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Iain Finlayson, Browning: A Private Life, HarperCollins

Robert Browning was a lucky poet. Although his father worked as a clerk for the Bank of England, and Puritanism was part of the family background, the work ethic did not translate into careerism, and their Christianity was equally a life-affirming kind. From Browning’s birth in 1812 his parents encouraged him in whatever direction his inclinations took him, be it music, art, or, finally, poetry.

Browning’s father had spurned the Browning inheritance, witnessing in St. Kitts the reality of the slave fields that brought sugar to British tables and cash to the family coffers. The bank’s salary allowed Robert a modest formal education, but as Iain Finlayson’s new biography demonstrates, with such nurturing Browning hardly needed it. In fact, he was thrown out of nursery school because his articulacy intimidated the other children’s parents, if not the charges themselves. Browning Senior was well-read in natural history, anatomy and the classics, but as well as his tutor he was a playmate for Robert.

Much later, ineligible for Oxford because of the religious bar, he attended University College London. He was bored by the paucity of information and frustrated by the mechanical teaching methods, dropping out after a few weeks to write poetry instead. That had little critical success (even lucky poets have to struggle a little) so he tried drama. Finlayson emphasises that his failure here was the fault of the actor-manager’s business dealings rather than a lack of critical esteem. In any case, the idea of the soliloquy would greatly influence Browning’s poetry, later characterised by its artful monologues, even if it would take years to be used to full effect.

Browning would have considered his first and greatest success to be Elizabeth Barrett. He wooed the reclusive opium-addicted poet by letter and daily visit, until they eloped in September 1846. There is something comical about this to modern eyes: he was in his mid-thirties, she her early forties, and they were both single. But she was in thrall to a father who had grown over-protective of his grown-up children. Elizabeth had also become used to using her own weak health as a way of keeping strangers at a distance. Other women writers could not so easily command such creative space.

Helped by a friend’s twice-yearly allowance, and then a substantial inheritance, they lived well in their self-imposed exile in Italy. Their strong marriage was brought to an end only by Elizabeth’s death in 1861. Browning returned to London and fussed over his son’s education with more exasperation than his own father had over his. And he wrote poems which finally had critical and popular success. These are fascinating hybrids of drama and fiction, notably The Ring and The Book, a philosophical detective story, historical novel, and long poem rolled into one. He died in 1889, lionised and still in love with the memory of Elizabeth.

Today, he is best remembered for his shorter works: the sinister “My Last Duchess” and the hurtling “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”. Finlayson helpfully summarises unfamiliar poems but he doesn’t convey the power of the poetry. He extensively quotes from predecessor biographers, but in the case of G. K. Chesterton’s wise and succinct study of Browning, this apparent openness backfires. In fact, Finlayson is a little wordy even with his own words, equivocating and hesitating to offer an opinion of his own, as if lacking in confidence: more satisfyingly, Chesterton had the courage to summarise - and to judge.

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