4383.  EBB to Isa Blagden

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 26, 117–120.

43. Bocca di Leone,

Friday [15 April 1859]. [1]

Ever dearest Isa, I have your letter with the Fauveau enclosure, which is very satisfactory, & characteristic besides. The last letter of yours too, I have received—& how welcome it is. So pleasant, to see the date … Villa Bricchieri. Florence would be deflowered without you– As well as Giotto’s tower! [2]

And now I am forced to say what will grieve you if you have not heard of it before. You have at least heard how ill poor Una Hawthorne has been from Roman fever, off & on, ever since she came .. that is, for some six months, in the course of which she has had one attack after another in the Roman fever way– Well, at last, comes the worst attack of all, complicated with gastric, .. keeps her in bed a fortnight very ill,—at the end of which time comes Franco in a state of distraction to her family, to say that all hope of saving her is over, except by a miracle. The desease, which is apt in its protracted stages to fall on a vital organ, has siezed the lungs, .. & in the course of three days, said he, the work of three years phthisis was worked. Before the fourteenth of this month, she would be gone–! So shocked all Rome has been, & I certainly not least. I went myself at once to try to persuade Mrs Hawthorne to be led no more by Franco but to call in other advice. [3] You never saw a woman more possessed by man or devil!– [4] She had “had Franco for six months” (what a reason!) & would have him still. Mr Hawthorne had no faith in Franco,—but then, said he, he had no faith in any one else—so he would not “vex Sophia” who was happy enough to have so much. We all could only sigh & groan. Some of the final symptoms appeared, we heard, & expected the worst every hour—but within the last two days she appears a shade better .. not worse .. at least—& I have just heard from Miss Shepard that the heads of the house had been prevailed on to have another opinion .. a Dr Ledesles’s [5] (homœopathic still!) & that though she had had no private conversation with him, her impression was that his view was more cheering than Franco’s. I shall let you know, if there is a change one way or another. Such a lovely girl! She called here just before this last attack. With all my belief in homœpathy for chronic maladies, you know what I think of it for matters of active fever. And as to Franco, no form of scepticism sufficiently expresses my distrust in him.

Miss Cushman also has had a slight attack of Roman fever, which, together with a telegram from Liverpool apprizing her of her sister’s dangerous illness, made her look wretchedly ill when I saw her last. [6] She could not go, she was so ill—& now there is an improved account of the sister, which will admit of her staying. I wish you could have heard through a half-open door all the good she said of you, my Isa. And she is vexed about you, too– She thinks you may or must see her under a cloud just now, because of the invitation to her house .. which you heard of & never received. The fact was, that the bedroom (to be offered) was not hers but Hatty’s. Therefore Hatty was entreated to write the invitation, .. & I think Miss C. was under the impression that it had been sent– Hatty had promised to write instantly. Miss Cushman was very vexed to find that the whole subject had been ignored after all, & that Hatty had confined herself to proposing to go to you!– The meaning of which was, of course, that she had heard from me of your decision to remain in Florence this spring–

Still, Miss Cushman repeats quite with pain– “But what can she think of me? Hatty has ruined me with her–”

I can answer to you for one thing—that Miss Cushman has much admiring esteem for you, & speaks of you with apparently the most cordial affection–

Bessie Parkes arrived here, looking a great deal the paler & thinner for her illness– I have seen her only once, & we did not speak of Miss Hays– [7] Of whom however, I did speak to Mrs Bridell,—& I will tell you that quite plainly Mrs Bridell does not like her—said, in fact, she distrusted her, but admitted that she did so rather instinctively than by the shadow of a reason– Miss Hay[s] rents an apartment in Mr Fox’s house [8] —it is simply that; & Mrs Bridell smiled a little at the fanaticism of the groups of friends who were drawn to her there,—observing that her father (not a good judge of character, said she) did not escape being a little enchanted– On the other hand, Mr Fox’s advice was found useful, of course, in matters connected with the ‘Journal’. That’s all I can tell you of Miss Hays.

But, talking of the Journal, I have read ‘Success & Failure,’ & dearest Isa, it is success– [9] Very cleverly done—& your progress in expression & style .. savoir faire altogether .. most striking. Let me confess– Consciously or unconsciously your Arthur is too like your Lytton, [10] I think: no one could mistake it, Isa—and from henceforth you must avoid this shoal of Lytton, & keep more out at sea, for art’s sake– Otherwise, I should really grudge these chapters to the “Englishwoman”—they are too good for any such purpose– Isa, I tell you, not as a friend but as an enemy (if I can fancy myself into such an unnatural relation to you!) .. you can write a novel– Now, set about, & write it,—because you can, and I would not say so with ever so much love, without a conviction.

Dear, I am delighted & flattered that you like Talfourd’s portrait—only I wish you had seen your own copy first, which we have for you here. [11] Mr Leighton has just made a highly finished pencil drawing of me, which brings me down to the earth again with a frightful extinguishment of all self-satisfaction– Fat & comfortable, old more than enough, & even more “hardness” than you would think necessary. [12] The worst is that it is exquisitely drawn & finished– He makes amends too by having produced an admirable portrait of Robert (‘companion’ .. alas!) under his common-place aspect. Meanwhile Talfourd is at work on Robert, [13] —& he always siezes the poetical side, where there is one– I trust Talfourd–

Miss Parkes has been here, & is to come again with an enclosure for you– Her friend, Miss Mereweather, [14] has had a touch of Roman fever, & they are both at Frascate in-consequence, coming in to Rome everyday. [15] A city of the plague, after all Isa—though we of this household are so well,—Peni is red as a rose, & Robert obliged to enlarge the frontiers of his nether garments through the expansion of the revolutionary body. But I dont go out to “dinner”—not I. Who told you?

Yes, I think much still of “the spirits”—though my mediums are shy & averse to be quoted [16] .. which seems to me unfortunate– But courage is difficult on this subject to any one who objects to being called dishonest; that alternative of being believed. At the same time, I myself have courage for so much,—while I have tolerance for others,—comprehending the unpleasantness of passions for either ‘mad’ or ‘bad’– [17] Certainly not pleasant, Isa!– The spirits here let themselves be seen– (Not that I see them, observe–) Then there is a great deal of involuntary writing.

But I am much distracted from even this subject by the Italian question which has eaten into my <***>

Publication: B-IB, pp. 204–207.

Manuscript: Fitzwilliam Museum.

1. Dated by EBB’s references to Una Hawthorne’s health and the Frederic Leighton drawing. Both of these subjects are discussed in letter 4384.

2. The free-standing bell tower, or campanile, of the Duomo in Florence, the design of which is attributed to Giotto di Bondone (1267?–1337), Italian painter.

3. EBB paid a visit on 6 April in the company of Sophia Eckley (see SD2260).

4. On 16 April, Ada Shepard wrote of Dr. Franco’s hold on the Hawthornes: “I am more and more convinced that there is a kind of snake-like power in him which exerts an influence over those against whom he chooses to direct it, without their will being entirely able to prevent him. There is a very strong magnetic influence about him certainly” (letter to Henry Clay Badger, transcript at Yale).

5. Francesco Ladelci is listed in the Almanacco Romano (Rome, 1859) as a doctor of homœopathy at 9 Via di San Marco (p. 287).

6. Susan Webb Muspratt (née Cushman, formerly Meriman, 1822–59), an American actress who had played Juliet to her sister's Romeo, married in 1848 James Sheridan Muspratt (1821–71), a chemical researcher and manufacturer, of Liverpool. Mrs. Muspratt’s condition grew worse, and, according to her death certificate, she died of pneumonia on 10 May in the village of Wavertree, at that time a suburb of Liverpool. Miss Cushman left Rome after receiving a telegram on 24 April that “summoned her to England” (Charlotte Cushman: Her Letters and Memories of Her Life, ed. Emma Stebbins, Boston, 1879, p. 159).

7. Bessie Parkes had been lecturing and giving interviews on women’s issues, as well as editing The English Woman’s Journal, which was launched in 1858. An apparent falling out had occurred with her co-editor, Matilda Hays, who is not mentioned in a description of Parkes’s life in “I, Too, Have Lived in Arcadia” (1941), by her daughter, Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes.

8. William Johnson Fox resided at 3 Sussex Place, Regent’s Park.

9. Isa Blagden’s story “Success and Failure” was published in three parts in The English Woman’s Journal of April, May, and June 1859.

10. Arthur Powys, a character in "Success and Failure,” enjoys a sudden literary success while on the verge of launching a diplomatic career. He is loved by a gentle, self-sacrificing woman whom he spurns because she has no fortune, and he instead marries the wealthy Augusta Vernon, whom he neglects for his career.

11. See letter 4351, note 7.

12. The present whereabouts of Frederic Leighton’s portrait of EBB is unknown. It was last known to be in the Brownings’ possession (see the second paragraph in letter 4503).

13. See letter 4346, note 14.

14. Mary Merryweather (1818–80), nurse and Quaker, was a friend of Florence Nightingale and Bessie Parkes. The latter named her first child after Miss Merryweather and wrote a preface to her book, Experience of Factory Life (3rd ed., 1862).

15. Frascati, known mainly for its sixteenth-century villas, lies 13 miles S.E. of Rome on a slope of the Alban hills.

16. One of the “mediums” was Sophia Eckley.

17. On first meeting Byron, Lady Caroline Lamb (née Ponsonby, 1785–1828) wrote in her journal that he was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” (from a letter to Lady Morgan quoted in Lady Morgan’s Memoirs, ed. William Hepworth Dixon, 1862, II, 200).


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