Eliza Flower (1803–46) & Sarah Flower Adams (1805–48)
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 3, 311–312.
The Flower sisters’ influence on RB in his early life is a familiar topic. Both were considerably older than the poet—Eliza, born in 1803, by nine years; Sarah, born in 1805, by seven. Daughters of Benjamin and Eliza (née Gould) Flower, they lived at Dalston, north of London. Benjamin Flower, a printer and political writer, had attracted Eliza Gould’s attention through his strong advocacy of political and religious liberty, and had been visited by her while in prison for alleged libel. Their two daughters were small children when she died in 1810. Among the Flowers’ acquaintances was William Johnson Fox (q.v.)—a prominent preacher, political reformer, and writer. He became a kind of guardian to the sisters when their father died in 1829, though they were already in their mid-twenties. A while later, Eliza served as his housekeeper, helped with the care of his children, and assisted in his social and political work; as she was young, and unmarried, this unconventional arrangement attracted criticism and (so far as is known) unfounded gossip as to the nature of the relationship. It was through the Flower sisters that RB’s valuable acquaintance with Fox came about. Both young women were remarkably talented, and they received fine intellectual training from their father.
Eliza (“Lizzie”), the older of the two, is remembered especially as a musician and composer. She was an acquaintance of Harriet Martineau, who gave a thinly veiled description of her in the novel Five Years of Youth or Sense and Sentiment (1831). “Everything,” Martineau wrote, “suggested music to her.” Eliza produced musical settings for hymns written by her sister Sarah (including “Nearer, My God, to Thee”), settings for themes from Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels; song sequences in Fox’s Monthly Repository; and various ballads. Maynard (p. 429, n. 19) says: “Her major work as a composer was published as Hymns and Anthems (London, 1842).” Her abilities, intellect, and judgement were admired by such figures as John Forster, Leigh Hunt, William Charles Macready (q.v.), and John Stuart Mill.
Sarah (“Sally”), the younger sister, became a poetess and actress. We have noted her best-remembered work, “Nearer, My God, to Thee”—first sung by her and Eliza at Fox’s chapel. Her writings, other than religious works, mainly involved art and society. Her long dramatic poem Vivia Perpetua (1841) is described by Maynard (p. 184) as “rather similar in type” to RB’s earlier Paracelsus. Sarah, like Eliza, had materials published in Fox’s Monthly Repository. Friends acclaimed her readings from Shakespeare, and she engaged in some commercial acting at Richmond and Bath. She has been described, though, as too largely a creature of sentiment and emotion—subject even to hysterical breakdowns (Maynard, p. 183). In 1834, Sarah married William Bridges Adams (1797–1872). In early life he wrote for radical causes under the name Junius Redivivus, but his chief claim to fame is his 1847 invention of the “fish-joint” for rails on railways.
Despite some uncertainties, it is clear that the lives of the young RB and the Flower sisters were closely connected. Maynard (p. 186) calls them “very talented and cultivated young women friends who could communicate ideas and passion for music, literature, and art”; they encouraged him toward an “ideal of an exalted, spiritual, and enthusiastic kind of art” (p. 190). His presumed “puppy-love” attraction towards them, especially Eliza, induced speculation that Eliza was the inspiration for his Pauline (1833). During his early teens he sent her letters which, many years later (1871), he retrieved and destroyed. In a letter to R.H. Horne dated 3 December 1848 RB wrote: “I knew the Flowers when I was five or six years old,—earlier I do think …” He went on to mention a book of verses which he produced “perhaps at twelve or thirteen,” and which—through the Flower sisters—came to the attention of Fox. RB indicated that the verses had been lent to Eliza “by a friend [undoubtedly Miss Sturtevant—see letter 496] to whom I confided the volume,” and that some had been copied in an album. On the advice of Fox, RB burned the original set of poems—a volume which he had called “Incondita.” In 1871, he apparently retrieved and destroyed the copies which had been in Eliza’s possession. Still surviving, however, are two poems transcribed in Sarah’s hand—entitled “The First-Born of Egypt” and “The Dance of Death.” Her copies were sent to Fox on 31 May 1827 (see SD627). Since Sarah told Fox that they were extracted from “a whole book full,” they appear to have been taken from “Incondita” (see letter 579, n. 2). Sarah described these “gems” as products of “‘the boy’ Robert Browning æt. 14!!” Later in the same year, as related in her letter to Fox on 23 November (SD635), Sarah had a serious religious argument with RB. He apparently questioned traditional beliefs, and she found herself unable to answer him satisfactorily. This confrontation seemingly engendered a lapse in the close relationship between RB and the devout sisters. Ties were restored upon publication of Pauline (1833), but by then he was no longer their “poet boy,” and the relationship was not so close as before. Eliza did write a favourable comment on RB’s Strafford—to Sarah Fox, sister of William Johnson Fox—when it appeared in 1837 (SD820.1). Both Flower sisters died of tuberculosis while relatively young. Eliza’s death occurred in 1846 on the same day of the year—12 December—as that of RB 43 years later; Sarah’s death, like her birth, came about two years after Eliza’s, occurring on 14 August 1848.