Read Chapter 10 of Life and Letters of Robert Browning, free online book, by Mrs. Sutherland Orr, on


Death of Mr. Browning’s Mother—Birth of his Son—Mrs. Browning’s Letters continued—Baths of Lucca—Florence again—Venice—Margaret Fuller Ossoli—Visit to England—Winter in Paris—Carlyle—George Sand—Alfred de Musset.

On March 9, 1849, Mr. Browning’s son was born. With the joy of his wife’s deliverance from the dangers of such an event came also his first great sorrow. His mother did not live to receive the news of her grandchild’s birth. The letter which conveyed it found her still breathing, but in the unconsciousness of approaching death. There had been no time for warning. The sister could only break the suddenness of the shock. A letter of Mrs. Browning’s tells what was to be told.

Florence: April 30 (’49).

’. . . This is the first packet of letters, except one to Wimpole Street, which I have written since my confinement. You will have heard how our joy turned suddenly into deep sorrow by the death of my husband’s mother. An unsuspected disease (ossification of the heart) terminated in a fatal way—and she lay in the insensibility precursive of the grave’s when the letter written with such gladness by my poor husband and announcing the birth of his child, reached her address. “It would have made her heart bound,” said her daughter to us. Poor tender heart—the last throb was too near. The medical men would not allow the news to be communicated. The next joy she felt was to be in heaven itself. My husband has been in the deepest anguish, and indeed, except for the courageous consideration of his sister who wrote two letters of preparation, saying “She was not well” and she “was very ill” when in fact all was over, I am frightened to think what the result would have been to him. He has loved his mother as such passionate natures only can love, and I never saw a man so bowed down in an extremity of sorrow—never. Even now, the depression is great—and sometimes when I leave him alone a little and return to the room, I find him in tears. I do earnestly wish to change the scene and air—but where to go? England looks terrible now. He says it would break his heart to see his mother’s roses over the wall and the place where she used to lay her scissors and gloves—which I understand so thoroughly that I can’t say “Let us go to England.” We must wait and see what his father and sister will choose to do, or choose us to do—for of course a duty plainly seen would draw us anywhere. My own dearest sisters will be painfully disappointed by any change of plan—only they are too good and kind not to understand the difficulty—not to see the motive. So do you, I am certain. It has been very, very painful altogether, this drawing together of life and death. Robert was too enraptured at my safety and with his little son, and the sudden reaction was terrible. . . .’

Bagni di Lucca.

’. . . We have been wandering in search of cool air and a cool bough among all the olive trees to build our summer nest on. My husband has been suffering beyond what one could shut one’s eyes to, in consequence of the great mental shock of last March—loss of appetite, loss of sleep—looks quite worn and altered. His spirits never rallied except with an effort, and every letter from New Cross threw him back into deep depression. I was very anxious, and feared much that the end of it all would be (the intense heat of Florence assisting) nervous fever or something similar; and I had the greatest difficulty in persuading him to leave Florence for a month or two. He who generally delights in travelling, had no mind for change or movement. I had to say and swear that Baby and I couldn’t bear the heat, and that we must and would go away. “Ce que femme veut, homme veut,” if the latter is at all amiable, or the former persevering. At last I gained the victory. It was agreed that we two should go on an exploring journey, to find out where we could have most shadow at least expense; and we left our child with his nurse and Wilson, while we were absent. We went along the coast to Spezzia, saw Carrara with the white marble mountains, passed through the olive-forests and the vineyards, avenues of acacia trees, chestnut woods, glorious surprises of the most exquisite scenery. I say olive-forests advisedly—the olive grows like a forest-tree in those regions, shading the ground with tints of silvery network. The olive near Florence is but a shrub in comparison, and I have learnt to despise a little too the Florentine vine, which does not swing such portcullises of massive dewy green from one tree to another as along the whole road where we travelled. Beautiful indeed it was. Spezzia wheels the blue sea into the arms of the wooded mountains; and we had a glance at Shelley’s house at Lerici. It was melancholy to me, of course. I was not sorry that the lodgings we inquired about were far above our means. We returned on our steps (after two days in the dirtiest of possible inns), saw Seravezza, a village in the mountains, where rock river and wood enticed us to stay, and the inhabitants drove us off by their unreasonable prices. It is curious—but just in proportion to the want of civilization the prices rise in Italy. If you haven’t cups and saucers, you are made to pay for plate. Well—so finding no rest for the soles of our feet, I persuaded Robert to go to the Baths of Lucca, only to see them. We were to proceed afterwards to San Marcello, or some safer wilderness. We had both of us, but he chiefly, the strongest prejudice against the Baths of Lucca; taking them for a sort of wasp’s nest of scandal and gaming, and expecting to find everything trodden flat by the continental English—yet, I wanted to see the place, because it is a place to see, after all. So we came, and were so charmed by the exquisite beauty of the scenery, by the coolness of the climate, and the absence of our countrymen—political troubles serving admirably our private requirements, that we made an offer for rooms on the spot, and returned to Florence for Baby and the rest of our establishment without further delay. Here we are then. We have been here more than a fortnight. We have taken an apartment for the season—four months, paying twelve pounds for the whole term, and hoping to be able to stay till the end of October. The living is cheaper than even in Florence, so that there has been no extravagance in coming here. In fact Florence is scarcely tenable during the summer from the excessive heat by day and night, even if there were no particular motive for leaving it. We have taken a sort of eagle’s nest in this place—the highest house of the highest of the three villages which are called the Bagni di Lucca, and which lie at the heart of a hundred mountains sung to continually by a rushing mountain stream. The sound of the river and of the cicale is all the noise we hear. Austrian drums and carriage-wheels cannot vex us, God be thanked for it! The silence is full of joy and consolation. I think my husband’s spirits are better already, and his appetite improved. Certainly little Babe’s great cheeks are growing rosier and rosier. He is out all day when the sun is not too strong, and Wilson will have it that he is prettier than the whole population of babies here. . . . Then my whole strength has wonderfully improved—just as my medical friends prophesied,—and it seems like a dream when I find myself able to climb the hills with Robert, and help him to lose himself in the forests. Ever since my confinement I have been growing stronger and stronger, and where it is to stop I can’t tell really. I can do as much or more than at any point of my life since I arrived at woman’s estate. The air of the place seems to penetrate the heart, and not the lungs only: it draws you, raises you, excites you. Mountain air without its keenness—sheathed in Italian sunshine—think what that must be! And the beauty and the solitude—for with a few paces we get free of the habitations of men—all is delightful to me. What is peculiarly beautiful and wonderful, is the variety of the shapes of the mountains. They are a multitude—and yet there is no likeness. None, except where the golden mist comes and transfigures them into one glory. For the rest, the mountain there wrapt in the chestnut forest is not like that bare peak which tilts against the sky—nor like the serpent-twine of another which seems to move and coil in the moving coiling shadow. . . .’

She writes again:

Bagni di Lucca: Oc (’49).

’. . . I have performed a great exploit—ridden on a donkey five miles deep into the mountain, to an almost inaccessible volcanic ground not far from the stars. Robert on horseback, and Wilson and the nurse (with Baby) on other donkies,—guides of course. We set off at eight in the morning, and returned at six P.M. after dining on the mountain pinnacle, I dreadfully tired, but the child laughing as usual, burnt brick colour for all bad effect. No horse or ass untrained for the mountains could have kept foot a moment where we penetrated, and even as it was, one could not help the natural thrill. No road except the bed of exhausted torrents—above and through the chestnut forests precipitous beyond what you would think possible for ascent or descent. Ravines tearing the ground to pieces under your feet. The scenery, sublime and wonderful, satisfied us wholly, as we looked round on the world of innumerable mountains, bound faintly with the grey sea—and not a human habitation. . . .’

The following fragment, which I have received quite without date, might refer to this or to a somewhat later period.

’If he is vain about anything in the world it is about my improved health, and I say to him, “But you needn’t talk so much to people, of how your wife walked here with you, and there with you, as if a wife with a pair of feet was a miracle of nature."’

Florence: Fe (’50).

’. . . You can scarcely imagine to yourself the retired life we live, and how we have retreated from the kind advances of the English society here. Now people seem to understand that we are to be left alone. . . .’

Florence: April 1 (’50).

’. . . We drive day by day through the lovely Cascine, just sweeping through the city. Just such a window where Bianca Capello looked out to see the Duke go by—and just such a door where Tasso stood and where Dante drew his chair out to sit. Strange to have all that old world life about us, and the blue sky so bright. . . .’

Venice: June 4 (probably ’50).

’. . . I have been between Heaven and Earth since our arrival at Venice. The Heaven of it is ineffable—never had I touched the skirts of so celestial a place. The beauty of the architecture, the silver trails of water up between all that gorgeous colour and carving, the enchanting silence, the music, the gondolas—I mix it all up together and maintain that nothing is like it, nothing equal to it, not a second Venice in the world.

’Do you know when I came first I felt as if I never could go away. But now comes the earth-side.

’Robert, after sharing the ecstasy, grows uncomfortable and nervous, unable to eat or sleep, and poor Wilson still worse, in a miserable condition of sickness and headache. Alas for these mortal Venices, so exquisite and so bilious. Therefore I am constrained away from my joys by sympathy, and am forced to be glad that we are going away on Friday. For myself, it did not affect me at all. Take the mild, soft, relaxing climate—even the scirocco does not touch me. And the baby grows gloriously fatter in spite of everything. . . . As for Venice, you can’t get even a “Times”, much less an “Athenaeum”. We comfort ourselves by taking a box at the opera (a whole box on the grand tier, mind) for two shillings and eightpence, English. Also, every evening at half-past eight, Robert and I are sitting under the moon in the great piazza of St. Mark, taking excellent coffee and reading the French papers.’

If it were possible to draw more largely on Mrs. Browning’s correspondence for this year, it would certainly supply the record of her intimacy, and that of her husband, with Margaret Fuller Ossoli. A warm attachment sprang up between them during that lady’s residence in Florence. Its last evenings were all spent at their house; and, soon after she had bidden them farewell, she availed herself of a two days’ delay in the departure of the ship to return from Leghorn and be with them one evening more. She had what seemed a prophetic dread of the voyage to America, though she attached no superstitious importance to the prediction once made to her husband that he would be drowned; and learned when it was too late to change her plans that her presence there was, after all, unnecessary. Mr. Browning was deeply affected by the news of her death by shipwreck, which took place on July 16, 1850; and wrote an account of his acquaintance with her, for publication by her friends. This also, unfortunately, was lost. Her son was of the same age as his, little more than a year old; but she left a token of the friendship which might some day have united them, in a small Bible inscribed to the baby Robert, ‘In memory of Angelo Ossoli.’

The intended journey to England was delayed for Mr. Browning by the painful associations connected with his mother’s death; but in the summer of 1851 he found courage to go there: and then, as on each succeeding visit paid to London with his wife, he commemorated his marriage in a manner all his own. He went to the church in which it had been solemnized, and kissed the paving-stones in front of the door. It needed all this love to comfort Mrs. Browning in the estrangement from her father which was henceforth to be accepted as final. He had held no communication with her since her marriage, and she knew that it was not forgiven; but she had cherished a hope that he would so far relent towards her as to kiss her child, even if he would not see her. Her prayer to this effect remained, however, unanswered.

In the autumn they proceeded to Paris; whence Mrs. Browning wrote, October 22 and November 12.

138, Avenue des Champs Elysees.

’. . . It was a long time before we could settle ourselves in a private apartment. . . . At last we came off to these Champs Elysees, to a very pleasant apartment, the window looking over a large terrace (almost large enough to serve the purpose of a garden) to the great drive and promenade of the Parisians when they come out of the streets to sun and shade and show themselves off among the trees. A pretty little dining-room, a writing and dressing-room for Robert beside it, a drawing-room beyond that, with two excellent bedrooms, and third bedroom for a “femme de ménage”, kitchen, &c. . . . So this answers all requirements, and the sun suns us loyally as in duty bound considering the southern aspect, and we are glad to find ourselves settled for six months. We have had lovely weather, and have seen a fire only yesterday for the first time since we left England. . . . We have seen nothing in Paris, except the shell of it. Yet, two evenings ago we hazarded going to a reception at Lady Elgin’s, in the Faubourg St. Germain, and saw some French, but nobody of distinction.

’It is a good house, I believe, and she has an earnest face which must mean something. We were invited to go every Monday between eight and twelve. We go on Friday to Madame Mohl’s, where we are to have some of the “célébrités”. . . . Carlyle, for instance, I liked infinitely more in his personality than I expected to like him, and I saw a great deal of him, for he travelled with us to Paris, and spent several evenings with us, we three together. He is one of the most interesting men I could imagine, even deeply interesting to me; and you come to understand perfectly when you know him, that his bitterness is only melancholy, and his scorn, sensibility. Highly picturesque, too, he is in conversation; the talk of writing men is very seldom so good.

’And, do you know, I was much taken, in London, with a young authoress, Geraldine Jewsbury. You have read her books. . . . She herself is quiet and simple, and drew my heart out of me a good deal. I felt inclined to love her in our half-hour’s intercourse. . . .’

138, Avenue des Champs Elysees: (No.

’. . . Robert’s father and sister have been paying us a visit during the last three weeks. They are very affectionate to me, and I love them for his sake and their own, and am very sorry at the thought of losing them, as we are on the point of doing. We hope, however, to establish them in Paris, if we can stay, and if no other obstacle should arise before the spring, when they must leave Hatcham. Little Wiedemann ‘draws’, as you may suppose . . . he is adored by his grandfather, and then, Robert! They are an affectionate family, and not easy when removed one from another. . . .’

On their journey from London to Paris, Mr. and Mrs. Browning had been joined by Carlyle; and it afterwards struck Mr. Browning as strange that, in the ‘Life’ of Carlyle, their companionship on this occasion should be spoken of as the result of a chance meeting. Carlyle not only went to Paris with the Brownings, but had begged permission to do so; and Mrs. Browning had hesitated to grant this because she was afraid her little boy would be tiresome to him. Her fear, however, proved mistaken. The child’s prattle amused the philosopher, and led him on one occasion to say: ‘Why, sir, you have as many aspirations as Napoleon!’ At Paris he would have been miserable without Mr. Browning’s help, in his ignorance of the language, and impatience of the discomforts which this created for him. He couldn’t ask for anything, he complained, but they brought him the opposite.

On one occasion Mr. Carlyle made a singular remark. He was walking with Mr. Browning, either in Paris or the neighbouring country, when they passed an image of the Crucifixion; and glancing towards the figure of Christ, he said, with his deliberate Scotch utterance, ’Ah, poor fellow, your part is played out!’

Two especially interesting letters are dated from the same address, February 15 and April 7, 1852.

’. . . Beranger lives close to us, and Robert has seen him in his white hat, wandering along the asphalte. I had a notion, somehow, that he was very old, but he is only elderly—not much above sixty (which is the prime of life, nowadays) and he lives quietly and keeps out of scrapes poetical and political, and if Robert and I had a little less modesty we are assured that we should find access to him easy. But we can’t make up our minds to go to his door and introduce ourselves as vagrant minstrels, when he may probably not know our names. We could never follow the fashion of certain authors, who send their books about with intimations of their being likely to be acceptable or not—of which practice poor Tennyson knows too much for his peace. If, indeed, a letter of introduction to Beranger were vouchsafed to us from any benign quarter, we should both be delighted, but we must wait patiently for the influence of the stars. Meanwhile, we have at last sent our letter [Mazzini’s] to George Sand, accompanied with a little note signed by both of us, though written by me, as seemed right, being the woman. We half-despaired in doing this—for it is most difficult, it appears, to get at her, she having taken vows against seeing strangers, in consequence of various annoyances and persécutions, in and out of print, which it’s the mere instinct of a woman to avoid—I can understand it perfectly. Also, she is in Paris for only a few days, and under a new name, to escape from the plague of her notoriety. People said, “She will never see you—you have no chance, I am afraid.” But we determined to try. At least I pricked Robert up to the leap—for he was really inclined to sit in his chair and be proud a little. “No,” said I, “you sha’n’t be proud, and I won’t be proud, and we will see her—I won’t die, if I can help it, without seeing George Sand.” So we gave our letter to a friend, who was to give it to a friend who was to place it in her hands—her abode being a mystery, and the name she used unknown. The next day came by the post this answer:

’"Madame, j’aurai l’honneur de vous recevoir Dimanche prochain, rue Racine, 3. C’est lé seul jour que je puisse passer chez moi; et encore je n’en suis pas absolument certaine—maïs je ferai tellement mon possible, que ma bonne étoile m’y aidera peut-être un peu. Agreez mille remerciments de coeur ainsi que Monsieur Browning, que j’espere voir avec vous, pour la sympathie que vous m’accordez. George Sand. Paris: 12 février ’52.”

’This is graceful and kind, is it not?—and we are going to-morrow—I, rather at the risk of my life, but I shall roll myself up head and all in a thick shawl, and we shall go in a close carriage, and I hope I shall be able to tell you the result before shutting up this letter.

’Monday.—I have seen G. S. She received us in a room with a bed in it, the only room she has to occupy, I suppose, during her short stay in Paris. She received us very cordially with her hand held out, which I, in the emotion of the moment, stooped and kissed—upon which she exclaimed, “Mais non! je ne veux pas,” and kissed me. I don’t think she is a great deal taller than I am,—yes, taller, but not a great deal—and a little over-stout for that height. The upper part of the face is fine, the forehead, eyebrows and eyes—dark glowing eyes as they should be; the lower part not so good. The beautiful teeth project a little, flashing out the smile of the large characteristic mouth, and the chin recedes. It never could have been a beautiful face Robert and I agree, but noble and expressive it has been and is. The complexion is olive, quite without colour; the hair, black and glossy, divided with evident care and twisted back into a knot behind the head, and she wore no covering to it. Some of the portraits represent her in ringlets, and ringlets would be much more becoming to the style of face, I fancy, for the cheeks are rather over-full. She was dressed in a sort of woollen grey gown, with a jacket of the same material (according to the ruling fashion), the gown fastened up to the throat, with a small linen collarette, and plain white muslin sleeves buttoned round the wrists. The hands offered to me were small and well-shaped. Her manners were quite as simple as her costume. I never saw a simpler woman. Not a shade of affectation or consciousness, even—not a suffusion of coquetry, not a cigarette to be seen! Two or three young men were sitting with her, and I observed the profound respect with which they listened to every word she said. She spoke rapidly, with a low, unemphatic voice. Repose of manner is much more her characteristic than animation is—only, under all the quietness, and perhaps by means of it, you are aware of an intense burning soul. She kissed me again when we went away. . . .’

’April 7.—George Sand we came to know a great deal more of. I think Robert saw her six times. Once he met her near the Tuileries, offered her his arm and walked with her the whole length of the gardens. She was not on that occasion looking as well as usual, being a little too much “endimanchée” in terrestrial lavenders and super-celestial blues—not, in fact, dressed with the remarkable taste which he has seen in her at other times. Her usual costume is both pretty and quiet, and the fashionable waistcoat and jacket (which are respectable in all the “Ladies’ Companions” of the day) make the only approach to masculine wearings to be observed in her.

’She has great nicety and refinement in her personal ways, I think—and the cigarette is really a feminine weapon if properly understood.

’Ah! but I didn’t see her smoke. I was unfortunate. I could only go with Robert three times to her house, and once she was out. He was really very good and kind to let me go at all after he found the sort of society rampant around her. He didn’t like it extremely, but being the prince of husbands, he was lenient to my desires, and yielded the point. She seems to live in the abomination of desolation, as far as regards society—crowds of ill-bred men who adore her, ‘a genoux bas’, betwixt a puff of smoke and an ejection of saliva—society of the ragged red, diluted with the low theatrical. She herself so different, so apart, so alone in her melancholy disdain. I was deeply interested in that poor woman. I felt a profound compassion for her. I did not mind much even the Greek, in Greek costume, who ‘tutoyed’ her, and kissed her I believe, so Robert said—or the other vulgar man of the theatre, who went down on his knees and called her “sublime”. “Caprice d’amitie,” said she with her quiet, gentle scorn. A noble woman under the mud, be certain. I would kneel down to her, too, if she would leave it all, throw it off, and be herself as God made her. But she would not care for my kneeling—she does not care for me. Perhaps she doesn’t care much for anybody by this time, who knows? She wrote one or two or three kind notes to me, and promised to ‘venir m’embrasser’ before she left Paris, but she did not come. We both tried hard to please her, and she told a friend of ours that she “liked us”. Only we always felt that we couldn’t penetrate—couldn’t really touch her—it was all vain.

‘Alfred de Musset was to have been at M. Buloz’ where Robert was a week ago, on purpose to meet him, but he was prevented in some way. His brother, Paul de Musset, a very different person, was there instead, but we hope to have Alfred on another occasion. Do you know his poems? He is not capable of large grasps, but he has poet’s life and blood in him, I assure you. . . . We are expecting a visit from Lamartine, who does a great deal of honour to both of us in the way of appreciation, and was kind enough to propose to come. I will tell you all about it.’

Mr. Browning fully shared his wife’s impression of a want of frank cordiality on George Sand’s part; and was especially struck by it in reference to himself, with whom it seemed more natural that she should feel at ease. He could only imagine that his studied courtesy towards her was felt by her as a rebuke to the latitude which she granted to other men.

Another eminent French writer whom he much wished to know was Victor Hugo, and I am told that for years he carried about him a letter of introduction from Lord Houghton, always hoping for an opportunity of presenting it. The hope was not fulfilled, though, in 1866, Mr. Browning crossed to Saint Malo by the Channel Islands and spent three days in Jersey.