Henry Fothergill Chorley

Henry Fothergill Chorley (1808–72)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 8, 325–328.

In 1850, when The Athenæum recommended EBB for the position of Poet Laureate, she credited that magazine’s literary critic Henry Chorley with the suggestion. [1] “I am sure we should be grateful to Mr. Chorley,” she told Mary Russell Mitford on 15 June. Chorley was one of three mutual friends (the other two being John Kenyon and R.H. Horne) whose names crop up repeatedly in EBB’s correspondence with Miss Mitford, and he was likewise a friend of both EBB and RB before their marriage. Chorley was born near Billinge, Lancashire, on 15 December 1808. His father died in 1816, and the family became dependent upon a relative in Liverpool, where they soon moved. The youth was dissatisfied with his early employment in a mercantile office, being far more interested in literature and music. Around 1827 he began contributing pieces to annuals and magazines, eventually including The Athenæum, which hired him in 1833 and brought him to London. There he soon became an accomplished reviewer of literary works, and director of the magazine’s musical department. He stayed with The Athenæum until retirement in the late 1860’s. While Chorley was respected and influential as a critic of others’ literary works, his own creations were somewhat disappointing. He had three dramas performed, the most successful being Old Love and New Fortune (1850). More noteworthy and enduring was a descriptive work, Music and Manners in France and Germany (1841). His Roccabella, a romance published in 1859 under the pseudonym “Paul Bell,” he dedicated to EBB. For reasons mentioned below, she was not greatly pleased. Chorley enjoyed luxurious living. Writing to Miss Mitford on 4 May 1843 (letter 1231), EBB mentioned his “enchanted house in Victoria Square”: “‘It is like a jewel-case,’ says Mr. Kenyon—and Mr. Chorley lives like a ruby in the glory of it.” G & M (p. 137) report that Chorley’s “bachelor abode was noted for the good music heard there,” with performances by such notables as Mendelssohn, and that it was frequented by literary people as well. Miss Mitford objected to Chorley’s showy waistcoats; and on one occasion, as reported by EBB to RB on 19 February 1846, she called him a “presumptuous coxcomb.” However, her Recollections of a Literary Life (1852) was dedicated to Chorley, and after her death he prepared a two-volume edition of her letters. Elvan Kintner says that contemporaries viewed Chorley “as mannered, irritable, and often unpleasant.” Referring to the acquaintanceship between RB and Chorley, Kintner says: “The two temperaments … make it hard to believe they were friends for long at close range” (RB-EBB, pp. 1091–92). A tendency toward “frequent painful estrangements” was, according to DNB, among factors that rendered Chorley’s “latter years querulous and disconsolate.” He died in London on 16 February 1872, leaving unfinished an autobiography, which was then edited by his friend H.G. Hewlett and published in the following year.

EBB never actually met Chorley until after her marriage, but his name began cropping up in her correspondence with Miss Mitford as early as 10 August 1836 (letter 534). Chorley wrote a somewhat mixed review of EBB’s The Seraphim in The Athenæum of 7 July 1838 (see vol. 4, pp. 375–378). In a letter to Miss Mitford on 14 July (no. 653), EBB claimed to be “abundantly satisfied & gratified by it,” though clearly she was stung by some of its comments. Several years later, Chorley’s Athenæum and many other journals attacked R.H. Horne’s A New Spirit of the Age (1844), which EBB had helped to produce. See letter 1603, to EBB, for Horne’s claim that “it was certainly Mr Chorley” who “gave the tone” sounded against him by most critics. But later in that year, 1844, Chorley gave a favourable review of EBB’s new two-volume Poems. At about the same time he sent her a complimentary letter—not extant, but described by EBB in letters to Hugh Stuart Boyd (1 September) and Julia Martin (10 September). EBB’s first known letter to Chorley, written in reply on 26 August 1844, said: “After all, we are not quite strangers.” She then went on to mention her admiration for his writings, and the mutual friendship with Miss Mitford. Considerable correspondence followed, along with unsuccessful efforts on Miss Mitford’s part to have EBB receive Chorley as a visitor. Meanwhile, though not allowed to meet EBB, Chorley took genuine interest in her activities and career. For instance, he strenuously urged her (via John Kenyon) not o contribute poetry to an Anti-Corn Law Bazaar which was scheduled for May 1845. On 11 February of that year she reported to Miss Mitford: “Mr. Kenyon came, & told me … that Mr. Chorley declared it wd. ruin me for ever if I attempted such a thing.” As to RB and his relations with Chorley, G & M (p. 137) indicate that the two met as early as 1838 at the home of Harriet Martineau. But Elvan Kintner (RB-EBB, p. 1092) suggests that “the friendship was new” when RB wrote his first known letter to Chorley (no. 1487) on 3 January 1844. The Athenæum of 17 January 1846 carried a review, which RB attributed to Chorley, of RB’s Dramatic Romances and Lyrics. It praised “Mr. Browning’s fertility,” but also complained that “the mist, if it rises and reveals a clear prospect for half a page, as certainly falls again.” RB took in his stride this routine reference to his supposedly obscure style. In a letter to EBB on 17 January 1846 he called the review “kind and satisfactory,” and labelled the reference to “mist” as “politic concession to the Powers that Be.” Not long afterward, Chorley wrote favourable reviews of RB’s Pippa Passes and Colombe’s Birthday in The People’s Journal for 18 July and 22 August 1846. In the 1845–46 correspondence between RB and EBB, comments about Chorley are frequent, though not always favourable: some instances of seemingly hypocritical behaviour are cited. Also, however, there are frequent references to RB’s being with Chorley on social occasions. After the Brownings’ marriage, Chorley was among those who sent congratulations. From Pisa on 5 November 1846, EBB wrote to Miss Mitford: “Oh, Mr. Chorley! such a kind, feeling note he wrote to Robert from Germany.” Along with John Kenyon and Joseph Arnould, Chorley became a trustee of the Brownings’ marriage settlement. The editors of EBB-MRM believe (I, xxxii–xxxiii) that Chorley and Kenyon performed another valuable service in helping to persuade Miss Mitford, who was not an RB enthusiast, that EBB had chosen wisely in marrying him. On 30 November 1850, The Athenæum published a review praising EBB’s Poems (1850). Gardner B. Taplin (in The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1957, p. 237) attributes it as “probably written by … Chorley.” It concludes: “Mrs. Browning is probably, of her sex, the first imaginative writer England has produced in any age:—she is, beyond comparison, the first poetess of her own.” EBB’s first actual meeting with Chorley came during the poets’ London visit in 1851, and the Brownings socialized with him again during their visit in the following year. EBB wrote to Miss Mitford on 1 September 1852: “We went to dine with him in his new house [13 Eaton Place West] & liked host & house as they deserved.” In this and later correspondence, EBB indicated that Chorley disapproved of her growing interest in spiritualism. Chorley dedicated his final novel Roccabella (1859) to EBB. She regarded this honour with mixed feelings, for by then she was passionate over the Italians’ drive for national unity and independence, and she viewed Roccabella as a bigoted attack on the participants in this movement. “You evidently think,” she wrote to Chorley on 25 November 1859, “that God made only the English.... Well—I have lived thirteen years on the continent, and, far as England is from Italy, far as the heavens are from the earth, I dissent from you, dissent from you, dissent from you.” She then reassured Chorley of the Brownings’ continuing friendship toward him, picturing herself and RB as “talking of you .. praising you here .. blaming you there .. but always feeling pleasure in reading your words & speaking your name.” RB wrote at the same time and in somewhat the same spirit, reflecting friendship but arguing against the theme of the book. The most serious clash to develop between the Brownings and Chorley involved EBB’s Poems Before Congress (1860). A copy ( Reconstruction, C110) was presented to Chorley via the publisher, and he reviewed it in The Athenæum of 17 March 1860. The book, though mainly an emotional outcry on Italian politics, ended with the poem “A Curse for a Nation,” attacking slavery in America. This poem had appeared four years earlier in a Boston publication; but Chorley still misread it, called it “a curse to England” because of British policy toward Italy, and reacted accordingly. He concluded with: “Mrs. Browning is here, as before, a real poetess,—one of the few among the few,—one who has written, in her time, better than the best of English poetesses,—and proves the same on this occasion, by taking to its extremity the right of ‘insane prophet’ to lose his head,—and to loose his tongue.” Both Brownings were upset, RB apparently the more so of the two. EBB pointed out the real meaning of the poem, in a letter which she expected The Athenæum to print in full; and she wrote angrily to Chorley when, instead, just a brief correction appeared. She finally became convinced, however, that Chorley was not at fault for the magazine’s failure to print her letter. So on 2 May 1860 she wrote to him: “Let us forgive one another our mistakes … I was wrong in taking for granted that the letter which referred to your review was entrusted to you to dispose of,—and you were not right in being in too much haste to condemn a book you disliked, to give the due measure of attention to every page of it.” This was EBB’s last known letter to Chorley. (RB wrote at least two later ones: a discourse about Italian politics on 12 February 1861, and a brief note on 19 October 1863.) Gardner B. Taplin (in The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, p. 406) says Chorley probably wrote The Athenæum’s obituary of EBB, which appeared on 6 July 1861. It called her “the greatest of English poetesses of any time.”

1. The author of the 15 June 1850 “Our Weekly Gossip” column was Thomas Kibble Hervey, editior of The Athenæum (1846–53). See letter 2860, note 13.


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