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Robert Browning's private life.

Browning: A Private Life. Iain Finlayson. HarperCollins. [pounds sterling]30. X + 758 pages. ISBN 0-00-255507-7.

Iain Finlayson's hefty study of the private life of Robert Browning is the biographical equivalent of the equally bulky literary concordance, Berdoe's Browning Cyclopoedia, which apeared in 1891: each represents an enormous amount of work and thought. Mr. Finlayson, very sensibly, has both consulted, and freely admitted to so doing, the plethora of works which has gone before him. He has been criticised for this, but how in all conscience could he not do so? This is a well-tilled field. How could he not? What he makes of it, what new shapes, is the point.

The plain truth is that biographically there is really little left to be done. One central incident apart, Browning's life was not an exciting one. It was, frankly, dull. His abduction of the frail, laudanum over-dosed and addicted, forty-year-old, marcescent spinster of Wimpole Street was his apogee, and it has been so ceaselessly replicated theatrically and filmically as to have become a virtual folkloric stereotype.

The real continuing interest in Browning revolves about the untangling of the complex of theologico-philosophical notions that fizzed in his brain. His poetry was his attempt to externalise that inner dialogue, but his obscurity of expression, as opposed to his expression of obscurity, provided a most daunting translative challenge. Carlyle famously reported that his wife, Jane, wished to know whether Sordello was a man, a city or a book. Douglas Jerrold, who started reading Sordello while recuperating from an illness, threw it down almost at once, exclaiming 'My God! I'm idiot. My health is restored, but my mind's gone. I can't understand two consecutive lines of an English poem'. It was only when he discovered that none of his family could, either, that his equanimity was re-established. And Tennyson confided that the only lines that he understood were the first and the last of the poem. It was not only his obscurantism, but his syntactical curiosities, eccentric versification and lack of clarificatory Tennysonian mellifluities, that set on edge the teeth of the critics of his day.

Browning's earliest poetic work, written under the spell of Shelley, was treated as a not very good joke. Pauline (1833), published anonymously, sold not a single copy. Its successor, Paracelsus (1835), fared little better. Appreciation came in the wake of Men and Women (1855) and Dramatis Personoe (1864). He published his greatest work, The Ring and the Book, in 1869, twenty years before his death in Venice.

With Elizabeth dead, ensepulchred in Florence, their son, Robert Weidemann Barrett Browning, known, for some unknown reason, as 'Pen', provided the sustaining focal point of his father's remaining twenty-eight years of life. Pen, of the cascade of shoulder-length golden curls, tiny 'trowsers', and bedecked with blue and white satin ribbons, had become a 'beefy and beery' middle-aged man in knickerbockers, with a reputation as a promiscuous Don Juan. Not just too pernickety in his personal habits, his Venetian home was christened 'Palazzo Pigsty'.

I would, and do, recommend this as the best book for the tyro, the student, the general reader, and even, in a revisionary context, for the expert. Mr. Finlayson is a superior stylist, albeit somewhat over inclined to self-indulgence in an obvious taste for Anglo-Saxon alliterative; but this is a mote rather than a beam. The book is well, often beautifully, written, and contains, as well as a summation, a reader's digest, a considerable amount of worth-while original thought and a perfectly splendid index.
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Whittington-Egan, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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