Isabella Blagden (1816?–73)
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 16, 273–284.
Isabella Blagden, familiarly known as Isa, holds a unique place in the Brownings’ circle by virtue of her intimacy with both poets. No other friend saw as much of them during their married life in Italy. And, according to Elizabeth Kinney—recalling with some jealousy Isa’s relationship with the Brownings in Florence—no one else was “admitted into the mysteries of their inner thought” (“Personal Reminiscences,” ms at Columbia). It may also be a mark of uniqueness that for all of the later importance of this relationship to Browning scholars, research has heretofore failed to identify Isa’s place of birth, her parents, or one single relative. Admittedly, the facts have been few.
According to Isa’s gravestone, she was born on 30 June 1816. The day and month are confirmed by a letter from EBB to Isa dated 30 June , which has clearly been written to wish the recipient well on her birthday. The year on the gravestone, however, is open to question. The only official documents that have surfaced concerning Isa’s personal details are her Italian and British death certificates. These state her age to be 55 at the time of her death, which, given that she was born in the month of June and died in the month of January, would provide an 1817 date. Her Italian death certificate indicates that she was born in the “East Indies,” the daughter of “Thomas Blagden.” But a search through the British India Office records fails to place a Thomas Blagden in that region.
The central question remains: “Who were Isa’s parents?” Although we have not been able to identify her mother, we believe there is now little doubt as to the identity of Isa’s father. Based upon a body of circumstantial evidence, much of it involving Isa’s relation to the Bracken and Alexander families, it can be argued that she was born in Calcutta, the natural daughter of Thomas Bracken (1791–1850) and a Eurasian woman, possibly named Blagden. The evidence is as follows: 1) A preponderance of eyewitness accounts that describe Isa’s appearance as Eurasian. To cite one such instance, Henry James, in recalling a visit to Bellosguardo, wrote of meeting “an eager little lady whose type gives, visibly enough, the hint of East-Indian blood” (William Wetmore Story and His Friends, 1903, II, 95). 2) A pencilled annotation in the hand of Costanza (“Zina”) Hulton—whose mother, Linda Mazini, had been particularly close to Isa at the time of the latter’s death—that appears on page four of a copy in a private collection of A. Joseph Armstrong’s Letters of Robert Browning to Miss Isa Blagden (1923). This note accompanies a reference in the text to Annette Emma Frascheri (née Bracken, 1834–98), the daughter of Thomas Bracken’s brother John Bracken (1806–50) and his first wife Louise (née Compton, 1813–38), identifying her as “a cousin of Miss Blagden’s.” 3) After RB met Thomas Bracken’s eldest sister, Mary Alexander (1790–1867), he remarked in a letter to Isa: “I liked her much—fancied her like you somewhat in face” (19 February 1863). 4) Upon Mrs. Alexander’s death, Isa writes of her loss to Beatrice Trollope, daughter of Thomas Adolphus and Theodosia Trollope: “You have often heard me speak of her. Her house was my central home in England. I always arrived in Grosvenor Place, and made it my headquarters when in town and I always left England from Stone House [Broadstairs, Kent]. She was my oldest friend and was as dear to me as your Uncle Tony [Anthony Trollope] is to you. My happiest holydays were all spent with her when I was a child and I feel as if I had lost (almost) a mother” (9 February 1868, ms at Princeton). 5) On two occasions that we know of, Isa took in invalid members of the Alexander family: Louisa Alexander (1838–58), the daughter of Mary Alexander’s step-son, from 1853 to 1855, and Robert Dolling (1851–1902), the consumptive son of Mary Alexander’s third daughter Elizabeth (1811–70), in 1868. 6) When Isa died and no will of hers could be found, Thomas Bracken’s youngest brother, William Bracken (1809–91), assumed the management of her affairs. 7) Of the five Bracken brothers, most of whom spent time in India, only Thomas and Chase (1800–27) were there at the time Isa was conceived, the latter’s age somewhat disqualifying him as a candidate for Isa’s father. 8) But the most telling piece of evidence supporting the paternity of Thomas Bracken is to be found in his will, dated 7 August 1847 (copy at Public Record Office, London). In this document, Isa is the first-named of two legatees—the other being Mary Rebecca (afterwards Doran, later Newcomen, 1819–57), his daughter by his wife Rebecca (née Sewell, 1795–1844) whom he married in Calcutta on 1 September 1818. The will states that out of the interest and dividends of Thomas Bracken’s investments, which are to be held in trust, Isa is to be provided £150 per annum “as long as she lives.” Mary Rebecca is bequeathed the remaining interests and dividends but only “after the said provision for Miss Isabella Blagden.” Upon the former’s marriage, she is to receive all of her father’s estate, “saving and excepting a portion sufficient to defray the above Annuity” to Isa. One of the co-executors of Thomas Bracken’s estate and co-administrators of Isa’s trust was his brother William.
Thomas Bracken’s estate derived from his many years as partner in the mercantile house of Alexander & Company of Calcutta, then, after that concern folded in 1832, as secretary and treasurer in the Bank of Bengal, also of Calcutta. According to his obituary, published in Allen’s Indian Mail on 6 February 1851, he retired from the bank in 1847 and sailed to England with the intention of settling there. But ill health necessitated his return to India in early 1850. It was about this time that Isa appeared in Italy with the means to live independently, and it could be assumed that before Thomas left England for the last time, he had already provided his natural daughter with an annuity.
Little is known of Isa’s early life. At some point she probably entered Louisa Agassiz’s ladies’ school, located at 7 Allsop Terrace (the street has since been engulfed by Marylebone Road) near Regent’s Park. At the school, which enrolled daughters of diplomats and merchants living abroad, Isa met lifelong friends Charlotte Agassiz (afterwards Brice), the headmistress’s niece, and Mary Thornton (afterwards Tassinari), the latter preceding Isa to Florence by several years. Isa’s first recorded letter was addressed to the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton in January 1842 from the ladies’ school. She asked him to read a play she had written at seventeen, “after I saw you when I was a mere child” (ms with Cobbold). Bulwer-Lytton read the play, offered advice, and the two became friends. Soon after, her first published work appeared, a poem entitled “What is Sir Lytton Bulwer’s ‘Zanoni’,” in the July 1842 issue of The Metropolitan. In June of 1843, she thanked him for receiving her at his house in London and for introducing her to his mother (ms with Cobbold). There are also indications that Isa visited him at Knebworth, the family seat. No doubt, Isa’s friendship with the famous novelist opened doors for her. By the time she met EBB in 1850, the poetess could say of her that she “does literature, leads a London life among the ‘litterateurs’ when she is in England, & is an intimate friend of Bulwer Lytton” (letter 2836).
In early 1850, accompanied by Charlotte Agassiz, Isa arrived in Florence and soon afterwards took a short lease on Villa Moutier outside the city near the Poggio Imperiale. Although she had not at this point made up her mind to settle permanently in Italy, most of the next 23 years of her life were spent there, usually in one of three villas at Bellosguardo, a hill to the southwest of the centre of Florence. The Brownings first met Isa when she called on them in late February or early March 1850 at Casa Guidi. She came bearing a letter of introduction from RB’s uncle Reuben, having tried and failed to get one from John Forster. EBB described Isa to her sister Arabella: “We have had however a visit from a Miss Blagden, a single lady, with black hair, black eyes, yet somehow not pretty … I liked her little dog extremely—& by no means disliked her” (letter 2836). EBB’s next letter (2837) was written to her new acquaintance, thanking her for the loan of Athenæums and books, one of which, The Caxtons, was the work of Bulwer-Lytton.
In all, there are 199 extant letters from EBB to Isa, mostly unpublished (seven of them written jointly with RB); only three from Isa to EBB have surfaced. Early in the correspondence between the two women, it became clear that both Brownings liked Isa. Within a few months of their meeting, EBB sent her what amounted to an open invitation that would never be revoked: “Come to see us … & make use of us at breakfast time, dinner time or tea time, just as you like, & set it down as our gain” (letter 2868). The open invitation worked both ways, though RB took advantage of it much more often than his wife, and included Pen, who became a frequent caller.
When the Brownings returned to England in the summer of 1851, Isa may have as well; she was definitely in London in 1852. What travelling she engaged in prior to EBB’s death in 1861, apart from a visit to Rome in February 1851 and one to Madrid in 1858, reflected the Brownings travels: to England, 1851?–52; Rome, 1853–54; London and Paris, 1855–56; Bagni di Lucca, 1857; Siena, 1859 and again in 1860. While the poets were in London during the summer of 1852, EBB began calling Isa by her given name. An August letter from the poetess opened with, “Dearest Isa, (will that do? only there really must be reciprocations).” It took a year for the “reciprocations” to occur, at which EBB remarked: “at last, my dearest Isa … I am called by my right name! You have been a long time about it certainly, but as you recognize me at last I shall hope for liberty of friendship henceforth” (24 August ).
Among the common interests binding the friendship were Swedenborg and spiritualism, the latter having recently made its way into European drawing rooms from America. In a letter written shortly before the Brownings’ trip to Rome in the autumn of 1853, EBB wrote: “I shall get at Swedenborg & get on with my readings. There are deep truths in him, I cannot doubt … we will talk on these things, & the spirits” ([22 October 1853]). Politics was another topic often discussed, particularly so during the second war of Italian independence, 1859–60. The war gave EBB the opportunity to indulge in her hero-worship of Napoleon III. This enthusiasm was shared by Isa, who kept a portrait of Napoleon on display in her study.
Another sign of the closeness between the two friends was the candidness with which EBB criticized Isa’s poetry in a September 1854 letter, at the end of which she declared: “All these things I say freely, truly . . heart to heart, as I love you. Don’t think me bold & conceited in saying them when I am only true.” In turn, Isa assisted RB when he was preparing Men and Women for publication. In a mid-April 1855 letter EBB told Sarianna Browning: “He is overwhelmed with business just now in getting his poems transcribed—he wont let me do it, but submits to use Isa Blagden who is very goodnatured & pleased to be useful to him … and now for four hours together every morning he is at her house & at dictation.” Upon the book’s publication in November 1855, EBB thanked Isa for her help: “you are as good as ever in speaking so kindly of those beneficent days of yours, when, as the best and most intelligent of secretaries, you were of so much use to Robert. How large a debt the volumes owe you” (16 November ).
The correspondence between EBB and Isa, fairly constant unless they were living in close proximity, was interrupted during the summer and early autumn of 1856 when the Brownings were occupied with an extended stay on the Isle of Wight to see family and the ailing John Kenyon, then with a visit to the Surtees Cooks at Wilton near Taunton. Also at this time, EBB was busy preparing her Poems (1856) and Aurora Leigh (1857) for publication. There are no extant letters from EBB to Isa after 14 June and before 20 October 1856. It is indicative of the relaxed nature of their friendship that EBB could suspend communication for four months without feeling the relationship was in jeopardy. Back in Florence in late November, EBB begged Isa to call and added: “Hold my hand through life, dearest noble Isa—never let me go.”
Near the beginning of 1857 Isa presented EBB with a gold signet ring engraved with the Greek word “aei,” meaning “always,” or “eternally.” Upon receiving it, EBB sent a message: “I cant wait till tonight to thank you my dearest Isa for this exquisite little ring– Shall I not keep it forever, as a memorial of what must last as long,—my true love for you” ([ca. January 1857]). In a July 1858 letter to Isa, written from Le Havre, EBB refers to a similar present that her friend gave RB: a gold ring embossed with the Latin words “vis mea,” or “my strength” (see Reconstruction, H462). Years later he told Isa that he would wear the ring to his “dying-day” (19 November 1864). Following EBB’s death, RB attached the aei ring to his watch and chain (see Reconstruction, H472). Pen Browning thought, “without ever having enquired into the matter,” that this ring was the one his father had in mind when he wrote The Ring and the Book (letter to W.H. Griffin, 18 March 1894, ms at BL). However, when Fannie Browning presented the vis mea ring to Balliol College Library, she declared it to be “the ‘Ring,’” claiming that RB had told her so himself (letter from Fannie Browning to J.L. Strachan-Davidson, 2 January 1914, ms at Balliol). For further information concerning the rings Isa gave the Brownings, see Browning Institute Studies, 8, 151–159 and Browning Society Notes, 23, 54–66.
For all of their compatibility, there were points of difference between EBB and Isa. One recurring topic of discussion in their correspondence revolved around their mutual female acquaintances. Isa was apparently candid about her dislikes even when they rubbed against EBB’s likes. The latter, commenting on Emelyn Story, declared: “Ah, dearest Isa! I am not converted … to your ‘favorite aversion,’ and I have designs of converting you” (24 August ). But EBB was the converted one, as she later cooled toward Mrs. Story. The evolution of EBB’s relationship with Sophia Eckley, though more dramatic, followed a similar pattern. At first EBB assured Isa: “You would love her if you knew her—& I want you to know her well” (7 January ). A year later, however, EBB was of a different mind, wondering if her lack of discernment in reading Mrs. Eckley’s character had been due to “the extravagant flattery lavished on me … Well—if it is so the more I deserve what came. … It’s fate with me to draw certain kinds of women,—women of straw, women of false lives and hearts. How I came to know & love you seems ‘out of the text’” ([12–16 January 1860]).
Isa shared EBB’s disillusionment in the case of another friend, poet and diplomat Robert Bulwer Lytton, son of the aforementioned novelist. In the summer of 1857, the Brownings were joined at Bagni di Lucca by Isa, her cousin Annette Bracken, and Lytton. Shortly after their arrival, the latter fell ill with fever and had to be nursed night and day by Isa and RB. When Isa and her party returned to Florence in mid-September, Lytton stayed at her Bellosguardo villa where she continued to care for him. At the end of the year, he moved out of the villa and into the home of an Italian family in Florence. His departure from Bellosguardo seemed abrupt to EBB, as it did to Isa, and neither felt that he had expressed sufficient gratitude for the care he had received. Lytton explained to his father in a letter on 1 January that he made the change due to “the increasing cold of Winter, continual relapses to bad symptoms in the throat,” and the need to improve his skill in Italian in order to pass his civil service examinations (ms with Cobbold). Sometime in January, EBB counselled her friend: “Do not vex yourself any more, dearest Isa—it is natural that you should be indignant … To him you have been only too tolerant, tender, & self-forgetting– He follows your example in forgetting you too, .. acting even below the par of the ordinary male creature. A wretched, ungrateful .. what shall I say? Better leave it & say nothing.” In the same letter EBB denounced Lytton for a “connection” she and Isa felt was “dishonorable and disastrous to him”; that is, with his close friend, Captain Fleetwood Wilson. EBB went on to declare that Lytton’s position with respect to Wilson, whether “real, or if only a sham, … was ignoble & corrupt.” Regardless of the exact cause, the Brownings were not as friendly towards Lytton as they had been prior to his leaving Bellosguardo. Recalling the estrangement in a letter to John Forster on 16 August 1859, Lytton remarked: “I was very much distressed by a sort of coolness which had come between us, when I left Florence, for which I really do not think I was to blame,—one of those vexatious results of misunderstanding difficult to put right because so intangible” (ms with Cobbold). After Lytton left Florence in March of 1858, there are several teasing references to him in EBB’s letters to Isa, having to do with possible allusions to the latter in his published poems: The Wanderer (1858) and Lucille (1860). Commentators in the past have inferred from these references that Isa was in some way romantically involved with Lytton. This seems unlikely. If there had been a serious attachment to Lytton on Isa’s part, it is highly doubtful that EBB would have treated it so lightheartedly.
The Brownings did not constitute Isa’s entire universe. As a friend to—if not a focal point for—much of the Anglo-Florentine community, she led a full social life. In What I Remember (1887), T.A. Trollope wrote that she “was also the intimate and very specially highly-valued friend of my wife and myself. … Isa was … a very bright, very warm-hearted, very clever little woman, who knew everybody, and was, I think, more universally beloved than any other individual among us” (II, 173). Through Isa the Brownings came to know a number of her friends and relatives. Among the latter were the aforementioned Annette Bracken (afterwards Frascheri), who lived off and on with Isa from 1857 to 1861, and Isa’s uncle William Bracken. Additionally, there were Mary Bracken, the second wife of John Bracken, and their son Willy, both of whom later spent many seaside holidays with RB; Annie Egerton Smith, Mary’s sister, who would become a close friend to RB and his sister Sarianna; Mary Mackenzie, aunt of Mary Bracken and Annie, who gave RB and Annette drawing lessons in Rome; and Amelia Skirrow (née Compton), a half-sister of John Bracken’s first wife, who became one of RB’s major correspondents in the 1870’s and 80’s. Among Isa’s friends introduced to the Brownings were the social reformer Frances Power Cobbe and the American sculptress Harriet Hosmer. These latter were part of a distinguished circle of independent, career-minded women with whom Isa was long-involved and by whom she was much-esteemed. Others included the writer Kate Field, actress Charlotte Cushman (both Americans), and Bessie Rayner Parkes, editor of The English Woman’s Journal.
The many recollections of Isa that were published after her death are unanimous in their appreciation of the “clever little woman.” In one unpublished memoir, however, there is an ambivalent note. Elizabeth Kinney, in her “Personal Reminiscences,” wrote of Isa: “She was an English maiden-lady … of under-height, (her legs being so short as to give her a dwarfish appearance, though her body was unproportionably long) but of a striking countenance owing to her very large & bright black eyes, she must have been attractive in youth, though dark complexioned and swarthy … vivacious in the extreme, & flippant of tongue, one would hardly have given her credit for the really clever novels, & respectable poetry she wrote. Her admiration for the Brownings amounted to infatuation, & her ambition to be one of them, seemed to swallow up even her individual literary ambition … they ever suffered her presence, even as they did Lytton’s, though in her case there was personal love as a motive” (ms at Columbia).
In 1856, with several years of intermittent travel behind her, Isa decided to settle in Italy. She took out a five year lease on the upper floor of Villa Brichieri at Bellosguardo. According to EBB the villa of “ten or eleven rooms furnished” cost “two hundred & twenty scudi a year—which is dear for Florence, & my husband & I shake our heads over her rash bargain—but the view out the drawing-room window atones & accounts for everything” (letter to Mary Brotherton, 12 September ). At this time in Tuscany, 220 scudi was equivalent to about £45. By contrast, the Brownings were paying a little over £28 a year for Casa Guidi. Two years later Isa was evidently feeling some financial constraints. In a letter dated 2 October , EBB remarked on her friend’s “reduced income.” Perhaps the investments that generated Isa’s annuity had fallen off. In the same letter it can be inferred from EBB’s remarks that Isa contemplated relocating to Clifton (a suburb of Bristol) in order to join one of Frances Power Cobbe’s projects as a nurse or teacher. EBB advised Isa that she was physically incapable of being a nurse and that if she wanted to teach children to “read and spell,” she should “write books for children & teach them more.”
Although there is no evidence that Isa wrote any books for children, it was at this time she began her career in earnest as a professional writer. Her biographical essay on the sculptress Felicie de Fauveau appeared in the October 1858 issue of The English Woman’s Journal and was well thought of by both Brownings. Throughout the rest of her life, Isa contributed prose articles and poems (mostly unsigned) to periodicals. Much of the poetry that can be attributed to her was published in All the Year Round, a weekly edited by Dickens; the prose that has been identified appeared mainly in the Cornhill and Fraser’s. But if Isa enjoyed any literary standing in the nineteenth century, it was as a novelist. In March of 1861, her first novel Agnes Tremorne was issued by Smith, Elder & Co., thanks to the assistance of Anthony Trollope in placing it with that firm. He had told George Murray Smith to remember that Isa wished to use the pseudonym of “Ivory Beryl” (letter dated 10 November 1860, ms at Bodleian), but it went out under her own name, and, as far as we have determined, none of her publications appeared under a pseudonym. The book received encouraging notices. The reviewer in The Athenæum said of it: “We cannot help thinking that ‘Agnes Tremorne’ is the work of a true artist, who has found her vocation; and we sincerely trust that her voyage will be a prosperous one, and that she will eventually land safely at the port of ‘success.’” The Brownings concurred. In a May 1861 letter, EBB was lavish in her praise: “Your book has exceeded my expectation & hope by very far– It is a book of no common mind nor merit.” The poetess was especially pleased by the character of Giacinto who bore a strong resemblance to Pen. EBB was equally forthcoming in her criticisms, taking Isa to task for improbabilities of plot and lapses of grammar. RB commented at length on the book, and although he found much to like: “You have really written well and sustainedly,—musical as well as passionate periods,” he was disappointed in the story, which he could not “believe in for a moment” (13 May 1861). Following Agnes Tremorne Isa wrote four more novels: The Cost of a Secret (1863); The Woman I Loved and the Woman Who Loved Me (1865)—this had been published serially in Once a Week, January–March 1862; Nora and Archibald Lee (1867); and The Crown of Life (1869). All but the last of these four were issued by Chapman and Hall—RB’s and EBB’s publisher at the time. It is difficult to say how much Isa’s success as a novelist relied on her own talent rather than on the good offices of friends such as Anthony Trollope and RB. Nor is it clear how much the latter helped in Isa’s dealings with Chapman, considering his own bumpy relations with the publisher. RB may have been more instrumental in procuring from Chapman the money owed Isa than in getting her published. In a letter dated 19 January 1868, RB referred to one such episode: “I am quite certain you will not misunderstand me …when I say—indeed what he as good as says himself in the letters you quote from—that he paid that money as a bribe to me.”
Surprisingly, there is only one extant presentation copy of the Brownings’ works to Isa: the fourth edition of Aurora Leigh (see Reconstruction, C13). There is evidence that EBB also presented Isa with a copy of the first edition of Aurora Leigh. Bound in a set of proofsheets of the fourth edition (ms at Lilly) is a half-title page from the first that bears the following inscription: “Isa Blagden with the true love of EBB. Florence– Casa Guidi– Dec. 2d. 1856.” From the correspondence, we know that both EBB and RB sent or gave her copies of their works (see for instance Reconstruction, C107 and C389); but they have not surfaced. Nor are there any extant presentation copies of Isa’s works to the Brownings.
In the last known letter from EBB to Isa, written shortly before the Brownings left Rome for Florence in 1861, the poetess spoke of her health: “I am a good deal stronger, but by no means equal in body or soul to efforts of any kind—only what must be, must be” ([ca. 25 May 1861]). During EBB’s fatal decline in late June, RB kept Isa informed but asked her not to visit out of fear that it would overtire his wife. On 25 June 1861, he wrote: “Ba is better but still very weak & incapable of talking or being talked to—& who can look at your face without being tempted to the one, or expecting the other.” He quickly relented, however, allowing Isa to visit on the 27th and 28th. EBB’s former lady’s maid Wilson (Mme. Romagnoli), was the only other person so permitted. Upon EBB’s death in the early morning of Saturday, 29 June 1861, RB asked Isa to come. She later told Mary Ann Bruen: “I sent Penini up to my villa on the Saturday, but I stayed at Casa Guidi until the funeral took place” (letter dated [mid-July 1861], ms at Morgan). Overcome with grief the day after EBB’s funeral, RB began staying the night at Isa’s villa, returning each morning to Casa Guidi in order to arrange his affairs in preparation for leaving Italy. Of Isa’s help and comfort during this melancholy time, RB remarked to his sister Sarianna: “She is one of the warmest hearted persons I ever knew—she has been invaluable to me and Pen,” and he further declared that Isa “would cut her hand off to serve Pen or myself for her [EBB’s] sake” (13 July 1861). Isa expressed her own bereavement to Fanny Haworth: “My loss is entire—I loved no one so well” (30 June , ms at Fitzwilliam). In describing EBB’s funeral in the letter to Mrs. Bruen (cited above), Isa wrote feelingly of her departed friend: “Everyone wished to shew their reverence for that perfect being—whose Genius itself seemed a less glorious gift than her goodness, her unsullied truth, her deep & pure lovingness, all which were given her to shew us what a divine thing a woman can be.”
When the bereaved poet and son left Florence on 1 August 1861, Isa travelled with them as far as Paris. While they went on to Brittany with Sarianna and RB, Sr., Isa headed for London. RB and Pen arrived there in late September and the following month took lodgings at 1 Chichester Road in order to be close to EBB’s sister Arabella who resided at 7 Delamere Terrace. The next month, Isa began a three-month stay with a friend at nearby 37 Westbourne Park Villas. In a 10 November 1861 letter to the Story family, RB described Isa’s proximity to his residence: “Miss Blagden is opposite, in a house no further from this than your ball-room from the green drawing room.” This nearness may have helped Isa exert an indirect influence on at least one of RB’s choices of tutors for young Pen. She recommended a friend of hers, Jane Browning Smith (1805–95), to Arabella as a drawing instructor for her niece, Mary Cook, who was staying with her at this time. RB was sufficiently impressed by Miss Smith to engage her for three years in the same capacity for his son.
Of the 161 extant letters from RB to Isa, 46 were written prior to EBB’s death; seven of these, as mentioned previously, were written jointly with his wife. Most of RB’s letters to Isa were published in Dearest Isa, ed. Edward C. McAleer (Austin, Texas, 1951). There are, unfortunately, no letters extant from Isa to RB. Presumably, he destroyed them—as he promised her in a letter from Brittany, dated 18 August 1862: “Remember I read your letters, twice, & then burn them: mine, I trust,—earnestly conjure you will never show.” It is convenient, though inaccurate, to divide Isa’s friendship with the Brownings into two parts, that is, she was EBB’s friend until the latter’s death and then RB’s. The correspondence indicates that this was not the case. Considering the many references to RB’s visits to Bellosguardo, Isa probably spent more time in his company than in EBB’s. Additionally, RB’s letters to Isa written before EBB’s death indicate his deep affection for the recipient. In an October 1858 letter, for example, he wrote cheeringly: “Don’t do anything rashly, dearest Isa, for you will always have a friend in poor me whom you may make unhappy at any time by being yourself groundedly unhappy.” This affection deepened through the association of Isa with his late wife. On 31 August 1861, he declared, “no human being can give me one hand—with the feeling on my part that the other holds that of my own Ba—as you can & do.” When Isa left Florence, she had thought to resettle in England, not wishing to remain in Italy with the Brownings gone, but RB advised against it: “So consider: why should Italy be barred to you? … The life there & ways are become yours. For me—I should lose something by every inch that you were removed from me; you know that. But if you were up at Clifton … I should be practically as far off as if you were at Florence” (9 September 1861).
Before Isa returned to Italy in the late summer of 1862, she and RB agreed to write each other once a month: she on the 12th and he on the 19th (the days of the Brownings’ wedding and departure from England in September 1846). On 19 June 1862, RB commented on their new arrangement: “It is the greatest of comforts that I have thus secured to myself, by a word to your kindness, a certainty to the end of one of our lives of knowing something about you every month, wherever you are, however you are.” Allowing for lapses due to travel, illness, and occasional over-commitment on the part of RB, this schedule was maintained for the next ten and a half years.
RB’s letters to Isa are unlike those to any other correspondent. They are relaxed, candid, gossipy, and feature many unsparing opinions of persons known to them both. On Robert Bulwer Lytton: “I can’t tell you how little I care about Lytton—he is utterly uninteresting to me,—I seem to know all about him. His cleverness surprised me a little, when I saw him,—he can extend that to almost any extent. As to his being ‘kind’ to any woman wholly in his power, I wonder what makes you hope that” (19 October 1864). On Sophia Eckley: “My sole concern, charge against her … is—that she cheated Ba from the beginning. … I was hardly interested enough in the old dead miserable nonsense to see if Mrs E. would stand up for its ever having been alive: but I just put a question or two—with the result I expected … so I left off trying how carrion smells if you put your nose to it” (19 April 1869). Nor did RB spare Alfred Austin, who was one of Isa’s friends. In a letter dated 22 March 1870, RB declared that one of the reasons he enjoyed “dinners in good company” is that it “‘riles’ such a filthy little snob as Mr Alfred Austin.”
But when RB refers to his late wife and Isa’s great friend he reveals a different side of himself. In a letter dated 19 March 1866, he writes: “I should like to fancy you at the Villa Moutier again. I once walked thence with Ba to Casa Guidi—I think the longest walk I ever knew her take: it was at the very height of her health, so far as she ever recovered it: but we returned for the first time to England, and there was fatigue, and afterward, other troubles began, and she never touched that height again.” When RB would write his monthly letter on 19 June, he often referred to the anniversary of EBB’s death, sometimes quoting from her translation of Heine. In 1868, for instance, he wrote: “And this is the 19th once again, and in ten days will be the 29th. ‘The years they come & go—the races drop in the grave—but never the love doth so’.” Interspersed with pleasant memories of EBB, were those less pleasant. In responding to a letter Isa sent from Bagni di Lucca, RB wrote nostalgically of the times he and his wife had been there. But the recollection triggered the abrupt statement that he and EBB came to “seven distinct issues … in our profoundly different estimates of thing and person: I go over them one by one, and must deliberately inevitably say, on each of these points I was, am proved to be, right and she wrong” (19 September 1867). Although a few of these “issues” can be identified with some degree of certainty—such as spiritualism, Napoleon III, Mrs. Eckley, and the raising of Pen—the others are open to speculation.
Before leaving Italy with RB in 1861, Isa set into motion a scheme to place a memorial tablet to EBB in the church of Santa Croce at Florence. A petition was to be presented to the King of Italy for permission to honor a Protestant in a Roman Catholic church. Prominent Englishmen were asked to sign, and it was hoped that their signing would encourage prominent Italians to do the same. But RB hated the idea. In a letter to Isa, he referred to the project as “totally repugnant to my feelings” and added, “if the Italians need to be dunned by the English into remembering their friend the remembrance would not be worth much” (22 August 1861). A new plan called for placing a tablet above the entrance of Casa Guidi. A group of Florentine citizens petitioned the city in September 1861 for permission, and the plan was approved the following month. A year later RB replied with much feeling to Isa’s “little note” announcing that the tablet was in place: “I can’t tell you the thrill of pain & pleasure I feel about it: the presence of Her is now habitual to me … but in this case, it was as if, besides my feeling on my own account the deepest gratification at this act, determined & carried into effect. … And how must I feel to you, my own dearest of friends, whose work it has been” (19 November 1862). RB also called upon Isa to prod Henry Cottrell, who was supervising the construction of the monument that marked EBB’s grave, into seeing the work through to the finish: “Can you be of any help to me, by quietly reminding Cottrell from time to time of the misery I undergo in this state of things. … I know your affection can move mountains” (18 March 1865).
In April 1865, Isa’s close friend Theodosia Trollope died. Isa had acted as nurse during the final illness and left for Venice in May to spend a month recuperating. While there, according to Alfred Austin, she acquired a mistreated poodle, rescuing it from a group of boys who “were about to drown it in the Grand Canal” (“Memoir,” Poems by Isa Blagden, Edinburgh, 1873, pp. xxii–xxiii). The rescue typified Isa’s love of dogs and her penchant for collecting strays. In discussing Austin’s memoir, Francis Boott, who had been a neighbour of Isa’s at Bellosguardo, remarked to Henry James that “a sketch of her character wd. be wanting in a leading trait if her bold assertion of the rights of dumb canines were left out” (letter, 14 June , ms at Harvard).
Returning from Venice, Isa changed residences, moving from Villa Giglioni to Villa Isetta, which was located near the Porta Romana rather than Bellosguardo. She remained there for a year before leasing the Villa Castellani—again at Bellosguardo—where she lived until her death.
Isa made three visits to England once she had resettled in Italy in 1862: they were in 1866, 1868, and the last in 1872. After the first visit RB declared: “It was very vexing to see so little of you—still that little may help me over a few more stages of the journey” (7 August 1866). Her second visit was presumably even less satisfactory to the old friends, since in the midst of it Arabella Moulton-Barrett died, and RB was overwhelmed by obligations. Isa did not stay at 19 Warwick Crescent during her visits to London. Prior to her last, RB wrote: “I wish with all my heart this house were big enough to take you in, now that Sarianna is here to help & entertain: but Pen’s presence stops that last hole in the little place” (30 April 1872).
Throughout his later correspondence with Isa, RB refers frequently to his yearning to be in Italy, particularly at the end of his life, where he and Isa can be “two bright and aged snakes” together basking in the sun. The image comes from Matthew Arnold’s Empedocles on Etna (1852), and RB refers again and again to it. On 1 October 1871, he wrote: “I repeat to my darling ‘bright and aged (to become) snake’ that, if I could dispose properly of Pen, see him advantageously disengaged from me, I would go to live & die in Italy tomorrow.” One could speculate that had Isa lived into the late 1870’s and early 1880’s, by which time Pen had acquired a degree of independence from his father, RB would have returned to Italy to live.
RB’s last extant letter to Isa was written on 1 November 1872. Near the beginning of 1873, she became gravely ill, experiencing severe abdominal pain. Peritonitis set in, and on 18 January, a doctor pronounced the case hopeless. Isa died at Bellosguardo in the early morning of 20 January 1873. Linda Mazini, reporting Isa’s death to a friend the next day, wrote: “She passed away in my arms surrounded by a few of her oldest friends” (letter to Jane Maria Strachey, ms at India Office). Based upon contemporary correspondence, among these friends would have undoubtedly been her cousins Annette Frascheri and Willy Bracken, as well as Mary Bracken and Annie Egerton Smith who were in Florence at this time (see letter from Sarianna Browning to Annie Egerton Smith, 13 January , ms at ABL).
In a letter to RB dated Florence, 27 January, William Bracken conveyed what he had learned of Isa’s death subsequent to arriving from Cannes several days after the event. He also brought up the disposition of her correspondence: “I have taken upon myself the responsibility of destroying her vast quantities of preserved correspondence … But in regard to your letters, whatever found I have thought it right to retain—also some of your poor wife’s to Isa—and then await your instructions. God willing, I shall be in London in early midsummer … & be the bearer of them myself to your house.”
A collection of Isa’s Poems, introduced with a memoir and edited by Alfred Austin, was published in the year of her death by William Blackwood and Sons. The manuscripts of the poems had been gathered by Linda Mazini who asked Austin to make a selection from them and supply an introduction. She also organized a subscription for the publication, which she hoped RB would join. His response was to the point: “I will be no party to the association of a dearly-loved name with that of Mr Alfred Austin. When the book is perpetrated,—I may buy it, and, by help of penknife and ink-blotting, purify and render it fit to be read—for so I understand the ‘mark of friendship’ you expect of me” (5 June 1873). RB was much annoyed when he learned that Austin’s memoir of Isa claimed that she had nursed EBB during her last days.
Many years later, in her Life (1894), Frances Cobbe wrote of Isa and of the last time she spoke with RB: “I referred to those old days and to our friend, long laid in that Campo Santo at Florence. His voice fell and softened, and he said: ‘Ah, poor, dear Isa!’ with deep feeling” (II, 15).