- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
As usual, publication of a new volume of the Brownings' Correspondence (Wedge-stone Press) provided a big boost to EBB scholarship in the past year—one especially exciting because it was the second volume of BC released in 2016. (Volume 23 was discussed in last year's review of scholarship.) Volume 24, edited by Philip Kelley, Edward Hagan, and Linda M. Lewis, covers most of 1857, February through December, a period during which the third edition (reprint) of Aurora Leigh was published and reviews of the epic novel-in-verse continued to appear. EBB suffered significant personal losses in the March death of Mary Trepsack, a close friend of the Barrett family who had lived for years with her paternal grandmother Moulton and subsequently in London near the Barretts' home, and the April death of EBB's father. Upon his death, the Wimpole Street household quickly disbanded, with EBB's sister Arabella moving on her own to Delamere Terrace, where she lived until her own death in 1868. Other significant domestic drama for EBB included RB's near-fatal horse-riding accident in the mountains in September; the illnesses of the Brownings' son, Pen, and before that of Robert Bulwer Lytton (who published as Owen Meredith) while visiting Bagni di Lucca with the Brownings and their close friend Isa Blagden; and the replacement of Wilson (eight months pregnant) with a new lady's maid, Annunziata, who remained with the Brownings until EBB's death in 1861.
Correspondence from this period in 1857 continues discussing Aurora Leigh's reception, especially ongoing controversy over its ostensible immorality. RB, whom EBB identifies as "the second me" (p. 16), insists she could not be coarse if she tried (p. 12), and she observes that while some readers complain of the poem's "shameful immorality," others praise its "Celestial purity" (p. 25). EBB writes Anna Jameson that the poem's largely positive reception pleases and surprises her, for she had "expected to be put in the stocks & pelted with the eggs of the last twenty years' singing birds, as a disorderly woman & free thinking poet" (p. 2). Even so, she hears from individuals that reading the poem "injured" their morals (pp. 6–7) and observes that "it has given great offence to conventional persons who hate plain speaking, & prefer to ignore a subject through what is called delicacy, rather than help to better the world by dealing with it" (p. 16). A note from William J. Fox is more representative of the personal messages she received, celebrating the poem as "the Book of the Age" (p. 193). In appendix 3, this volume of BC reprints some ninety-five pages of contemporary reviews of Aurora Leigh (some also attending to the 1856 [End Page 337] Poems) in British and U.S. periodicals, as well as a handful in French and Italian. This gathering of reviews constitutes an invaluable resource for EBB scholars.
Most of EBB's correspondence from the period, however, deals less with her writing than with personal matters, hardly surprising in light of the bitter reality that within five months EBB lost three individuals very close to her: her mentor, friend, and distant kinsman John Kenyon (the topic of his illness and death recurred in letters included in volume 23 of BC); Mary Trepsack, who was treated as a member of the Moulton Barrett family from her girlhood in Jamaica; and EBB's father, who died unexpectedly without having shown any sign of forgiveness since her marriage more than ten years earlier. Always attesting her special and abiding love for her father and her vain hopes for some gesture of reconciliation, EBB in writing to Arabella after he died registers both her deep hurt and her disappointment, plus her continuing generosity in representing the unrelenting patriarch in the best possible light. He died, she mourns, "[w]ithout a word, without a sign": "Its like slamming a door on me as he went out—And yet, if he did not know—he did not mean that—" (p. 60). In the aftermath of her father's death, many of EBB's letters relate to her sister Arabella's relocation to...