- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
In volume 23, the latest in The Brownings’ Correspondence (Winfield, KS: Wedgestone Press, 2016), editors Philip Kelley, Scott Lewis, Edward Hagan, Joseph Phelan, and Rhian Williams have again produced an indispensable research tool with impeccable texts and rich explanatory notes, excerpts from related correspondence collected as Supporting Documents, extensive biographical sketches of correspondents Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Ruskin, and a treasure trove of reviews of works by both Brownings. Volume 23 includes letters written by and to the Brownings from July 1856 to January 1857, during which the principal literary event was the publication of Aurora Leigh.
As usual, the collected letters read like an absorbing biography or novel. This volume begins with the Brownings in London, ensconced in John Kenyon’s home at 39 Devonshire Place in his absence, “rather afraid of moving our elbows for fear of breaking something” (p. 5). While worrying about Mr. Kenyon’s deteriorating health, her own father’s health, and storing books and furniture for Robert’s father and sister after their move to Paris, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB) remains mostly preoccupied with finishing the manuscript of Aurora Leigh for the printers, editing the fourth edition of Poems (1856), and managing the multitude of invitations (many declined) asking the Brownings to meet writers, artists, and other prominent figures in London.
The reception of Aurora Leigh commands greatest interest in the volume. EBB jokingly boasts that her brother George anticipates the poem will be more offensive than even Don Juan (p. 83), unfit for any girl to read, and she anticipates it will sell well, “all the more perhaps, for being so naughty” (p. 89). Anticipating a harsh review from Coventry Patmore, she refers to his “infamous doctrines” about women that make her, with Bessie Parkes and “the rest of us militant, foam with rage” (pp. 103–104). She speaks of serious concern with social issues such as workhouses, physical abuse of women, and the married woman’s property petition (p. 34) and expresses her high aspirations that Aurora Leigh, with its narration of Marian’s rape and illegitimate child, will “raise the spiritual above the natural” for readers (pp. 74–75). Expecting other negative reviews in the journals, she is initially surprised by the many positive assessments. To Robert’s sister Sarianna, EBB pertly observes that he says she is “delighted” when her work is “abused. And really things said on the other side whether in print or M.S. are too much sometimes for even one’s vanity! Such absurd extravagances!” (p. 219). Still, the “extravagances” expressed in [End Page 337] letters from friends and acquaintances were deeply gratifying: Ruskin (“the greatest poem in the English language,” p. 138), B. W. Procter (“a fine manly & original poem,—deep thoughted too,” p. 137), Robert Bulwer Lytton (“the solitary Epic of this age, … also a noble Epic,” p. 147), Dinah Mulock (“the completest Poem, if not one of the grandest books, that any woman ever wrote,” p. 159), Leigh Hunt (“a unique, wonderful, and immortal poem; astonishing for its combination of masculine power with feminine tenderness,” “the production of the greatest poetess the world ever saw,” p. 176). Fortified by such praise, EBB remained stoic and poised as she read the carping in some reviews, which criticized the poem for farfetched events, thin plot, “grossness,” overly frequent references to God, and inordinate length. As with other volumes in The Brownings’ Correspondence, inclusion of reviews of works by both Brownings is a major asset, and this volume reproduces more than a hundred pages of reviews of Aurora Leigh alone.
Completing her work on Aurora Leigh in England in the autumn, EBB’s letters refer to the harmful effects of English weather on her health, fog that “seized [her] by the throat,” fostering a bad cough that keeps her from sleeping (pp. 96, 90). She also reports an episode of physical distress (being “out of sorts”) caused by a chemist’s mixing “my indispensable morphine … weaker than usual,” until her former chemist sent her “the right proportions, & I am myself & comfortable” now (p. 4). Letters written during her time in England manifest her deep pleasure in seeing her sisters...