After Elizabeth Barrett Browning's death, Robert Browning returned to England. Chapter 17 of The Brownings: A Victorian Idyll (by David Loth, published in 1929) describes some aspects of his new life:

A new lion was on exhibition at the most elegant London houses in the Spring of 1862. He was an ideal society lion, so gentle a child might approach him, yet preserving all the regal dignity of his untamed, unpredictable, temperamental and unmannerly colleagues. That part of the world of fashion was a little touched by the naive eagerness with which Mr. Browning plunged into the wearying, unexciting frivolity of dinner parties, receptions and teas.

Before he had committed himself to the task of making a new career as different as possible from the old one, his marriage and its end had begun to pass into the legends of romance. Society was pleased to see that the hero of the story looked his part. Robert Browning was fifty now, and the years had added to his good looks. His white beard was trimmed in a more orderly style than he had affected when it was black. His thick gray hair contrasted most becomingly with his large dark eyes, and because his eyes were dark men and women, especially women, murmured to each other with an awed respect that the shadow of Ba's death still clouded them. Women who, Ba thought, had adored him too much for decency while she was alive now set out to remove the shadow. Robert enjoyed their efforts tremendously. Grief had nothing to do with the color of his eyes. His sorrow went much deeper than that, but he kept it in the private places of his mind. He did not permit it to interfere with his genuine delight in feminine attentions and sympathy.

He had not remembered how pleasant for a bachelor existence the formality and rigid etiquette of England's better homes could be. He had gone away a young man of promise. He came back with the promise more than fulfilled. The city was willing to give him the reward of his honesty --- considerable praise, a loudly vocal respect and an indifferent reading.


... The sense of loneliness and bereavement which had almost smothered him in Florence just after Ba died had given way to a steady sadness which, strangely enough, was not unpleasant. He recovered old habits of thought --- optimism is a weed not easily destroyed --- and although an occasional cry of bitterness might escape him or a fit of mourning for the past overwhelm for a moment the solid satisfactions of his new life, they were passing phenomena in an existence devoted to proving that a great peace and a great, zestful energy were not incompatible.


For the British public there remained only Art, the races and the growth of Empire as hobbies for a man's idle hours. A few eccentrics busied themselves with queer scientific and industrial experiments, but such topics could hardly be introduced into a polite drawing-room, and practically all drawing-rooms were polite. Most Englishmen found the races a sufficient interest, with patriotism as a convenient side line when the conversation took a lofty turn. But a considerable minority felt strange aesthetic stirrings which seem hardly credible to future generations which know them only by their photographs, their furniture and their architecture. Nevertheless, a faint urge after beauty did survive and struggle in those unlikely surroundings. It had to find an outlet somewhere, and literature, as the most fashionable of the arts, was the favored choice of the aspirants to culture.


He [RB] managed to keep his afternoons and evenings thus comfortably filled with happy distractions which he was able to believe were solemn duties. The true Victorian always knew that he owed certain such pleasures to his Position in Society. But the mornings remained, and at fifty Browning was discovering a use for the time between breakfast and lunch. Work could be done in the mornings.

Never before had he permitted himself regular hours of labor, although Ba had often told him that he owed that much to his Position in Literature. He had been sceptical about his Position in Literature, but no modesty could be proof against the obvious evidences that it was improving. He had written nothing in the last few years to account for his increasing prestige. His wife's death had led romanticists to pick up the books by the man she had loved, but Browning's sentimental appeal was never strong enough to keep such readers. He gave them headaches where they looked for heartaches.

The true explanation of his improved Position lay in the uninterrupted play which London afforded his gregarious nature. He had taken his place in the first of literary societies, and was no longer just a name and a reputation for incomprehensibility. Authors, critics and the patrons of both saw him so often that they could not forget his existence, so they spoke about him, wrote about him, even read some of his poetry. He came in quite naturally for that pleasant give and take in the reviews which writing men find so valuable and at which the envious outside the friendly circle snarl with the bitterness of men whom there are none to praise.

And later in Chapter 17, Loth comments on RB's thinking when offered the editorship of a magazine:

True, Browning knew nothing of the techniques of editing, but no one has ever refused an editorial job because of conscious ignorance. Every man, especially every writing man, is quite sure that he can do such work with his left hand. Browning was no exception. Indeed, he thought, it would be very pleasant to show the world for once how articles should be selected. He also had a very great curiosity about the mechanics of the medium which he had always scorned for his own works.

(some other clippings are in TheBrownings1 and TheBrownings3; see also BarrettAndBrowning and JudyReSonnetsfromthePortuguese)

TopicPoetry - TopicLiterature - 2001-12-11

(correlates: Comments on Projectile Precision, TheBrownings1, SubtopicTomJones, ...)