- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
In the latest volume of The Brownings’ Correspondence, volume 22 (Winfield, KS: Wedgestone Press, 2015), editors Philip Kelley, Scott Lewis, Edward Hagan, Joseph Phelan, and Rhian Williams again set the benchmark for scholarly editions, providing impeccable texts and rich explanatory notes, selections from related correspondence as Supporting Documents, and an indispensable collection of book reviews of works by both Brownings. Volume 22 includes letters written by and to the Brownings from November 1855 to June 1856, when they resided in Paris between two summer trips to London. The principal cultural topics in EBB’s letters include spiritualists and séances experienced by their friends and acquaintances, and the qualities and effects of the French government of Louis Napoleon, who retained the presidency by coup d’état and then through a plebiscite became Emperor Napoleon III. In personal terms, much of this correspondence initially dwells on their misery in a disastrously cold set of rooms which a friend had leased for them in Paris—a habitation where EBB spent weeks coughing and spitting blood—and their subsequent liberation, when their rental agreement expired in December 1855, to an exceedingly comfortable, light, and warm apartment which they praised to many of their correspondents for reviving EBB and enabling her to work.
For literary scholars the chief interest in this volume of the correspondence lies in the multiple references to major poems by both EBB and RB which preoccupy critics today: her Aurora Leigh, which EBB was rushing to finish before they returned to England in order to see the poem through the press; and his 1855 collection Men and Women, published on 10 November, which EBB believed would firmly establish his contemporary eminence and his enduring fame. As we know, her hopes were fulfilled better in the long range than the short term. While she writes proudly, for example, that John Ruskin has remarked RB’s poems at length and is going to include admiring notice of “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church” in the next volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin’s letter to RB must both amuse and pain readers, for Ruskin details his own failure to understand many details in RB’s poems (see pp. 13–14, for example, for Ruskin’s excruciating account of his perplexities in reading “Popularity”). Ruskin encapsulates his difficulties in interpreting RB in two witty metaphors so charming that they almost compensate for his poetic obtuseness: “I cannot write in enthusiastic praise—because I look at you every day as a monkey does at a cocoanut—having great faith in the milk—hearing it rattle indeed—inside—but quite beside myself [End Page 293] for the Fibres”; and “You are worse than the worst Alpine Glacier I ever crossed. Bright—& deep enough truly—but so full of Clefts that half the journey has to be done with ladder & hatchet” (p. 15). Carlyle, too, commended RB’s genius but lamented his “unintelligibility” (p. 195). (These critiques by intelligent contemporary readers may make us more attentive to providing our students tools with which to crack open RB’s coconuts and traverse his glaciers.)
As with previous volumes of The Brownings’ Correspondence, volume 22 generously collects in one place the many contemporary reviews of Men and Women from the period covered. Juxtaposing them against EBB’s recurring celebration of RB’s poems accentuates her tact in reporting the mixed reviews, which must have been painfully disappointing after the initially cheering report of sales. She proudly remarks that people praise RB’s “power & originality” even as they “complain of obscurity” (p. 22) and observes that the poems “prosper” while eliciting both “claps of hands, & barkings of dogs” (p. 42). She confidently predicts that the book “will stand,” even though “the people pelt mud ever so” (p. 81). RB, in contrast, on the same day complains to their editor Edward Chapman that the reviews are “mostly stupid & spiteful, self-contradicting & contradictory of each other,” and he worries about how the “rot” will affect “the reading public” (p. 79).
The letters’ multiple references to Aurora Leigh underscore EBB’s haste and incessant labor in making final transcriptions of Books 1 through...