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Fiona Sampson – “Elizabeth Barrett Browning as Self-Invented Poet” January 12, 2022 -6PM-

Fiona Sampson Presents
“Elizabeth Barrett Browning as Self-Invented Poet”
January 12, 2022 -6PM-


by Laura Clarke

We are excited that Fiona Sampson will be presenting a talk on Elizabeth Barrett Browning at this month’s Browning Society meeting. For my newsletter today, I want to talk about my experience of reading Sampson’s biography of Elizabeth, the first new biography to have been written in over thirty years. I have a tendency to start biographies and not finish them, but Sampson’s Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a page-turner. In one of the many philosophical ruminations in the book, Sampson contemplates the constructed nature of identity and laments how the fictionalized character of ‘Elizabeth’ that has replaced her in the popular imagination is “someone passive and poorly, bullied and rescued, barely even a poet,” someone who “is almost entirely bodily, scarcely a mind at all.” What is most interesting for me is that while Sampson certainly challenges the bodily narrative of Elizabeth’s legacy and explores her intellectual development, her biography is itself intensely embodied, and what I mean by that is I was left with an intense perception of Elizabeth as a living, breathing, real-life person, something that I have not felt from reading a biography before.

Sampson challenges the myth of Elizabeth as a weak invalid, but she also does not linger on the ideal of the Victorian poetess. Elizabeth can be exuberant, contradictory, dark, emotional, obsessive, and brilliant. For instance, Sampson introduces us to the intense literary friendships that Elizabeth had with men, such as with Hugh Stuart Boyd, which were so important to her intellectual development, but she also shows us how these relationships were often manipulative, abusive, or psychologically unhealthy. She also shows us that Elizabeth’s privileged position makes her complicit in colonialism, despite her political and ethical beliefs. Although we know Elizabeth and Robert were abolitionists, Sampson does not shy away from revealing the extent to which Elizabeth’s idyllic childhood at Hope End and even her elopement to Italy was funded by “blood money.” Indeed, even though the Barretts were politically progressive Whigs, their family wealth, Sampson emphasizes, came largely from sugar plantations. She reminds us of the fact that “[in] 1810, more than 10 per cent of wealthy Britons are profiting from slavery; money that will never return to the enslaved people who created it, but remains in the British economy into the twenty-first century.”

Sampson’s biography continually complicates the images we have received of both Elizabeth and Robert by asking thought-provoking questions that push us to deconstruct neat definitions and narratives. For instance, she highlights letters that reveal the strength of feelings Robert had for Alfred Domett and asks, “might Robert the femmelette [as Mary Mitford called him] ever have experimented with bisexuality, or attracted crushes.” I had always imagined the Brownings’ life in Italy as a time of stability, happily settled at Casa Guidi, but Sampson documents the financial and health concerns that led Elizabeth and Robert to move from place to place a dizzying number of times. Materiality is emphasized again as Sampson details Elizabeth’s dependency on morphine and her multiple miscarriages. Even the ideal of Elizabeth’s death, one perpetuated by Robert, is questioned. Sampson observes that Elizabeth’s death “resembles a breath-shallowing, heart-stopping morphine overdose,” and points out that Robert administered morphine to Elizabeth on the night of her death. She remarks “combine the high dependency on the drug and the panicky human desire to relieve suffering and this is not inconceivable.” Focusing her attention on Robert, Sampson remarks, “And who’s to say that it would not even be a kind of pragmatic, if unconscious compassion?”

While Sampson’s biography often left me feeling unsettled, this is because it was if she was resuscitating Elizabeth, bringing her back to life. Sampson, however, closes her biography by noting that this reinterpretation is colored by her own subjectivity. She asks, “how else can we encounter our biographical subject, except by coming to meet her? Writing can never be wholly innocent of the writing self, and slowly I’m coming to accept that a biographer’s own self always frames her subject.” In this, Sampson’s biography is an intensely modern work of art.

Fiona Sampson is the author of twenty-eight books of poetry and nonfiction, including the critically acclaimed In Search of Mary Shelley. Published in thirty-seven languages. She’s the recipient of numerous national and international honors, including an MBE for services to literature. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Wordsworth Trust, and English Association, she is the professor emerita of the University of Roehampton and lives on the Welsh border.

Annual Holiday Poetry Reading – A Tribute to Stephen Downey

Annual Holiday Poetry Reading
A Tribute to Stephen Downey
Date Wednesday, December 8, 2021
Time 6:00PM


by Laura Clarke

We hope that you will be able to join us for our annual holiday poetry reading, a time when we get together to share excerpts of our favorite poetry by the Brownings.

Many of the traditional elements of Christmas that are still popular today began in the Victorian period: decorating Christmas trees, sending Christmas cards, singing carols, pulling Christmas crackers, and enjoying a traditional Christmas dinner with family. And of course, it was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that solidified the many Christmas traditions we still enjoy today. For this holiday newsletter, then, I want to point out two opportunities in New York City this month for experiencing Dickens’ classic Christmas novel.

Every December, The Morgan Library displays the original manuscript of A Christmas Carol, which was purchased by Pierpont Morgan in the 1890s. Every year, the Morgan turns one page of the manuscript, and this year the manuscript is open at the point in the novel in which Scrooge quarrels with his nephew over the value of Christmas. The page concludes with Scrooge’s first mention of Jacob Marley who “died seven years, this very night,” which is a reference that hints at Scrooge’s adventures to come and the lessons he will learn.
For more information on this exhibition, visit

If you’re in the mood for more Christmas fun with Dickens, consider attending a 1-hour reading of A Christmas Carol at the Merchant House Museum. In December 1867, Dickens held sold-out readings of A Christmas Carol in New York City, and to commemorate these popular events, the Merchant House Museum stages readings by Kevin Jones in its elegant double parlor, which is ornamented with traditional nineteenth-century Christmas decorations. Select performances are followed by a reception with Dickens and mulled wine. For more information about this event and ticket prices, visit

In the spirit of giving that is so important to Dickens’ famous novel, we hope that you will consider making a donation to the New York Browning Society. Please find attached a dues donation form for 2021. Your membership will help us to keep our historic society alive; we are very proud to be the longest running Browning Society in America.

Tom d’Egidio – Slavery, Social Justice & The Brownings – The National Arts Club Nov 10 – 1PM

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:

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

October New York Browning Society Fall Fellowship 10/20/2021 – 6 PM

Friends and Members of the New York Browning Society,

Welcome to our 115th Season! We have made it together all these
years! The start of this year began with our participation in
National Translation Month two weeks ago at a new venue
for the society, The Westbeth Community Room at 155 Bank
Street in Manhattan. We also met under the auspice of a new time
at 6:00 Pm in the evening. It was a great pleasure to have read
from Robert Browning’s “Meeting at Night” to highlight this
new era of the Browning Society. The event was a success,
typically identified by wine, cheese and crackers, in my opinion
a slight upgrade to the cookies and coffee of the past.

Please take a look at the meeting itself online via at .

We are inviting you out next week October 20th via ZOOM
for all of our members to discuss our thoughts on the new venue
and time, and to discuss many elements of the currently changing
dynamic between our Society and Society at large. I feel as though
Zoom will be a great opportunity to hear from the voices of those
that could not attend, and those that did, to discuss our feelings
on this venue and the new time going forward. I would like for us to
explore all of the options we have available.

We have also updated our website with a complete archive of all
of our Award Winning Poets since 2012. Take a look at all of the amazing
talent this city has procured over the last 10 years.

I am inviting all of us out to this special meeting to serve as a sounding
board, an informal Browning Society board meeting, and a way to fellowship
with all of our members who were unavailable to make the first meeting
this year. I would love to discuss how everyone is doing, and their thoughts
going forward with this new season.

Please join us on ZOOM 10/20/2021 at 6pm so that we can discuss
all things Browning and Browning Society for our upcoming 2021-2022

I look forward to seeing all of your beautiful and smiling faces as we embrace
the change of the leaves, and the changes upcoming for our Society!


James Browning Kepple
President – NY Browning Society

“Four Poets And Their Translations” We Open our 115th Season of the NY Browning Society! 9/29/2021

“Four Poets And Their

Westbeth Community Room, located
at 155 Bank Street

Date Wednesday, September 29, 2021
Time 6:00PM

by Laura Clarke

On the evening of Wednesday, September 29th, 2021, at 6pm, the NY Browning Society will
participate in National Translation Month in its first event of the 2021-2022 season.
“Four Poets And Their Translations” will take place in the Westbeth Community Room, located at 155 Bank Street. Admission is free. The event will be moderated by noted actor and long-time Browning Society member Tandy Cronyn, star of stage and screen. This program takes its inspiration from the Brownings, Elizabeth and Robert, both able linguists who practiced the art of translation. “Four Poets And Their Translations” will feature translations of poems from French, German, and Italian into English, as well as from English into Spanish.

The Participants:

Poet Annabel Lee publishes poets through her Vehicle Editions press. She serves on the Board of The Poetry Project at St. Marks. The latest collection of her poems is Minnesota Drift (Accent Books of Chester, Vermont). She will present her translations from the French of 20th century poet Louise de Vilmorin.

Poet Roberto Mendoza Ayala publishes Mexican and U.S. poets in bilingual editions with his Darklight publishing company. His own latest collection is Palabras Desconocidas/Unknown Words (Darklight: Mexico City & NYC). He will read five Mexican contemporary poets whose work he has translated into English with the help of Arthur Gatti: Baudelio Camarillo, Héctor Carreto, María Ángeles Juárez Téllez, Iliana Rodríguez Zuleta and Carlos Santibáñez Andonegui.

Poet Tom d’Egidio is part of the Suppose An Eyes poetry group at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House, and Director-At-Large of the NY Browning Society. Harlem’s publishes his chapbook The Enigma Of Arrival. He will present his translations of contemporary Roman poet Valerio Magrelli.

Poet Robert Kramer is Emeritus Director of International Studies at Manhattan College, and current Vice-President of the NY Browning Society. His latest collection is At The Margins/Al Margen (Darklight: Mexico City & NYC). His presentation will reflect the extensive translations he has made from every period of German poetry.

-As we kick off the 115th Season of the New York Browning Society we hope to invite you out to a new venue and time for this event! As the world continues to change in so many ways, we look forward to keep you updated to all the exciting new ways we will adapt for this season with a mixture of venues, times, & speakers, online and off! We invite you to join the New York Browning Society in this upcoming season! We would love to earn your membership and
patronage for the years to come!
James Browning Kepple – President

6 PM Sept 29th 2021 155 BANK ST – Closest Subway ACD L at 14th, and 1,2,3 at 14th St!

Our Annual May Celebration – A Browning Round Table Discussion + Performances!

Date Wednesday, May 12, 2021 

Time 1:00– 2:00PM 

Roundtable Discussion/Performances 

by Laura Clarke

For our final meeting of the year, we welcome  members and guests to join us for a round table  discussion on the legacy of the Brownings and the  future of Browning studies. Participants are  encouraged to lead a short discussion on any aspect  of our theme or to select a short reading to discuss.  

Since we will be reflecting on the lives and works of  the Brownings and considering their relevance in the  present day, I want to focus in this newsletter on the  

way that Dr. Joshua King, who holds the post of  Browning Chair at the Armstrong Browning Library  and Museum, is getting students involved in research  on the Brownings. This is a goal close to our heart at  the Browning Society of New York which, thanks to  the work of our President James Kepple, holds an  annual Browning poetry competition in New York  City that now includes over 200 schools. 

Students in Dr. King’s Senior Research Seminar at  Baylor University created an exhibition called The  Brownings in Our World, which explores the lives  and works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert  

Browning through three central themes: injustice,  nature, and faith. Students explored the vast archives  at the Library and selected documents that  contextualize these themes. In the first section of the  exhibition, students noted that despite the fact Robert  and Elizabeth supported the abolition of slavery, they  were also complicit in the slave trade since  Elizabeth’s money was derived from her family’s  plantation in Jamaica. It was this money,  

they point out, that allowed Elizabeth to flee England  with Browning and move to Italy. To illustrate this  conflict, the exhibition displays a first edition copy of  Elizabeth’s poem, “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s  Point” along with a picture of a golden pen that was  gifted to Elizabeth by her father. The poem reveals  Elizabeth’s sympathy with slaves, but the pen signifies  the wealth that her family accumulated through the  slave trade and that allowed her to write.  

The second section of the exhibition focuses on nature  in the works and lives of both poets. Photographs of  Italy and the gardens of Elizabeth’s childhood home  are partnered with poems that use images of flowers to  discuss love, and we are told that the Brownings  regularly included flowers in their courtship  correspondence.  

The final part of the exhibition looks at the role of  religion in the lives of the Brownings, especially the  importance of spiritualism for Elizabeth. One  particularly interesting part of the culminating section – because it tells us something about the beginnings of  our own society—is dedicated to the cult of Robert  Browning that developed in the 1880s. Devoted fans of  Browning organized hundreds of Societies throughout  North America and Britain, which took on a religious  atmosphere. For example, the article shows pictures of  “The Ten Commandments for Literary Studies”  published by The Chicago Browning Society and an  original book of inscriptions gifted to Browning from  his many fans on his seventieth birthday. 

Bob Griffiths Presents “Why Browning?: A Poet of Questions and Ambiguities”

Date Wednesday, April 14, 2021
Time 1:00– 2:00PM

 Bob Griffiths: “Why Browning?:
A Poet of Questions and Ambiguities”

by Laura Clarke

We hope that you will be able to join us on April 14th for Bob Griffiths’ talk, “Why Browning?: A Poet of Questions and Ambiguities.”

In this world of 24-hour connectedness, with literally half the world’s population (four billion people) on social media, and the average person spending two hours and 24 minutes a day looking at it, why should we care about a 19th-century poet named Robert Browning?

Scholar Camille Paglia reminds us that “poetry envelops the imagination and focuses the soul.” I suggest that it can deal with the human condition in a unique and telling way. And in that context, Browning excels, as no other 19th-century poet does, in his preoccupation with the metaphysical and abstract. President Emeritus Steve Downey calls Browning “a surgeon of human character.” And in his dissection, Browning frequently is a poet of ambiguity who doesn’t resolve for us the paradoxes and conflicts he writes about: human and divine love, good and evil, love and hate, ambition and the greater good. Indeed, Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus (720-86) wrote about the power to be found in ambiguity – and Browning is a master of it.

In this program, President Emeritus Bob Griffiths shows us why Browning still matters, how he can enrich our lives, and how we can gratefully lose ourselves in careful readings and contemplation of our poet’s gifts – a welcome and rewarding break indeed from Instagram, Tik-Tok, Facebook, Twitter, and the TV news cycle.

As a poet of ambiguity, Browning does not directly tell us what to think; he indirectly elicits realizations in the reader through our perception of the limitations and flaws inadvertently revealed by the speakers of his dramatic monologues. One particularly good example of how Browning does this can be seen in his poem, “How it Strikes A Contemporary,” which shows Browning’s view of the poet’s role through the perspective of a speaker who entirely misunderstands it.

In this monologue, Browning’s speaker recounts his encounter with a poet he once knew. He recalls that the poet meticulously studied the material world: “He walked and tapped the pavement with his cane, / Scenting the world, looking it full in the face.” In observing “all thought, said and acted,” the poet surveyed and appreciated the minutiae of daily life in the town of Valladolid. Yet although the speaker intuits that the poet had some kind of power and insight into their lives, he inverts Shelley’s notion (and Browning’s) that the poet is the spiritual legislator of humankind, conjecturing that the poet was the town’s “chief-inquisitor” who reported to the king on the daily activities of the locals.

The speaker tells of how he once followed the poet home and was surprised to find that he did not lead the extravagant and decadent life he had been rumored to lead, but rather lived contentedly and simply with little material wealth. Imagining ahead to the sparsely attended funeral of the poet, the speaker perceives the poignant tragedy in the discrepancy between the man’s seeming power and his actual lack of material wealth and societal influence. He ponders the poet’s frugal appearance and congratulates himself upon his good fortune to be dressed in fine attire, exclaiming jovially, “Well I could never write verse,” which is a statement that equates the speaker’s materialism with his shallow understanding of poetry as merely the skillful metrical arrangement of language rather than as the embodiment of spiritual truths apprehended through imagination. When the speaker calls upon his friends to join him at the Prado and to embrace the brevity of life, it is clear that he slips back into a prosaic daily existence that is unaffected by his brief interaction with a man of vision. Through the speaker’s vanity, the reader is guided to see for themselves what he has missed: the true spiritual vocation of the poet.

We are currently discussing the possibility of meeting outside for the final meeting of the season. I will be in touch soon with updates.

James Kepple Presents “Robert Browning, Ezra Pound and the Modernists.”

Date Wednesday, March17, 2021
Time 1:00– 2:00PM

“Robert Browning, Ezra Pound and the Modernists.”

by Laura Clarke

We hope that you will be able to join us for James Kepple’s talk, “Robert Browning, Ezra Pound and the Modernists.” From our President:

St. Patrick’s Day calls forth a Lecture of Red Hair! A Testament to both Poets’ insatiable designs! Ezra has Robert Browning on his mind all throughout the Cantos as well as in his work with Yeats and Joyce. Celebrate a pint with the President of the New York Browning Society as he presents: Browning, Pound & a Pint. Sláinte!

The influence of Browning’s poetry on the modernists is a particularly interesting study because it illuminates what the modernists appropriated and rejected from Victorian poetry. While the modernists may have left behind Browning’s Christian values and metaphysical ideas, they experimented with the dramatic monologue and admired his emphasis on the psychology of his individual speakers.

A letter written by Thomas Hardy to Edmund Gosse on April 6, 1899 reveals the conflicted response to Browning. Hardy exclaims to Gosse: “The longer I live the more does B’s character seem the literary puzzle of the 19th century. How could smug Christian optimism worthy of a dissenting grocer find a place inside a man who was so vast a seer & feeler when on neutral ground?” He admits that: “One day I had a theory which you will call horrible—that perceiving he would obtain in a stupid nation no hearing if he gave himself in his entirety, he professed a certain mass of commonplace opinion as a bait to get the rest of him taken.”
Despite his skepticism about Browning’s “smug Christian optimism,” Hardy, who knew Browning personally from literary gatherings in the 1880s, made a serious study of his poetry for over sixty years. Hardy owned fived editions of Browning’s poetry, saved reviews of Browning’s poetry, and transcribed lines from Browning’s poetry into his notebooks.

One of Hardy’s favorite poems by Browning was “The Statue and the Bust,” which tells the story of the unrequited love between Duke Ferdinand and a woman who is married to the head of the Riccardi family. She watches him as he rides through the town square and he admires her through the window. Growing older, the lady has a youthful bust placed of her in the window while the duke places an equestrian statue of himself in the town square. Never acting on their love, their inactive passivity is translated into frozen statues. It is not surprising that Hardy loved this particular poem of Browning’s, as he was also a writer who lingered on the tragedy of lost chances and postponed fulfillment.

We look forward to seeing you at James’ talk.

Bob McNeil: Love in Poetry of the Brownings

The New York Browning Society, Inc.Newsletter
Founded in 1907

Date Wednesday, February10, 2020
Time 1:00– 2:00PM

Bob McNeil: Love in Poetry of the Brownings

by Laura Clarke

We hope that you will be able to join us next Wednesday for Bob McNeil’s talk on the subject of love in the poetry of the Brownings:

The quotes and poems in this recital deal with the importance of love and hope. However, some of the words understand more often than not that the feeling and wish seem to lack permanence or relevance. Without question, cynics will say these sentiments seem better suited for art than everyday existence. They may argue that devotion to a dream is as illogical as mythology.  Nonetheless, there are words in this program that realize love and hope are parts of a building that require brick-strong devotion. Sans their foundation, there would be no place to house the best aspects of our humanity.

McNeil’s talk is especially important as Robert Browning’s concept of love is critical for understanding his poetry. Browning’s idea of love is derived from Plato and from the Christian concept of love of which John speaks in his First Epistle, for which God is love and to love is to know the divine. Browning agreed with the German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel that religion is not a particular theological creed but anything that touches the infinite; thus, human love, as the embodiment of the divine, is a religious expression. This notion of love and religion meant that Browning did not think of unlawful love as blasphemous if it sprang from a genuinely spiritual feeling.

This is the subject of Browning’s long narrative poem Red Cotton Night-Cap Country or Turf and Towers (1873), which shocked readers with its scandalous plot. Based on real-life events, the narrative follows a Norman gentleman, Léonce Miranda, who falls in love with a married woman and begins a relationship that conflicts with the tenets of his Catholic upbringing. Driven to a psychological crisis, Browning’s protagonist jumps from a tower, a symbol of his religious faith, believing that the miraculous powers of the Holy Virgin of La Ravissante will save him, only to be killed on the unforgiving turf of the real world. As Browning sees it, Miranda’s problem is that he fails to make a distinction between religion and theology. Browning conceived of theology as the outward forms and creeds that embody the divine ideas of religion. Miranda makes a terrible mistake because he focuses too much on these forms, which dictate his separation from Clara, and thus misses the fact that love is the true expression of religion

The plot of Red Cotton Night-Cap Country is based on the life of the Paris jeweler, Antoine Mellerio, who killed himself in 1870, leaving his property to the Church but stipulating that his mistress, Anna de Beaupré, could remain in their home. This was contested by Mellerio’s relatives who lost a law case against de Beaupré. Browning stays close to the facts of the case, so much so that he only changed the real names (Mellerio to Léonce Miranda and de Beaupré to Clara de Millefleurs) at the last minute because he was concerned about legal ramifications, and his observations are derived from visits that he made to

Normandy in 1870 and 1872. However, although Browning refers to real-life events, these details have a more important symbolic role in the poem since they are a vehicle for exploring his deeply held views on love.

Miranda hopes that he can live with Clara even though the Catholic Church forbids it, but this becomes impossible because Clara cannot divorce her husband. When Miranda’s mother dies, ostensibly broken-hearted as a result of her son’s actions, he has a complete breakdown. Relying on external laws dictated by the Church—the forms of theology—Miranda decides to renounce his relationship with Clara. He begins to engage in a series of ritualistic acts, burning his love letters and his hands, as well as giving generously to the Church, in an attempt to purify his body. This ends with his unfortunate attempt to test his faith by jumping off the tower.

Browning makes it clear that although Miranda’s love for Clara was illicit in terms of Catholic law, it was true in terms of the spirit: “Truth I say, truth I mean: this love was true.” Browning also does not judge Clara’s morality in terms of her sexual mores but only for her selfish interpretation of love. In only caring about seeking her own spiritual sustenance through her relationship with Miranda, she does not help him to attain a higher religious vision through their mutual love. Browning believes that if Miranda had possessed the imagination to distinguish between religion and theology, he would have found an expression of the eternal ideas of religion in his own love for Clara, and if Clara had loved Miranda as a reflection of God rather than for her own nourishment, she would have experienced the real religious transformation that transcends the temporal.

Finola Austin, author of Bronte’s Mistress

The New York Browning Society, Inc. Newsletter
Founded in 1907

Date: Wednesday, January 13, 2020
Time 1:00– 2:00PM
Pick up a Copy of Her New Book Bronte’s Mistress

Join Zoom Meeting:

by Laura Clarke

We are excited that the historical novelist Finola Austin will be
talking to the New York Browning Society about her debut novel,
Bronte’s Mistress, which was published by Atria Books (Simon &
Schuster) in 2020. Austin, who has a Master’s degree in nineteenth
century literature from the University of Oxford, will talk about her
research into the real-life scandal that rocked the Bronte
family, which is the basis of her novel, and feminism in Victorian
novels, including Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Barrett
Browning’s Aurora Leigh. Find her online at

Before I discuss how Bronte’s Mistress continues the feminist
legacy of Jane Eyre and Aurora Leigh, I would like to first look at two
contemporary reviews of Jane Eyre and Aurora Leigh that show
how Bronte and Barrett Browning were maligned for the overtly
feminist content of their respective novels. When Jane Eyre was
published in 1847 under the masculine pseudonym Currer Bell, it
was criticized for challenging conventional Victorian notions of how
women should act and behave as well as for its raw and honest
portrayal of the inner life of a governess. An anonymous reviewer
for The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction expressed
alarm at how Jane Eyre challenged the Victorian ideal of submissive
“People were once ashamed to stand forth as the advocates of vice
… but such barriers are unhappily broken through, and not by men
only, but by women, from whom we naturally look for all that is
gentle and loveable. The desire of the present generation is to be
bold and fearless.”
The reviewer observes that “the heroine herself is a specimen of
the bold daring young ladies who delight in overstepping
conventional rules.” Making a correlation between  the character of
Jane Eyre and Charlotte Bronte herself, the reviewer laments how
“it is the boast of its writer that she knows how to overstep
conventional usages – how, in fact, to trample upon customs
respected by our forefathers, and long destined to shed glory upon
our domestic circles.”

In Florence, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was disappointed that she
had to wait longer to get her hands on a copy of Bronte’s famous
novel. Her curiosity about Charlotte—a curiosity that is shared by
Austin’s protagonist Lydia Robinson—reveals that she saw
something of herself in the famous author. Indeed, she too was a
woman who, albeit for different reasons, had been condemned to
live an invisible life and had escaped her veritable prison through
the powers of genius and imagination. It is clear from a letter that
Barrett Browning wrote to Mary Russell Mitford that she believed in
the myth surrounding Charlotte Bronte. She informs Mitford that
Jane Eyre was not written by a man, as many people assumed, but
by “a Miss Bronté, a clergyman’s daughter, diminutive almost to
dwarfishness—a woman of thirty, who had hardly ever left her
father’s parish in Yorkshire. There is great success in mystery.”


As Austin will show in her talk, Aurora Leigh is clearly influenced
Bronte’s Jane Eyre. While George Eliot identified the explicit
similarities between both novels, most reviews praise or criticize
Barrett Browning for the outspoken views on women that were
implicitly inspired by her reading of Jane Eyre. A reviewer for the
Athenaeum noted that Aurora Leigh is Barrett Browning’s
“contribution to the chorus of protest and mutual exhortation,
which Woman is now raising, in hope of gaining the due place and
sympathy which, it is held, have been denied to her since the days
when Man was created, the first of the pair in Eden.” Although the
reviewer appears to sympathize with Barrett Browning’s aims, his
review deliberately misreads the ending of the poem to reassert a
traditional view of femininity: “The poetess confesses her life has
been a failure, and lays her love in the arms of him who has been
hungering and thirsting for it many a weary day.” In focusing on the
Aurora’s marriage, the reviewer conspicuously omits the fact that
Barrett Browning conceptualizes a new conception of womanhood
through her transcendental poetics. Bronte’s Mistress pays homage
to and expands upon the feminist ideas central to Jane Eyre and
Aurora Leigh. While Bronte and Barrett Browning focus on the
struggles of young women, Austin explores the plight of the
invisible older woman. Although Lydia Robinson is in fact only forty
five, she feels irrelevant in Victorian society now that she is past her
birthing years and the height of her beauty. Lydia’s husband is no
longer interested in her, and she yearns for companionship, love,
and sexual fulfillment. Reflecting on her marriage, Lydia poignantly
observes, “How funny it is that men and women struggle as they
die, but few of us kick or scream as we are lowered alive into our
tombs.” Lydia’s affair with Branwell Bronte, the brother of her
children’s governess, Ann Bronte, makes her feel seen again, and
we are witness to the awakening of her physical and intellectual
life. But when this affair is exposed and her husband dies, Lydia is
forced to occupy yet another precarious social and economic
position: the older widow.

Austin’s novel gives voice not only to Lydia Robinson but to the
many Victorian women whose lives were constrained by
conventional ideas about the role of women in society.