Husband of the more famous Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett emerges his own man in the 30 years after her death in this sprightly life by British biographer Neville-Sington (Fanny Trollope, 1998).
Neville-Sington’s thesis, though not new, asserts that Browning, who had spirited the invalid poet away from her father to the more beneficial clime of Florence, was so absorbed in EBB’s care and sensibility for the next 15 years they spent together that he was thwarted from finding his true voice until after her death in 1861. Although his masterly Men and Women was published well into their marriage (1855), it was not received kindly in England, and the disheartened Browning did not attempt another collection until Dramatis Personae, ten years later, after he had left Italy to move back to England to raise their son, Pen. While the poets were together, Browning considered EBB his beloved Muse, and felt certain that he could write his best work only next to her; she, in turn, believed he was the better poet of the two. His poetry was considered both terribly obscure (“unintelligible,” according to Thomas Carlyle) and “strikingly modern” by the Pre-Raphaelites. The morbid tone of subsequent works such as The Ring and the Book could not have been written while EBB was still alive, notes Neville-Sington, because she could not abide by Browning’s lugubrious bent and penchant for sordid detail. Although he swore to her he would never remarry (she urged him to), he did entertain literary flirtations with Lady Ashburton, Julia Wedgwood and the American Katharine Bronson. Interestingly, the author charts the transformation of Pen from coddled mother’s boy with flowing locks she couldn’t bear to cut, to English gentleman and well-regarded painter at the Royal Academy, to the enormous pride of his father. Neville-Sington encompasses a lively era of ideas, and remains dutifully sympathetic, lovingly so, of the poet couple.
Close readings of Browning’s work done with a deft, light hand.