- Love Among the Political Ruins: 1848 and the Political Unconscious of Men and Women
The blank interstices Men take for ruins, He will build into With pillared marbles rare, or knit across With generous arches, till the fane’s complete. Casa Guidi Windows,II.776–7791
The roots of the implicit politics of Men and Women (1855) lie in the era of the European revolutions and their aftermath. Although few of the poems were probably written at this time, Browning’s responses to the events of 1848 to 1852 inspired much of the collection on which he started serious work in 1853. In these years, witnessing the Florentine revolution of February 1849, and then in Paris, in December 1851, Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état (in effect one of the concluding events of the revolutionary phase), Browning experienced politics at first-hand with his wife, drawn into ongoing dialogue with her, their views developing in synergy, and disagreements consequently being painful. Politics was at the heart of their relationship. However, the nuances of Browning’s politics in this period often seem tantalizingly obscure or hidden from view, for two main reasons. Firstly, there is only a limited amount of direct or open politics in the poetry, and, of course, Browning rarely writes in propria persona.2 Secondly, in this period, he wrote few letters by comparison with EBB, and in them he says very little directly about politics. It is therefore her voice that dominates politically, the daringly subjective voice of Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and of her correspondence, and so to a large extent it is through her politics that we must understand his.3
On March 14, 1848, when the French revolution was a recent matter, EBB makes this archetypal statement: “Robert & I agree & thoroughly agree in politics as in other things; & we talk & talk on this subject, very seldom differing on any angle of it.”4 Here the desire to always agree can be seen, even at this early stage, long before their disagreements about Louis Napoleon, to contain a hint that they do not in fact always agree, that they may be trying to win each other round. [End Page 503]
Though Browning had intense political discussions with men—particularly in France in the wake of the 1851 coup d’état—his most intense discussions were undoubtedly with EBB. After the horror of the massacre of working-class protestors in Paris in the “June days” of 1848, EBB believed that the Second Republic would collapse; Browning differed: “My husband has a little [hope], with melancholy intermediate prospects; but my own belief is that the bourgeoisie have had enough of democratic institutions & will be impatient for a kingship anew. Whom will they have?” (BC, 15:98–99). Their varying predictions match up to some extent with their different hopes about likely outcomes. EBB’s view is a distant anticipation of her acceptance of Louis Napoleon’s coup of 1851 as a reasonable solution to the political stalemate. Browning is just as disturbed by the June days, but he is really hoping that the Second Republic can survive, and we can sense even in this his future dislike of empire and its works.
On March 9, 1849, EBB’s and Browning’s child, Robert Wiedemann, was born under the rule of the short-lived Florentine republic, a fact of which she was proud. As she was recovering from the birth and trying to dry up her milk—she had decided to use wet nurses—outside their home the celebrations blazed:
The milk caused me some headache & inconvenience—particularly as the republicans of Florence did us the honour to keep festa round the tree of liberty planted at our palazzo-door, with guns & cannons & a band of music & patriotic songs from morning till night, yes, & half the night through three days after my confinement, causing the monthly nurse to offer various petitions to the Madonna against a milk-fever.(BC, 15:259–260)
The blurring of the personal and political here is typical—it is of course an important element in Casa Guidi Windows—part of a systematic refusal to experience politics in abstract terms...