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Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 07.djvu/86

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Mrs. Browning as a wife and as a mother have found it difficult to realise her life under any other conditions, so vivid and complete is the image of her peaceful home, of its fireside where the logs are burning, and the mistress established on her sofa, with her little boy curled up by her side, the door opening and shutting meanwhile to the quick step of the master of the house, and to the life of the world without, coming to find her in her quiet corner. We can recall the slight figure in its black silk dress, the writing apparatus by the sofa, the tiny inkstand, the quill-nibbed pen-holder, the unpretentious implements of her work. ‘She was a little woman; she liked little things.’ Her miniature editions of the classics are still carefully preserved, with her name written in each in her sensitive fine handwriting, and always her husband's name added above her own, for she dedicated all her books to him: it was a fancy that she had. Nathaniel Hawthrone, who visited Mrs. Browning at Florence, has described her as ‘a pale small person scarcely embodied at all,’ at any rate only substantial enough to put forth her ‘slender fingers to be grasped, and to speak with a shrill yet sweet tenuity of voice.’ ‘It is wonderful,’ he says, ‘to see how small she is, how pale her cheek, how bright and dark her eyes. There is not such another figure in the world, and her black ringlets cluster down into her neck and make her face look whiter.’ There is another description of Mrs. Browning by an American (also quoted in the papers of the Browning Society), ‘a soul of fire enclosed in a shell of pearl,’ and, in common with all who knew her best, the writer dwells on her sweetness of temper and purity of spirit.

Mrs. Browning has had readers worthy of her genius. The princess of poets, says George Macdonald, in idea she is noble, in phrase magnificent. When Wordsworth died, the ‘Athenæum’ urged that Mrs. Browning should succeed him as poet laureate. Mr. Ruskin and George Eliot were among her readers. ‘I have lately read again with great delight Mrs. Browning's “Casa Guidi Windows,”’ George Eliot writes (in the ‘Memoirs’ published by Mr. J. W. Cross); ‘it contains, among other admirable things, a very noble expression of what I believe to be the true relation of the religious mind of the past to that of the present.’ Hans Andersen was another of her devoted friends. Mrs. Browning writes of him to Mr. Thackeray ‘as delighting us all, more especially the children.’ The author of ‘Vanity Fair’ had a most special feeling of tender, admiring respect and affection for Mrs. Browning.

Among the Brownings' greatest friends in Italy were Mr. and Mrs. Story, with whom they lived during two or three summers at Siena in villeggiatura. Walter Savage Landor found first at Siena, and then at Florence, a refuge and a home with Mr. and Mrs. Browning after he had been left desolate—‘a Lear whose own were unkind’ (Colvin, Life of Landor). Landor finally settled down near the Brownings in Florence, being established by their care in the house of a former maid of Mrs. Browning's, who had married an Italian, and who was living close to Casa Guidi. Mr. Story has written an interesting letter about Casa Guidi prefixed to the American edition of Mrs. Browning's works. He describes the square ante-room with its pictures, and the pianoforte where ‘her young Florentine’ already strikes the keys, the little dining-room covered with tapestry, the large drawing-room where she always sat: ‘It opens upon a balcony fitted with plants, and looks out upon the iron-grey church of Santa Felice’ (Hawthorne speaks in his ‘Memoirs’ of listening from this room to the sound of the chanting from the opposite church). Mr. Story goes on to write of the tapestry-covered walls, and old pictures of saints that stare out sadly from their carved frames of black wood; of the ‘large book-cases brimming over with learned-looking books, tables covered with more gaily bound volumes, the gift of brother authors, Dante's grave profile, a cast of Keats's face and brow taken after death, a pen-and-ink sketch of Tennyson, the genial face of John Kenyon, Mrs. Browning's good friend and relative, little paintings of the boy Browning, all attracted the eye in turn; a quaint mirror, easy chairs and sofas, a hundred nothings, were all massed in this room.’ Mrs. Browning used to sit in a low armchair near the door; a small writing-table, strewn with writing materials and newspapers, was always by her side. It was here she wrote ‘Casa Guidi Windows’ and ‘Aurora Leigh,’ which the authoress herself calls ‘the most mature of my works, the one into which my highest convictions of work and art have entered’ (see preface of Aurora Leigh). The poem is full of beauty from the first page to the last. The opening scenes in Italy, the impression of light, of silence, the beautiful Italian mother, the austere father with his open books, the death of the mother, who lies laid out for burial in her red silk dress, the epitaph, ‘Weep for an infant too young to weep much, when death removed this mother;’ Aurora's journey to her father's old home, her lonely terror of England, the slow yielding of her nature to its silent beauty, her