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Browning's 'A Forgiveness': a mystery solved?

Robert Browning published 'A Forgiveness', a dramatic monologue spoken by a Spanish nobleman who has murdered his wife, in 1876. There is a small but engrossing mystery about the work; in manuscript, the poem was called 'Komm Spanisch!' ('How Spanish!' in Flemish), followed by '(Egmont)'. I believe I can identify the 'Egmont' Browning was referring to.

Most scholars have tried to demonstrate that Browning was thinking of the most obvious Egmont, Lamoral (1522-68), the Dutch hero of Goethe's play. Unfortunately, he is nothing like the murderous Spaniard of the poem. However, a reference in John Lothrop Motley's The Rise Of The Dutch Republic, published in 1856, points in a more interesting direction. Talking of William of Orange, leader of the Revolt, Motley tells us that he

. . . was a widower, his first wife, Anne of Egmont, having died in 1558, after seven years of wedlock. (. . .) The marriage had been more amicable than princely marriages arranged for convenience often proved. The letters of the prince to his wife indicate tenderness and contentment. At the same time he was accused, at a later period, of 'having murdered her with a dagger'. The ridiculous tale was not even credited by those who reported it. . . .(1)

This is strongly reminiscent of the action of Browning's poem, in which the narrator kills his wife 'with a dagger', after several (in the narrator's case, three) years of outwardly happy marriage. Could '(Egmont)' refer, not to the murderer, but to the 'victim' - Anne of Egmont? Could this strange rumour have started the cogs turning in Browning's mind that ultimately ground out the poem? If so, the mention of Egmont would have served as a private reminder to the poet of his source, to be erased before printing. How, then, could Browning have come across this reference?

In a letter of 15 February 1859 from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Isa Blagden, written while the Brownings were staying in Rome, Elizabeth asks her correspondent to

. . . Guess what I am reading, Isa - 'The Dutch Republic' in three closely printed volumes. It's that, dear, which makes this letter so dull. . . .(2)

So, in 1859 Browning's wife was reading the book in which the rumour about Anne of Egmont was mentioned. We do not know if Browning himself read the book, but Elizabeth would doubtless have discussed it with him. Moreover, Browning knew Motley the American historian himself, if only vaguely (he did not know how to spell his name); in a letter of 7 January 1859, also to Isa Blagden, he declares that he is seeing 'something of Mottley, Perkins, and other Americans'.(3) Motley was in Rome from October 1858 to June 1859, working on his History Of The United Netherlands. Perhaps the Brownings came to Motley's book through their acquaintance with him.

Thus the seed of the action of the later poem could have been planted in 1858-9, either through conversation with Motley, Browning's wife reading his book, or the poet reading it himself. The historian came to live in England in his later years, and was briefly the American ambassador, so perhaps he could have renewed his acquaintance with the poet before his death in 1877. However Browning heard the story, it seems very probable that Anne was the 'Egmont' referred to in his obscure prototitle, and that this 'ridiculous tale' ultimately inspired 'A Forgiveness'. The phrase 'Komm Spanisch', however, still retains the baffling elusiveness that will doubtless attract the attention of future scholars.

1 John Lothrop Motley, The Rise Of The Dutch Republic (London, 1856), I, 295. I am indebted to Mr Robert Renton for pointing out the existence of this book to me.

2 E. C. McAleer (ed.), Dearest Isa: Robert Browning's Letters to Isa Blagden (Austin, 1951), 35.

3 McAleer, 25.

JOHN HAYDN BAKER King's College, London
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Title Annotation:Robert Browning novel
Author:Baker, John Haydn
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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