William Wetmore Story

William Wetmore Story (1819–95)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 20, 349–360.

William Wetmore Story was born on 12 February 1819 in Salem, Massachusetts, the sixth child and second son of Joseph Story (1779–1845) and his second wife Sarah Waldo (née Wetmore, 1784–1855). Story’s father was an esteemed jurist, whose numerous writings on law were read with interest on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1811 he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1829 he became the first Dane Professor of Law at Harvard, contributing greatly to the pre-eminence of its law school. Five years later, William entered Harvard at the age of fifteen, graduating in 1838. He studied law with his father for three years, earning his LL.B in 1840, then joined the law firm of George Stillman Hillard and Charles Sumner and practiced his profession for the next seven years. During this period he wrote two significant law studies: A Treatise on the Law of Contracts not under Seal (Boston, 1844) and A Treatise on the Law of Sales of Personal Property (Boston, 1847), both of which went into several editions.

The year 1847 proved to be a turning point in Story's life. Apart from the publication of his first volume of poetry, Poems, containing several of his contributions to periodicals, it was the year in which, for all practical purposes, he abandoned a promising career in law (although the break would not become permanent until 1856), and, more significantly, it was the year of his maiden voyage to Italy. Following the death of Joseph Story, a committee had been formed to honor him with a statue to be placed in the memorial chapel at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Surprisingly, the commission was handed to his son, who, though a promising amateur, had no formal training in sculpture. Declaring himself unqualified, Story agreed to accept the commission provided he could first study art in Europe. In the fall of 1847 he sailed from Boston with his young family: wife Emelyn (née Eldredge, 1820–94), three-year-old daughter Edith “Edie” (1844–1917), and infant son Joseph “Joe” (1847–53). Emelyn was the daughter of Boston merchant Oliver Eldredge (1789–1857) and his wife Hannah (née Smalley, 1793–1867). The Storys were married in October 1843. Commenting on their marriage, Henry James wrote: “This union, in its unsurpassable closeness, was one of those things, in its kind, that still suffice to confer success in life” (William Wetmore Story and His Friends, London, 1903, I, 39). Story did not consider himself wealthy, but he was certainly prosperous. All but one of his siblings died young, and when his only surviving sister died in 1848, he was left sole heir to his father’s properties, allowing Story and his family to live and travel in comfort and style.

The Storys arrived in Italy at Genoa and made their way to Florence. They spent most of 1848 in Rome, returning at the end of the year to Florence where they first met the Brownings. Again in Rome during the French siege in the spring of 1849, they were often in the company of Margaret Fuller. They left Rome in May, before the fall of the Roman Republic, and turned north, visiting Venice, Berlin, Paris, and London, before sailing back to America in October 1850. Once there, Story finished editing a biography of his father, Life and Letters of Joseph Story (Boston, 1851). He also presented a plan for his father’s memorial statue, which was approved. Returning to Rome in the fall of 1851, Story and his family moved into an apartment at 93 Piazza di Spagna; and he established a studio nearby in Via Sistina. In the summer of 1853, the Storys travelled to Bagni di Lucca in Tuscany, to escape the Roman heat, and renewed their friendship with the Brownings. Back at Rome in November, the family was devastated when six-year-old Joe Story died of gastric fever. Edith came down with the same ailment and, not long afterwards, with what was diagnosed as Roman Fever (malaria). For the sake of her health, in May 1854 the Storys left Italy for Paris, where their third child Thomas Waldo (1854–1915) was born on 9 December, and where they remained until the following year before returning to America via England.

Story was needed in Boston; his mother had become very ill (she would die before he landed). In addition, he was working on a substantial revision and enlargement of his Treatise on the Law of Contracts (4th ed., Boston, 1856) and finishing a new collection of poetry, Poems (Boston, 1856), which he dedicated to his close friend James Russell Lowell. Further, Story wanted to see about the statue of his father, which had been formally accepted by the memorial committee in June 1855. Exhibited first in the Boston Athenæum, then moved to the Bigelow Chapel in the Mt. Auburn Cemetery, the statue is currently housed in the entrance to Langdell Hall at the Harvard Law School; see Jan M. Seidler, “A Critical Reappraisal of the Career of William Wetmore Story (1819–1895), American Sculptor and Man of Letters,” Ph.D. thesis, Boston University, 1985 (pp. 274, 304, and 392n). Having seen to these various tasks, Story was now determined to go back to Rome “for good” (James, I, 321).

In June 1856, the Storys sailed for England, where they remained through the autumn. Emelyn gave birth to their fourth child, Julian Russell (1856–1919), on 8 September at Walton-on-Thames. In December they returned to Rome and within a year moved into a spacious apartment on the piano nobile of the Palazzo Barberini. It would be their permanent residence for the rest of their lives. Story also relocated his studio from Via Sistina to 4 Via di S. Nicolo di Tolentino. As the decade drew to a close, he became so discouraged at his lack of commissions, that he considered going back to Boston and the law. In 1860, however, there came encouragement from an unlikely source. In that year Nathaniel Hawthorne published his Italian romance, The Marble Faun, which included glowing descriptions of Story’s sculpture, “Cleopatra.” Hawthorne had seen a model of it in clay two years before. In 1862 Story sent “Cleopatra” and another statue much admired by his friends, “The Lybian Sibyl,” to the International Exhibition in London. The Athenæum thought well enough of them to declare that of the new exhibitors, “Mr. Story, the American, bears away the honours” (10 May 1862, no. 1802, p. 631). The two statues made Story’s reputation as a sculptor, and thereafter he was never short of commissions. Also in 1862, Story met with literary success when he published his Roba di Roma, a prose collection of personal Roman experiences. As his statues had, this too received accolades from The Athenæum, which concluded a four-column review with the following: “His book … is lively, readable, and has permanent value enough to entitle it to a place of honour in the shelf which contains every lover of Italy’s Rome-books” (24 January 1863, no. 1839, p. 117). Roba di Roma reached a fourth edition in less than twelve months.

From 1861 on, Story was nothing if not productive, both in his literary endeavors and his sculpting. Each year saw the creation of one or more statues. Apart from his interest in biblical and classical themes, which produced “Saul” (1863), “Medea” (1864), “Delilah” (1866), “Salome” (1869–70), “Alcestis Returning from the Other World” (1874), and “Orpheus” (1883–84), Story began receiving commissions for statues of public figures. Among these were Edward Everett (1867), now in Richardson Park, Boston; George Peabody (1869), behind the Royal Exchange, London; Chief Justice John Marshall (1884), Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C.; and Francis Scott Key (1888), Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Story’s literary output nearly kept pace with his sculpting. He continued to write poetry: Graffiti d’Italia (Edinburgh and New York, 1868), Poems (Edinburgh, 1885; Boston, 1886), and numerous contributions to The Atlantic Monthly, The North American Review, and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. But he was writing a great deal of prose as well, chiefly non-fiction. This included a series of letters under the title of “The American Question” in The Daily News of 25, 26, and 27 December 1861, regarding the lack of England’s sympathy and support for the North in the American Civil War; The Proportions of the Human Figure, According to a New Canon (1864); Vallombrosa (Edinburgh, 1880); and Conversations in a Studio (Boston, 1890).

Story continued to work into the 1890’s, but after Emelyn’s death in January 1894, he wrote to a friend: “She was my life, my joy, my stay and help in all things. … What is left seems to be but a blank of silence, a dead wall which, when I cry out … only echoes back my own voice” (James, II, 316–317). In his last sculpture, Story created a monument for his wife’s grave in the Protestant Cemetery at Rome. He described the work to a relative: “It represents the angel of Grief, in utter abandonment, throwing herself with drooping wings and hidden face over a funeral altar. It represents what I feel” (II, 324). Henry James pronounced the figure as “unsurpassed, in all his work, for intensity of expression” (II, 324).

Story spent the summer and early autumn of 1895 at Villa Lago di Vallombrosa, near the famous monastery. It was the summer retreat of his daughter Edith and her husband the Marchese Peruzzi, whom she had married in 1876. Story died there in his sleep on 7 October 1895.

The Brownings first met William Wetmore Story and his family in Florence near the end of 1848 or the beginning of 1849 by way of an introduction from Margaret Fuller. In describing the “new acquaintances,” EBB told her sister Arabella that Mr. Story was “full of talent & refinement” and that Mrs. Story had “great sweetness both of face & manner” (letter 2768). Over the next two months or so, the Brownings and Storys must have seen each other fairly often. In a letter to James Russell Lowell, dated Rome, 21 March 1849, Story gushed about the Brownings: “We became great friends in Florence—and of course we could not become friends without liking each other. … He [RB] has great vivacity, but not the least humor—some sarcasm, considerable critical faculty, and very great frankness—& friendliness of manner & mind. Mrs. B is very petite. … She used to sit buried up in a large easy chair, listening & talking very quietly & pleasantly with nothing of that peculiarity which one would expect from reading her poems. … Very unaffected & pleasant & simple hearted is she” (SD1372 in vol. 15). For the Storys’ visit to England prior to their return to America in 1850, RB provided letters of introduction to various friends, among whom were John Forster and most probably Henry Chorley. Over the next three years there is little recorded evidence of correspondence between the families. However, there was an exchange of letters in regard to Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (Boston, 1852); see letter 2940.

In the summer of 1853 at Bagni di Lucca, the two families renewed their friendship. The Storys called on the Brownings the day after the latter’s arrival. EBB wrote that she and RB thought the Storys “were at Rome, & lo, they were at the Bagni Caldi, & ran down the mountain to take us by surprise” (letter 3230). EBB described how the summer proceeded in a letter to her sister Arabella: “We go backwards & forwards to the Storys. … Every three or four days they come to us to tea & strawberries, or we go to them—never separating without fixing a day for meeting. Also, they take us out to drive in their carriage; for though he is a sculptor, they are rich people .. belonging to a rich family” (letter 3250). EBB warmed to Emelyn Story very quickly, addressing her in letters as Emelyn soon after the Brownings’ stay at Bagni di Lucca. However, EBB was to cool almost as quickly. The children too had become friends, alternately entertaining each other just as the adults were doing. But it was for Edith that Pen held the most affection, as EBB remarked to Anna Jameson: “There’s a romantic attachment between him and Edith Story, who, being double his age, is peculiarly attractive to him” (letter 3252). The families made various excursions together in the surrounding countryside. A memorable one to Prato Fiorito on 15 September 1853, which required a steep climb of several hours, was recorded by William Story in his diary; see SD1683 in vol. 19.

Story shared EBB’s fascination with spiritualism. Consequently, on the second to the last night of the Storys’ stay in Bagni di Lucca, an attempt was made at table-turning. Although it failed, the result according to EBB of her husband’s laughing and joking, a game of guessing the writers of correspondence proved more successful (see letter 3274). Back in Florence, where the Storys stayed for a month before returning to Rome, EBB became upset during a séance because the others present, which included the Storys, the Francis George Shaws, and Robert Bulwer Lytton, were not participating in “these experiments with humility & reverence” (letter 3286).

A recurring topic of discussion during this period was certainly the Brownings’ forthcoming trip to Rome where the Storys resided. The latter found the Brownings an apartment at 43 Via Bocca di Leone. But what was to be a winter and spring of happy fellowship began on a melancholy note. The day after the poets' arrival in Rome on 22 November 1853, the Storys’ six-year-old son Joe died of what was believed to be gastric fever. The resulting pall cast over EBB’s maiden visit to the city resulted in the following remarks to Miss Mitford, two weeks before the Brownings returned to Florence: “To leave Rome will fill me with barbarian complacency—I dont pretend to have a rag of sentiment about Rome. … I am strongly a creature of association—& the associations of the place have not been personally favorable to me” (letter 3413). Edith Story too became ill: first with gastric fever, then Roman Fever (malaria). The Brownings were somewhat critical of the Storys’ handling of both Joe’s illness and Edith’s. In Joe’s case, William Story’s trusting at first in a homœopathic physician, probably G. Franco, rather than the more-respected Diomede Pantaleoni, prompted EBB to remark: “If he [Pantaleoni] had been called in earlier to poor Joe … but I cant bear to write or think of it– Mr. Story believed in homœopathy & employed a clever homœopathic physician, till Robert insisted, when they were all powerless with despair, on calling in Pantaleone [sic] & doing something” (letter 3299). In the case of Edith, the correspondence shows that while the Storys continued to take advice from Pantaleoni they did not always follow it, particularly in regard to the prescribed dosages of quinine. The Brownings considered this a mistake (see, for example, letters 3359 and 3370). EBB also thought it a mistake, as did Pantaleoni, to keep Edith in Rome, which was generally deemed unhealthy. When the Storys finally did leave, EBB wrote to Miss Mitford: “Those poor friends of ours, the Storys, have been forced to take away their remaining child at last (I wonder they did’nt do it months ago) by the persistent fever & ague, & have been interrupted on their journey to Naples, at Velletri, through an access of illness which I fear is threatening to life” (letter 3360). From Velletri, Story sent an anxious letter to RB, asking him to come, as the girl seemed at the point of death. RB dutifully went, but EBB was not happy. She wrote to her sister Arabella: “Mr. Story wrote a sort of mad letter to Robert– How was he to stay there alone if the child died? … Mr. Story should scarcely have written such a letter– At the worst, he was there with his wife, two servants, three physicians, & full pecuniary resources, & should have felt himself sufficient for the straight, in all manliness & fortitude, without calling upon Robert .. who, after all, was only a friend of a few months. … I like Mr. Story infinitely better than I like her, by the way, in spite of this want of courage & firmness” (letter 3378).

EBB’s disenchantment with Emelyn Story may have stemmed from what was perceived as a superficial reaction to her son’s death. EBB told Arabella that Mrs. Story “has one of the soft, flexible expansive natures … which by talking as well as weeping out its grief, relieves itself easily, and I do not expect for her any very protracted affliction” (letter 3292). And in a letter to Isa Blagden, who disliked Mrs. Story, EBB commented on the sculptor’s looking unwell: “He is the only one of the house who may be a little the worse a year hence for what has happened” (letter 3411). It is revealing that in the extant correspondence EBB began as early as October 1853 addressing Mrs. Story as Emelyn but never signed herself “Ba.” Although EBB retained a fondness for Emelyn’s husband, she would say in a letter to Isa Blagden, dated Paris, [14 June 1856]: “I have had another letter from Mr. Story, consisting of six sheets & confirmatory of the spirits … all very satisfactory. What is less so, is, that the Storys sail on the eighteenth of June [from America], & hope to see us immediately, & to spend the winter in our dear society, where, says he is of no consequence, as long as with us! This measure of mutual beatitude, however, we shall escape by means foul or fair. How, is of no consequence, as long as &c &c &c” (ms at Fitzwilliam).

As the foregoing letter implies, during the period that the Storys were back in America (1855–56), Story kept EBB informed of spiritualist developments there. These letters have not survived, nor have EBB’s replies, if there were any. Although she felt less affectionate towards the Storys, RB remained a stalwart friend. In July 1856, RB received a presentation copy of Story’s Poems (Boston, 1856) and responded in a letter of the 21st with hearty praise, to which EBB added a note of congratulation. It would appear, much to EBB’s contentment, that the two families did not meet during the summer of 1856. Nor did they meet again until the late autumn of 1858 when the Brownings returned to Rome. But during the next two and a half years, the Storys and Brownings would, except for a month in the late spring and a month in the late fall, reside within an easy walk of one another. In the winter of 1858–59, the Brownings occupied their old quarters at 43 Via Bocca di Leone. EBB had not altered her opinion of Emelyn Story since their last meeting in the spring of 1854. Writing to Isa Blagden on 12 December [1858], EBB remarked: “She [Mrs. Story] is less pretty through having increased her scale” (ms at Fitzwilliam); and “Mrs. Story has tired of sitting for her picture [by William Page], so leaves it on his hands– There’s human gratitude for you! Page told us, because we asked, but he told it quietly & with as little temper as possible”; then, to the same recipient, “I dont think she has gone off in looks at all, for my part—nor come on in other respects. But I like him, with all his faults .. which so much make his misfortunes that one grows tender to forgive them” (15 February [1859], ms at Berg). It must also be remembered, however, that during the next two years EBB would often make a point of the Storys’ great kindness, to her in particular. There is no evidence that RB ever had an unkind word for either of the Storys.

The two families had planned to spend the summer of 1859 in villas just outside Siena, the Storys having spoken of the pleasantness of the situation. The mutual holiday was temporarily postponed, however, when EBB fell gravely ill in July 1859 following the signing of the Peace of Villafranca, which put an end to the Second War of Italian Independence. During this time, the Storys provided invaluable help to the Brownings: by finding an appropriate villa, suitable for EBB’s needs; by taking care of Walter Savage Landor, who had become the de facto ward of RB; and by leaving EBB alone after her arrival in Siena, as she remained far too weak to see anyone until well into September.

As winter approached, the Brownings once again looked towards Rome. The Storys put together a selection of apartments for their friends, who chose one at 28 Via del Tritone, close by the Palazzo Barberini. EBB referred to the Storys’ help in a 7 December [1859] letter to Isa Blagden: “On approaching Rome we met the Storys’ carriage. They had been out to meet us for several days, and I must say that every possible exertion & kindness have been lavished by them in behalf of us” (ms at Fitzwilliam). By the end of the year, the Brownings began sending their son Pen to the Palazzo Barberini three days a week for instruction in Latin and mathematics alongside Edith under the tutelage of a Roman Catholic priest, the Abbé Venturini. Considering the difference in ages between the two students, EBB was “very grateful for this condescendance on Edith’s part, for it would be ruin & indolence, for my child, if he learnt in company with a pupil more backward that [sic, for than] himself” (letter to Mary Ann Bruen, [?4] May [1860], ms at ABL). Edith seems to have become EBB’s favorite in the Story clan. In the same letter, she wrote of her: “She is intelligent, & very truthful & direct, as well as generous & unvain—& Pen is very justly fond of her.” EBB showed her affection for Edith on Christmas Day 1859 with a gift of several books.

The summer of 1860 saw the Brownings and Storys once more in villas outside Siena. This was a difficult period for EBB. Word had reached the poets in June that her sister Henrietta was seriously ill and in great pain. EBB lived in constant fear of worse news from England. Additionally, a major event in the Italian drive for unification had taken place in Sicily: Garibaldi, after landing with “The Thousand” at the beginning of May, had taken control of the island by the end of the month and was poised to sail for the mainland. The anxiety over her sister’s condition and the excitement of Italian victories wore EBB down; and as she had the summer before, she remained quietly in her villa, seeing the Storys seldom. Meanwhile, the Abbé Venturini was in Siena, staying with the Storys; and Pen was able to continue his studies with Edith.

After leaving Siena, the Storys joined the Brownings in Florence for a few weeks, departing for Rome on 5 November. The poets hoped to follow soon, but the deteriorating weather made such a move impossible for EBB. Meanwhile, RB had grave concerns about receiving news of Henrietta and determined to leave Florence before it arrived. On 17 November 1860 he wrote to the Storys: “If the next post brings the calamitous intelligence I cannot but expect—we should not be able to leave at all—& what the effect would be on Ba, of mental & physical suffering together, you may imagine. … I daresay you will kindly take our letters at the post so that we may be no longer in suspence than is necessary. Also—you will understand to say ‘No Letters!’ should you meet us—so as to allow me to get the first reading” (ms at Texas). The Storys were more than happy to comply with RB’s request, but in fact there were no letters when the Brownings arrived at Rome.

When letters finally came, announcing Henrietta’s death on 23 November 1860, the resulting anguish suffered by EBB kept her secluded in the Brownings’ apartment at 126 Via Felice (another residence discovered by the Storys and located not far from their own apartment), seeing few people and retiring at eight o’clock, after which RB went out, often to the Storys. In a December 1860 letter to William Michael Rossetti, Edith wrote that “Mr. Browning is the same dear genial friend; we see him almost every evening” (Ruskin: Rossetti: Preraphaelitism; Papers 1854 to 1862, ed. William Michael Rossetti, London, 1899, p. 256). While Pen continued his studies with the Abbé Venturini, RB began to study sculpting under William Story at his studio in Via di S. Nicolo. According to EBB, in a letter to Fanny Haworth dated 1 February [1861], RB had “copied already two busts, the Young Augustus, & the Psyche, & is engaged on another—enchanted with his new trade—working six hours a day” (ms at Fitzwilliam). Story would recall in an August 1861 letter to Charles Eliot Norton that RB worked with him “daily for 3 hours” in his studio (ms at Harvard).

By April, EBB was strong enough to venture out into Rome, and one of her first visits was to Story’s studio where she saw “The Lybian Sibyl.” In a letter to her brother George, she wrote: “I … have been out driving several times—went to see Mr. Story’s new statue of the African Sybil .. a very great work. Pleasant, to see men grow so perceptibly! & I never supposed him equal to this height” ([30 April 1861], ms at Morgan). The next month, RB and Pen were invited to the Palazzo Barberini to meet Hans Christian Andersen, who read in English half of his tale “The Ugly Duckling.” RB followed with a reading of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” which, according to Henry James, “led to the formation of a grand march through the spacious Barberini apartment, with Story doing his best on a flute in default of bagpipes” (James, I, 286). About the same time, Story began working on a bust of RB. In a letter to her sister Arabella, dated [25 May 1861], EBB wrote: “Mr. Story has made an admirable bust of Robert & we are to have it– Of course we pay for its being turned into marble” (ms at Berg).

The Brownings returned to Florence in the first week of June 1861, and in RB’s letter to the Storys on the 13th of that month, EBB added a brief message. She spoke of the death of Camillo di Cavour, Italy’s prime minister, which occurred the previous week: “May God save Italy without his angels,” she wrote, and ended by asking, “when shall we see you” (ms at ABL). It was to be her last written communication with the Storys, her health declining rapidly soon afterwards. RB kept them informed of his wife’s condition in letters of the 23rd and 26th (mss at Texas). When news of EBB’s death on 29 June reached the Storys, they rushed over from Leghorn where they had been awaiting word from the Brownings about joining them for another summer in Siena. The Storys were two of the few close friends to spend time with RB in the days immediately following his wife’s death. A letter from Story to Charles Eliot Norton, dated 15 August 1861 (ms at Harvard), shows clearly that RB talked at great length about EBB and of their life together in Casa Guidi from the birth of Pen to her resolve on the last night of her life to give up their Florentine residence of thirteen years: “‘For years she could not give up this house, but at last and as it were suddenly she said I see Robert that this Casa Guidi is too small for us—too inconvenient—and so it was. So the cycle was completed for us here—& where the beginning was is the end– Looking back at these past years I see that we have been all the time walking over a torrent on a straw– Life must now begin anew—all the old life cast off & the new one put on.’ … And so on Browning talked & I listened—it was most sad most interesting & I would I could daguer[r]eotype all he said. … Once he stopped himself and said—‘Do you know that I expect to see the door open every minute & hear Ba come in.[’]” Story thought EBB’s funeral “was not impressive—as it ought to have been. … The services were blundered through by a fat English Parson in a brutally careless way—& she was consigned by him to the earth—as if her clay were no better than any other clay. … I carried two wreaths (it was all I could do) one of those exquisite white Florence roses, and the other of laurel—& these I laid on her coffin. She is a great loss to literature—to Italy—and to the world. The greatest poet among women—her heart always was true to Freedom Religion & Beauty & with her pen she fought nobly for them.” Story went on to speak of RB’s leaving Florence: “I have lost my best friend & daily companion in Italy. You cannot imagine how I shall miss him. For three years now we have been always together. Never a day has passed (with the exception of two months separation in the spring & autumn when he went to Florence) that we have not met. … There is no one to supply his place.”

In the first two years following his departure from Italy, RB maintained a fairly steady correspondence with the Storys that in terms of intimacy was only surpassed by his correspondence with Isa Blagden. In a 10 November 1861 letter from London, RB declared: “Dear Friends, we feel together, hope together,—did so & will do so” (ms at KS). Earlier in the same letter, RB tried to hearten the discouraged sculptor. Payment for a statue of Josiah Quincy (President of Harvard, 1829–45) had been delayed (and would be for many years), his bust of Theodore Parker was believed lost at sea (though this was not the case), and the American Civil War was not going well for the North. RB wrote that Story “must live them down & through & be sure of the end.”

The Storys were constant reminders of the happy years RB had spent in Italy and of those he might still spend. In January 1862, he wrote them of his yearning for their old days together: “And for me,—my end of life, & particular reward for myself will be—one day—years hence—to just go back to Italy—to Rome—& die as I lived, when I used really to live. If you knew—but you do know & can conceive how precious every mud-splash on the house walls of Rome is: how every minute of those last six months in Rome would melt up into gold enough for a year’s use now, if I had it! But I have not” (ms at KS).

RB saw the English edition of Story’s Roba di Roma, issued by Chapman and Hall in two volumes, through the press at the end of 1862 and provided substantial editorial assistance when the same publisher produced a one-volume version to be used as a sort of guidebook to Rome. Writing on 20 November 1863, RB described the steps he had taken during the editing process and concluded: “At all events I have done my best,—and certainly better,—inasmuch as more liberally to my author,—than the regular man of all work would have done: but the task is an ungracious one, and I don’t like it—though I like you to judge of it, for you will understand & forgive” (ms at Texas).

Not long after RB helped Story with Chapman and Hall, a situation arose between the poet and the sculptor that had the potential to damage the friendship. When EBB’s brother George Moulton-Barrett travelled to Rome in the autumn of 1863, he commissioned Story to make a bust of his sister. Although Story was evidently reluctant, he accepted. On learning of the project, RB voiced his misgivings in a letter to Emelyn Story: “And now,—about the ‘Bust’: I shall tell you my mind, because you deserve it,—and so does Story, who knows my belief in his genius, and power to do whatever can be done: can this be done? … I want you, in our common interest, to consider well before you begin what—I much fear—will only end disastrously” ([ca. December 1863], ms at Texas). Returning to the subject in his next letter to the family, RB continued to argue his case against proceeding with the bust: “A painter might give a few traits in full and leave the rest to one’s fancy—but a sculptor must make a whole somehow,—and for me, at least, the result would be, ‘the better—the worse.’ … I can quite believe that George, seeing what you can do … may hope even this might be within your compass: but, I know it will never be” (8 January 1864, ms at Yale). In spite of RB’s fears and warnings, Story plunged ahead with the work. After completing a model in clay, he wrote enthusiastically to George: “I have succeeded far beyond my expectations, & indeed far beyond any hopes. … All her friends who are here have seen it, & with one consent they find it not only a strong likeness but an agreeable bust” (18 April 1864, ms at Berg). George responded to Story with the order to have it executed in marble. In his reply from London, the sculptor shared his concerns about RB’s reaction: “I have seen Rob’t Browning often since my arrival here. … I have not opened my lips to him on the subject of the bust—for he has not alluded to it in any way—& I think prefers to say nothing about it– He evidently does not believe in it at all & does not like to say so to me– Do not therefore count on the pleasure which it may give him—for I fear that it will never give him any” (29 June 1864, ms at Berg). By April 1865, however, having heard favorable reports about the sculpture, RB had resigned himself to the fact of its existence. In a letter written that month to the Storys, he admitted: “As for the Bust … I know very well that if such a miracle of reproduction could be expected from any human being, it may from you. … And whatever be the result there can be no annoyance to me: there was before” (ms at KS). Later that same month, Story wrote to George that the bust was ready (ms at Berg). George had it delivered to RB’s house at 19 Warwick Crescent where it arrived in July. RB thought the bust was beautiful. The following month, he confided to Isa Blagden: “There are reminiscences in it, certainly, and on the whole, it is much to my mind: I wish it were mine: nobody but Story could have brought so much together” (ms at BL). The next year, George commissioned Story to make a bust of RB as a companion to EBB’s. Copied from the bust of 1861, the sculptor announced its completion in marble in a letter to George on 12 July 1867 (ms at Berg). This sculpture too went to RB’s house, and evidently George never claimed either of the busts, eventually giving them to Pen. According to a May 1886 letter from Edith Emma Cooper to an unidentified correspondent, both busts were at that time in the drawing-room at 19 Warwick Crescent (ms at BL). Years later, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, visiting Pen at his home in Venice, Palazzo Rezzonico, remarked on the “busts of the two poets” in a letter of 29 May [1901] (Letters and Journals of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1846–1906, ed. Mary Thacher Higginson, Boston, 1921, p. 315). At the 1913 Browning Sale, the busts were purchased by Sotheran & Co., London, and subsequently acquired by Mr. and Mrs. H. Clifford Gallagher, who presented them that same year to Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

Throughout the 1860’s and into the 1870’s RB could count on annual meetings with the Storys in London, and although the frequency of the correspondence lessened, the friendship never seemed to. An incident in 1869 that caused RB much grief and indirectly involved the Storys, confirmed the strength and durability of their relationship. In the summer of that year, RB and the Storys spent close to two months in each other’s company. The first three weeks were devoted to a rambling tour through western Scotland around Glencoe and the lochs. Then they moved on to Louisa Lady Ashburton’s house at Loch Luichart in the eastern Highlands, where they stayed three weeks and where the trouble began. Finally, they crossed back to England to visit the George Howards at Naworth Castle (seat of the Earl of Carlisle), near Brampton, Cumberland, where Story sketched his double portrait of RB reading from The Ring and the Book (see Reconstruction, G40).

Apparently, during the stay at Loch Luichart, the hostess made an offer of marriage to RB, which he declined. What we know of the ensuing storm of misunderstandings, irritation, and ego-clashing, which grew to include the American sculptor Harriet Hosmer, comes to us mainly through RB’s letters to the Storys, particularly those to their daughter Edith. These provide the only known first-person accounts of the case. In a letter to her dated 4 April 1872, RB, commenting on Miss Hosmer’s involvement, wrote: “I suppose that Lady A. did not suppress what she considered the capital point of her quarrel with me when she foamed out into the couple of letters she bespattered me with: yet the worst she charged me with was,—having said that my heart was buried in Florence, and the attractiveness of a marriage with her lay in its advantage to Pen: two simple facts,—as I told her,—which I had never left her in ignorance about, for a moment” (ms at Yale). In the same letter, RB reported that after the visit in 1869, Lady Ashburton had “succeeded, after nine or ten months’ teazing with her invitations, to get me to promise to visit her for one day, and so get handsomely done with it all,—wanted to have the air of shutting the door in my face with a final bang,—fancying that she could coax me round the back-way the very next day. … I have told her my mind so thoroughly about that, and so effectually relieved myself from any further bother of the kind, that I need not bring up the nauseating remembrance.” Probably more disturbing to RB was the subsequent interference of his old friend Hatty Hosmer who had become an intimate of Lady Ashburton. Doubtless, the latter, as RB surmised, had presented her version of the said proposal to Hatty, who in 1873 took it upon herself to demonstrate to the Storys that RB had somehow been disloyal to them, as well as unfair to Lady Ashburton (see Virginia Surtees, The Ludovisi Goddess, Salisbury, 1984, pp. 147–148). RB was livid that Hatty would have believed the worst about him without hearing his side. As he told Edith, in the same letter quoted above: “Had I believed stories about her, many a long year ago, and ordered her away from people’s houses on the strength of them, I should have lost a friendship I used to value highly.” But neither Lady Ashburton’s nor Hatty Hosmer’s vindictiveness seems to have disturbed RB’s friendship with the Storys in any way. Years later, referring to the affair in a letter to Story, RB wrote: “So, enough of an odious experience—which had, however, the effect of enabling you and Mrs Story to prove yourselves effectually and admirably my friends” (19 June 1886, ms at Morgan).

But this was not the only part of RB’s wayfaring holiday in 1869 that concerned the Storys. His last stop at Naworth Castle has come under scrutiny in recent years because of a diary in the hand of Rosalind Howard (later Countess of Carlisle) brought to light by Virginia Surtees, who published excerpts from it in her article “Browning’s Last Duchess,” London Review of Books (9 October 1986, pp. 17–18). Passages from the diary make clear that Mrs. Howard thought there was some sort of romantic entanglement involving RB and Edith Story. In the entry for 17 September 1869, the day of her guests’ arrival, Mrs. Howard wrote: “We think Edy [Edith] is in love with Browning and he with her. I spoke to Edy about it just before we went to bed … she says he is in love with her but that she will never marry him. … He has been in love with her years & says every line he writes is now written with her in his thoughts” (p. 17). Further entries return to the subject and also refer to RB’s problems with Lady Ashburton, which, Mrs. Howard reports, he discussed freely with Mrs. Story and Edith. On the day that RB and the Storys left Naworth (27 September 1869), Mrs. Howard observed: “Browning will have to tear himself away to-day—poor man how he will suffer—& he has had no parting interview with her—she refused to have one which was very wise of her” (p. 17). As Virginia Surtees points out, other than these diary entries there is no evidence that anything of a romantic nature ever existed between RB and Edith Story.

During the last fifteen years of RB’s life, the frequency of London meetings with the Storys declined, as did their correspondence. Nevertheless, the friendship remained steadfast. A missed visit in the summer of 1878 prompted RB to end a letter to Story with the following: “It was provoking that I happened to be away … just when you might have been sought and found. Be sure, however, that you and all your belongings are never out of my mind—though the actual sight of you is too rare now-a-days” (30 September [1878], ms at Texas). Two letters from RB at the end of 1884 refer to a problem that Story was having with Mrs. Bloomfield-Moore, a wealthy American who had bought some of Pen Browning’s paintings. Perhaps on a recommendation from RB, she had commissioned a sculpture from Story only to have either forgotten about it or not wanted it. RB made a somewhat feeble attempt to excuse the woman’s negligence, but couldn’t help siding with Story. Some years afterwards, Daniel Sargent Curtis recorded the sculptor’s observation that RB “could not say No to a woman—& was victimized and bored by several. Mrs. B[loomfield] M[oore], Lady A[shburton] & Mrs. Orr” (Diary of Daniel Sargent Curtis, 8 October 1891, ms at Marciana).

William and Emelyn Story visited RB at Asolo during his last stay there in the late summer and early fall of 1889. Story wrote RB from Rome on 8 December of that year, mentioning the recent visit and other more remote memories: “Emelyn & I did so enjoy seeing you & yr sister at Asolo– It seemed like the old times—& revived all our regrets that you will live so far away from us—& in so little a town as London– Why wont you come on here—& make us a visit–? Do!– Do! We shall be enchanted to see you and it is so long since you were here—and it is time you returned. … After we left you we went to Siena—so full of old associations with you & Mrs Browning & Landor &– It was rather sad. … The old villa was very much the same though some alterations had been made which did not improve it to my mind– But the old terrace was there where we used all of us to sit & talk such happy hours—though only tenanted now by ghosts” (ms at ABL). Considering the short time between the writing of this letter and RB’s death on the night of 12 December, it is doubtful that he saw it.

The sculptor expressed love and admiration for his friend in a letter to Pen, dated 13 December 1889: “He was one of my oldest & dearest & most valued friends—& the world seems poor now that he has gone. … The last words he said to us when we said Goodbye to him at Asolo were ‘We have been friends for forty years—ay—more than forty years—& with never a break’– How true it was—there was never a break—never a cloud on our friendship for a moment—& the more I knew him the more I loved him. … He was one of the best & noblest of men. … I do not think that a small or mean thought ever knocked at the door of his spirit—much less ever was allowed to enter– Ever large hearted as large minded, grand in all his impulses—generous in all his feelings—vivid in his enthusiasms and the most living man I ever knew” (ms at ABL).

Not long before William Story’s death in 1895, Pen and RB’s sister Sarianna visited him at Villa Lago di Vallombrosa. Sarianna wrote of their visit in a letter to William Cornwallis Cartwright: “In September we went to Vallombrosa to see Mr. Story for the last time—in October Pen followed his funeral to Rome. Another piece of the past gone forever” (1 January 1896, ms at Northamptonshire). After Story’s death there continued to be communication between the children of the old friends, all four—Pen, Waldo, Julian, and Edith lived in Italy. But it was with Edith that Pen maintained the closest ties. And, fittingly, bringing the friendship of the Brownings and Storys to a close, Edith nursed Pen during his final illness and was present at his bedside in Asolo when he died on 8 July 1912.


National Endowment for the Humanities - Logo

Editorial work on The Brownings’ Correspondence is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This website was last updated on 6-14-2024.

Copyright © 2024 Wedgestone Press. All rights reserved.

Back To Top