The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
by Frederic G. Kenyon
Title | Preface | Contents | Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | Footnotes |
The writer of any narrative of Mrs. Browning's life, or the editor of a collection of her letters, is met at the outset of his task by the knowledge that both Mrs. Browning herself and her husband more than, once expressed their strong dislike of any such publicity in regard to matters of a personal and private character affecting themselves. The fact that expressions to this effect are publicly extant is one which has to be faced or evaded; but if it could not be fairly faced, and the apparent difficulty removed, the present volumes would never have seen the light. It would be a poor qualification for the task of preparing a record of Mrs. Browning's life, to be willing therein to do violence to her own expressed wishes and those of her husband. But the expressions to which reference has been made are limited, either formally or by implication, to publications made during their own lifetime. They shrank, as any sensitive person must shrink, from seeing their private lives, their personal characteristics, above all, their sorrows and bereavements, offered to the inspection and criticism of the general public; and it was to such publications that their protests referred. They could not but be aware that the details of their lives would be of interest to the public which read and admired their works, and there is evidence that they recognised that the public has some claims with regard to writers who have appealed to, and partly lived by, its favour. They only claimed that during their own lifetime their feelings should be consulted first; when they should have passed away, the rights of the public would begin.
It is in this spirit that the following collection of Mrs. Browning's letters has now been prepared, in the conviction that the lovers of English literature will be glad to make a closer and more intimate acquaintance with one—or, it may truthfully be said, with two—of the most interesting literary characters of the Victorian age. It is a selection from a large mass of letters, written at all periods in Mrs. Browning's life, which Mr. Browning, after his wife's death, reclaimed from the friends to whom they had been written, or from their representatives. No doubt, Mr. Browning's primary object was to prevent publications which would have been excessively distressing to his feelings; but the letters, when once thus collected, were not destroyed (as was the case with many of his own letters), but carefully preserved, and so passed into the possession of his son, Mr. R. Barrett Browning, with whose consent they are now published. In this collection are comprised the letters to Miss Browning (the poet's sister, whose consent has also been freely given to the publication), Mr. H.S. Boyd, Mrs. Martin, Miss Mitford, Mrs. Jameson, Mr. John Kenyon, Mr. Chorley, Miss Blagden, Miss Haworth, and Miss Thomson (Madame Emil Braun). To these have been added a number of letters which have been kindly lent by their possessors for the purpose of the present volumes.
The duties of the editor have been mainly those of selection and arrangement. With regard to the former task one word is necessary. It may be thought that the almost entire absence of bitterness (except on certain political topics), of controversy, of personal ill feeling of any kind, is due to editorial excisions. This is not the case. The number of passages that have been removed for fear of hurting the feelings of persons still living is almost infinitesimal; and in these the cause of offence is always something inherent in the facts recorded, not in the spirit in which they are mentioned. No person had less animosity than Mrs. Browning; it seems as though she could hardly bring herself to speak harshly of anyone. The omissions that have been made are almost wholly of passages containing little or nothing of interest, or repetitions of what has been said elsewhere; and they have been made with the object of diminishing the bulk and concentrating the interest of the collection, never with the purpose of modifying the representation of the writer's character.
The task of arranging the letters has been more arduous owing to Mrs. Browning's unfortunate habit of prefixing no date's, or incomplete ones, to her letters. Many of them are dated merely by the day of the week or month, and can only be assigned to their proper place in the series on internal evidence. In some cases, however, the envelopes have been preserved, and the date is then often provided by the postmarks. These supply fixed points by which the others can be tested; and ultimately all have fallen into line in chronological order, and with at least approximate dates to each letter.
The correspondence, thus arranged in chronological order, forms an almost continuous record of Mrs. Browning's life, from the early days in Herefordshire to her death in Italy in 1861; but in order to complete the record, it has been thought well to add connecting links of narrative, which should serve to bind the whole together into the unity of a biography. It is a chronicle, rather than a biography in the artistic sense of the term; a chronicle of the events of a life in which there were but few external events of importance, and in which the subject of the picture is, for the most part, left to paint her own portrait, and that, moreover, unconsciously. Still, this is a method which may be held to have its advantages, in that it can hardly be affected by the feelings or prejudices of the biographer; and if it does not present a finished portrait to the reader, it provides him with the materials from which he can form a portrait for himself. The external events are placed upon record, either in the letters or in the connecting links of narrative; the character and opinions of Mrs. Browning reveal themselves in her correspondence; and her genius is enshrined in her poetry. And these three elements make up all that may be known of her personality, all with which a biographer has to deal.
It is essentially her character, not her genius, that is presented to the reader of these letters. There are some letter-writers whose genius is so closely allied with their daily life that it shines through into their familiar correspondence with their friends, and their letters become literature. Such, in their very different ways, with very different types of genius and very different habits of daily life, are Gray, Cowper, Lamb, perhaps Fitzgerald. But letter-writers such as these are few. More often the correspondence of men and women of letters is valuable for the light it throws upon the character and opinions of those whose character and opinions we are led to regard with admiration or respect, or at least interest, on account of their other writings. In these cases it may be held that the publication is justifiable or not, according as the character which it reveals is affected favourably or the reverse. Not all truth, even about famous men, is useful for publication, but only such as enables us to appreciate better the works which have made them famous. Their highest selves are expressed in their literary work; and it is a poor service to truth to insist on bringing to light the fact that they also had lower selves—common, dull, it may be vicious. What illustrates their genius and enhances our respect for their character, may rightly be made known; but what shakes our belief and mars our enjoyment in them, is simply better left in obscurity.
With regard to Mrs. Browning, however, there is no room for doubt upon these points. These letters, familiarly written to her private friends, without the smallest idea of publication, treating of the thoughts that came uppermost in the ordinary language of conversation, can lay no claim to make a new revelation of her genius. On the other hand, perhaps because the circumstances of Mrs. Browning's life cut her off to an unusual extent from personal intercourse with her friends, and threw her back upon letter-writing as her principal means of communication with them, they contain an unusually full revelation of her character. And this is not wholly unconnected with her literary genius, since her personal convictions, her moral character, entered more fully than is often the case into the composition of her poetry. Her best poetry is that which is most full of her personal emotions. The 'Sonnets from the Portuguese,' the 'Cry of the Children,' 'Cowper's Grave,' the 'Dead Pan,' 'Aurora Leigh,' and all the Italian poems, owe their value to the pure and earnest character, the strong love of truth and right, the enthusiasm on behalf of what is oppressed and the indignation against all kinds of oppression and wrong, which were prominent elements in a personality of exceptional worth and beauty.
An editor can generally serve his readers best by remaining in the background; but he is allowed one moment for the expression of his personal feelings, when he thanks those who have assisted him in his work. In the present case there are many to whom it is a pleasure to offer such thanks. In the first place, I have to thank Mr. R. Barrett Browning and Miss Browning most cordially for having accepted the proposal of the publishers (Messrs. Smith, Elder & Co., to whom likewise my gratitude is due) to put so pleasant and congenial a task into my hands. Mr. Browning has also contributed a number of suggestions and corrections while the sheets have been passing through the press. I have also to thank those who have been kind enough to offer letters in their possession for inclusion in these volumes: Lady Alwyne Compton for the letters to Mr. Westwood; Mrs. Arthur Severn for the letters to Mr. Ruskin; Mr. G.L. Craik for the letters to Miss Mulock; Mrs. Commeline for the letters to Miss Commeline; Mr. T.J. Wise for the letters to Mr. Cornelius Mathews; Mr. C. Aldrich for the letter to Mrs. Kinney; Col. T.W. Higginson for a letter to Miss Channing; and the Rev. G. Bainton for a letter to Mr. Kenyon. It has not been possible to print all the letters which have been thus offered; but this does not diminish the kindness of the lenders, nor the gratitude of the editor.
Finally, I should wish to offer my sincere thanks to Lady Edmond Fitzmaurice for much assistance and advice in the selection and revision of the letters; a labour which her friendship with Mr. Browning towards the close of his life has prompted her to bestow most freely and fully upon this memorial of his wife.
Title | Preface | Contents | Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | Footnotes |
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