Book Review: Robert Browning: A Life After Death

In this excellent new biography of Robert Browning, Pamela Neville-Sington tells a familiar story in a fresh and original way. She starts with the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning at Casa Guidi in June 1861, when Browning, a healthy 49, still had nearly 30 years to live. Those years, rich in poetry, are for Dr Neville-Sington dominated by Browning’s relations with three women, all of whom fell in love with him in different ways. First, there was the young blue stocking Julia Wedgwood, then the imperious Lady Ashburton, and finally the American Venetian hostess Katharine Bronson. Browning’s biographer convincingly traces the complexities of each relationship, in particular making good sense of the strains of the Ashburton affair.

As she tells the story, she looks back on Browning’s earlier life and draws fascinating parallels between the past and present. These time shifts are beautifully handled, and en-rich our understanding of the poet. For example, Browning’s happy childhood is contrasted with the less successful upbringing of his son Pen. Visits to Italy, as a bachelor and as a widower, are interwoven with the Brownings’ married life in Florence, Rome and Bagni di Lucca. But the figure haunting the last years is his dead wife, whose loss accounts for much of the loneliness and yearning for friendship which shadows Browning’s outwardly successful public life.

Elizabeth Browning, alive or dead, is shown to have been the dominant influence on Browning. He was devoted to her and relied heavily on her support and criticism of his work. Occasionally, though, this faltered. Dr Neville-Sington argues that Elizabeth was indirectly responsible for reining in Browning’s vivid imagination during the marriage, as she could not understand his interest in the grotesque and the macabre, so important for his poetry. Therefore, he published relatively little in the 1850s.

Skilfully and entertainingly written, the book sensibly relates Browning’s life to his poetry. It is a persuasive narrative, compressed into a highly readable 300 pages. A Life after Death is the best popular Browning biography for the past 60 years. There is much in it for the scholar, too.