The Ring and the Book, or Why Bother with Browning Anyway?
Portrait of Robert Browning
Does a very big age-gap between a husband and wife really matter? If the husband is – say – thirty-three years older than the wife then there may well be practical problems. If they have children, he may not be around when they start to grow up. He will retire from work much earlier than his wife and this could have financial implications. He may die and leave a youthful widow. Similar considerations apply if the woman is thirty-odd years older than the man. It may not be possible to start a family, the woman’s health and strength may deteriorate, and so on.
None of this means that a relationship between two people with a very large age gap between them cannot work. It can succeed if it is based upon genuine love and affection. But what if a man marries a woman thirty-three years younger than himself purely and simply for money? What if the marriage was arranged and the woman had no say in the matter at all. And what if the woman – or girl in this case – was thirteen years old when the marriage took place and the man was about forty-six? Here we have the perfect recipe for personal misery. This relationship is the subject of Robert Browning’s longest and, some would say, greatest work. And, sadly, it is based upon a true story.
Browning's studio in the Casa Guidi in Florence, where he was living in 1860
On a hot summer’s day in 1860, Robert Browning was browsing around a second-hand market in Florence, close to where he was living at the time. One particular stall contained the usual odds and ends one might expect to find in such a place. There were worn picture frames, bronze angel heads, chalk drawings and the like. On this particular stall was an old yellow book which consisted of various documents, pamphlets and letters, some in print and some in manuscript, bound together in book form. These documents related to a Roman murder trail which took place in 1698. An impoverished Italian nobleman, Count Guido Franceschini, then aged around 50, had killed his seventeen year old wife and both her parents. The trial was to determine whether, and to what extent, the killings were justified.
The details of this murder trial, a cause célèbre at the time, would have been of little interest to the casual market shopper of 1860. But Browning, with his deep interest and love of Italian history and culture and his passionate interest in human motivation, was no ordinary customer. He bought was has come to be known as the Old Yellow Book for a few coppers, devoured most of its contents immediately, and eventually turned this material into The Ring and the Book, his longest and most ambitious literary project. The Ring and the Book is a narrative poem in 12 books of blank, iambic pentameter verse. To give some idea of its size: the Iliad of Homer is an epic poem which consists of a total of 15,691 lines. The Ring and the Book runs to 21,116 lines.
The Via Bicchieraia, in the Tuscan town of Arezzo, the home of the hero / villain of The Ring and the Book
No danger of spoilers here! Usually, if you were to summarize the plot of a long poem or a novel you would risk impairing the reader’s enjoyment by giving away the ending. But Browning himself tells us the whole story in Book 1. Ten of the remaining eleven books are dramatic monologues, delivered by the main characters in the story, and these monologues not only give us more and more detail as the poem proceeds but they also give us the radically different perspectives on the story held by the main protagonists. So, the story runs as follows:
A middle-aged, middle-class couple from Rome, named Pietro and Violante Comparini, were childless. But they needed an heir in order to keep their money within the family. Unable to conceive a child herself, Violante acquired an unwanted child from a local prostitute and managed to pass the child off as her own, even convincing her husband Pietro. This child was named Pompilia. An impoverished nobleman from Arezzo, Count Guido Franceschini, married Pompilia with her parents' consent when she was thirteen and he was about 46. Guido wanted the money that would eventually fall to Pompilia on her supposed parents’ death and the Comparini couple wanted to marry their supposed daughter to one of higher status than themselves.
Robert Browning reading a few lines of How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, recorded in 1889.
It was never going to work. To begin with, Guido was hardly attractive to his girl-bride. This is how she herself describes him:
- nothing like so tall as I myself,
Hook-nosed and yellow in a bush of beard
Book 7 lines 395 – 6.
The young bride and her parents were to come and live with Guido and his family at Arezzo. But the Comparini couple were shocked at the poverty in which Guido lived and they began go complain of ill-treatment. They soon returned to Rome, leaving Pompilia to the tender mercies of her husband. According to the lawyer acting on her behalf, she was subjected to both mental and physical cruelty, from which she repeatedly tried to escape:
- for deem you she endures the whip,
Nor winces at the goad, nay, restive, kicks?
Book 9 lines 256 – 257.
A young priest, Giuseppe Caponsacchi, finally helped her to escape from this domestic hell. Guido pursued the fleeing pair and caught up with them in an inn near Rome. Instead of killing them on the spot, an omission he later regretted, he turned them over to the law. But the courts did not rule in Guido’s favour. Pompilia was sent to a convent to recuperate and, when it was discovered that she was pregnant, she was released and allowed to return to her parents in Rome. For Guido, this was the last straw. He hired some local muscle, went to Rome and, on the second of January 1698, killed Pietro and Violante and left his seventeen year old wife for dead. However, she survived for four more days. She was able to give testimony to a number of visitors, including (it seems) the Pope. The murder trial was indecisive and the matter was turned over to the Pope for judgment. The Pope judged Guido guilty of murder and sentenced him and his accomplices to death. They were executed on February 22 1698.
James Mason reading from Book 10 of The Ring and the Book
Browning's gift for characterization.
The above is a bare outline. A whole plethora of details are omitted. And such a summary crassly oversimplifies things in terms of characterization. In my brief summary Guido comes across as a straightforward villain, but in the poem Browning is far more even-handed. In his first monologue, which comprises Book 5, Guido makes a huge claim on our sympathies. He presents himself as a well-meaning victim of a cruel deception. However, that good impression is soon effaced. Pompilia herself gets the chance to speak in Book 7. Although she does indeed come across as a saintly figure she is by no means the typical Victorian helpless, weeping heroine. She is considerably more feisty than, say, Florence Dombey or Little Nell. Yet when we finally meet Pompilia in Book 7, her thoughts are with the baby from whom she is parted forever:
Now I shall never see him; what is worse,
When he grows up and gets to be my age,
He will seem hardly more than a great boy;
And if he asks “What was my mother like?”
People may answer “Like girls of seventeen”
Book 7 lines 64 – 68.
Although Pompilia’s words thoroughly condemn Guido, she does not go into detail about exactly what she endured at his hands. Nor does she herself condemn him:
I – pardon him? So far as lies in me,
I give him for his good the life he takes,
Praying the world will therefore acquiesce.
Let him make God amends, - none, none to me…
Book 7 lines 1709 – 1712.
And, as we discover in Book 10, such Christian forbearance and forgiveness is not lost upon the Pope:
- if in right returned
For wrong, most pardon for worst injury,
If there be any virtue, any praise, -
Then will this woman-child have proved – who knows? –
Just the one prize vouchsafed unworthy me…
Book 10 lines 1025 – 1029.
The characters in this work are presented in such depth that one cannot help wondering why Browning did not succeed as a dramatist. Or – maybe he did succeed? Maybe we are just waiting for a brave producer who is willing to take a risk?
Home Thoughts from Abroad, read by Geoffrey Palmer
Why read Browning anyway?
Browning occupies a curious position in English literature. A tiny percentage of his work is widely read and frequently anthologised. The remainder languishes unread outside of academia and literature courses. The fault is partly Browning’s own. He was a man of vast learning but was sometimes inclined to wear this learning on his sleeve and make no allowances to the reader who is less familiar with classical literature, Latin, Roman and Italian history, and so on. We sometimes encounter what seems to be a wilful obscurity in this poet. He seems to be deliberately making life hard for the reader.
If so, no one suffered more for it than Browning himself. His poem Sordello, published in 1840, was a critical disaster, not because of its subject matter but because the average reading public simply could not follow the narrative. Years of neglect followed, but popularity was regained by The Ring and the Book, by far the most successful of the works published in the poet’s lifetime.
Sometimes Browning isn’t easy. He often lacks the lyrical smoothness and beauty of other 19 century poets, such as Keats or Shelley. The extent of his knowledge and depth of his learning can be daunting. Yet, for me at least, Browning remains one of the most compelling of all English poets because, like Shakespeare, Browning’s interest is in people, men and women, you and me.