Monday, July 8, 2013

Letters of RB and EBB, Part II

Time for another chapter of the letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett!  Ooh, this was interesting.  In our story so far, Robert has started a correspondence with Elizabeth, and he's clearly interested in her.  After they meet in person, Robert sends a Confession of True Feelings letter, and Elizabeth reacts poorly.  She has never thought of herself as eligible for romance, and she doesn't know what to do, nor does she want to encourage Robert to waste his life on her (as she sees it).  I have now read the next 5 months of letters, from May to October...

RB's first letter to EBB

The two are still writing, but Elizabeth is clearly trying to discourage Robert from romance.  She just wants to talk about Poetry and Life.  Robert keeps dropping anguished hints about his feelings, and she replies with a stubborn reluctance to hear it.
...I see by the law of my own star, my own particular star, the star I was born under, the star Wormwood, on the opposite side of the heavens from the constellations of 'the Lyre and the Crown.'  (EBB, July 1845)

...I am yours ever, and not till summer ends and my nails fall out, and my breath breaks bubbles,--ought you to write thus having restricted me as you once did, and do still?  You tie me like a Shrove-Tuesday fowl to a stake then pick the thickest cudgel out of your lot, and at my head it goes--  (RB, July 1845)
From her point of view, it's completely hopeless; what would they do?  She is a chronic invalid (I thought she was a TB patient, but no!  Her illness was a lung problem, though, and she did not expect to live long), and she has a strange and despotic father who won't even let his healthy children marry. Reading her descriptions of him, I think he must have had some psychological problem.  He seems to have been completely tyrannical; nothing would please him, and nobody was allowed to do anything.  Elizabeth wants to go on a trip to a better climate for her health, but she is blocked from going anywhere at all, for any reason.  So it's not that she isn't attracted to Robert (which she won't admit aloud for a minute), but that circumstances prevent their union.

At last, however, Robert's insistence that he knows what he's doing and that she's the only woman in the whole world for him, and anyway he never planned to get married so it doesn't matter that they can't--seems to have some effect.  Elizabeth admits her feelings in words that make it a bit difficult for modern eyes to see (I found this bit rather confusing), and suddenly Robert is ecstatic.

However, they are still trapped.  Elizabeth warns Robert that his habitual weekly visit is fine, but if he starts showing up more often, the family (her father) will notice and that will be the end of his ability to see her at all.  Any action that hints at a special friendship will lead to disaster.

Letters of RB and EBB, Part I


Nancy said...

I read a book called Dared and Done about the Barrett-Brownings, and the author makes a strong case for Edward Moulton-Barrett's "issue" being one of racial purity. The family had estates in Jamaica, and evidently there may have been (Oh the horror!) some suspicion that the ancestors were not all racially "pure." Her take is that Mr. Moulton-Barrett could not stomach the idea of his children continuing this "tainted" line. By all accounts, Elizabeth's looks were "exotic" - she was dark enough that Robert called her his "Portuguese" - so maybe that was Moulton-Barrett's problem. Whatever. He sounds like a nut-case, doesn't he?

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

I was going to say exactly what Mumsy just said. OH WELL she beat me to it. I was going to beat her to it, but when I tried to post the comment originally I kept getting kicked off.

I love it when they finally reach a point where they totally love each other -- when Elizabeth quits being so reserved and just admits she loves him already. Bless em.