The Book, the Ring, and the Poet: A Biography of Robert Browning

by William Irvine and Park Honan
McGraw-Hill, 607 pp., $15.00

Robert Browning
Robert Browning; drawing by David Levine

In the last twenty-five years the cloak of legend—the cloak of the Red Cross Knight—has been twitched from the shoulders of Robert Browning. His romance no longer hides him; rather, it deepens the complexity of his double character; and his tortuous achievement as a dramatic or novelistic poet becomes more forceful in our eyes. His two new biographers—Park Honan has completed the biographical study cut short by William Irvine’s death—are polished writers and they concede a great deal to Betty Miller’s arguments of the 1950s, when, looking again at the famous elopement from Wimpole Street, she saw the Perseus-Andromeda situation was reversible: Andromeda also rescued Perseus.*

There is nothing like the sickroom for building up the will and strengthening the mind, and Perseus was not quite the dominant figure the victim of Mr. Barrett hankered after. In fact two invalids—and even two victims of the colonial slave trade—had found each other; or two histrionics, one successful at that time and the other not. (No modern biographer has accepted Miss Mitford’s tough, spinsterly view that Browning was a long-haired, effeminate, climbing dandy who, living unscrupulously off his parents into his late thirties, was out to float on Miss Barrett’s fame and money. Down-to-earth women like Miss Mitford are rarely good judges.) If we are going in for malice we prefer Miss Barrett’s rival suitor who offered the typical gem of English suburban snobbery when he called Browning the “New Cross Knight,” thus pushing the Browning family out of genteel Camberwell to within close sight of the Surrey Docks.

It is very extraordinary that the elder Barrett and the elder Browning had the closest connection with the slave plantations, the former owing his personal fortune to them, the latter, in a clerkly manner, being sent out to St. Kitts as a young man. The gentle bookworm came back quickly, shattered by the horrors he had seen. A bit of an artist, he would be caught doodling horrifying human heads in black and red ink, working off memories too awful to speak of. A meek, poorish clerk in the Bank of England, he was a childish bibliophile, a mild Voltairean, ruled by a sweet but sternly religious wife. She was of modest Scottish and German stock and—as surely as Mrs. Ruskin—she knew she had given birth to a genius and was determined not to let his soul out of her command; in time, invalidism became one of her weapons.

One mustn’t put it like this, for the boy adored her; he flourished like an ambitious mushroom in his happy prison. Only one part was mushroom; the other was restless, noisy, and demanding. The mother’s boy was handsome and delicate; for thirty-odd years he slept in the room next to his mother’s and the door was always left open in case he or she should call. Elizabeth Barrett’s door opened on her father’s. Together…

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