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2881.  EBB to Mary Russell Mitford

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 16, 197–202.

Siena–

Sept 24 [1850] [1]

To think that it is more than two months since I wrote last to you my beloved friend, makes the said two months seem even longer to me than otherwise they would necessarily be—a slow, heavy two months in every case, .. “with all the weights of care & death hung at them”. [2] Your letter reached me when I was confined to my bed & could scarcely read it for all the strength at my heart. So ill I have been in the old way .. miscarriage .. for the fourth time, only worse than I ever was: forced to lie with ice-applications for two days & nights together, & feeling very doubtful in my own mind, .. I, who am not easily alarmed, .. how it was likely to end. Robert was up with me all night long with Wilson, he fanning me to keep off the fainting—for the exhaustion was extreme, & indeed it is only within the last ten days that some human colour has come back to my blanched cheeks & hands. So loth was I to leave Florence—I felt so little equal to such an exertion!—yet as soon as I could be moved, & before I could walk from one room to another, Dr Harding insisted on the necessity of change of air—(for my part, I seemed to myself more fit to change the world than the air) and Robert carried me into the railroad like a baby, & off we came here to Siena. We took a villa a mile & a half from the town, a villa situated on a windy hill (called “poggio al vento”) with magnificent views from all the windows, & set in the midst of its own vineyard & oliveground, apple trees & peach trees, not to speak of a little square flower-garden—for which we pay eleven shillings, one penny, farthing, the week: and at the end of these three weeks, our medical comforter’s prophecy, to which I listened so incredulously, is fulfilled, and I am able to walk a mile & am really as well as ever in all essential respects. It is curious how I rally—he said that a robuster woman would find it much harder to rally from such attacks than I—but this fact does’nt console me for ever so much disappointment besides a seven weeks illness. He told my husband that he never knew such excessive cases—yet there is no malady,—nothing to prevent the ordinary solution, .. when suddenly a sort of fury falls into the circulation & there’s an end of all. How Wiedeman escaped it seems impossible to say– Ah well!—the less said the better now—its over & I’m alive, which is considerably beyond what might have been expected. Our poor little darling too (see what disasters!) was ill four & twenty hours from a species of sun-stroke, & frightened us with a heavy, hot head, & glassy staring eyes, lying in a half stupor. Terrible, the silence that fell suddenly upon the house, without the small pattering feet, & the singing voice! But God spared us: he grew quite well directly & sang louder than ever. Since we came here his cheeks have turned into roses, .. and we have been perpetrating the cruelty of weaning him–. Poor darling! His first grief it has been. His nurse put aloes on her breast—and if you had seen him make her sit on the old seats, first on one, then on another, where everything used to go so well!– He thought the milk wd be better there, poor darling!

What still further depressed me during our latter days at Florence was the dreadful event in America—the loss of our poor friend Madme Ossoli .. affecting in itself, & also through association with that past, when the arrowhead of anguish was broken too deeply into my life ever to be quite drawn out. [3] Robert wanted to keep the news from me till I was stronger, but we live too close, for him to keep anything from me,—& then I shd have known it from the first letter or visitor, so there was no use trying. The poor Ossolis spent part of their last evening in Italy with us .. he and she & their child .. and we had a note from her off Gibraltar speaking of the captain’s death .. from small pox. Afterwards it appears that her child caught the desease & lay for days between life & death—recovered—& then came the final agony. “Deep called unto deep” [4] indeed. Now she is where there is no more grief & ‘no more sea’ [5] —and none of the restless in this world, none of the shipwrecked in heart, ever seemed to me to want peace more than she did. We saw much of her last winter,—&, over a great gulf of differing opinion, we both felt drawn strongly to her. High & pure aspiration she had—yes, and a tender woman’s heart,—& we honored the truth & courage in her, rare in woman or man. The work she was preparing upon Italy wd probably have been more equal to her faculty than anything previously produced by her pen, (her other writing, being curiously inferior to the impressions her conversation gave you): indeed she told me it was the only production to which she had given time & labour. But if rescued, the ms. would be but the raw material. I believe nothing was finished:—nor, if finished, could the work have been otherwise than deeply coloured by those blood-colours of socialistic views, which would have drawn the wolves on her with a still more howling enmity both in England & America. Therefore it was better for her to go. Only God and a few friends can be expected to distinguish between the pure personality of a woman & her professed opinions. She was chiefly known in America, I believe, by oral lectures & a connection with the newspaper-press—neither of them happy means of publicity. Was she happy in anything, I wonder? She told me that she never was. May God have made her happy in her death!

Such gloom she had in leaving Italy! So full she was of sad presentiment! Do you know she gave a bible as a parting gift from her child to ours, writing in it “In memory of Angelo Eugene Ossoli” &c .. a strange, prophetical expression!– That last evening, a prophecy was talked of jestingly, .. an old prophecy made to poor Marquis Ossoli, .. “that he should shun the sea, for that it wd be fatal to him”. I remember how she turned to me smiling & said “Our ship is called the Elizabeth, & I accept the omen”.

Now I am making you almost dull perhaps, & myself certainly duller. Rather let me tell you, dearest Miss Mitford, how delightedly I look forward to reading whatever you have written or shall write– You write “as well as twenty years ago”! Why, I should think so indeed!—— Dont I know what your letters are? Have’nt I had faith in you always? Have’nt I, in fact, teazed you half to death in proof of it? .. I who was a sort of Brutus, & ought’nt to have done it, you hinted! Moreover Robert is a great admirer of yours, as I must have told you before, & has the pretension (unjustly though, as I tell him) to place you still higher among writers than I do .. so that we are two in expectancy here! May Mr Chorley’s periodical [6] live a thousand years!

As my ‘sea gull’ wont—but you will find it in my new edition, & the ‘Doves’ [7] & everything else worth a straw, of my writing. Here’s a fact, which you must try to settle with your theories of simplicity & popularity– None of these simple poems of mine have been favorites with general readers. The unintelligible ones are always preferred, I observe, by extracters, compilers, and ladies & gentlemen who write to tell me that I’m a Muse. The very Corn Law Leaguers in the north, used to leave your ‘seagulls’ to fly where they could, & clap hands over mysteries of iniquity. [8] Dearest Miss Mitford—for the rest, dont mistake what I write to you sometimes,—dont fancy that I undervalue simplicity & think nothing of legitimate fame– I only mean to say that the vogue which begins with the masses, generally comes to nought .. (Berenger is an exceptional case, from the form of his poems, obviously) [9] while the appreciation beginning with the few, always ends with the masses. Was’nt Wordsworth, for instance, both simple & unpopular, when he was most divine? To go from the great to the small, when I complain of the lamentable weakness of much in my Seraphim-volume, I dont complain of the Seagull & Doves & the simple verses,—but exactly of the more ambitious ones. I have had to rewrite pages upon pages of that volume– Oh, such feeble rhymes, & turns of thought! such a dingy mistiness! Even Robert could’nt say a word for much of it. I took great pains with the whole, & made considerable portions, new—only, your favorites were not touched—not a word, touched, I think, in the Sea Gull—& scarcely a word in the Doves. You wont complain of me a great deal, I do hope & trust. Also I put back your “little words” into the ‘House of Clouds’. [10] The two volumes are to come out it appears, at the end of October,—not before, because Mr Chapman wished to inaugurate them from his new house in Piccadilly– There are some new poems, & one rather long ballad, written at request of anti-slavery friends in America. I arranged that it shd come next to the ‘Cry of the children’ .. to appear impartial as to national grievances. [11]

Dearest Miss Mitford, shall you really stay on in that ricketty perilous house? Cant you find another in all the neighbourhood, & will no active friend go out in search? I have heard of your kindness in driving twelve miles to see my sister Arabel—(how kind!) & of your not seeing her after all. She seems still too doubtful whether she will escape from town this year, notwithstanding the day-dreams and actual house-takings. [12]

Oh—Balzac!—— What a loss. [13] One of the greatest & <most> original writers of the age, gone from us! To hear this news made Robert & me very melancholy. Indeed there seems to be fatality just now with the writers of France—Souliè, Bernard, gone too [14] —George Sand, translating Mazzini [15]  .. Sue in a socialistical state of decadence .. (what he means by writing such trash as the ‘Pêchès,’ [16] I really cant make out ..) only Alexandre Dumas keeping his head up gallantly, & he seems to me to write better than ever. Here is a new book, just published, by Jules Sandeau called ‘Sacs et Parchemins’! [17] Have you seen it? It miraculously comes to us from the little Siena library.

We stay in this villa till our month is out, and then we go for a week into Siena that I may be nearer the churches & pictures, & see something of the cathedral & Sodomas– We calculated that it was cheaper to move our quarters than to have a carriage to & fro—and then Dr Harding recommended repeated change of air for me, and he has proved his ability so much, (so kindly too!) that we are bound to act on his opinions as closely as we can. Perhaps we may even go to Volterra afterwards, if the finances will but allow of it. If we do, it may be for another week at farthest, & then we return to Florence. You had better direct there as usual. And do write & tell me much of yourself, & set me down in your thoughts as quite well, & ever yours in warm & grateful affection—

EBB

You ought to see Flush & our little Wiedeman together. Wiedeman gives up everything to Flush, cakes and all,—and if we say that Flush is greedy, he wont bear it, I mean, Wiedeman wont—he cries in a moment if he thinks Flush illtreated, & leaves the whole world, to go after him & comfort him under the beds.

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

Publication: EBB-MRM, III, 307–312.

Manuscript: Wellesley College.

1. Year provided by postmark.

2. Cf. Ben Jonson, Catiline His Conspiracy (1611), I, 193.

3. An allusion to the death by drowning of her brother Edward.

4. Cf. Psalm 42:7.

5. Revelation 21:1.

6. The Ladies’ Companion, to which Miss Mitford was contributing a series of essays; see letter 2863, note 4.

7. “My Doves” and “The Sea-Mew” were first published in The Seraphim, and Other Poems (1838). They both appeared in volume two of Poems (1850).

8. Cf. II Thessalonians 2:7. EBB refers to the positive notice of Poems (1844), and “A Drama of Exile” in particular, that appeared in The League of 7 December 1844 (see vol. 9, pp. 378–380). The League, published in London from 1843 to 1846, was the organ of the Manchester based Anti-Corn Law League.

9. That being the chanson, or song, which Pierre-Jean de Béranger (1780–1857) employed as a vehicle for his political satire and social criticism.

10. Miss Mitford greatly admired “The House of Clouds” when it was originally published in The Athenæum of 21 August 1841 (no. 721, p. 643). But she was unhappy with the altered version that appeared in Poems (1844); see SD1394, SD1411, and SD1453. In letter 1688, EBB had pleaded “guilty to blowing away one or two syllables … & also to the adding of some three stanzas.”

11. In volume two of Poems (1850), “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” is followed immediately by “The Cry of the Children,” a denouncement of industrial conditions in England.

12. A house, in the vicinity of Three Mile Cross, was taken by the Moulton-Barretts for their annual outing from London; however, EBB’s father apparently had some last-minute objection, and the family remained in London.

13. Honoré de Balzac died in Paris on 18 August 1850 at the age of 51.

14. Charles de Bernard had died in March 1850; Frédéric Soulié, in 1847.

15. République et Royauté en Italie par J. Mazzini traduction et preface par George Sand (1850) concerns revolutionary events in Lombardy in 1848.

16. Eugène Sue’s Les Sept Péchés capitaux had been serialised in Le Constitutionnel beginning in September 1847, but the editor refused to publish the last two installments due to their content. In April 1850 the author won a seat in the Assembly as a socialist.

17. A political and social satire, which was published in Brussels in 1850.

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