SLAVERY, SOCIAL JUSTICE & THE BROWNINGS
The Date: Wednesday November 10th 2021
The Time: 1:00 PM
The Place: The National Arts Club
15 Gramercy Park South
New York, New York 1003
Admission: Free & Open To The Public
It is perhaps now a mystery just why the phenomenon of “Browning Fever” once swept this country, inspiring the founding of hundreds of Browning Societies, many of them by
women, across America between the 1870s and the 1920s.
The answer lies in the title of poet Tom d’Egidio’s talk, “SLAVERY, SOCIAL JUSTICE & THE BROWNINGS “, in which he explains the Abolitionist, Feminist, Revolutionary & Radical
lives and writings of the Brownings that so captured the American imagination.
The Brownings are the superstar couple among poets, their courtship portrayed many times in novels, plays, musicals, TV dramas and Hollywood movies. Virginia Woolf even wrote a novel from the point of view of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog Flush.
And now Game Of Thrones star Emilia Clarke is to play Elizabeth Barrett Browning in a new movie called “Let Me Count The Ways”.
The NY Browning Society, New York City’s oldest continuously active literary society, founded 1907, is revisiting its original radical roots as an organization dedicated to ideals of social justice and reform as represented by the writings and life examples of Robert (1812-1889) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861).
The many hundreds of Browning Societies, many established by and for women while Robert was still alive, represent a unique phenomenon among literary societies, with hundreds founded in the United States alone, and a few still ongoing to this day.
One of the purposes of the Browning Societies was to provide an educational outlet for women who were still prohibited from attending universities. Even with the doors of higher education now long open to women, the powerful poems and the inspiring lives of the Brownings continue to fuel interest in and attract members to the Browning Societies today.
The Brownings lived through turbulent times featuring great 19th century reform movements fighting against slavery and in favor of liberal democracy, and were themselves at the heart of those movements. Elizabeth documented the huge uprising in Florence against the Grand
Duke of Tuscany in her major poem “Casa Guidi Windows”. Her novel in verse, “Aurora Lee”, is a foundational document of the Feminist Movement. Robert helped revive interest in the post-feudal spirit of the Renaissance, invoking its celebration of individual freedom and creativity in “Fra Lippo Lippi”, “Andrea del Sarto”, and other major poems. Elizabeth’s 253-line poem “The Runaway Slave At Pilgrim’s Point” was explicitly written by her for sale in the U.S. in order to raise money for the Abolitionist cause, in the ‘Revolutionary Year’ of 1848 when armed revolts
against despotic monarchs were taking place all over Europe, led by firebrands such as their personal friend Mazzini who is portrayed in Robert’s “The Italian in England”.
British slavery had already been ended by then, but both Brownings had personal reasons for their ongoing concern. Robert’s father had been an overseer of slaves on his family’s plantation on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. But that was nothing compared to the great wealth that the Barretts had derived through the exploitation of thousands of their slaves on Jamaica,
prompting Elizabeth’s father to regard Robert as a fortune hunter. The blanket opposition of Elizabeth’s father to marriage for any of his children made elopement by the Brownings necessary, and cut Elizabeth off from huge wealth. Yet two inheritances from other slave-holding relatives financed a comfortably bourgeois lifestyle, complete with Elizabeth’s personal
maid from London, for the Brownings in Florence.
In Tom d’Egidio’s talk, the lives and works of the Brownings are discussed against the sweeping panorama of a 19th century in which serfs and slaves were finally liberated, in which democracy became the dominant political ideal, in which poets such as Percy Shelley, Ugo Foscolo, Victor Hugo, and the Brownings preferred exile over oppression, in which poets carried the banner of political and social reform. There are however, many motivations that can only be clarified in retrospect; much that was poorly understood or simply not publicly expressed. Certainly the shared Barrett and Browning family background of Slavery importantly linked the Brownings in their mutual rebellion against prevailing assumptions of relative racial superiority.
But could it be true as well, that the Brownings had not just figurative but literal skin in the game: That one or both of them had Black African ancestry in an era when that was not at all rare among slave owning families? What exactly did Elizabeth mean when she wrote the following to suitor Robert on December 20th, 1845: “I would give ten towns in Norfolk to own
some purer lineage than that of the blood of the slave”? Is this letter the clue to Elizabeth’s father’s strange attempt to bring the family line to an end? Or is the biggest clue hiding in plain sight, stated in numerous poems by Robert Browning, over and over again, throughout his writing life? Making use of established historical fact, family legend, and literary analysis, Tom d’Egidio will explore this issue of genetics, and all other sources of the commitment of both Brownings to social justice that so inspired many more individuals than any other 19th century poets.
Come be part of the fascinating conversation. Come be part of the NYBrowning Society: nybrowning.org
Tom d’Egidio is a member of the Suppose An Eyes poetry group at the
University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House, and serves on the Board of
the NY Browning Society as a Director-At-Large. His poetry chapbook The
Enigma Of Arrival is available through UNDERGROUNDBOOKS.ORG