Friday, 31 August 2012

Celebrate a Secret Wedding

Occasionally I like to take a break from eating and drinking my way round our beloved capital or wandering round one of the many galleries and museums and show a bit of initiative. Inspired by the history of this amazing city, I search out the sites of its tales and secrets. Here is the first story; are you sitting comfortably?

On September 12th, 1846, a studious man of 33 married a woman in delicate health six years his senior at St Marylebone Parish Church. The wedding was secret, as her father had forbidden her (or any of his twelve children) ever to marry; afterwards she returned to the family home alone and lived there for a week while arrangements were made before eloping to Italy with her new husband. Her father never spoke to her again and the many letters she wrote to him were returned unopened.

The marriage of poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning was the culmination of a romance that had been conducted mainly through love letters; they corresponded for almost five months before their first meeting and had exchanged 573 letters by the day of their wedding. The original letters are at Wellesley College in Massachusetts but digitised images and transcripts can be seen online here:

St Marylebone Parish Church is quietly beautiful, with carved wooded pews and moulded ceilings; standing before the altar it is easy to transport yourself back to Victorian London and empathise with the conflicting emotions and divided loyalties of that marriage over a century ago. There is a service at 11am on 9th September organised by the Browning Society to commemorate the day or you can visit the Browning Room, a small room off to the left just inside the door of the church, which has a small stained glass window dedicated to the poets. It is usually kept locked, but if you let them know you are coming they are happy to arrange a suitable time for you to view it. 

During this time Elizabeth wrote her 'Sonnets from the Portuguese' ('Portuguese' was his pet name for her) which trace the joy and doubts of their courtship, although Robert Browning had to convince her to make them public. They include probably her best-known poem, 'How Do I Love Thee?':

'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.'

Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence in 1861. In a letter to a friend her husband wrote: 'Then came what my heart will keep till I see her again and longer - the most perfect expression of her love to me within my whole knowledge of her. Always smiling, happily, and with a face like a girl's, and in a few minutes she died in my arms, her head on my cheek . . . God took her to himself as you would lift a sleeping child from a dark uneasy bed into your arms and the light.' Browning returned to London with their son, never remarried and would not return to Italy for seventeen years. He died at his son's home in Venice in 1889 and is buried in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Somehow, I just don't think showing my future grandchildren texts and tweets will be the same.

Yours, missing the romance of old-fashioned letters,
Girl About Town xx

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