Victorian Literature and Culture

Review Essay

REVOLUTIONIZING ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING: A REVIEW OF THE COMPLETE WORKS OF ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING

Alison Chapmana1

a1 University of Victoria

Any attempt to edit EBB's works encounters immediate and overwhelming challenges. The manuscripts, together with letters, books, drawings, and works of art, were more or less blown to the four corners of the globe with the 1913 Sotheby's sale of her son “Pen” Browning's estate. As Philip Kelley and Betty A. Coley put it, this has been considered “a disaster” by scholars (ix). Kelley and Coley's magnificent reconstruction of the contents of Pen's estate, The Browning Collections, lists each item and whereabouts, if known (the reference aid is updated at The Brownings: A Research Guide http://www.browningguide.org/). It is a disheartening as well as essential reading for the researcher, for its catalogue includes academic and public libraries, private collection and associations, throughout North America and Europe. Although locating those Browning effects is now easier with The Browning Collections, should the scholar have funds for travel, the manuscripts themselves are in a perilous state. Not only are they often fragile (especially the important tiny notebooks) but also often extremely challenging to read because of the spidery, faint, and often illegible handwriting. Barrett Browning often revised her poems and had false starts, and sometimes one poem in manuscript is entwined into another. They are, as EBB herself declared, a “chaos of illegibility” (Works 1: xxxiv). The poetry manuscripts do not readily welcome the editor. In addition to the geographical and paleographical challenges, EBB's corpus was huge, including the ballad, verse novel, narrative, dramatic lyric, sonnet and sonnet sequence, translation, hymn, dream vision, lyrical drama, ode, tribute poem, and elegy. Finally, much of the information about her poetry comes from the ongoing Brownings’ Correspondence, which includes letters both sent and received, and is currently at volume 18 (up to March 1853) out of a projected 40. There is a wealth of material by the Brownings, and not all of it readily accessible. Editing the works of EBB is a daunting prospect.

(Online publication May 18 2011)

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