John Westland Marston (1819–90)
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 8, 328–329.
Browning scholars remember Marston chiefly as the dramatic poet included in the same chapter with RB in R.H. Horne’s A New Spirit of the Age, 1844 (see pp. 344–352). Such an assessment is not entirely fair, since this Browning correspondent did manage some achievements in his own right. As for the chapter in Horne’s book, it concentrated on RB, with short portions here and there devoted to Marston and to Thomas Powell. Marston was born at Boston, Lincolnshire, on 30 January 1819, son of the Rev. Stephen Marston, a Baptist minister. At the age of 15 the boy was apprenticed to an uncle who was a London solicitor. He studied and worked satisfactorily in the law office, but soon became more interested in literature, the theatre, and mysticism. After the end of his law apprenticeship he edited a mystical periodical, The Psyche. His interests in mysticism endeared him to a group of wealthy Cheltenham ladies, upon whose financial support he depended for a while. Through them he met Jane Potts, daughter of a publisher, and the two were married in 1840 despite her family’s strong opposition. He drew upon his own love story in writing his first play, The Patrician’s Daughter (1841). In the following year he produced a volume entitled Gerald, a Dramatic Poem, and other Poems. A discussion of Gerald in R.H. Horne’s A New Spirit of the Age included the following: “It may … be doubted whether the author’s faculties have attained their maturity, judging by the love he has for displaying his good things in italics, evidently showing that he considers the ideas as very new, which they frequently are not, though perhaps expressed in a novel form.” Later, referring also to The Patrician’s Daughter, the critic said: “That the author of both these works is a man of genius, and one of the moving spirits of the time, no doubt can exist. Mr. Marston’s writings are full of thoughtful beauty, of religious aspiration, and affectionate tenderness. He has also acquired considerable reputation as a lecturer, and is in other respects likely to have a prosperous career before him—a career which at present he has not commenced in that fullness of strength which we anticipate he will shortly develop.” Marston did, indeed, become an active lecturer, as indicated by Thomas Westwood in a letter written to EBB on 10 December 1846: “I see … that Mr. Marston has been lecturing in Edinburgh & that his last lecture contains an ‘estimate of the genius of Elizabeth Barrett & the author of Festus [Philip James Bailey, whose poem had appeared anonymously in 1839]’. Stone by stone, my dear Mrs. Browning, you are building up your fame.” Marston’s chief plays besides The Patrician’s Daughter were Strathmore (1849), A Hard Struggle (1858), and Donna Diana (1863). He was well known in London literary circles. Starting in about 1863 Marston wrote literary criticisms for The Athenæum, and he eventually contributed articles to The Dictionary of National Biography. In his late years, Marston was grieved by the deaths of his wife and his three children. One of these, the son Philip, was himself a gifted poet. John Marston’s own death occurred on 5 January 1890, and he was buried in Highgate Cemetery, London.
Marston and RB were acquainted by 1842, the year in which The Patrician’s Daughter was produced at the Drury Lane Theatre by William Charles Macready. RB’s A Blot in the ’Scutcheon appeared at that theatre in the following February, and Macready economized on it by using some of the scenery from Marston’s drama. EBB also knew of Marston in the 1840’s, but apparently was not much impressed. Referring to the chapter in A New Spirit of the Age which grouped RB with Marston and Powell, she wrote to RB on 15 May 1845: “You were not placed with your peers in that chapter.” Known correspondence between the Brownings and Marston extends from the 1840’s through 1877. Notice was taken of the couple’s marriage, in a letter from Marston to RB dated 23 September 1846. Exactly five years later, on 23 September 1851, RB expressed regret at not having been able to call on the Marstons while in London that year. Marston wrote to EBB about spiritualism, a topic of mutual interest, late in 1853. His letter is not extant; but EBB’s reply, dated 14 December, survives. She wrote: “Will you write to me, dear Mr. Marston, if you have further [spiritualistic] experiences & will trust them to me?… My husband calls himself sceptical. Your letter impressed him more than any testimony he has received.” There were various contacts between RB and Marston after RB’s return to England in 1861. On 9 February 1877, Marston, having fallen into financial troubles, asked RB for a testimonial to help toward his receiving a government pension. RB responded immediately, and Marston thanked him on 10 February. This is the last known exchange of correspondence between the two. A lengthy biography in DNB gives no indication of Marston’s obtaining a government pension. It does say, however, that he received more than £900 from a benefit performance of Byron’s Werner in 1887.
Reconstruction lists two of RB’s books—Paracelsus (1835) and Sordello (1840)—both inscribed to Marston in 1844 (items C434 and C568).