My grandmother was a movie fan. Gainfully employed late in life, she still had time for the evening show. It got her out of our apartment which was crowded although in those years we fit into less space. We were slimmer in our demands. Grandma was adept a summing up a plotline over dinner, keeping her eye on celebrity divorces as she headed for another Californian happy ending. The Great Depression—the Slump, for Brits—didn’t spoil 1934 for me. I had Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s ‘Treasure Island’ with jowly Wallace Beery as Long John Silver. Where did he hide his supposedly amputated leg? “Fifteen men on a deadman’s chest/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum”.
Grandma purred out low like a widow’s cat the name of Norma Shearer when she retold ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street". That movie was MGM’s other gift of the year to our short-on-dazzle neighbourhood. Shearer played a very healthy-looking, bedridden Elizabeth Browning, née Barrett. Fredric March was a peppy Robert Browning who got her up out of the bedclothes and away from Wimpole Street and bogeyman Pa-pa. Charles Laughton did Dad Barrett in one of his most watchable roles. Hold your breath. Will he go over the top into fat ham or stay on the lean red side?
The 1934 movie, directed by Sidney Franklin, (remade in 1957), replicates Rudolf Besier’s play in which Katherine Cornell made her name on stage. Besier/Franklin keep the story simple. It chronicles Robert Browning and Elizabeth’s (E.B.B.’s) fall into love. He convinces her to leave her straight-from-hell father whose kinky passion made her an invalid and a prisoner. Meant for the stage, the action takes place at home in Wimpole Street, London, with Hollywood snow falling like cotton wool and only one flowery outing to the park. It ends with an elopement and hurry to leave for Italy and happiness ever after. E.B.B. would be at home in Italy for the last fifteen years of her life and Robert on and off for almost forty years. They settled in Florence where there was a notable encampment of English-speaking expats.
The movie had given me, in short pants, the innocent embryo of the myth: From a perverse father, a go-getter Prince Charming allows a sensitive daughter to unleash her baffled love beyond her spaniel. Third Millennium thinking has shaken my and my Grandma’s rosy dream. Bare-knuckle feminism has emerged and added tabloid-worthy chapters to the lovers’ flight to paradise.
E.B.B. died at Casa Guidi in Florence in 1861 and was buried in its pokey, Swiss-owned, so-called ‘English’ cemetery. Her husband, Robert died in Venice in 1889. He is buried in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, besides Alfred Lord Tennyson. Fans of E.B.B. now ask why he of the two was the big cheese on the poetry menu. They have unsheathed their computers and punched out more trouble than ever between the couple whose love story was beatified by MGM in 1934. The latest take on the lovebirds is that Robert was a vulture who treated his wife like roadkill. Merciful Heavens, Good Lord, and WTF, it has been insinuated that the candidate for the poet laureateship murdered his poetess wife!
Best to clear away the pettifogging charges before engaging with that of capital crime. Robert did not as accused falsify E.B.B.’s age on her tombstone. She had always been cagey about revealing her age. Forty-five was a generous guess. She was in fact fifty-five at death, six years Robert’s senior. He, indeed, never managed to learn the year of her birth. Lingering in the Florentine graveyard, we think it’s possible Robert did skimp on the funeral. Always frugal, he was at the time in something of a shabby-genteel corner. Money from E.B.B.’s poetry and family kept the household going in Florence. An uncle had left her shares in the convict ship, the David Lyon, that carried exiled prisoners to Australia. That meant she wasn’t dependent on her father. The Barrett fortune had originated in Caribbean enterprises enriched by slave labor. By contrast, the salary of Robert’s father seemed paltry and had inclined E.B.B.’s father to see Robert as a fortune hunter.
Class arrangements made everyone without a throne in the clouds uneasy. Someone stalled on a rung of the upward ladder could panic. Robert’s social credentials were solid enough, but as he rose in reputation he became anxious to reinforce them. He no longer used his mother’s name, Sara Ann Wiedeman, which suggested foreignness and, worse, Jewishness. He also favoured the more upscale Anglican Church though as the Barrett family his had always been Dissenters. There was friction between him and E.B.B. about the upbringing of their son Pen. E.B.B. felt Robert was hurrying the boy too quickly into the role of perfect establishment gentleman. Robert had been educated at home and wanted Pen to go to Balliol College, Oxford, and study classics under the famous Benjamin Jowett. But Pen wasn’t of an academic turn of mind and would attend a less demanding college. He, who as a child had been described as “slender, fragile, and sprit-like”, became athletic and an artist of little renown fixated on painting voluptuous female nudes.
The British middle classes of the time were quite vicious about social positioning. Abroad, despite their heavy-breathing exoticism, they couldn’t escape a feeling of superiority in regard to the “lesser breeds”. Britons didn’t hide that they represented the dominant power of the day. They tended to see Italians as children who lacked adult gravity. But then neither of the two Brownings, despite years in Italy, had much to do with ordinary people. E.B.B. even felt it was difficult to mix with elite Italians. Her invalid status did not help and basically, she remained an observer, watching through her window. Italians remained largely creatures of her imagination. She looked at them as she looked at landscapes, peaceably from a distance. There is no mention, least of all description of the everyday life of ordinary Italians in her letters or her poems.
Robert was also an observer. He didn’t survey Italians from a window but in his library. They were those preferable of the Renaissance. Not an invalid, he got about, but to pick up details he could use to dress the illustrious dead of centuries past. He seemed determined to diminish the importance of contemporary issues in order to keep his poet’s long view on the past.
Cohabitation naturally brought quibbles. The couple couldn’t agree on spiritualism, for instance. E.B.B. went along with the craze that swept Europe at mid-century. But Robert despised the whole business of ouija boards, table-turning, and séances in bad light with spirits mumbling their grievances. Sex presented more serious problems. E.B.B came from a family of twelve children and a dead mother. Weak as she was, she suffered four miscarriages. She had come off laudanum long enough to get pregnant and give birth to Pen. However, the doctors then told her to refrain from intercourse altogether or risk death. Victorian discretion muted the drama that must have resulted. The most we can say is that a new chapter in the marriage began.
About poetry, each had a different conception. But they were full of admiration for each other’s approach. E.B.B. insisted Robert’s work was better, but Robert always showed respect for hers. He said that her poems came from “the pure white light” of her very personal emotions. “I,” he repeated, “only make men and women speak”, and could have added that they were often fished up from the annals of history. He wrote dramatic monologues, whereas she wrote lyric poetry. But poets don’t usually make a difference of approach a killing matter.
Italian politics did not divide, E.B.B. and Robert so much as swamp them in concerned confusion. For a start, Mazzini, a seductive exile in London, caught their fancy. But they soon dropped his goal of a presidential republic for Italy as risky radicalism. Both put their hope in the Piedmontese Monarchy uniting the country with the help of Garibaldi and driving out the Austrians. E.B.B. put her enthusiasm for the project into her books, ‘Casa Guidi Windows, 1851, and ‘Aurora Leigh’ of 1857. Never has poetry aroused similar controversy in Britain. E.B.B. had projected her love-hate for her father onto the international scene. This led to strange contradictions. Napoleon III of France became her sainted hero. Yet Britain feared him as a possible invader. Moreover, it was the French Emperor’s army that had crushed the Roman Republic of 1849 that E.B.B. felt as a tragedy and had drawn her into Italian politics in the first place. In 1859 E.B.B. wrote that Robert “in general sympathises little with me in my ‘Napoleonism’ so-called” but “thinks entirely with me on this Italian question”. However, his romantic enthusiasm had less staying power. He ended by casting a plague on everybody’s house.:
“I can't bear to think of any part of the whole mass of lies & intrigues,—I like no one man engaged in the matter, the King & the Emperor not a bit more than Garibaldi: well, it seems ordained that if you believe in heroes you will be sorry for it, sooner or later. I have of course heard other versions of the thing, different from yours,—don't know & hardly care what is the true, so bad is the best.”
Robert’s accusers of capital crime find their reasons in his fictional poems where wives and mistresses do not fare well at the hands of their menfolk. ‘The Ring and the Book’, written shortly after E.B.B.’s death is offered as evidence. Robert had found the account of a trial of 1689 in an old book in a market stall. He brought it home and kept talking about it. It concerned a man who killed his wife and almost got away with it. E.B.B disliked his going on about “the old yellow book”. But the public liked his retelling of events and it was his first considerable success. The accusers were also suspicious of his poem, ‘My Last Duchess”, which concerns a Renaissance Duke of Ferrara who kills the wife he suspects is unfaithful. In ‘Porphyria's Lover’, the so-named, possibly mad, strangles his partner with her own hair. The poem ‘Andrea del Sarto’ is affirmed to reflect Robert’s own life in blank verse. The Renaissance painter is somehow prevented from reaching greatness by his wife who serves as his model. Robert’s present-day accusers remind us that during her lifetime E.B.B. surpassed him in popularity as a poet. This stalled his creative power and made him lethally jealous.
And so, murder. The presumed weapon was drugs. But E.B.B.’s use of them began in childhood. The doctors had no clue how to stop her head and spinal aches and so prescribed opiates. She would become a lifelong addict. In Wimpole Street, her maid procured and doled out her laudanum and morphine following the orders of E.B.B.’s all-controlling father. After the move to Florence, E.B.B.’s present-day defenders object that Robert set the game plan. Not only did he control what she published but since he saw to the mail he monitored her letters. He measured the drug doses with a servant doing the footwork. The beamish myth was breached. Tyrant husband replaced a tyrannous father.
That may be, but E.B.B., in spite of more active moments, was an invalid and ever frailer. It was not surprising that Robert looked after her in a foreign land where he had brought her. He had in fact been critical of her drug use from their first meeting. In Italy, there was no one else to count the laudanum drops. Later research showed she was taking too much. The accusers insist that Robert was overdosing Elizabeth. Again, they had recourse to literary evidence. Hadn’t Robert celebrated Paracelsus of the Fifteen Hundreds in an early poem and wasn’t he, among other weirdness, the inventor of laudanum? He was but that was cherry-picking in a whole mixed orchard of what the poem was about.
The facts were these. Gresanowsky, E.B.B.’s regular doctor was out of town. A Dr Wilson was called to attend her. He found her state deplorable. Though he was averse to drug use, especially laudanum, he administered a heavy dose of morphine. Everyone—including Robert—agreed afterward that this had been excessive. Her weakened body could not take the shock and she died. But her death came from the lung ailment that had started in 1837 and not from the condition that had plagued her from childhood. That has now been identified as hypokalemic periodic paralysis (HKPP). It’s caused by a fall in blood levels of potassium and is remedied today by supplying more potassium to the body.
Reports repeated that E.B.B. died in the arms of her husband saying, “My Robert, my heaven, my beloved”. Was that too saccharine to be true? Today’s naysayers insist she was all but unconscious at the end and only uttered, “It is beautiful”—the afterlife that is, not Robert’s face. He stood by assuming she was only on the verge of a coughing fit. To reconcile the dead poets in this time of gender warfare seems an impossible task. Should we declare peace and return to the MGM myth? No, that was for five-year-olds. We have to conclude that fifteen years of common life between two people can make for disagreements. The fairytale will have to go. But, for heaven’s sake, let’s think twice about charges of murder. Scale it down at least to manslaughter. Or is the word now personslaughter?