William Johnson Fox (1786–1864)
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 3, 313–314.
RB called Fox his “literary father” (letter 575), and cited him as “my Chiron in a small way” (RB to Fanny Haworth, April 1839)—the latter being a reference to the mythological teacher of Achilles and other heroes. Fox at one time used the pseudonym “Norwich Weaver Boy,” because of his early days at a loom in Norwich. The “weaver boy” eventually was to be prominent as a minister and man of letters. He attended Homerton Congregational College and in 1810 became pastor of a Congregational chapel at Fareham, in Hampshire. He soon turned toward Unitarianism, in 1817 went to London, and came to be recognized as leader of the Unitarians there. A chapel was built for him at South Place, Finsbury, in 1824. Fox remained influential as a preacher and lecturer even after a break with the Unitarians, stemming from his religious views and marital troubles. (Among other things, critics objected to a close and unconventional relationship he had with Eliza Flower, q.v.) In the literary field, he was a founder of The Westminster Review, a co-editor of The Monthly Repository, and a contributor to The Sunday Times and other papers. He was a leading supporter of London University, founded in 1828, which RB attended in the 1828–29 term. Fox worked actively against the Corn Laws, whose high import duties for grain imposed serious hardship on the nation’s poor. He backed various liberal causes as a member of Parliament from 1847 to 1863. Fox’s acquaintances included the major literary figures of his time, and he was a longtime admirer of Benjamin Flower, father of Eliza and Sarah Flower (q.v.). Fox himself had a daughter named Eliza (ca. 1822–1904). Known in later life as Mrs. Bridell-Fox, she was eventually to furnish biographers with many reminiscences about the young RB.
RB’s relationship with Fox began through the Flower sisters. As noted in the sketch concerning them, RB at about age 12 or 13 produced the collection of verses that he called “Incondita.” According to a letter from RB to R.H. Horne dated 3 December 1848, this collection was shown to Eliza Flower “by a friend [undoubtedly Miss Sturtevant—see letter 496] to whom I confided the volume.” RB told Horne that the poems were brought to Fox’s attention, and that some had been copied by Eliza in an album. On the advice of Fox, RB burned the original set of poems, although Fox “praised some of them” (letter 579). Eliza’s copies, too, were eventually retrieved and destroyed by RB. Still existing, however, are two poems transcribed in Sarah Flower’s hand, entitled “The First-Born of Egypt” and “The Dance of Death.” Her copies are known to have been sent to Fox on 31 May 1827 (see SD627). Since Sarah told Fox that they were extracted from “a whole book full,” they appear to have been taken from “Incondita” (see letter 579, n. 2). Much later, in March 1833 (letter 473), RB submitted to Fox his anonymously-published Pauline. In the letter RB said: “you may recollect an oddish sort of boy, who had the honor of being introduced to you at Hackney some years back.” Fox was sufficiently impressed to request twelve additional copies of Pauline, which he distributed among other literary critics, and to print a 10¼-page review in his Monthly Repository of April 1833 (see pp. 341–344). Although acknowledging Pauline to be a “hasty and imperfect sketch,” he concluded: “Archimedes in the bath had many particulars to settle about specific gravities, and Hiero’s crown, but he first gave a glorious leap and shouted Eureka!” RB in gratitude wrote to him on 31 March 1833 (letter 476): “I shall never write a line without thinking of the source of my first praise, be assured.” It was at Fox’s home that RB, in 1835, met William Charles Macready (q.v.). RB’s friendship with Fox continued until the latter’s death in 1864. Macready, however, wrote of one occasion in 1840 when the young poet spoke of Fox “in a very unkind manner” (Macready II, 76), apparently because of disagreement over some of RB’s writings. EBB, as RB’s wife, entered Fox’s circle of acquaintances. In a letter to Eliza Flower shortly before Eliza’s death in 1846, Fox wrote of EBB’s being angry with anyone who did not understand RB’s Sordello (1840). He met with the Brownings on more than one occasion during their 1852 London visit.