In this letter to the actor and theatrical producer William Charles Macready, Robert Browning wrote of the death of his wife on 29 June. Elizabeth Barrett Browning had been physically weak for most of her life owing to a serious illness in adolescence and a later attack of chronic lung disease in her early 30s. She was 55 when she died and, as Browning says, was thankfully unaware of the gravity of her condition in the moments prior to her death.Friends of the Brownings expected Robert and his son Pen to be inconsolable at the death of Elizabeth, but at first Browning found strength in the fact that she had died peacefully and without pain. ‘Do not imagine that I am prostrated by this calamity’, Browning told Macready. He also found consolation in bringing up their son in accordance with his wife’s wishes.
Why is the paper black-edged?
The letter is written on the black-edged stationery used by Victorians in mourning for a loved one. From Browning’s surviving letters it seems that he used the black-edged stationery for a year after his wife’s death, in keeping with the usual custom. He never remarried and he remained deeply devoted to her memory for the rest of his life.
‘Why should I not have expected a letter from you…?’
The first line of the letter probably relates to the fact that Browning and Macready’s friendship had effectively ended in 1843. Browning first met Macready in 1835 and the two quickly became close friends. In 1836 Macready asked Browning to write a play for him. Strafford was premiered at Covent Garden on 1 May 1837, but the play was not a success and ran for only five performances. In 1843 Macready produced another Browning play, A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon. The text had been highly praised by Charles Dickens who thought it ‘full of genius’, though it was even less successful than Strafford, due to Macready’s withdrawal from the cast. Browning and Macready fell out so severely over this production that they were not reconciled until the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning 18 years later.
- Article by:
- Simon Avery
- Gender and sexuality, Victorian poetry
Dr Simon Avery considers how Elizabeth Barrett Browning used poetry to explore and challenge traditional Victorian roles for women, assessing the early influences on her work and thought.
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