Elizabeth Wilson

Elizabeth Wilson (afterwards Romagnoli, 1817–1902)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 13, 381–387.

As EBB’s lady s maid for more than a dozen years, and later as nurse maid to Pen Browning, Elizabeth Wilson played an integral role in the lives of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She was born in 1817 at Rothbury, Northumberland, to Edward Wilson (1782?–1865), a coal merchant, and his wife Mary (née Wallace, 1782–1853). The family included a son, James William (b. 1810), and five other daughters: Mary (b. 1822), Jane (b. 1816?), Frances (b. 1822), Ann Ursula (b. 1824), and Ellen (b. 1828).

Wilson, as she was most often called, arrived in London from Northumberland in late 1843 in the service of Samuel Goodin Barrett and his wife Susanna Maria. After a few months, the Barretts decided to go to Jamaica, and Wilson was apparently not anxious to accompany them. Coincidentally, EBB’s sister Henrietta was looking for a lady’s maid to replace Elizabeth Crow, who had served EBB and her sisters since 1838. The role as replacement was not an easy one at first, but Wilson’s “gentle-voiced” nature soon quieted EBB’s apprehensions, and a few months later she wrote to Miss Mitford that “there is great softness & kindness & humility in her, .. & I feel that I shall like her ‘better & better’” (letter 1611).

Throughout the Brownings’ courtship, Wilson was probably the only person in the Wimpole Street household who knew the full extent of the developing relationship between the two poets. In July 1846, a few months before they were to leave for Italy, EBB told RB that “nobody heard yesterday of … your visit … so Wilson was discreet, I suppose, as she usually is, by the instinct of her vocation. Of all persons who are not in our confidence, she has the most certain knowledge of the truth” (letter 2497). When Wilson visited her family in June 1846, she had no knowledge of the events that would soon transpire, and that she would not see her family again for five years.

It was about this time that EBB hesitatingly wrote to RB that she was thinking of taking her maid with them to Italy, and that there was no question that if Wilson stayed behind, “she would be turned into the street before sunset. Would it be right & just of me, to permit it? … Wilson is attached to me, I believe—and, in all the discussions about Italy, she has professed herself willing to ‘go anywhere in the world with me’ … She is an expensive servant—she has sixteen pounds a year, .. but she has her utilities besides,—& is very amiable & easily satisfied, & would not add to the expenses, or diminish from the economies” (letter 2499). RB’s response was quick and decisive: of course Wilson would go with them. On the night of 11 September 1846, Wilson was told of the Brownings’ plans to marry and leave for Italy. Wilson made the difficult decision to accompany the Brownings to Italy, and she agreed to witness their marriage in St. Marylebone Church.

In the first letter EBB wrote from Italy to her sister Arabella, she explained that “Wilson likes everything—& we try to make her comfortable in change for her great services” (26 September 1846). While they were staying in Pisa, early in 1847, Wilson suffered a fairly serious illness, during which time the Brownings nursed her, and assumed her duties until she recovered. On 8 February 1847, EBB wrote to her sisters that “we have, both of us, every reason for feeling a regard for her & attending to her comfort .. poor Wilson! A most excellent & amiable girl she is—& I never shall forget what she has done for me.” Later than month EBB wrote that she and Wilson “agree sometimes (by way of comfort) that if she had gone to Jamaica with the Barretts, it would have killed her outright, & that (our way) she has been only half killed, poor thing” (24 February 1847). In April 1847, EBB wrote to her sister Henrietta that “a more honest true and affectionate heart than Wilson’s cannot be found.”

In Florence, on their first wedding anniversary the Brownings “gave Wilson a torquoise broach as a memorial of it,” and EBB explained to her sisters that “if it had not been for Wilson, on the real day, it wd. have been worse with me than it was.” Once again, EBB assured her sisters that Wilson only knew about the marriage “the night before, and, I am sure, had her own share of suffering, .. she who is so timid & easily daunted” (EBB to Arabella and Henrietta Moulton-Barrett, 13 September 1847). It became a tradition for the Brownings to give Wilson a gift on their wedding anniversary.

Wilson quickly learned her away around Italy, studying the language and finding bargains in the market. However, her sensibilities did not extend to an appreciation for nudity in art, and her extreme modesty caused her to turn away at the sight of the Venus de Medici in the Uffizi Gallery.

In late 1848 Wilson became engaged to Signor Righi, a member of the Ducal guard, and EBB explained to Henrietta that she and RB were supportive of Wilson’s decision. “After all, you see, she has a full right, as every human being has, to know her own mind & judge & choose for herself in such a personal thing as marriage is” (19 November 1848). However, the engagement was broken off shortly after Righi returned to his family in Prato.

Wilson was soon distracted by assisting EBB in preparing for the birth of the Brownings’ son, Pen, who was born on 9 March 1849. Wilson’s practical knowledge and abilities were useful attributes, and after Pen’s birth, when the Brownings needed a nurse for Pen, Wilson assumed this additional responsibility. Wilson was immediately fond of Pen, and took charge of most of his care. Once he began talking, he first called her “Lilla,” which soon gave way to “Lili” (or “Lily”), as she became affectionately known. She is depicted as a very efficient manager of the domestic side of the household, keeping peace and order between child, wetnurse, and parents.

When the Brownings returned to England in 1851 for the first time since their marriage, Wilson accompanied them. She spent two weeks with her family, now living at Carolgate, East Retford, Nottinghamshire, where she found her sisters had established a millinery shop and “berlin wool repository.” The Browning household spent the winter of 1851–52 in Paris, and the following spring they returned to England. During this visit, the domestic arrangement between the Brownings and Wilson was threatened. It seems Wilson wanted an increase in her wages—to twenty guineas—which the Brownings were unable to give her. Consequently, she announced that she would leave their service, evidently hoping to “improve her position in respect to money” (EBB to Eliza Ogilvy, [5 August 1852]). Very soon afterwards, though, EBB described it all as a misunderstanding—Wilson had reaffirmed her loyalty to the Brownings, especially to young Pen, and after a three-week visit to her family, came back to London in time for the return journey to Italy.

When Wilson’s mother died in October 1853 from a severe bout of bronchitis, the Brownings intercepted the letter containing the news, and were thus able to soften the shock. Wilson soon recovered, but she was distressed at not having more news from her sisters.

Wilson shared EBB’s interest in mesmerism, and is reported to have succeeded in “involuntary writing.” She was, however, shy about this accomplishment, but both EBB and RB were convinced of her honesty and sincerity. Nevertheless, RB maintained his scepticism and dismissed the phenomenon as a matter of nervous affectations on the part of Wilson and EBB.

In June 1853, after two unsuccessful experiences with Italian man-servants, the Brownings hired Ferdinando Romagnoli. His particular talents were cooking and charming the young Pen, whose affections he soon captured. He, like Wilson, lived in, and his sleeping quarters were in a small loft over the pantry, to which he gained access by way of a rope ladder.

It took a while longer, but Ferdinando eventually won Wilson’s heart as well, and in May 1855 EBB wrote to Arabella from Florence that Wilson and Ferdinando were to be married. “You will have heard by this time about Wilson & Ferdinando. He has been trying at it these two years, but she would not hear of it for some time—but where men are pertinacious in such things (or women either) they generally get their way– For my own sake, of course it is a shake to one’s comfort—nerves, comfort, everything—because although they will both remain with us as long as it is possible, the probability of course is that there will be results to render it impossible before very long—& then what’s to become of Penini .. to go no farther .. is saddening to think. It will be a heartbreak to the child– Still, there’s no use looking forward to what may not happen– Also, there’s no virtue in being utterly selfish, & thinking of everything but of poor dear Wilson herself, who should not, because she has been perfect to one’s child & good & kind in every way, be shut out on that account from her own prospects of domestic happiness … They are to stay with us, as I think I said, till we are forced to part, or till some prospect of better separate fortune opens on them.” And to RB’s sister, Sarianna, EBB explained that “it can only be pleasure to us to further their happiness even at our own inconvenience! At the same time it makes me feel selfishly sad to look forward & consider that ‘family’ is probably imminent, in which case we shall have to lose both of them—we cant, of course, travel about, (or even stay still) with a train of children, whatever we might wish” (19 May 1855).

On 12 June 1855, EBB wrote to Arabella that they had just “been to the British Embassy to see dear Wilson married. She is married—that is, according to the ch. of England. The catholic form will be gone through in Paris. We were not sure how it might be best, & it was suddenly arranged at last. An English clergyman performed the ceremony half in English & half in Italian, & Robert & I & Penini were witnesses—Peni giving his signature in full to the admiration of the clergyman. Dear Wilson behaved very well, & Ferdinando was brilliant with happiness. Robert wished that they might be as happy in the end as we were! As she helped me, it was but fair you know that I shd. help her. She only deserved it of me.” Isa Blagden’s maid, Marianne, was the only other person present at the marriage. (Their Florentine marriage certificate is at the Guilhall Library, London.) The following day the Brownings and the Romagnolis left for England, stopping briefly in Paris where Wilson and Ferdinando were married by a Roman Catholic priest, thus legalizing the marriage in Italy. There was a delay caused by Wilson not agreeing to raise the children as Catholics. Finally she promised not to hinder the children if they chose to be Catholics, and the ceremony took place on 10 July.

Soon after the two couples reached England, Wilson confided that she was four months pregnant. The Brownings were annoyed by the inconvenience caused by the necessity of having to rearrange their household to accommodate this new development, but they were particularly disappointed that Wilson had not been honest with them before setting off from Florence.

On 3 October 1855, Wilson left the Brownings and returned to her family in Nottinghamshire, where, on 13 October, a son, Orestes Wilson Romagnoli, was born. Arrangements were made for the Brownings to proceed to Paris, where Wilson would join them after the baby was born. However, Wilson could not make up her mind to leave Orestes with a wet-nurse, so she and the infant remained with her family until the following spring. During this time she was replaced by a young woman named Harriet. Wilson returned to the Brownings’ service when they came back to England in July 1856, and when they left for Italy in October, both Wilson and Ferdinando were with them. Since Wilson had decided to continue working for the Brownings, she left Orestes in the care of her family.

In June 1857 Wilson announced that she was expecting a second child. This meant that she would no longer work for the Brownings; therefore, she and Ferdinando decided to rent a house in Via Maggio, next door to Casa Guidi, which they furnished with £50 from their savings. Wilson was to live in the apartment, taking in lodgers, while Ferdinando stayed on with the Brownings. RB paid the £11 rent for the first eleven months. Lodgers were not immediately found, so Wilson and Ferdinando went with the Brownings to Bagni di Lucca in late July. While they were there, Wilson became ill, and a premature delivery was feared, so she returned to Florence in late September, about a month earlier than planned. Ferdinando stayed on in Bagni di Lucca with the Brownings, and Wilson’s duties were assumed by a new maid Annunciata.

Pylades (“Pilade”) Francesco Romagnoli was born 11 November 1857, and about that same time, Wilson let her house to the Brownings’ friend Fanny Haworth. Pilade was baptized in January 1858 in the English Church, Fanny Haworth standing as godmother. Ferdinando remained in service to the Brownings.

When the Brownings went to Paris for the summer of 1858, both Wilson and Ferdinando remained in Florence, operating their lodging house and managing Casa Guidi during the Brownings’ absence. However, during the winter of 1858–59, Ferdinando went with the Brownings to Rome while Wilson stayed behind in Florence. During this time, Wilson received a letter from her sister in England, saying that she had overheard staff in Arabella’s house say that the Brownings’ maid, Annunciata, was a “very bad woman,” and that Wilson should be alarmed since Ferdinando was alone with her. Wilson subsequently wrote a letter to EBB expressing her concern. EBB wrote to Arabella that Wilson was mad with jealousy, but that there was no evidence against Annunciata.

On returning to Florence in June 1859, they found Wilson insane with religious fervour, and suffering from paranoia. She thought her children were the “first fruit of the first resurrection,” and that the world was coming to an end; moreover, she had changed her baker because she thought he was trying to poison her. Although she seemed less jealous of Annunciata, she continued to suffer from delusions caused by her religious fanaticism, including a vision of her son being carried away by an angel. Additionally, her unusual aversion to looking at pictures seemed to be worse. While visiting Isa Blagden, she would not even look at a portrait of EBB. Nevertheless, her mental state seemed somewhat improved when she spent three weeks with the Brownings in Siena during the summer of 1859.

In late 1859, at the request of Walter Savage Landor’s family in England, RB agreed to assume guardianship of the octagenarian poet, who until shortly before had been living with his family in Fiesole. The arrangements included finding suitable lodgings in Florence where Landor could be under RB’s watchful care. After Landor’s death, RB wrote to Landor’s niece about Wilson: “When it became necessary to find some governante, I could not find any person, or even think of any person so fit, in the essential points of integrity and gentleness, for our purpose as this—and I induced her to leave the profits of the superintending-part of [their] business to her husband,—who should have leave to attend to it as much as he pleased,—and give her whole attention to Mr. L.” (12 October 1864).

Despite occasional outbursts by Landor, and sometimes equally emotive responses from Wilson, the two managed to get along, and Wilson was paid £30 per year for her service to Landor. When the Brownings went to Siena for the summer of 1860 to escape the heat of Florence, they took Wilson and Landor along, installing them in a villa not far from their own.

All this while, Orestes remained in England with Wilson’s family, to whom his parents sent money for his care. RB helped by arranging the payments through his publisher Chapman. Wilson and Ferdinando were understandably anxious to have their son with them. EBB wrote to Mrs. Ogilvy in August 1860 that “it is time for the Orestes who cant speak Italian, to meet the Pylades who cant speak English & that they should learn to understand one another in a brotherly way,” and the Brownings enlisted Mrs. Ogilvy’s assistance in arranging for Orestes to travel from England in September 1860. After all the plans were made, and the dates set, Ferdinando set out from Siena for Leghorn to meet the ship. Unfortunately, Orestes did not arrive. Wilson’s family had decided not to send the boy. Wilson was shocked, and Ferdinando announced they would send no more money to Wilson’s family. EBB was angry at Wilson’s family. She told Mrs. Ogilvy that they were “very provoking .. & so was my Wilson here—who being always weak in character showed a peculiar degree of weakness in not being resolute about the child” (12 September [1860]). Orestes eventually joined his family in July 1862, calling on Browning as he passed through London.

In June 1861, the Brownings returned to Florence from Rome only 24 days before EBB died. The evening before her death, Wilson visited, and according to RB in a letter to EBB’s brother, George, Wilson was sure that her mistress would “certainly soon be well again” (2 July 1861). RB also told Sarianna that, on the last night, Wilson “went away sure that all was well” (13 July 1861). In a letter to Sophia Eckley on 13 July, Wilson described her last meeting with EBB, and explained how EBB bid her good night “in a more impressive and more affectionate manner which made me think she felt more than she said still there seemed nothing that evening to cause me to think the Last was so near & I must say that it was a great shock to me when my husband told me in the morning she was no more.”

When RB left Florence after EBB’s death, Ferdinando had to enter other service, and the Romagnoli’s lodging business was turned over to a deputy. This eventually proved unsuccessful, and the enterprise was given up. Wilson continued in her position as Landor’s caretaker. Although no letters to or from Wilson and RB survive, there are indications that they communicated on a frequent basis. In all likelihood the letters were mostly about Landor; however, they undoubtedly exchanged concerns and information about Pen.

After Landor died in September 1864, his family agreed to Wilson’s proposal for her to remain in the house for the six months remaining on the lease. It is not known if she succeeded in letting the rooms, which she evidently intended to do. Wilson apparently managed to keep herself occupied in Florence until early 1866, when she returned to England with her two sons.

Apparently in late April 1866, soon after RB returned to London from Paris where his father had just died, he communicated with Wilson. In a letter to Isa Blagden a year later, RB reflected that he “would have taken both Wilson & Ferdinando into my service, tho’ intimately convinced I should be nearly ruined by one or the other of their incapablenesses—but fortunately for me, they, or she, would not come” (29 March 1867).

Instead of returning to Browning’s service, Wilson took her savings, together with a generous bequest she had received from Landor’s family, and established a lodging house in Scarborough. This was unsuccessful, however, as was a plan to go into business with her sisters.

On 23 April 1867, RB wrote to Isa Blagden and explained that he had sent a “cheque to Wilson’s Sister, and got an impertinent, improper letter in reply, saying Wilson was quite able to take care of herself … The next day brought Wilson herself—to my mind, mad now—so utterly irrationally did she talk. ‘Ferdinando must keep her, or why did he marry her?’– I asked her what she was going to do? Now this, now that, ‘keep a shop, lodgings, take in needlework’: with what ‘Nothing—all the money was spent.’ She did not deny that her sisters, whose trade is doing needlework, would have nothing to do with her. The fact is, they have been determined she should do for herself,—just what she can’t do,—never did nor will. It is all deplorable, and I expect the worst will come of it in every way.” Some time after this visit Wilson returned to Florence, leaving Orestes in East Retford, as indicated by the 1871 census, which states he was an apprentice to his aunts.

In 1880 RB mentioned having seen Ferdinando while visiting Venice, where Ferdinando was acting as cook to some of RB’s American friends. The last direct reference to Wilson in RB’s letters occurs in 1881, when he sent her two £5 notes. He was faithful to his pledge of giving her £10 a year until his death, as recorded in his account books.

In 1891 Pen, his wife Fanny, and Sarianna visited Florence, which Pen had not seen for thirty years. Writing about the visit on 28 December 1891, Sarianna told Michael Field that “Pen’s old nurse is here—she had fallen into a weak state of body and mind, and it is touching to see how she revives, and recalls old times, under his influence.” Soon thereafter, both Wilson and Ferdinando were taken on as retainers in Pen’s household.

Ferdinando died in Pen’s Venetian home, Palazzo Rezzonico, in 1893. On 25 February, Sarianna wrote from nearby Asolo to her friend Mrs. Morison that “Wilson, (Ferdinando’s widow) is here with us, and is pleased with the country. She is very quiet and gentle, and this morning was talking to me about Mr. Landor and his dog Giallo—her younger son died, years ago [4 June 1879] in the Military Hospital at Milan—and this morning she asked Fannie to find out where Pilade was living and tell him she wanted him to come to her. She will not believe he is dead, though she was with him at the end, and says she hears him speaking to her—the other son, now in Canada, wrote very nicely to Pen and to his mother at his father’s death.”

Wilson remained with Pen in Asolo until she died on 6 April 1902. Three months later, Pen wrote to W. Hall Griffin from Venice that he had recently returned to Asolo “where my old nurse Wilson, whom you may remember, died this spring. For her, poor soul, this was what is rightly called a ‘happy release’ from much infirmity: for me it was the breaking of the last link but one with the past, which remained to me.” Wilson was buried in the churchyard of Santa Anna in Asolo, and Pen placed a simple marble cross marker, presumably made to his design, on her grave. In 1986 her remains were reinterred elsewhere by the town authorities, and the marker removed. An appeal to restore the cross to the church yard was made, but did not meet with success.

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