Sarah Anna Browning (1772–1849)
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 3, 309–310.
The mother of RB was born at Sea-Gate House, Dundee, Scotland, on 13 June 1772, daughter of William and Sarah (née Revell) Wiedemann. The father, probably of Dutch ancestry, was a mariner. Details of the younger Sarah’s early life are sketchy, but church records place her in the London area by 1806, and it is likely that she was living in Camberwell with an uncle at the time of her marriage to RB, Sr. She had a sister, Christiana, who by 1804 was married to a Camberwell brewer, William Silverthorne. Christiana eventually subsidized the printing and advertising of her nephew RB’s Pauline (1833). Sarah Anna was 10 years older than her husband, RB, Sr., whom she married on 19 February 1811. Presumably, with RB Sr. absorbed in literary and artistic interests, she was dominant in household affairs. As mentioned elsewhere, the couple’s two children—RB and Sarianna—were born in 1812 and 1814 respectively. Biographers unanimously stress three great enthusiasms in the life of Mrs. Browning: (1) religion, (2) music, and (3) plants and animals. She joined the York Street Independent Chapel at Walworth in 1806 and continued for many years to attend services there. In My Browning Family Album (London, 1979, p. 29), RB’s cousin Vivienne Browning describes Sarah Anna as “leader of the [family’s] weekly procession to the Chapel.” Her religious inclinations and teachings exerted a strong and lasting influence upon RB. As late as 18 July 1887 he wrote to a friend, Emily Harris, on the subject of Bible stories: “Most beautiful they are, as you and I have every reason to know—who was taught them, from the beginning of my life almost, by my mother: I hear her voice now repeating … all and every available one … There is nothing comparable to them in the whole literature of the world,—nothing I continue to love more.” One can easily imagine how his mother felt about RB’s teenage flirtation with atheism, under the influence of Shelley’s poetry. Mrs. Browning was an accomplished pianist, and her love of music—like her religion—played a significant role in RB’s development (though the musical knowledge of RB, Sr. cannot be overlooked). Mutual interest in music formed a bond between Mrs. Browning and Eliza Flower (q.v.). Sarah Anna’s love of nature manifested itself in a feeling of kinship with animals that was likewise apparent in her son and grandson. Her gardens were much admired, and the one in Hatcham, where the Brownings lived during the RB-EBB courtship, provided many flowers for the poet’s future bride. In view of the fact that RB lived at home and was supported by his parents until well into adulthood, biographers have speculated about the relationship between mother and son. There is no doubt that RB was a devoted son, and his mother a loving and concerned parent, buying his clothes for him, sharing a good-night kiss when he was home, leaving her bedroom door ajar if he was out, so that she might be reassured by his return, at whatever hour. So close were the ties between them that, on occasion, they had “sympathetic” headaches. The mother’s frail health is often mentioned, yet she reached the age of 76—dying on 18 March 1849. News of her death cut short RB’s intense joy over the recent birth of a son (who bore her family name, Wiedemann, though he is now remembered as Pen). Mrs. Browning was buried in Nunhead Cemetery (grave 1307, square 79). Interred in the same vault nine years later was the body of Margaret Morris Browning, RB’s aunt. Burial places of seven other family members are nearby. In recent years Nunhead Cemetery has become derelict, and in 1982 the flat stone from Sarah Anna’s grave was transferred to the Browning Settlement, with plans to place it in the Browning Street Independent Church, near the site of the Chapel where she worshipped (the building frequented by the Brownings having been destroyed by fire in 1978). The present intention is to use the grave-stone to mark the exact spot where RB and Sarianna were baptized.