Robert Browning, Sr. (1782-1866)
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 3, 307–309.
RB’s father, a bank clerk with an impressive array of literary and artistic interests, was born at Battersea on 6 July 1782. He was the son of still another Robert Browning, a worldly and ambitious man who rose to become a department head in the Bank of England, and of Margaret (née Tittle) Browning, who came from a successful family in the West Indies. Two years after his birth, the Brownings moved to Camberwell, eventual birthplace of RB the poet. RB, Sr. (as we henceforth call the poet’s father) was only seven years old when his mother died. The boy received a good classical education, partly through tutoring and encouragement by Reuben Browning, great-uncle of the poet. He also attended a school—that of the Rev. A. Bell at Cheshunt—where one of his companions was John Kenyon (q.v.), and where he was remembered for organizing mock Homeric battles. He became acquainted with Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, and Italian. At about age 20, RB, Sr. was sent to St. Kitts, in the West Indies. Awaiting him was a role in management of the plantation holdings of his mother’s family, and probably a substantial inheritance. However, he soon gave up whatever opportunities the West Indies may have held, and returned to London. RB the poet believed that his father’s main reason for leaving was abhorrence of the plantation slavery system and its cruelties. But a cousin of RB, Cyrus Mason, maintained that slavery was not primarily responsible—that West Indian plantation life in general simply did not suit the “artistic nature” and “refined instincts” of RB, Sr. (The Poet Robert Browning and his Kinsfolk, ed. W. Craig Turner, 1983, p. 63). He may, in fact, have received some money from Tittle family sources despite turning his back on the Indies. The youth wanted to devote himself to art (as his son the poet long afterwards told EBB in a letter of 26 August 1846). However, lacking paternal support for any such effort, he took a clerical position at the Bank of England, where he remained from 1803 until retirement. His father was infuriated by the rejection of a plantation career, so, when RB, Sr. came of age, he was called upon to repay all that had thus far been spent on him (Orr, p. 5). Also, his father eventually warned an uncle of RB, Sr.’s prospective bride against involvement with “a man so evidently born to be hanged” (RB to EBB, 26 August 1846). Tempers later cooled, and the older man wrote kindly of RB, Sr. in his will, prepared in 1819, though no sizeable legacy was left him. The father had remarried—to Jane Smith—five years after the death of Margaret Tittle Browning, and nine children resulted from this second marriage. RB, Sr.’s early relations with his stepmother had been unpleasant, but one of her nine children, another Reuben Browning, became the favourite half-uncle of RB the poet. RB, Sr., on 19 February 1811, married the lady whose family had been warned against him—Sarah Anna Wiedemann (q.v. as Sarah Anna Browning), mother of the poet. They lived modestly in Camberwell—where RB was born in 1812 and his sister, Sarianna (q.v.), in 1814. RB’s limited amount of formal schooling accounted for very little of his real education. While RB’s initial religious and musical education derived from his mother, his deeper understanding of these subjects, as well as art, can be clearly traced to the influence of his father and RB, Sr.’s extensive library. The latter’s qualifications along these lines were described by half-brother Reuben as follows:
His wonderful store of information might really be compared to an inexhaustible mine. It comprised not merely a thorough scholastic outline of the world, but the critical points of ancient and modern history, the lore of the Middle Ages, all political combinations of parties, their description and consequences; and especially the lives of the poets and painters … old books were his delight, and by his continual search after them he not only knew all the old book-stalls in London, but their contents, and if any scarce work were spoken of, he could tell forthwith where a copy of it could be had.... Thus his own library became his treasure.... and his memory was so good that not infrequently, when a conversation at his table had reference to any particular subject, has he quietly left the room and in the dark, from a thousand volumes in his library, brought two or three illustrations of the point under discussion. (See G & M, p. 8, and Reconstruction, J42.)
Though RB, Sr. never became a professional artist as he may have hoped, his unusual artistic talents are evidenced by the numerous sketchbooks, etc., catalogued in Reconstruction, Section J. He tirelessly produced grotesque sketches of human faces and figures, often accompanied by droll comments and narratives. These pursuits and enthusiasms—not banking—provided the focus of life for RB, Sr., and they were eagerly absorbed by his future-poet son. RB, Sr. willingly subscribed £100 towards the establishment—in 1828—of London University, so that RB could attend, and he received no refund when RB dropped out after a comparatively short time. Also, RB, Sr. subsidized the publication of Paracelsus, Sordello, and Bells and Pomegranates. Apparently he was not greatly upset by RB’s intention to follow no career other than poetry. Unlike Mr. Moulton-Barrett, the elder Browning knew of RB’s engagement to EBB, but he kept the secret and is said to have been delighted when he heard of the marriage (RB to EBB, 14 September 1846). Widowed in 1849, RB, Sr. greatly enjoyed the 1851 London visit of RB, EBB, and the new grandson. At about this same time, however, he was becoming romantically involved with an attractive widow—a Mrs. von Müller. This relationship soon led him into a trial for breach of promise and defamation of character, wherein RB, Sr. heard himself ridiculed by his own lawyer as a “poor old dotard in love” (The Times, 2 July 1852, p. 6). Damages of £800—well over twice his yearly salary—were assessed against him. To avoid payment he, accompanied by Sarianna, moved to Paris in July 1852. There he spent the rest of his life, happily sketching near the Seine and browsing among Parisian book-stalls. Once when he was in his eighties and was asked by RB about some detail of mediæval history, “he wrote,” said RB, “a regular bookful of notes and extracts thereabout” (RB to Isa Blagden, 19 May 1866). He died, in RB’s presence, on 14 June 1866, and was buried in the Cimetière du Nord, Paris (see Reconstruction, L39). In a letter to Isa Blagden dated 20 June 1866, RB wrote: “So passed away this good, unworldly, kind hearted, religious man, whose powers natural & acquired would have so easily made him a notable man, had he known what vanity or ambition or the love of money or social influence meant.”