2625. EBB to Julia Martin
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 14, 29–37.
Pisa. Collegio Ferdinando
Octob. 2[2 1846]
My dearest Mrs Martin, will you believe that I began a letter to you before I took this step to give you the whole story of the impulses towards it, .. feeling strongly that I owed what I considered my justification to such dear friends as yourself & Mr Martin that you might not hastily conclude that you had thrown away upon one who was quite unworthy, the regard of years. I had begun such a letter——when by the plan of going to Little Bookham, my plans were all hurried forward .. changed .. driven prematurely into action .. & the last hours of agitation & deep anguish .. for it was the deepest of its kind, to leave Wimpole Street & those whom I tenderly loved, .. so .. would not admit of my writing or thinking—only I was able to think that my beloved sisters would send you some account of me when I was gone. And now I hear from them that your generosity has not waited for a letter from me to do its best for me, & that instead of being vexed, as you might well be, at my leaving England without a word sent to you, you have used kind offices in my behalf .. you have been more than the generous & affectionate friend I always considered you. So my first words must be that I am deeply grateful to you my very dear friend, & that to the last moment of my life I shall remember the claim you have on my gratitude. Generous people are inclined to acquit generously—but it has been very painful to me to observe that with all my mere friends I have found more sympathy & trust, than in those who are of my own household & who have been daily witnesses of my life. I do not say this for Papa .. who is peculiar & in a peculiar position—but it pained me that George who knew .. all that passed, last year for instance, about Pisa .. who knew that the alternative of making a simple effort to secure my health during the winter was the <“>severe displeasure” I have incurred now—& that the fruit of yielding myself a prisoner was the sense of being of no use nor comfort to any soul .. Papa having given up coming to see me except for five minutes a day .. George who said to me with his own lips “He does not love you—do not think it” .. (said & repeated it two months ago ..) that George should now turn round & reproach me for my want of affection towards my family, for not letting myself drop like a dead weight into the abyss, .. a sacrifice without an object & expiation .. this did surprise me & pain me—pained me more than all Papa’s dreadful words!—— But the personal feeling is nearer with most of us than the tenderest feeling for another—& my family had been so accustomed to the idea of my living on & on in that room, that while my heart was eating itself, their love for me was consoled, & at last the evil grew scarcely perceptible. It was no want of love in them, & quite natural in itself: we all get used to the thought of a tomb,—& I was buried—that was the whole. It was a little thing even for myself a short time ago .. & really it would be a pneumatological curiosity if I could describe & let you see how perfectly for years together after what broke my heart at Torquay, I lived on the outside of my own life, blindly & darkly from day to day, as completely dead to hope of any kind, as if I had my face against a grave, .. never feeling a personal instinct .. taking trains of thought to carry out as an occupation .. absolutely indifferent to the me which is in every human being. Nobody quite understood this of me, because I am not morally a coward, & have a hatred of all the forms of audible groaning. But God knows what is within & how utterly I had abdicated myself & thought it not worth while to put out my finger to touch my share of life. Even my poetry .. which suddenly grew an interest .. was a thing on the outside of me, a thing to be done .. & then, done! What people said of it did not touch me—a thoroughly morbid & desolate state it was, which I look back now to with the sort of horror with which one would look to one’s graveclothes, if one had been clothed in them by mistake during a trance.
And now I will tell you– It is nearly two years ago since I have known Mr Browning. Mr Kenyon wished to bring him to see me five years ago, as one of the lions of London who roared the gentlest & was best worth my beholding—but I refused then, in my blind dislike to seeing strangers. Immediately, however, after the publication of my last volumes, he wrote to me, & we had a correspondence which ended in my agreeing to receive him as I never had received any other man– I did not know why, but it was utterly impossible for me to refuse to receive him though I consented against my will. He writes the most exquisite letters possible & has a way of putting things which I have not a way of putting aside .. so he came. He came—& with our personal acquaintance began his attachment for me .. a sort of infatuation, call it, which resisted the various denials which were my plain duty at the beginning, & has persisted past them all. I began with a grave assurance that I was in an exceptional position, &, saw him just in consequence of it, & that if ever he recurred to that subject again I never would see him again while I lived—& he believed me & was silent. To my mind indeed, it was a bare impulse– A generous man of quick sympathies taking up a sudden interest with both hands! So I thought; but in the meantime the letters & the visits rained down more & more, & in every one there was something which was too slight to analyze & notice, but too decided not to be understood,—so that at last when the ‘profound respect’ of the silence gave way, it was rather less dangerous. For then I showed him how he was throwing into the ashes his best affections .. how the common gifts of youth & cheerfulness were behind me .. how I had not strength .. even of heart .. for the ordinary duties of life—everything I told him & showed him—“Look at this—& this—& this,” throwing down all my disadvantages. To which he did not answer by a single compliment .. but simply that he had not then to choose, & that I might be right or he might be right—he was not there to decide .. but that he loved me & should to his last hour. He said that the freshness of youth had passed with him also, & that he had studied the world out of books & seen many women, yet had never loved one until he had seen me. That he knew himself & knew that, if ever so repulsed, he should love me to his last hour—it should be first & last. At the same time, he would not teaze me—he would wait twenty years if I pleased, & then, if life lasted so long for both of us, then when it was ending perhaps, I might understand him & feel that I might have trusted him. For my health, he had believed, when he first spoke, that I was suffering from an incurable injury of the spine & that he never could hope to see me stand up before his face—& he appealed to my womanly sense of what a pure attachment should be, whether such a circumstance if it had been true, was inconsistent with it. He preferred, he said, [“]of free & deliberate choice, to be allowed to sit only an hour a day by my side, to the fulfilment of the brightest dream which should exclude me, in any possible world.”
I tell you so much, my ever dear friend, that you may see the manner of man I have had to do with, & the sort of attachment which for nearly two years has been drawing & winning me. I know better than any in the world, indeed, what Mr Kenyon once unconsciously said before me .. that “Robert Browning is great in everything.” Then when you think how this element of an affection so pure & persistent cast into my dreary life, must have acted on it, .. how little by little I was drawn into the persuasion that something was left .. & that still I could do something to the happiness of another .. & he .. what he was! for I have deprived myself of the priviledge of praising him … then, it seemed worth while to take up with that unusual energy (for me!) expended in vain last year, the advice of the physicians that I should go to a warm climate for the winter– Then came the Pisa-conflict of last year. For years I had looked with a sort of indifferent expectation towards Italy, knowing & feeling that I should escape there the annual relapse, .. yet with that “laisser aller” manner which had become a habit to me, unable to form a definite wish about it. But last year when all this happened to me, & I was better than usual in the summer, I wished to make the experiment .. to live the experiment out, & see whether there was hope for me or not hope. Then came Dr Chambers, with his encouraging opinion—“I wanted simply a warm climate & air, he said .. I might be well if I pleased.” Followed what you know .. or do not precisely know—the pain of it was acutely felt by me. For I never had doubted but that Papa wd catch at any human chance of restoring my health– I was under the delusion always that the difficulty of making such trials lay in me & not in him. His manner of acting towards me last summer was one of the most painful griefs of my life, because it involved a disappointment in the affections. My dear father is a very peculiar person——he is naturally stern, & has exaggerated notions of authority—but these things go with high & noble qualities .. and as, for feeling, the water is under the rock, & I had faith. Yes, & have it. I admire such qualities as he has——fortitude, integrity: I loved him for his courage in adverse circumstances which were yet felt by him more bitterly than I could feel them .. always he has had the greatest power over my heart, because I am of those weak women who reverence strong men: by a word he might have bound me to him hand & foot. Never has he spoken a gentle word to me or looked a kind look which has not made in me large results of gratitude,—& throughout my illness, the sound of his step on the stairs has had the power of quickening my pulse– I have loved him so, & love him. Now if he had said last summer, that he was reluctant for me to leave him, .. if he had even allowed me to think by mistake that his affection for me was the motive of such reluctance, .. I was ready to give up Pisa in a moment—& I told him as much. Whatever my new impulses towards life were, my love for him (taken so) would have resisted all—I loved him so dearly. But his course was otherwise, quite otherwise—& I was wounded to the bottom of my heart .. cast off when I was ready to cling to him. In the meanwhile, at my side was another—— I was driven & I was drawn. Then at last I said .. “If you like to let this winter decide it, you may. I will allow of no promises nor engagement– I cannot go to Italy, &—I know as nearly as a human creature can know any fact, that I shall be ill again through the influence of this English winter. If I am, you will see plainer the foolishness of this persistence:—if I am not, I will do what you please”—. And his answer was “if you are ill & keep your resolution of not marrying me under those circumstances, I will keep mine & love you till God shall take us both.” This was in last autumn & the winter came with its miraculous mildness, as you know—& I was saved as I dared not hope—my word therefore was claimed in the spring. Now do you understand, & will you feel for me? An application to my father was certainly the obvious course, if it had not been for his peculiar nature & my peculiar position:—but there is no speculation in the case, .. it is a matter of knowledge .. that if Robert had applied to him in the first instance he would have been forbidden the house without a moment’s scruple,—& if in the last, (as my sisters thought best as a respectful form,) I should have been incapacitated from any after-exertion, by the horrible scenes to which as a thing of course, I should have been exposed. Papa will not bear some subjects .. it is a thing known: his peculiarity takes that ground to the largest. Not one of his children will ever marry without a breach, .. which we all know, though he probably does not .. deceiving himself in a setting up of obstacles whereas the real obstacle is in his own mind. In my case there was, or would have been, a great deal of apparent reason to hold by—my health would have been motive enough .. ostensible motive .. I see that precisely as others may see it. Indeed if I were charged now with want of generosity for casting myself so, a dead burden, on the man I love, nothing of the sort could surprise me. It was what occurred to myself, that thought was,—& what occasioned a long struggle & months of agitation,—& which nothing could have overcome but the very uncommon affection of a very uncommon person .. reasoning out to me the great fact of love making its own level. As to vanity & selfishness blinding me … certainly I may have made a mistake, & the future may prove it, .. but still more certainly I was not blinded so. On the contrary never have I been more humbled, & never less in danger of considering any personal pitiful advantage, than throughout this affair. You who are generous & a woman, will believe this of me, even if you do not comprehend the habit I had fallen into, of casting aside the consideration of possible happiness of my own. But I was speaking of Papa—— Obvious it was, that the application to him was a mere form. I knew the result of it, .. I had made up my mind to act upon my full right of taking my own way– I had long believed such an act (the most strictly personal act of one’s life) to be within the rights of every person of mature age, man or woman,—& I had resolved to exercise that right in my own case, by a resolution, which had slowly ripened. All the other doors of life were shut to me, & shut me in as in a prison .. & only before this door, stood one whom I loved best & who loved me best, & who invited me out through it for the good’s sake which he thought I could do him. Now if, for the sake of the mere form I had applied to my father, & if, as he wd have done directly, he had set up his “curse” against the step I proposed to take, .. would it have been doing otherwise than placing a knife in his hand? A few years ago, merely through the reverberation of what he said to another on a subject like this, I fell on the floor in a fainting fit & was almost delirious afterwards. I cannot bear some words—I would much rather have blows without them. In my actual state of nerves & physical weakness, it would have been the sacrifice of my whole life .. of my convictions, of my affections, .. & above all, of what the person dearest to me persisted in calling his life & the good of it if I had observed that “form”. Therefore, wrong or right, I determined not to observe it,—& wrong or right, I did & do consider that in not doing so, I sinned against no duty. That I was constrained to act clandestinely & did not choose to do so, God is witness,—& will set it down as my heavy misfortune & not my fault. Also, up to the very last act, we stood in the light of day for the whole world, if it pleased, to judge us. I never saw him out of the Wimpole Street house—he came twice a week to see me, or rather, three times in the fortnight, openly in the sight of all, .. & this for nearly two years & neither more nor less. Some jests used to be passed upon this by my brothers, & I allowed them without a word—but it would have been infamous in me to have taken any into my confidence, who would have suffered, as a direct consequence, a blighting of his own prospects. My secrecy towards them all, was my simple duty towards them all; & what they call want of affection, was an affectionate consideration for them. My sisters did indeed know the truth to a certain point—they knew of the attachment & engagement .. I could not help that: but the whole of the event I kept from them with a strength & resolution which really I did not know to be in me, & of which nothing but a sense of the injury to be done to them by a fuller confidence, & my tender gratitude & attachment to them for all their love & goodness, could have rendered me capable. Their faith in me & undeviating affection for me, I shall be grateful for to the end of my existence & to the extent of my power of feeling gratitude: my dearest sisters! especially, let me say, my own beloved Arabel, .. who with no consolation except the exercise of a most generous tenderness, has looked only to what she considered my good .. never doubting me, never swerving for one instant in her love for me. May God reward her as I cannot. Dearest Henrietta loves me too—but loses less in me, & has reasons for not misjudging me. But both my sisters have been faultless in their bearing towards me, & never did I love them so tenderly as I love them now.
The only time I met RB clandestinely, was in the parish church, where we were married before two witnesses—it was the first & only time. I looked, he says, more dead than alive, .. & can well believe it for I all but fainted on the way, & had to stop for sal volatile at a chymist’s shop. The support through it all, was my trust in him—for no woman who ever committed a like act of trust, has had stronger motives to hold by. Now may I not tell you .. that his genius & all but miraculous attainments, are the least things in him—the moral nature being of the very noblest, as all who ever knew him admit. Then he has had that wide experience of men, which ends by throwing the mind back on itself & God—there is nothing incomplete in him, except as all humanity is incompleteness. The only wonder is how such a man, whom any woman could have loved, should have loved me,—but men of genius, you know, are apt to love with their imagination. Then there is something in the sympathy .. the strange, straight sympathy, which unites us on all subjects. If it were not that I look up to him, we should be too alike to be together perhaps—but I know my place better than he does, who is too humble. Oh, you cannot think how well we get on after six weeks of menage! If I suffer again, it will not be through him. Some day, dearest Mrs Martin, I will show you & dear Mr Martin how his prophecy was fulfilled .. saving some picturesque particulars. I did not know before that Saul was among the prophets.
My poor husband suffered very much from the constraint imposed on him by my position, & did for the first time in his life for my sake do that in secret which he could not speak upon the housetops. ‘Mea culpa’ all of it! If one of us two is to be blamed, it is I .. at whose representation of circumstances, he submitted to do violence to his own selfrespect. I would not suffer him to tell even our dear common friend Mr Kenyon. I felt that it would be throwing on dear Mr Kenyon, a painful responsibility, or involve him in the blame ready to fall. And dear, dear Mr Kenyon, like the noble, generous friend, I love so deservedly, comprehends all at a word! sends us not his forgiveness, but his sympathy, his affections, the kindest words which can be written! I cannot tell you all his inexpressible kindness to us both. He justifies as to the uttermost .. &, in that, all the grateful attachment we had, each on our side, so long professed towards him. Indeed, in a note I had from him yesterday, he uses this strong expression, after gladly speaking of our successful journey … “I considered that you had perilled your life upon this undertaking; & reflecting upon your late position, I thought that you had done well.” But my life was not perilled in the journey. The agitation & fatigue were evils, to be sure .. & Mrs Jameson who met us in Paris by a happy accident, thought me “looking horribly ill” at first .. & persuaded us to rest there for a week, on the promise of accompanying us herself to Pisa, to help Robert to take care of me. He who was in a fit of terror about me, agreed at once—& so, she came with us .. she & her young niece .. & her kindness leaves us both very grateful. So kind she was & is .. for still she is in Pisa, .. opening her arms to us & calling us “children of light” instead of ugly names .. & declaring that she should have been ‘proud’ to have had anything to do with our marriage. Indeed we hear everyday kind speeches & messages from people .. such as Mr Chorley of the Athenæum who “has tears in his eyes” .. Mon[c]kton Milnes, Barry Cornwall & other friends of my husband’s .. but who only know me by my books .. & I want the love & sympathy of those who love me & whom I love. I was talking of the influence of the journey. The change of air has done me wonderful good, notwithstanding the fatigue, & I am renewed to the point of being able to throw off most of my invalid habits, & of walking quite like a woman. Mrs Jameson said the other day .. “You are not improved: you are transformed.” We have most comfortable rooms here at Pisa, & have taken them for six months—in the best situation for health, & close to the Duomo & Leaning tower. It is a beautiful, solemn city—& we have made acquaintance with Professor Ferucci who is about to admit us to <access> of the <University lib>rary. We shall certainly <spend> next summer in Italy somewhere, & <talk> of Rome for the next winter—but of course this is all in air. Let me hear from you dearest Mrs Martin, .. & direct M. Browning, Poste Restante, Pisa—it is best– Just before we left Paris, I wrote to my aunt Jane, & from Marseilles to Bummy—but from neither have I heard, yet.
With best love to dearest Mr Martin, ever both my dear kind friends
your affectionate & grateful
Address, in RB’s hand: Angleterre viâ France. / Mrs Martin, / Colwall, / near Malvern, / Worcestershire.
Publication: LEBB, I, 286–297 (as [?20] October ).
Manuscript: Wellesley College.
1. This letter is postmarked 22 October 1846. Evidently, EBB neglected to write the second “2” of “22.” The Brownings did not take up residence in the Collegio Ferdinando until 18 October.
3. Cf. “Confessions,” line 56; see also Alethea Hayter, Mrs Browning: A Poet’s Work and its Setting, 1962, p. 119.
4. This statement proved to be true. When her sister Henrietta married William Surtees Cook in 1850 and her brother Alfred married a cousin, Lizzie Barrett, in 1855, they were disinherited.
5. For EBB’s account of this incident to RB, see letter 2176.
6. Perhaps an allusion to RB’s suggestion in letter 1983, in which he told EBB: “surely I might dare say you may if you please get well thro’ God’s goodness—with persevering patience, surely—and this next winter abroad—which you must get ready for now, every sunny day, will you not?”
7. Cf. I Samuel 10:11–12, 19:24.
8. John 12:36.
9. Michele Ferrucci (1801–81) was a professor of history, literature and archæology. He taught at the Academy in Geneva from 1836 until 1844, and at this time he held the chair of Latin and Greek Letters in the University of Pisa. His liberal ideas brought him into conflict with the papal government.