Correspondence

3005.  EBB to John Kenyon

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 18, 17–22.

138. Avenue des Ch. Elysées

Feb. 15 [–16]– [1852][1]

My dearest Mr Kenyon, Robert sends you his Shelley,[2] having a very few copies allowed to him to dispose of. I think you have Shelley’s other letters,[3] of which this volume is the supplement,—& you will not be sorry to have Robert’s preface thrown in though he makes very light of it himself–

You never write a word to us, and so I dont mean to send you a letter today .. only as few lines as I can drop in a sulky fit, repenting as I go on. As to politics, you know you have all put me into the corner because I stand up for universal suffrage, & am weak enough to fancy that seven millions & a half of frenchmen have some right to an opinion on their own affairs. It’s really fatal in this world to be consequent—it leads one into damnable errors– So I shall not say much more at present. You must bear with me,—dear Miss Bailey [sic, for Bayley] & all of you, .. & believe of me, if I am ever so wrong, that I do at least pray from my soul, “May the Right prevail,”[4] .. loving right, truth, justice & the people, through whatever mistakes– As it was in the beginning,[5] from ‘Casa Guidi Windows’ so is it now from the Avenue des Champs Elysées.[6] I am most humanly liable of course to make mistakes, & am by temperament perhaps over hopeful & sanguine. But I do see with my own eyes & feel with my own spirit, & not with other people’s eyes & spirits, though they should happen to be the dearest—& that’s the very best of me, be certain, so dont quarrel with it too much.

As to the worst of the president, let him have vulture’s beak, hyena’s teeth, & the rattle of the great serpent, it’s nothing to the question. Let him be Caligula’s horse raised to the consulship[7] .. what then? I am not a Buonapartist– I am simply a “democrat” as you say. I simply hold to the fact that such as he is the people chose him, and to the opinion, that they have a right to choose whom they please. When your English press denies the fact of the choice[8] (a fact which the most passionate of party men does not think of denying here) I seem to have a right to another opinion which might strike you as unpatriotic if I uttered it in this place. Hic tacet[9] then, rather than jacet.

For the rest, for Heaven’s sake & the truth’s, do let us try to take breath a little & be patient. Let us wait till the dust of the struggle has cleared away before we take measure of the circus– We cant have the liberty of a regular government under a dictatorship. And if the “constitution” which is coming, is not model, it may wear itself into shape by being worked calmly. These new boots will be easier to the feet after half an hour’s walking. Not that I like the pinching meanwhile. Not that stringencies upon the press please me—no, nor arrests & imprisonments. I like these things, God knows, as little as the loudest curser of you all, but I dont think it necessary & lawful to exaggerate & over colour—nor to paint the cheeks of sorrows into horrors—nor to talk like the Quarterly Review (betwixt excuses for the King of Naples) of two thousand four hundred persons being cut to mince meat in the streets of Paris—nor to call boldness, hypocrisy .. (because hypocrisy is the worse word)—and the appeal to the sovereignty of the people, usurpation, and universal suffrage, the pricking of bayonets.[10] Above all, I would avoid insulting the whole French nation, who have judged their own position & acted accordingly. If Louis Napoleon disappoints their expectation, he wont sit long where he is. Of that, I feel a satisfying assurance;—and considering the national habits of insurrection, I really think that others may.

Meanwhile it is just to tell you that the two deepest minded persons whom we have known in Paris .. one an ultra republican of European reputation (I dont like mentioning names) & the other, a constitutionalist of the purest & noblest moral nature,[11] are both inclined to take favorable views of the president’s personal character & intentions. For my part I dont pretend to an opinion. He may be, as they say, “bon enfant,” “homme de conscience”[12] & “so much in earnest as to be fanatical,” .. or he may be a wretch & a reptile as you say in England. That’s nothing to the question as I see it. I dont take it up by that handle at all. Caligula’s horse,—or the people’s “messiah”, as I heard him called the other day .. what then? You are wonderfully intolerant, you in England, of equine consulships, you who bear with quite sufficient equanimity a great rampancy of beasts all over the world, .. Mr Forster not blowing the trumpet of war, & Mrs Alfred Tennyson not leading the rifles.[13]

There now– I’ve done with politics today. Only just let me tell you that Cormenin[14] is said to be the adviser in the matter of the Orleans decrees. So much the worse for him.

Whom do you think I saw yesterday? George Sand.[15] Oh, I have been in such fear about it. It’s the most difficult thing to get access to her, & notwithstanding our letter from Mazzini, we were assured on all sides that she would not see us– She has been persecuted by book-makers, run to ground by the race: and after having quite lost her on her former visit to Paris, it was in half despair that we siezed on an opportunity of committing our letter of introduction to a friend of a friend of hers who promised to put it into her own hands. With the letter I wrote a little note, .. I writing it as I was the woman, & both of us signing it. To my delight, we had an answer by the next day’s post, gracious & graceful, desiring us to call on her last sunday.

So we went. Robert let me at last—though I had a struggle for even that, the air being rather over-sharp for me—but I represented to him that one might as well lose one’s life as one’s peace of mind for ever, and if I lost seeing her I should with difficulty get over it. So I put on my respirator, smothered myself with furs, & in a close carriage, did not run much risk after all.

She received us very kindly, with a hand stretched out,—which I, with a natural emotion, (I assure you my heart beat) stooped & kissed, when she said quickly “mais non, je ne veux pas,”[16] .. and kissed my lips. She is somewhat large for her height .. not tall, .. & was dressed with great nicety in a sort of grey serge gown & jacket, made after the ruling fashion just now & fastened up to the throat, .. plain linen collerette & sleeves. Her hair was uncovered, divided on the forehead in black glossy bandeaux, & twisted up behind. The eyes & brow are noble, & the nose is of a somewhat Jewish character, .. the chin a little recedes, & the mouth is not good, though mobile .. flashing out a sudden smile with its white projecting teeth. There is no sweetness in the face, but great moral as well as intellectual capacity—only it never could have been a beautiful face, which a good deal surprised me. The chief difference in it since it was younger, is probably that the cheeks are considerably fuller than they used to be, but this of course does not alter the type. Her complexion is of a deep olive. I observed that her hands were small & well-shaped. We sate with her perhaps three quarters of an hour or more—in which time, she gave advice & various directions to two or three young men who were there, showing her confidence in us by the freest use of names & allusion to facts—she seemed to be in fact the man in that company, & the profound respect with which she was listened to, a good deal impressed me. You are aware from the newspapers that she came to Paris for the purpose of seeing the President in behalf of certain of her friends, & that it was a successful mediation.–[17] What is peculiar in her manners & conversation is the absolute simplicity of both. Her voice is low & rapid, without emphasis or variety of modulation. Except one brilliant smile, she was grave .. indeed she was speaking of grave matters & many of her friends were in adversity .. but you could not help seeing (both Robert & I saw it) that in all she said, even in her kindness & pity, there was an under current of scorn. A scorn of pleasing, she evidently had—there never could have been a colour of coquetry in that woman. Her very freedom from affectation & consciousness, had a touch of disdain. But I liked her .. I did not love her .. but I felt the burning soul through all that quietness, & was not disappointed in George Sand. When we rose to go, I could not help saying “C’est pour la derniere fois”[18] .. & then she asked us to repeat our visit next sunday, & excused herself from coming to see us on the ground of a great press of engagements. She kissed me again when we went away, & Robert kissed her hand.

Lady Elgin has offered to take him one day this week to visit Lamartine, (who, we hear, will be glad to see us, having a cordial feeling towards England & English poets)—but I shall wait for some very warm day for that visit, not meaning to run mortal risks except for George Sand. Nota bene. We did’nt see her smoke–

Robert has ventured to send to your house my dearest friend, two copies of Shelley besides yours—one for Mr Procter & one for Mrs Jameson,[19] with kindest love, both– There is no hurry about either, you know. We wanted another for dear Miss Bailey—but we have only six copies & dont keep one for ourselves, & she wont care I dare say.

Your ever most affectionate & grateful

Ba–

Will you let your servant put this letter into the post for Miss Mitford?[20] She upset me by her book, but had the most affectionate intentions, & I am obliged to her for what she meant. Then I am morbid I know. Tell dear Miss Bailey with my love I shall write to her soon.

Address: Angleterre / John Kenyon Esqre / 39 Devonshire Place / Regent’s Park / London.

Publication: LEBB, II, 52–57.

Manuscript: Wellesley College.

1. Year provided by postmark; final day, by EBB’s reference to visiting George Sand “yesterday,” 15 February.

2. Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley. With an Introductory Essay by Robert Browning (1852) was withdrawn shortly after its publication on 14 February. See letter 2937, note 4.

3. Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments, ed. Mary Shelley (1840), published by Moxon.

4. Cf. Æschylus, Agamemnon, 121, trans. Herbert Weir Smyth. In this and subsequent quotations from, or references to, Greek and Latin classical authors, the citations are from the Loeb Classical Library unless otherwise indicated.

5. Cf. the Gloria Patri in The Book of Common Prayer.

6. EBB had watched the people have their way “from ‘Casa Guidi Windows’” in September 1847 when the Florentines celebrated the granting of various freedoms by Grand Duke Leopold II of Tuscany. From the balcony of the Brownings’ apartment in Avenue des Champs Élysées, EBB had witnessed events unfold during Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état of December 1851. In the plebiscite held later that month, over seven million Frenchmen endorsed his actions and confirmed his presidency. The “mistakes” EBB mentions may refer to the hope she placed in the Grand Duke and the Tuscan people to work towards a unified Italy. The latter proved incapable; the former, both incapable and treacherous. In the “Advertisement” to Casa Guidi Windows (1851), EBB “takes shame upon herself that she believed, like a woman, some royal oaths” (p. vi). Now, similarly, she has placed her hopes for the future of France in its people and in the person of Louis Napoleon.

7. Caligula was so fond of his horse, Incitatus, that he made him a priest and a consul.

8. The Examiner was one of the more vituperative of the many British periodicals that condemned the validity of the French plebiscite held on 20 December 1851 to confirm Louis Napoleon’s authority. An editorial in the 27 December issue, entitled “The Mockery,” began: “Every one foreknew that the election in France would be a mockery, a sham—that there could be no such thing as a free choice in a country half of which is declared in a state of siege, and all of which is under the sway of terror,—in which the press exists only as the instrument of the usurper’s figments and decrees,—in which any one obnoxious to the Government may be shipped off to Algeria or Cayenne … and if this was not enough to compel the desired suffrage, it was certain that M. Bonaparte’s creatures would not scruple to suppress any inconvenient number of adverse votes, or to supply any insufficient number of assents” (p. 817).

9. “Here keeps silent,” a play on “hic jacet,” “here lies.”

10. In a review of Révision de la Constitution in The Quarterly Review of December 1851 (pp. 257–283), the reviewer called the coup d’état of 2 December 1851 “the recent Usurpation” (p. 257) and the election that followed, “the farce of a ballot guided by the force of the bayonet” (p. 280). He concluded by reporting: “We have seen the number of killed in those two days in Paris reckoned at 2400” (p. 281). In the preceding article, a review of the first two volumes of Luigi Carlo Farini’s The Roman State, from 1815 to 1850, trans. W.E. Gladstone (1851), the reviewer considered King Ferdinand II’s conduct in 1848, during which he had been given the nickname of “La Bomba” for his relentless bombardment of Messina, as benign: “He was defended against a small but active minority of agitators, native and foreign, by the loyalty and zeal of his army and his people. So far from planning an attack, he would have disarmed all resistance; and had his orders been obeyed, the throne of Naples would have soon become not worth defending” (p. 248). Regarding Gladstone’s exposé of the King’s treatment of political prisoners, it was suggested that “few of Mr. Gladstone’s facts are guaranteed by any authority beyond that of hearsay” (p. 249n) and that “the King has directed an examination to be made of the prisons” (p. 250).

11. Eugène Pelletan and Joseph Milsand, respectively.

12. “Good-natured,” “a man of conscience.”

13. The Examiner, of which John Forster was editor from 1847 to 1855, had, since the coup d’état, consistently denounced Louis Napoleon as a tyrant and called on England to prepare for a French invasion. In the 24 January 1852 issue (p. 49), an editorial entitled “The Probability of Attack and Means of Defence” argued that the French president was obligated to make war in order to prevent his citizens from taking a closer look at the government and that England was the logical target. The piece concluded by pointing out specific ways of strengthening the national defence, including the establishment of “volunteer rifle corps.” Coventry Patmore’s letter to The Times of 22 January (see letter 3001, note 16), had led to the formation of a rifle club, to which Alfred Tennyson and his wife Emily both contributed five pounds (see The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson, ed. Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon, Jr., Cambridge, Mass., 1981–90, 2, 26).

14. Louis-Marie de LaHaye, Vicomte de Cormenin (1788–1868), politician, jurist, and author of pamphlets in support of liberal reforms.

15. The Brownings’ first visit to George Sand took place on Sunday, 15 February 1852. According to Sand’s diary, they met subsequently on 22 February and 14 March (George Sand: Correspondance, ed. Georges Lubin, 1973, 10, 846). RB eventually saw her seven times.

16. “But no, I do not wish it.”

17. See letter 3003, note 24. According to Jasper Ridley, Sand interceded “for the five deputies condemned to Cayenne [among whom was Dufraisse] and for seventy lesser-known persons who had been sentenced to transportation. Louis Napoleon immediately pardoned three of the five deputies and all the other seventy for whom Sand had interceded” (Napoleon III and Eugénie, 1979, p. 306).

18. “It’s for the last time.”

19. Mrs. Jameson’s copy is inscribed in her own hand: “To Mrs Jameson from Robert Browning” (see Reconstruction, C635); Procter’s copy is inscribed by RB “To B. W. Procter from Robert Browning” (see Reconstruction, C636).

20. Kenyon sent EBB’s letter to Miss Mitford on 18 February; see SD1548.

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