems. References to such matters run through the correspondence. Among much else, it includes allusions to the Brownings' plans to produce a collaborative work on Italy; detailed accounts of the experiences that led to Casa Guidi Windows;playful raillery concerning the confusion engendered by the Sonnets from the Portuguese and an explanation of the circumstances surrounding their composition (1:368); and many references to the composition, intent, and reception of Aurora Leigh and of Poems Before Congress.

Lewis cites one...


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