3189.  EBB to Mary Russell Mitford

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 19, 45–49.


April 12– [1853][1]

The comfort is, my ever loved friend, that here is spring, .. summer, as translated into Italy .. if fine weather is to set you up again. I shall be very thankful to have better news of you,—to hear of your being out of that room & loosened into some happy condition of liberty. It seems unnatural to think of you in one room! That seems fitter for me, does’nt it? And the rooms in England are so low and small that they put double bars on one’s captivity. May God bring you out with the chesnut trees & elms! It[’]s very sad, meanwhile.

Comfort yourself, dear friend! Admire Louis Napoleon. He’s an extraordinary man beyond all doubt, .. & that he has achieved great good for France, .. I do not in the least doubt. I was only telling you that I had not finished my pedestal for him .. wait a little. Because you see, for my part, I dont go over to the system of “mild despotisms”[2] .. no, indeed. I am a democrat to the bone of me. It is simply as a democratical ruler, & by grace of the people, that I accept him, & he must justify himself by more deeds to his position before he glorifies himself before me. That’s what I mean to say. A mild despot in France, let him be the archangel Gabriel, unless he hold the kingdom in perpetuity, .. what is the consequence? A successor like the archangel Lucifer, perhaps. Then, for the press, .. where there is thought, there must be discussion or conspiracy. Are you aware of the amount of readers in France? Take away the Times newspaper, and the blow falls on a handful of readers, on a section of what may be called the aristocracy. But everybody reads in France. Every fiacre-driver who waits for you at a shopdoor, beguiles the time with a newspaper. It is on that account that the influence of the press is dangerous, you will say. Precisely so—but also, on that account, too, it is necessary. No– I hold, myself, that he will give more breathing room to France, as circumstances admit of it.[3] Else, there will be convulsion. You will see– We shall see. And Louis Napoleon, who is wise, forsees, I cannot doubt.

Not read Mrs Stowe’s book! But you must. Her book is quite a sign of the times, .. and has otherwise & intrinsically considerable power. For myself, I rejoice in the success, both as a woman & a human being– Oh—and is it possible that you think a woman has no business with questions like the question of slavery? Then she had better use a pen no more. She had better subside into slavery & concubinage herself, I think, as in the times of old,—shut herself up with the Penelopes in the “women’s apartment,”[4] & take no rank among thinkers & speakers. Certainly, you are not in earnest in these things. A difficult question .. yes! All virtue is difficult. England found it difficult– France found it difficult. But we did not make ourselves an armchair of our sins. As for America, I honor America in much—but I would not be an American for the world, while she wears that shameful scar upon her brow. The address of the new President[5] exasperates me. Observe– I am an abolitionist, not to the fanatical degree, because, I hold, that compensation should be given by the north to the south, as in England. The states should unite in buying off this national disgrace.

The Americans are very kind & earnest, and I like them all the better for their warm feeling towards you. Is Longfellow agreeable in his personal relations? We knew his brother, I think I told you, in Paris.[6] I suppose Mr Fields has been liberal to Thackeray—& yet Thackeray does not except him in certain observations on American publishers.[7] We shall have an arrangement made of some sort, it appears. Mr Forster wants me to add some new poems to my new edition in order to secure the copyright under the new law–[8] But as the law does not act backwards, I dont see how new poems would save me. They would just sweep out the new poems—that’s all. One or two lyrics could not be made an object—and in those two thick volumes, nearly bursting with their present contents, there would not be room for many additions. No, I shall add nothing. I have revised the edition very carefully, & made everything better. It vexed me to see how much there was to do. Positively, even rhymes left unrhymed in ‘Lady Geraldine’s courtship’. You dont write so carelessly, not you, & the reward is that you have’nt so much trouble in your new editions. I see your book advertised in a stray number of the Athenæum[9] lent to me by Mr. Tennyson .. Frederic. He lent it to me because I wanted to see the article on the new poet, Alexander Smith,[10] who appears so applauded everywhere. He has the poet’s stuff in him, one may see from the extracts. Do you know him? And Coventry Patmore, .. have you heard anything of his book, of which appears an advertisement.[11]

Ah yes! how unfortunate that you should have parted with your copyrights! It’s a bad plan always .. except in the case of novels who have their day, & no day after.

The poem I am about, will fill a volume when done.[12] It is the novel or romance I have been hankering after so long—written in blank verse, .. in the autobiographical form, .. the heroine, an artist-woman[—]not a painter, mind. It is intensely modern .. crammed from the times (not the Times newspaper) as far as my strength will allow– Perhaps you wont like it .. perhaps you will. Who knows? who dares hope?

I am beginning to be anxious about ‘Colombe’s Birthday.’ I care much more about it than Robert does. He says that nobody will mistake it for his speculation—it’s Mr Buckstone’s affair altogether. True—but I should like it to succeed, being Robert’s play notwithstanding. But the play is subtle & refined for pits & galleries—I am nervous about it. On the other hand, those theatrical people ought to know,—& what in the world made them select it, if it is not likely to answer their purpose?– By the way, a dreadful rumour reaches us of it’s having been “prepared for the stage by the author.” Dont believe a word of it. Robert just said ‘yes’ when they wrote to ask him, & not a line of communication has passed since. He has prepared nothing at all, suggested nothing, modified nothing. He referred them to his new edition; & that was the whole.

Mrs Trollope has been very ill with an attack of bronchitis, but is better & has gone to Pisa for change of air. It was an unfortunate distraction from the prosperity of her daughter in law’s confinement, & the family joy in the new little girl-baby.[13]

Read Tait’s last number, the March number, on the spirits of America. It has a review of Mr Spicer’s book, & is evidently written by somebody who is shaken, but has not the courage of his convictions .. or perhaps has not attained yet to convictions, one way or another. The subject, whatever character you give to it, is worthy of attention, from the extraordinary proportions it is taking day by day. We see so many Americans that it is pressed on us continually. The more sceptical attribute it to “electricity” .. which is a word, it seems to me, & not a solution by any means.

We see a great deal of Mr Tennyson. Robert is very fond of him, & so am I. He too writes poems, & prints them, though not for the public. They are better & stronger than Charles Tennyson’s[14]—& he has the poetical temperament in everything. Did I tell you that he had married an Italian, & had children from twelve years old downwards? He is intensely English nevertheless, as expatriated Englishmen generally are. I always tell Robert that his patriotism grows & deepens in exact proportion as he goes away from England. As for me, it is not so with me. I am very cosmopolitan, & am considerably tired of the self-deification of the English nation at the expense of all others. We have some noble advantages over the rest of the world, but it is not all advantage. The shameful details of bribery,[15] for instance, prove what I have continually maintained, the non-representativeness of our “representative system,”—and, socially speaking, we are much behind hand with most foreign peoples. Let us be proud in the right place,—I say, & not in the wrong– We see too a good deal of young Lytton, Sir Edward’s only son—an interesting young man, with various sorts of good, & aspiration to good in him.[16] You see we are not at Rome yet. Do write to me. Speak of yourself particularly. God bless you, dearest friend–

Believe that I think of you & love you most faithfully–


Publication: LEBB, II, 109–113 (in part, as to Mrs. Jameson).

Manuscript: Wellesley College.

1. Year provided by EBB’s reference to the birth of Beatrice Trollope (see note 13).

2. EBB may have in mind an idea presented by Alexis de Tocqueville in his De la démocratie en Amérique (1835–40). He theorized that if a despotism were to occur in a democratic country, “it would be more extensive and more mild” than the despotisms of old (Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve, 4th ed., New York, 1845, II, 337). It would consist of an elected government that acted towards its people as a parent to a child. “It does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd” (II, 339).

3. EBB refers to the press censorship imposed by Louis Napoleon since the coup d’état of December 1851; see letter 3006, note 7.

4. In the Odyssey, XXI, 349–358, trans. A.T. Murray. In this and subsequent quotations from, or references to, Greek and Latin classical authors, citations are from the Loeb Classical Library unless otherwise indicated.

5. Franklin Pierce (1804–69) won the U.S. presidential election of 1852. His inaugural address, delivered on 4 March 1853, was carried in The Times of 17 March 1853. Turning to the subject of slavery, which had “most seriously disturbed public tranquillity,” Pierce declared: “I believe that involuntary servitude, as it exists in different States … is recognized by the constitution. … I believe that the constituted authorities of this Republic are bound to regard the rights of the South in this respect as they would view any other legal and constitutional right, and that the laws to enforce them should be respected and obeyed” (p. 5).

6. The Brownings met Samuel Longfellow (1819–92), brother of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, at Paris in November 1851.

7. William Makepeace Thackeray would naturally have resented American publishers, since they had been pirating his novels and other writings for many years, the chief pirate being Harper & Brothers. However, as Peter L. Shillingsburg points out in Pegasus in Harness: Victorian Publishing and W. M. Thackeray (Charlottesville, Virginia, 1992, pp. 123–136), Thackeray was somewhat ambivalent about American piracy. While he regretted the money lost, he was encouraged by the positive effect it had on negotiations with his British publishers and hoped that it would lead to future sales. During and soon after his first American lecture tour, he concluded financial agreements with more than one American publisher. Shillingsburg quotes from Thackeray’s preface to an 1853 volume of his Punch contributions: “Since my arrival here I have met with several publishing houses who are willing to acknowledge our little claim to participate in the advantages arising out of our books … . If we are not paid in full and in specie as yet, English writers surely ought to be thankful for the very great kindness and friendliness with which the American public receives them” (p. 129). The firm in which James Thomas Fields was a partner, Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, had not yet published any of Thackeray’s works. The liberality EBB has in mind presumably refers to the arrangements Fields had made for Thackeray’s current lecture tour in the United States (begun in November 1852 and about to end), which proved to be highly lucrative for the author.

8. See letter 3188, note 2.

9. In the 19 March 1853 issue, as part of a full-page advertisement for Richard Bentley’s “New Publications,” the second edition of Miss Mitford’s Recollections of a Literary Life was announced as a “New and Cheaper Edition” (no. 1325, p. 368).

10. In the same issue (no. 1325, pp. 347–348), Poems (1853), written by a virtually unknown young Scot named Alexander Smith (1829–67), received a largely positive review from John Abraham Heraud (identified as the reviewer in the marked file copy of The Athenæum now at City University, London). Heraud felt that the principal poem in the collection, “The Life-Drama,” contained many “lines and phrases revealing a wealth of poetical thought and expression from which much may be expected” (p. 347). Smith’s book went into three editions in as many years.

11. Tamerton Church-Tower, and Other Poems, by Coventry Patmore, was advertised as “just published” in The Athenæum of 19 March 1853 (no. 1325, p. 364).

12. Aurora Leigh.

13. Beatrice (“Bice”) Trollope (1853–81), only child of Thomas Adolphus Trollope and his wife Theodosia (née Garrow), was born on 8 March in Florence.

14. EBB refers to Charles Turner ( Tennyson, 1808–79), a year older than Alfred and a year younger than Frederick, who had changed his name in 1835 to come within the terms of the will of his great-uncle Samuel Turner, from whom he inherited extensive properties. Charles had published Sonnets and Fugitive Pieces (1830) and had contributed to Poems by Two Brothers (1827).

15. Revelations of corruption during the July 1852 general election had been in the news since late February 1853. Accusations of bribery (directly buying votes) and treating of voters (which could take the form of buying them drinks at the local pub) were part of the many petitions contesting election results that were being submitted to Parliament. An editorial in The Daily News of 1 March 1853 contained the following condemnation: “No page in the history of our electoral system is so dark as that which will contain the history of the issue of the last elections. The enormous number of petitions against returns, the disgraceful disclosures that have been made by the witnesses examined … the reckless conduct of the agents in withdrawing petitions without consulting the constituencies … all point to a state of things that cannot continue to exist without bringing the representative system into discredit. … The evidence on the several petitions, together with the other disclosures that have been made public, afford materials for a scientific treatise on Bribery, which might be entitled, ‘Corruption Made Easy; or, Every Borough Its Own Vendor’” (p. 4). A little over a week later, The Times weighed in with an editorial on the bribery issue: “These disclosures, then, fully substantiate the fact of the universal taint that has affected the constituent body. The question remains—are we to sit down content under such a state of things, and reconcile ourselves to the action of bribery as to a constitutional force not recognized, but existing—denied, and yet taken advantage of by every candidate as a matter of course?” (9 March 1853, p. 5). Further exposures of fraudulent elections continued to appear in the news, contributing to the passage in 1854 of the Corrupt Practices Act. This piece of legislation, however, did little to curb corrupt practices.

16. For details of the Brownings’ friendship with Robert Bulwer Lytton, see the biographical sketch, pp. 349–363.


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