2860.  EBB to Mary Russell Mitford

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 16, 136–140.


June [14–] 15. [1850][1]

My very dear friend, how it grieves me that you should have been so unwell again. From what you say about the state of the house, I conclude that your health suffers from that cause precisely, & that when you are warmly & dryly walled in, you will be less liable to these attacks, grievous to your friends as to you. Oh—I dont praise anybody, I assure you, for wishing to entice you to live near them. We come over the Alps for a sunny climate: what should we not do for a moral atmosphere like yours? I dare say you have chosen excellently your new residence, and I hope you will get over the fuss of it with great courage, remembering the advantages which it is likely to secure to you.[2] Tell me as much as you can about it all, that I may shift the scene in the right grooves, & be able to imagine you to myself out of Three Mile Cross. You have the local feeling so eminently that I have long been resolved on never asking you to migrate. Doves wont travel with swallows—who should persuade them? This is no migration. Only a shifting from one branch to another. With Reading on one side of you still, you will lose nothing, neither sight nor friend. Oh, do write to me as soon as you can, & say that the deepening summer has done you good & given you strength .. say it, if possible. I shall be very anxious for the next letter.–

I hear that your friend Mrs Trollope has arrived in Florence from Pau, & that she, Mr Garrow, & the filial Trollopes have taken a house between them, containing all the three establishments on different floors .. according to continental fashion .. each floor as large as a house in England. I was told that they had taken it on a twenty years lease, & are furnishing it.[3] So Mrs Trollope has built her nest in Florence, “for good,” as people say. My only objection to Florence is the distance from London, & the expense of the journey. One’s heart is pulled at through different English ties, & cant get the right rest—& I think we shall move northwards, try France a little, after a time. The present year has been full of petty vexation to us about the difficulty of going to England, and it becomes more & more doubtful whether we can attain to the means of doing it. There are four of us & the child, you see,—& precisely this year, we are restricted in means, as far as our present knowledge goes .. but I cant say yet, only I do very much fear. Nobody will believe our promises, I think, any more, and my poor Arabel will be in despair, & I shall lose the opportunity of authenticating Wiedeman—for as Robert says, all our fine stories about him will go for nothing & he will be set down as a sham child. If not sham, how could human vanity resist the showing him off bodily? That sounds reasonable.–

Talking of children, there is a further complement to the afflictions of the Tulk family. The new-born baby who was looked for as the comfort, by poor Sophia Cottrell, died suddenly after three weeks of precarious life—and Robert was called upon yesterday to help to put another small coffin into the five-months grave of pretty little Lily.[4] Is it not very sad? The child was a boy & the Duke of Lucca was to be its godfather, & they were all full of delight– I saw Sophia in her bed a few days before the loss, & she was in the highest spirits—had suffered much less in this second confinement, & was looking forward to every manner of joy in her baby. I do grieve for her indeed. It is the most curious & terrible sequence of sorrows I ever heard of or read of. Now she is childless again, & will recover from her confinement with only a hope the less. To think of such things makes God seem dreadful. God have mercy upon us all.

Certainly you are disinterested about America, and of course, all of us who have hearts & heads, must feel the sympathy of a great nation to be more precious than a thick purse. Still, it is not just & dignified, this ’vantage ground of American pirates– Liking the ends & motives, one disapproves the means. Yes, even you do: & if I were an American, I should dissent, with still more emphasis. It shd be made a point of honour with the nation, if there is no point of law against the re-publishers. For my own part, I have every possible reason to thank & love America—she has been very kind to me—and the visits we receive here from delightful & cordial persons of that country, have been most gratifying to us. The American minister at the court of Vienna, with his family, did not pass through Florence the other day without coming to see us .. General Watson Webbe[5] .. with an air of moral as well as military command in his brow & eyes. He looked, & talked too, like one of our Dignities of the old world. The go-ahead principle did’nt seem the least over-strong in him nor likely to disturb his official balance. What is to happen next in France? Do you trust still your President? He is in a hard position—and if he leaves the Pope where he is, in a dishonored one.[6] As for the change in the electoral law & the increase of income, I see nothing in either to make an outcry against.[7] There is great injustice everywhere & a rankling party-spirit—and to speak the truth & act it, appears still more difficult than usual.–

I was sorry, do you know, to hear of dear Mr Horne’s attempt at Shylock[8]—he is fit for higher things. Did I tell you how we received & admired his Judas Iscariot?[9] Yes, surely I did– He says that Louis Blanc is a friend of his & much with him .. speaking with enthusiasm.[10] I should be more sorry at his being involved with the Socialists than with Shylock—still more sorry: for I love liberty so intensely that I hate Socialism. I hold it to be the most desecrating & dishonoring to Humanity, of all creeds. I would rather (for me) live under the absolutism of Nicolas of Russia, than in a Fourier-machine, with my individuality sucked out of me by a social air-pump.

Oh—if you happen to write again to Mrs Deane, thank her much for her kind anxiety—but indeed, if I had lost my darling, I should not write verses about it.[11] As for the Laureateship, it wont be given to me, be sure,[12] .. though the suggestion has gone the round of the English newspapers, Galignani & all, & notwithstanding that most kind & flattering recommendation of the Athenæum, for which I am sure we should be grateful to Mr Chorley.[13] I think Leigh Hunt should have the Laureateship. He has condescended to wish for it, & has “worn his singing clothes”[14] longer than most of his contemporaries, deserving the price of long as well as noble service. Whoever has it, will be of course exempted from court-lays; & the distinction of the title & pension should remain, for Spenser’s sake,[15] if not for Wordsworth’s. We are very anxious to know about Tennyson’s new work “In memoriam”. Do tell us about it. You are aware that it was written years ago & relates to a son of Mr Hallam, who was Tennyson’s intimate friend & the betrothed of his sister. She has since married, I am sorry to say.[16] I have heard through some one who had seen the ms. that it is full of beauty & pathos.–

Poor Flush is beginning to suffer again terribly from the summer-influences. Every winter he flourishes, & every summer loses his coat & every appearance of respectability. It is quite melancholy. And the Fleas act the Furies for him, poor dear dog! Baby’s love for him grows more & more tender. If you were to see the series of embracings & showers of kisses which fall upon Flush, & how all the cakes & bread & butter are given to him, if one is hungry or not, you would appreciate the attachment. Still there is a canary bird which hangs in a cage from a window at the top of the palazzo & which shares Wiedeman’s heart with even Flush. The ecstasy of hearing that canarybird sing, is something indescribable. And when he is very naughty & crying very loud, he has been stopped suddenly in the midst of his sobs by somebody’s saying, “But you will frighten the little bird & he wont sing any more.” Yes, indeed, our little Wiedeman is a very engaging child—very funny, & fantastic, .. something, in his looks & ways, like a fairy of genius. He does Napoleon (fa Napoleone), by folding his arms Napoleonically. When we say “Do Napoleon, Baby,” he never hesitates. If he sees a soldier in the street he claps his hands & sings the song of the drum. His passion for the churches is curious—insisting on going, now into the Duomo, now into Santa Croce, & kicking & screaming if anybody resists him. He likes the altars & monuments, & the music throws him into ecstatic states.–

I hope your Henry is quite well now, & that K. no longer is suffering. Dearest, ever dear Miss Mitford, speak particularly of your health. May God bless you prays

your ever affectionate


Robert’s kindest regards.

Address, on integral page: Miss Mitford / Three Mile Cross / near Reading.

Publication: EBB-MRM, III, 300–304.

Manuscript: Wellesley College.

1. Year provided by postmark. Beginning day suggested by EBB’s remark concerning the burial of the Cottrells’ infant son; see note 4.

2. Miss Mitford had decided to vacate her cottage at Three Mile Cross due to its damp and dilapidated condition. She removed to her new residence, a cottage at Swallowfield, in September of the following year.

3. According to Thomas Adolphus Trollope, the building was purchased by him in an unfinished state: “I completed it … adapted it for a single residence, instead of its division into sundry dwellings” (What I Remember, 1887, II, 378). The house, which stands at a corner of the Piazza dell’Indipendenza (Piazza Maria Antonia until 1859), became known as Villino Trollope and was a popular meeting place for the Anglo-Florentine community.

4. i.e., Alice Cottrell (see letter 2824, note 2) who had died in November 1849. The “new-born baby” was Carlo Ludovico Cottrell, who died on 11 June 1850, aged 28 days; he was buried on 13 June (ICS).

5. James Watson Webb (1802–84), an American journalist, soldier, and diplomat, who “journeyed to Vienna in 1849–50 under appointment (Jan. 7, 1850), as chargé d’affaires to Austria, only to be greeted with the news that the Senate had refused to confirm his appointment, perhaps because of a widespread desire to break with Austria in protest against the Hungarian war” (DAB). As recorded in the Passport Register in the State Archives of Florence, Webb was issued a travel permit for Rome dated 30 May 1850.

6. Pius IX had returned to Rome, under the protection of French troops, from his exile at Gaeta on 12 April 1850.

7. The National Assembly of France enacted a restrictive electoral law on 21 May 1850, requiring a three-year residency which effectively excluded workers from voting. “Increase of income” refers to the debate in the Assembly of a dotation bill that would increase the income of Louis Napoleon. It was passed on 24 June, granting the president £10,000 a month in addition to his personal salary of £24,000 per year.

8. Horne “performed the part of Shylock at a benefit night under the patronage of the Duke of Cambridge at Sadler’s Wells theatre: a disastrous performance since he was afflicted with laryngitis and could scarcely be heard. (The best part of the evening, one observer had reported, was when Horne left the stage.) Even he himself had had to admit he was ‘very bad’” (Ann Blainey, The Farthing Poet, 1968, p. 183).

9. Published in 1848.

10. Blanc had fled to England following the Paris workers’ revolt in June 1848.

11. Mary Dean, the wife of Thomas Dean—curate of St. James Church in Colwall, had evidently seen “A Child’s Grave at Florence,” EBB’s lines on Alice Cottrell, which were published in the 22 December 1849 issue of The Athenæum.

12. Wordsworth’s death on 23 April 1850 had left the post of Poet Laureate vacant; EBB’s name was one of the first to be mentioned as a possible successor.

13. The author of the “flattering recommendation” that appeared in the 1 June 1850 issue was not Chorley but rather the current editor, Thomas Kibble Hervey (1799–1859), as confirmed in the marked file copy of The Athenæum now at City University (London). Although Hervey maintained that the nature of the laureateship should be altered, he went on to promote EBB as a candidate: “In the reign of a youthful queen, if there be among her subjects one of her own sex whom the laurel will fit, its grant to a female would be at once an honourable testimonial to the individual, a fitting recognition of the remarkable place which the women of England have taken in the literature of the day, and a graceful compliment to the Sovereign herself. It happens to fall in well with this view of the case, that there is no living poet of either sex who can prefer a higher claim than Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning” (no. 1179, p. 585). The Athenæum restated their position in the 22 June 1850 issue (no. 1182, p. 662). Galignani’s Messenger for 17 May 1850 carried extracts from The Times and The Daily News, both of which contained articles suggesting EBB for the laureateship.

14. Cf. Leigh Hunt, “The ‘Choice’” (1823), line 9.

15. EBB may have considered Edmund Spenser the first poet laureate, but there is no evidence indicating that he was formally so named. In February 1591, he received a pension of £50 a year from Queen Elizabeth I.

16. Emilia (“Emily”) Tennyson (1811–87) had been engaged to Arthur Henry Hallam when he died suddenly in 1833. In the spring of the following year, she began receiving a yearly allowance of three hundred pounds from Arthur’s father, Henry Hallam, who may have felt he owed her some compensation for having tried to keep the lovers apart. Upon her marriage to Richard Jesse (d. 1889, aged 74), Lieutenant, R.N., in 1842, Mr. Hallam offered to continue the allowance, which Emily accepted. This appalled EBB, as did the marriage itself and the couple’s decision to name their first born after Emily’s dead fiancé, all of which she expressed in a letter to her brother George on 8 July 1843 (letter 1315).


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