Joseph Milsand

Joseph Antoine Milsand (1817–86)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 17, 251–264.

French Critic, Philosopher, Protestant theologian, and the great friend of Robert Browning’s middle and late years, Joseph Milsand was born on 23 February 1817 in Dijon, France. He was the eldest of two children, both sons, of Jean Joseph Milsand (1775–1833), a pharmacist, and his wife Claire Hélène (née Gillotte, 1781–1864). The Milsands lived in the centre of Dijon at 38 Rue des Forges, a sixteenth-century house with an elaborate façade designed by the architect Hugues Sambin (ca. 1520–1601).

It has been suggested by earlier commentators that the Milsands were of English descent. But according to authors E. Collard and Martine Chauney, the Milsands are an old Burgundian family, and their name derives from “Mélissande,” a medieval French Christian name (see “L’ascendence bourguignonne de Joseph Milsand,” Annales de Bourgogne, 48, 1976, pp. 166–168). Joseph Milsand’s great-great-grandfather was a silversmith in Chalon-sur Saône. At some point one of his sons, Jean Baptiste (1704?–82), went to Dijon where he studied to become an apothecary, taking his last examination in 1731. A year later he is listed on the city’s tax rolls. One of his sons, Louis Antoine, entered the same profession, as did the latter’s eldest son, the philosopher’s father. But Joseph did not follow in his father’s footsteps (nor did his younger brother Philibert).

The intelligence and talent that led Milsand down a more artistic path is well documented. At the age of eleven, he began his formal education at the local lycée (then known as the Collége Royal), a six-year school where he excelled in Greek, Latin, history, philosophy, and rhetoric, winning many firsts for his compositions in these subjects. He graduated bachelor of letters in August 1834. From November 1835 through January he attended lectures at the Faculté de Droit in Paris, the law school of the time. But there is no evidence that he pursued a legal career thereafter. He hoped, rather, to become an artist and to that end enrolled in the École des Beaux Arts in Dijon. As a student there, he won a prize in painting that enabled him to travel to Italy at the end of 1838 for a year of study. He spent most of his time in the major centres of art: Florence, Venice, and especially Rome, where he met the Irish artist William Henry Darley (1798–1857), with whom he developed a close friendship despite the difference in ages.

Milsand’s career as a painter never developed. He had to discontinue his studies, he told a prospective employer, because of “the weakness of my sight” (author’s draft, [ca. 1840]).* With his return to Paris towards the end of 1839, he began writing for the Journal des Artistes, probably through the influence of his friend Auguste Bourjot (1815–42) who was a regular contributor. Drawing upon his Italian experiences, his first contribution was a two-part article, appearing in the 12 and 19 January 1840 issues, on the painters Jean Ingres and Johann Friedrich Overbeck, both of whom lived many years in Rome and were there at the time of Milsand’s trip to Italy. This was followed a few months later by a three-part article entitled “Quelques mots sur Michelange.” These pieces were published under the anagrammatic pseudonym of Antoine Dilmans, which he used until he began writing for the Revue des Deux Mondes in 1849. On 10 July 1840 his “Impressions douloureuses d’un voyage en Italie,” a droll account of his journey to Venice, was published anonymously in Le Cabinet de Lecture. It reappeared in book form under his name in 1887.


* Unless otherwise noted, all manuscripts are at the Armstrong Browning Library, Joseph Milsand Archive, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.


In the summer of 1840, Milsand was in England staying with a family in Haverhill, on the border of Essex and Suffolk, as a tutor of French and Italian to the children of an Anglican minister. He had advertised for such a position, and that of watercolor drawing instructor, in The Times of 8 July 1840. In a letter to his friend Robert Russell, a member of that newspaper’s staff, Milsand had explained: “My main object in coming to London would be to make up some money with which to publish some nonsense of mine which to water I would not press out the blood of my family’s purse” (author’s copy, 2 May [1840]). His first venture in this regard was a novel, Bianca Téobaldi, mours italienne, issued in Paris in 1842. The year before, in a letter of 10 November, he had told Bourjot of trying to find a publisher for Bianca and two shorter novels: La fille du tavernier and Une famille anglaise. The latter ran as a feuilleton in the Paris newspaper La Patrie from January to February 1846. Publication of La fille du tavernier has not been traced. Another novel, Les Amours à la mode, was published at Paris in two volumes in 1845.

Milsand’s fiction brought neither recognition nor income, so he gave it up. He continued to write art criticism: his series of thirteen articles on the Paris Salon of 1846 ran in La Patrie from March to May of that year. But Milsand had also been for some time developing a serious interest in English literature. In 1843 he published a French translation of a short story by Anna Maria Hall and the following year a translation of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last of the Barons. Then in 1846 his lengthy critical study of Thomas Carlyle appeared in the Revue Independante for 25 September 1846. Carlyle, having been sent the article by Robert Russell, wrote a warm encouraging letter to Milsand: “I have read the Criticism with attention; have found it indeed to merit much more attention than such things usually do. It is evidently the production of an earnest, ingenuous, ardent and true-hearted man” (24 December 1846, Carlyle, 21, 119). The next year Milsand published, in the same periodical, articles on the poet George Darley (10 February 1847), W.H. Darley’s elder brother, and on Charles Dickens (25 March 1847). That same year, he worked briefly as the Paris correspondent for The Illustrated London News, sending in dispatches from August to November on politics and culture. Two years later, he began writing for Revue des Deux Mondes. Edited by François Buloz, it was then the most respected literary journal on the Continent. Beginning with a short review of Robert Montgomery’s volume of religious poems, The Christian Life, in the issue of 1 March 1849 and ending in September 1875 with an article on positivism, Milsand’s association with the Revue lasted over twenty-five years. In his first four years with the journal, he published eleven substantive articles, including review essays on RB’s and EBB’s works, as well as several other articles on current English literature. He also wrote three pieces on religious themes: a two-part article on the Quakers and one entitled “L’Anti-Christianisme de Proudhon.”

In 1846 Milsand’s mother acquired an estate at Morey (now Morey-Saint-Denis) south of Dijon in one of the great wine-producing regions of Burgundy. In a letter to W.H. Darley, dated 13 October [1848], Milsand described the property and his new responsibilities: “We have, for 2 years, possessed an estate which produces very good wines. … I had to supervise the grape-harvest and the manufacture of the wine. I hit there my martyrdom. I know nothing worse than to be obliged to command people who know about something longer than you, and to make every moment decisions concerning matters about which one has no experience.” The excellence of the wine from the Milsands’ vineyards was later remarked upon by such friends as Anne Thackeray Ritchie and William James.

In the late spring of 1852, Milsand travelled a second time to Italy, revisiting Rome and Florence. He returned to France by October, and we speculate that it was about this time he met his future wife, Laure Thérèse Henry (1826–96), daughter of Jacques Pierre Henry and his wife Louise Adélaïde (née Tabour). Milsand and Laure had a daughter, Claire Thérèse Milsand (afterwards Blanc-Milsand, 1853–1934), born on 4 December 1853, but they did not marry until 1865. RB explained to Isa Blagden in a letter of 19 April 1865: “Milsand is going to be married—a long engagement, twelve years old, which could not be carried out, because his mother refused her consent, through some religious scruple” (ms at ABL). Mme. Milsand, who had not reconciled herself to her son’s renunciation of Catholicism, did not want him to marry outside the church. In a letter to Laure, Milsand indicates that his mother had met Claire and was fond of her but that she was highly agitated to learn of the girl’s being raised a Protestant (6 April 1863). Laure had followed her husband into Protestantism and was a writer herself, publishing articles on Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots in La Femme in 1884. In a letter to Pen, RB referred to her as “thoroughly good & kind, besides being very clever” (5 November 1877). Through the 1850’s Milsand and Laure lived in Paris in Rue Servandoni near the Jardin du Luxembourg. In late 1864 they relocated to Rue Perronet in Neuilly, a near northwest suburb of Paris, where they remained until Milsand’s death. Claire was educated chiefly by her father, who taught her Latin as well as English. Their letters to each other, with few exceptions, are written in English. Even on the day of her wedding, Claire was obliged to perform her customary Latin exercise. She married on 21 March 1876 Henri Blanc (1839–87), a scholarly French Protestant minister who added the name Milsand to his.

Into the 1870’s Milsand’s critical work remained primarily on English thought and culture. On 15 September 1856 he published a review of RB’s Men and Women. Though it had been intended for Revue des Deux Mondes, Buloz kept delaying its appearance until finally Milsand gave it to the Revue Contemporaine. In the Revue des Deux Mondes of 1 July 1860, he published the first of two articles on John Ruskin, “Une nouvelle théorie de l’art angleterre,” which dealt with the ideas expressed in such works as The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice. The second article, published on 15 August 1861, was entitled “De l’influence litteraire dans les beaux-arts,” a study of Ruskin’s ideas on painting as expressed in Modern Painters. These articles, to which Milsand added new material and an introduction, were issued as L’Esthétique anglaise in 1864, his first book. It elicited a letter from Ruskin thanking the author for the praise, as well as the criticism: “I entirely feel the truth of the greater part of what you say respecting my failures: more especially in having attributed far too much historical and representative,—far too little decorative and ideal power to the higher conditions of art” (12 February 1865). Milsand followed up his Ruskin articles with a review on 15 August 1862 of a little-known philosophical work entitled Gravenhurst, or Thoughts on Good and Evil by William Henry Smith, a frequent contributor to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine who had recently written a favorable notice of EBB’s Last Poems. Milsand’s article, Un philosophe poète anglaise, later collected by his daughter in Littérature Anglaise et Philosophie (Dijon, 1893), is referred to in the DNB as “a thorough description and analysis of Smith’s philosophy.” Milsand’s last article with an English focus, “L’Angleterre et les nouveaus courants de la vie anglaise,” was published in Revue des Deux Mondes on 15 September 1874.

From the late 1870’s until his death, Milsand directed himself to philosophical and theological issues. His principal motivation during this period was the promotion of Protestantism over Catholicism. He had been raised Roman Catholic and certainly considered himself one in July 1840 when he drafted a letter to a prospective employer, explaining that he could not “attend the [Protestant] morning service” with his pupils: “I am Catholic Sir so I cannot turn a protestant.” Sometime in the late 1840’s, however, he did just that. According to François Pillon, Milsand had been led to Protestantism, “through his meditations on moral, social and religious issues” (La Critique Philosophique, 30 September 1886). Henri Blanc-Milsand felt that his father-in-law had “invented his own Protestantism” (Le Signal, 25 September 1886). As early as 1872, Milsand had called on Protestants to “save France from false judgments and evil wills”; that is, from Catholicism (see “Le protestantism et sa mission politique dans la crise actuelle,” Revue Chrétienne, 1872, pp. 321–346). He explained his position in a January 1878 letter to Sarianna Browning: “I see everywhere disastrous consequences, not just from Catholicism but from the temperament which it gives to minds … and I believe that only the Protestants are the group which could cure minds of the wrong philosophy which Catholicism has maintained in them. … Unfortunately, Protestants … are provincials. It will have to do with returning to them the spirit of government, comprehensive views … of embracing the community in a global vision, of pursuing the reorganization of a community. … It is to that which I would contribute as much as possible.” During the next seven years Milsand was published primarily in four journals: La Critique Philosophique, founded and edited by Charles Renouvier with the collaboration of François Pillon; La Critique Religieuse, a quarterly supplement to Critique Philosophique; Le Témoignage, the French Lutheran organ; and Le Signal, founded and edited by Eugène Réveillaud, a former priest turned Protestant with strong anti-Catholic views. The most significant of Milsand’s work in this period was “Luther et le serf-arbitre,” which ran as a three-part article in La Critique Religieuse between July 1883 and January 1884, appearing later that year in book form under the same title. Through his association with Renouvier and Pillon, Milsand made the acquaintance of the American philosopher, William James. In a letter to his wife of 7 March 1883, James reported that he had been “out to Neuilly to dine with the delicious old Milsand … and you ought to have heard me jabber under the influence of the Chanbetin [sic, for Chambertin], of which there were four bottles on the table, of different years, all grown on M’s own vineyard” (The Correspondence of William James, ed. I.K. Skrupskelis and E.M. Berkeley, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1992–2004, 5, 435). The memory was still fresh in his mind when James wrote Milsand in February 1885: “The taste of your grape-juice lingers still in my mouth” (Correspondence of William James, 6, 8). After reading some of Milsand’s “Luther,” James told his friend Pillon: “I read only one part of M Milsand, and want to read the whole of it. He is undoubtedly a man of genius with an insight into the deepest relations of things” (extract, in Milsand’s hand, [?March 1884]).

In 1886 Milsand’s health began to fail. In a letter of 2 June to Claire, he complained that he had “a bad month: more weakness than formerly; and constant pain in the back.” His physician had dissuaded him from making his annual visit to England. By the end of August, he and Laure were in their country house at Villers-la-Faye, a village not far south of Morey. In letters to Claire up until 2 September, Milsand spoke of improved health. But he died suddenly on 4 September. His son-in-law presided at the burial which took place at Villers-la-Faye. Among the obituaries that appeared after his death were those by F.J. Furnivall (The Academy, 11 September), Henri Blanc-Milsand (Le Signal, 25 September), and François Pillon (La Critique Philosophique, 30 September). The last included the following paragraph:


Milsand was an original and deep mind, a strong will, a good and big heart. His conversation, which I had been given to enjoy often enough, was singularly interesting and evocative. His feelings were sharp; they were manifested with an attractive spontaneity and simplicity; and at the same time showed through the straightforward consciousness that made the unity in this nature. His word, always sincere, was sometimes aggressive against the ideas he estimated as wrong, but the passion that he showed remained intellectual and disinterested: no conceit was to be felt in it. No one more than he had the desire to be equitable in his judgments. No one was more attached to his friends.


Joseph Milsand first came to the Brownings’ attention with the publication of his review of RB’s Poems (1849) and Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day (1850) in the 15 August 1851 issue of Revue des Deux Mondes. EBB was delighted with the piece. In letter 2973 she declares: “It is very ably and conscientiously written, & the most satisfactory review I ever met with on the subject.” The value RB placed on this review was still evident many years afterwards. In More Books on the Table (1923), Edmund Gosse recalled: “One morning in the early ’eighties … I found a very quiet elderly French gentleman seated with the poet in the breakfast-room at Warwick Crescent. Browning presented me to him with his usual effusion, adding, ‘This is Joseph Milsand, my earliest interpreter and my best’” (p. 361).

Through mutual friends, the Corkrans, Milsand heard that the Brownings were in Paris and asked to be introduced. The poets invited him to their apartment in Avenue des Champs Élysées for the evening of 4 December 1851, two days after Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état and the day of the bloodiest fighting. When Milsand failed to appear, EBB hoped that “he was’nt shot on the road” (letter 2979). The invitation remained open, however, and about a week later the Brownings and Milsand met. EBB conveyed her first impression of him to her sister Arabella: “I think he is a very earnest & thoughtful writer. For the rest, a little man, young, & agreeable, though not brilliant– We have begged him to come & see us whenever he likes to do so” (letter 2982).

The acquaintance quickly blossomed into a friendship the following month when Milsand displayed a sensitivity that was affecting to both Brownings. He had been assigned to write a review of EBB’s poetry for Revue des Deux Mondes. Buloz, the journal’s editor, insisted that Milsand incorporate any biographical information that was already available to the British public. Meanwhile, Mary Russell Mitford’s Recollections of a Literary Life was published at the beginning of 1852 and featured a section on EBB that included an account of the death of her brother Edward (“Bro”) who had drowned near Torquay in the summer of 1840. The subject had always been emotionally disturbing to EBB, and she felt betrayed by the disclosure of such personal details. Milsand considered himself obligated to quote from this material but, as RB reported to John Kenyon, had scruples about doing so: “I had a visit last night from M. Milsand … whom I already discover, in the two evenings he has spent here, to be also one of the finest, gentlest & trust-worthiest of men. … He was now in this dilemma,—to displease the Editor … or Ba” (letter 2994).

Milsand’s review of EBB’s Poems (1850) and Casa Guidi Windows (1851) appeared on 15 January 1852. The manuscript of the review clearly shows that he had included direct references to Bro’s death. However, doubtless owing to the visit to RB, they did not appear in print. (Two pages of Milsand’s manuscript are reproduced facing p. 241.) EBB wrote to Milsand on 16 January, thanking him for his treatment of the biographical passages in Miss Mitford’s book: “Your consideration deeply touched me, & him [RB] for my sake,—and we both feel that, having shown us so much of your nature & mind, it will be almost ungenerous of you if you will not complete the obligation by becoming our friend in the good warm sense of that word, .. the true, enduring sense of it” (letter 2996).

By March, Milsand had begun paying regular visits to the Brownings, and their estimation of him rose the more they saw of him. On 5 March EBB wrote to Arabella: “Did I tell you, I wonder, that M. Milsand always spends tuesday evening with us? … Robert & I really love him—there’s no other word for it. … I would let him marry you” (ms at Berg). The Brownings enjoyed Milsand’s company until sometime in April when he left for Dijon. Before leaving he introduced RB to Buloz and both poets to his close friend W.H. Darley.

The first known letter from Milsand to RB was written at the end of April 1852: “Unfortunately, it is all done with our Tuesday chats: but they have left me a memory of satisfaction, and a friendship the greater which from a distance as from near rejoices my soul” (author’s draft). It soon became apparent to EBB that Milsand had become RB’s particular friend. In a letter to Arabella, EBB wrote that she and RB had been invited out “to hear Charlotte Cushman read, .. and, as Robert’s Milsand is to be there, though it is our last night I believe we shall try to go” ([22 October 1852], ms at Berg). Over the next three years, the Brownings and Milsand corresponded, albeit infrequently. In a 24 February 1853 letter, RB had a chance to return the encouragement he had received. An article by Milsand, “L’Anti-Christianisme de Proudhon,” had appeared in the 15 December 1852 issue of Revue des Deux Mondes. Evidently, the author had some misgivings about its clarity. RB brushed these aside: “In what is it ‘obscure’? Strong, condensed, and direct it is—and, no doubt, the common readers of easy writing feel as oppressed by twenty pages of such masculine stuff, as the habitual sippers of eau sucrée would at the proffer of a real consommé.” In the same letter RB announced his plans for the new work that would become Men and Women (1855): “I am writing a sort of first step toward popularity—(for me!)—‘Lyrics,’ with more music & painting than before, so as to get people to hear and see .. something to follow, if I can compass it.”

During the Brownings’ 1855 summer visit to London, RB was preparing Men and Women for the press. On 9 September he sent Milsand proofsheets of the first volume in order to help him in writing a review for Revue des Deux Mondes. Milsand responded about a week later: “You are so powerfully endowed for giving us the great, mysterious creations which astonish us … which transport us into unknown regions … which raise us to our best, which open to us I don’t know how many infinities, which transport us into the world of pure ideas, into spaces where everything is colossal—mysterious” (author’s draft, [mid-September 1855]). Milsand wrote to W.H. Darley of RB’s poems, which he called “kinds of dramatic monologues where he presents imaginary characters in order to reveal what he sees in human nature” (23 [September 1855]).

The Brownings returned to Paris in October 1855 and over the next six months saw a lot of their French friend. EBB told Arabella on 22 November that “M. Milsand often comes to tea” (ms with GM-B). In a 1 February 1856 letter to John Ruskin, thanking him for a presentation copy of the third volume of Modern Painters, RB declared his intention to lend it “to one of the noblest of minds & men, Milsand” (ms at ABL). As previously mentioned, the latter’s review of Men and Women appeared on 15 September 1856, not in Buloz’s journal but in Revue Contemporaine. The Brownings, in England since the beginning of summer, were very pleased with it. EBB wrote to RB’s sister Sarianna on 6 October: “We are delighted with dear M. Milsand’s article. What profound justice he does to Robert! justice, not only after my judgement but after my heart & instincts” (ms at Lilly). RB wrote the next day with a great outpouring of feeling: “I have your criticism … I am happier, and, in a good sense, prouder to have drawn out such a declaration from you than of any effect of a kind at all comparable to it, ever produced by anything of mine. … Your confirmation must have great influence on what I yet hope to do– I shall always have it in my thoughts.” On their way back to Italy later that month, the Brownings met Milsand at the train station in Dijon, and, as EBB points out to her brother George, RB “had the embrace & double kiss all to himself” ([27 October 1856], ms at Morgan).

In December of the following year, EBB was approached by Edward Riou for permission to translate Aurora Leigh into French. The Brownings consulted Milsand, who volunteered to act as Riou’s supervisor. In a letter dated 31 January 1858, RB gave Milsand all rights over the translation and added: “Succeed the version or fail,—we are wholly bound to you who have done your utmost for us.” No French translation of Aurora Leigh for this period has been traced, however, nor is this project alluded to again in the Brownings’ correspondence.

In July of 1858, the Brownings travelled to the French seaport of Le Hâvre for their summer holiday. Milsand joined them there for ten days in August. RB wrote to him the next month: “For me, your visit was entirely and unqualifiedly delightful & precious—I believe you must feel that” (15 September 1858). That was the last time Milsand saw EBB, and he did not see RB again until after her death. Other than a letter written the following month, there is no further extant correspondence from RB to Milsand until 1872. And there is only one extant letter from Milsand to RB between October 1855 and November 1871. The letters from Milsand that were retained by the Brownings and passed down to Pen sold at the 1913 Browning sale as lot 256, which was purchased by Dobell and later acquired by W.H. Schofield, professor of comparative literature at Harvard. Upon Schofield’s death in 1920, the letters were left to his widow. She was unable to find them, however, when C.R. Tracy asked to see them while working on his doctoral thesis, “Browning and Contemporary Rationalism” (Yale, 1935). Attempts by the editors to trace these letters through the Schofields’ descendents have been unsuccessful. Except for one 1877 letter, Milsand’s side of the correspondence consists solely of author’s drafts, all of which are now at ABL/JMA.

At the end of 1859 Milsand’s translation of EBB’s “A Tale of Villafranca” appeared as “Un Récit de Villafranca” in several French newspapers, including L’Union Bourguignonne, a Dijon daily. In a February 1860 letter to Sarianna, EBB wrote: “I have a heart full of thanks to dear M. Milsand … for the more than justice he has done my ‘Villafranca.’ … How happy it would be for Robert & me if he [Milsand] had nothing to do in the world but to translate us into French” (ms at BL). Her admiration of Milsand notwithstanding, EBB found herself at odds with him on more than one subject. Referring to his opinion of George Sand, one of EBB’s demigods, she had earlier observed to Arabella: “He cant tolerate certain errors of conduct .. the want of self-controul, he sets down as weakness, & despises accordingly” ([5 March 1852], ms at Berg).

Another area of disagreement concerned their relative estimations of Anglo-Saxons. The Frenchman maintained that they represented the superior race among Europeans; the Englishwoman felt otherwise. In the letter to Sarianna just cited, EBB complained about people who have misled her and declared: “I am nearly sick of such specimens of dear M. Milsand’s noble ‘Anglo-Saxon race.’” After reading the first of the two aforementioned studies of John Ruskin, “Une Nouvelle théorie de l’art,” which appeared on 1 July 1860, EBB wrote Sarianna: “Robert & I had fallen violently on Milsand’s article in the ‘Deux Mondes’ before you mentioned it. … Very clever, very pregnant writing——but tell him with my love (beg him to forgive me for saying it) that never is he more French than in carrying out his system of the ‘races.’ … With regard to the so-called ‘individuality’ of Englishmen .. you find more of the characteristic among Englishmen abroad, because they are generally in revolt & reaction, & removed from their special public—but at Rome!– If he could live in our Societies, & observe our Mrs. Grundyism, he would think otherwise. As to literature & art, individuality means just genius,—& our men of genius may be counted on our fingers– The rest are mere sheep.– No, it will not do” ([ca. 15 August 1860], ms at Lilly).

After EBB’s death on 29 June 1861 and RB’s subsequent removal to London that autumn, he and Milsand began seeing each other with greater frequency. Through 1885 they spent time together every year except 1867. In the early 1860’s RB made annual visits to his father and sister in Paris and while there saw much of Milsand. His presence proved to be a great comfort to RB at the time of his father’s death on 14 June 1866. The next day, RB wrote to Pen: “Milsand has been doing everything for us: but you know him” ([15 June 1866], ms at BL). The latter apprised his brother Philibert of the melancholy events a short time later: “I have had a sad fortnight: I saw poor Mr. Browning die, who was killed by a hemorrhage of the bladder. He lost almost 3 liters of blood in one day. … He retained all his faculties, all his sweetness. And all his serenity.– He died as did my poor mother with a deep faith. Last Saturday we conveyed him to the cemetery” ([ca. 21 June 1866]).

In a March 1862 letter, RB suggested to his publisher Frederic Chapman that he publish a selection of the articles Milsand had contributed to French periodicals. RB enclosed a list of eleven such articles, along with the journal each appeared in, date of publication, and page length. The list included the pieces on Ruskin and the review of Men and Women. Although Chapman was evidently unresponsive, RB prodded him again in February 1863: “Don’t forget what I proposed to you about M. Milsand’s book: I have the highest (literally highest) opinion of his essays and should be glad to see them in English.” That same year, the revised edition of RB’s Sordello was issued by Chapman with a dedication to Milsand, the first part of which reads: “Dear Friend,—Let the next poem be introduced by your name, and so repay all trouble it ever cost me.” In the 1868 edition of RB’s works the following clause was inserted after “name”: “therefore remembered along with one of the deepest of my affections.”

Beginning in 1866, Milsand made eighteen visits, usually of a month’s duration, to RB’s home at 19 Warwick Crescent. On the first of these visits, Milsand reported to Philibert: “I cannot give you a notion of how I am treated by the Brownings. Robert wanted to give me his own bedroom: and I could not refuse. His sister and his son, like him, had no thought but to make my life easy. They are always available and I do what I want” (31 October [1866]). About a fortnight later, Milsand wrote to his wife Laure and described the many notable people he had been meeting. They included Matthew Arnold, whom Milsand had been introduced to by RB the year before in Paris; John Ruskin, whom Milsand found “very agreeable, but evidently of an unhealthy nature”; and Lady William Russell, “the flower of the aristocracy, a woman of 70 years, who speaks French better than I” (12 November 1866). Writing to his brother the same day, Milsand declared: “It must be said that I am seeing England under the best auspices. The name of Browning, who introduces me as his best friend, opens every door.”

In addition to the London and Paris meetings, RB spent three of his yearly summer holidays near Milsand at St. Aubin-sur-Mer in Normandy. During the first of these, RB wrote Isa Blagden: “Milsand lives in a cottage with a nice bit of garden, two steps off, and we occupy another of the most primitive kind on the sea-shore” (19 August 1870, ms at BL). Meanwhile, the Franco-Prussian war had begun in the first week of August, and reports were coming in of Prussian victories and French defeats. The news was especially hard for Milsand. RB wrote again to Miss Blagden a month later: “I daresay you have written to me in London, as I bade you: it seemed likely we should be there by this time—but the leaving Milsand was too hard,—his house is outside the fortifications in Paris, emptied of its furniture, & waiting the bombs: his other place in Dijon is probably over-run by the enemy by this time, so he stays here” (19 September 1870, ms at ABL). RB and Sarianna remained six more days before the situation grew ominous enough that Milsand advised them to leave the country. He told his brother Philibert: “Yesterday we received the telegram announcing that all hope for a settlement is lost, that the Prussians want Alsace and a part of Lorraine, that elections are postponed. Alas! Alas! Although I hoped for nothing. I anticipated that that will perhaps provoke desperate measures—and I have urged the Brownings to leave at once: I fear that there will be a decree issued prohibiting emigration … I think it wiser for my old friends to go. They leave this evening. Browning put his purse at my disposal. I would not wish him to be stripped of money, but I told him that, of what he has, I would accept 350 francs” (25 September [1870]). The war interfered with the Brownings’ plan to sail for England from Le Hâvre. In the end, they found passage aboard a cattle ship that took them from Honfleur to Southampton (see Orr, p. 278).

During that same holiday, Milsand provided RB with the subject of a new poem, Red Cotton Night-Cap Country (1873). In April 1870, a man had committed suicide by jumping from a tower on his estate at nearby Tailleville, some two and a half miles from St. Aubin. The relatives immediately contested the deceased’s will in court, but because of the war, the trial did not conclude until the summer of 1872. Many years later, RB described how he came to know of the whole affair: “I heard, first of all, the merest sketch of the story, on the spot: Milsand told me that the owner of the house had destroyed himself from remorse at having behaved unfilially to his mother: in a subsequent visit [1872] … he told me some other particulars … afterward he procured me the legal documents” (letter to J.T. Nettleship, 16 May 1888, transcript in editors’ file). RB devoted fifty-six lines of Red Cotton Night-Cap Country to Milsand, invoking him as a superior moral guide for the protagonist. The end of this passage reads: “O friend, who makest warm my wintry world, / And wise my heaven, if there we consort too?” (III, 781–782). “O friend” was altered to “Milsand” for the 1888–89 edition of RB’s works.

This was not the first time that RB’s writing was influenced by Milsand. According to Griffin and Minchin (later seconded by DeVane, p. 579), RB’s introductory essay in the 1852 edition of Shelley’s letters was indebted to Milsand’s aforementioned 1851 review of RB’s works for its main argument. “If Milsand’s article and Browning’s essay be compared, it is almost impossible to doubt that the latter was in some degree inspired by the former. … The theory of poetry which he [Milsand] shadowed forth was apprehended, amplified and defined by Browning” (The Life of Robert Browning, 1910, pp. 183–184). More significant, however, was the French critic’s influence on RB’s poetry. In his second response to proofsheets of Men and Women, Milsand wrote: “I always keep a desire which does not leave me: it is that of seeing some day your thoughts given directly, or at least given in a form which allows you the means to develop them; for I believe you have in you many things which could be understood, but which many readers will not conceive, unless you show them as one might say in the manner of orators” (author’s draft, [mid-October 1855]). In a letter to W.H. Darley on the same subject, Milsand commented: “I cannot, however, help thinking that he [RB] has not chosen his true terrain. … I think him wrong not to present his own personality … his own ideas should have especially been related more explicitly” (23 September 1855). William DeVane points out what for him is one of the main differences between Men and Women and Dramatis Personae, published nine years later: “In Dramatis Personae Browning speaks more often than before in his own proper person, and even when there is a character between us and Browning the dramatic disguise has worn thin” (DeVane, p. 280). Milsand himself may not have perceived this difference. Many years later he told Furnivall that RB had “over indulged himself, with something like a set-purpose of sticking exclusively to the dramatic form” (author’s copy of letter, 1 December 1881).

There is more concrete evidence of Milsand’s influence. According to Mrs. Orr, “Mr. Browning had so much confidence in M. Milsand’s linguistic powers that he invariably sent him his proof-sheets for final revision” (Orr, p. 176). As has been mentioned, the proofsheets of Men and Women were sent to Milsand for the purpose of giving him an early start on writing a review. The first recorded instance of RB’s sending him proof for the purpose of “revision” occurs in 1871 with Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau. Milsand writes in November: “For my part the style of your Hohenstiel seemed more artificial than that of Balaustion. … Now here are my annotations. If my brother had not been there, and if I didn’t fear keeping your proofs too long, I would have perhaps better clarified my impressions” (author’s draft). It is clear from the few annotations included in this draft that RB made changes as a result of his friend’s suggestions before publishing on 16 December 1871. The following year Milsand looked over proofsheets of Fifine at the Fair, and RB responded: “How inestimable your assistance has been. There is not one point to which you called attention which I was not thereby enabled to improve,—in some cases, essentially benefit. The punctuation was nearly as useful as the other more apparently important assistance. … I never hoped or dreamed I should find such an intelligence as yours at my service” (13 May 1872).

Milsand evidently saw next year’s Red Cotton Night-Cap Country in proof. In a letter dated 5 February [1873], Sarianna tells him that the “poem is finished and in the hands of Smith who is putting it in type. Of course you will be the first to read it.” When The Inn Album was being printed in February 1875, RB again sent proofsheets to Milsand and announced that he intended to adopt the French usages of colons and semi-colons: “Your way of punctuation … is different from ours– I don’t know why: we use :/ where you prefer ;/ but I have Frenchified myself in this respect for your sake” (9 February 1875). RB acknowledged his friend’s assistance on La Saisiaz and The Two Poets of Croisic in a letter of 7 April 1878: “Your corrections were, every one, eminently helpful as you will see by my having adopted very nearly all of them.” This represents the last recorded instance of Milsand’s direct involvement with RB’s works prior to their publication. But it is reasonable to assume that from 1871 to 1884 Milsand saw most of them in proof. We know, however, that he did not see Dramatic Idyls [First Series] before it was published. In his characteristic self-effacing way, he remarked to his daughter Claire: “He [RB] did not send me the proofs for some reason or other—and I like it as well—I don’t suppose I can be of great use” (25 March 1879).

On at least one occasion, RB repaid Milsand in kind for his copy-editing help. The latter had written an article in English, “Human Nature versus Physical Nature,” for placement with a London journal, and in the late summer of 1877 he sent it to RB, who wrote back: “It is an article which quite deserves being published … the style needs—I venture to think—a little correcting. … There are conventionalities in all styles,—and you, in a very few cases, make use of perfectly legitimate locutions, were the style a more familiar one,—but hardly admissible here. And, in other cases, I think a word or two may be found to give a clearer notion of the desired meaning than those you employ. I have marked all such,—for yourself to accept or reject” (11 September 1877). RB suggested that Milsand submit the piece to Alexander Strahan at The Contemporary Review. A few days later Milsand replied: “A word at once to thank you. … I saw all your kind willingness and all the trouble that you took upon yourself. For it is not easy to return health to the sick and legs to the lame” (14 September 1877). Milsand sent the article to the Contemporary, but it was not published.

The great extent to which Milsand was a part of RB’s life can be seen in his relationships with the poet’s son and sister. A few days after EBB’s death, RB referred to Milsand as “the person on whose help I shall count most presently: he will advise with me about Pen” (letter to Sarianna Browning, 5 July 1861, ms at Lilly). In 1877 Milsand took on the role of mediator between father and son. Pen had gone to Antwerp to study painting in 1874. During the summers and autumns he lived in the south of the country at Dinant, where he became romantically involved with the daughter of a local innkeeper. This attachment, which was strongly disapproved of by RB, led to a great deal of bitterness. Most of what is known of this conflict comes from Milsand’s correspondence with his daughter Claire. In a letter of 20 October 1877, he wrote of his conversation with Pen the day before: “The crisis has come. There is a love affair, a serious one I believe … he had just written to Robert to confess his earnest resolve to marry the girl … . This morning he came and communicated to me his father’s answer. It is full of grief, the marriage will break his heart.” Milsand told Sarianna the same day that during the course of a two-hour walk together, he had counselled Pen to “think of nothing but shaping a profession for himself,” that he owed it to his father. Rather than express an opinion about the relationship with the girl in Dinant, Milsand wished to remain neutral, explaining that he had been through similar difficulties: “I did not believe I could with a free conscience defer to the wishes of my mother: I simply deferred my marriage, and it is not for me to urge any man to break or keep pledges of which he is the sole judge.” He told Sarianna that he thought he could do “more good by simply exploiting every opportunity to moderate Pen, or make him cognizant of his faults.” Milsand renewed the subject in a letter to Claire on 21 December: “Pen has left Paris, and the storm has subsided. After a foolish letter of his, his father had made up his mind to give up all intercourse with him, and tell him henceforth to communicate only with an uncle of his [George Moulton-Barrett] … I hope I have been of some help—on his own side Pen had written a new letter, in which he confessed he had been wrong to send the former one.” The “storm” may have “subsided,” but it still threatened. Writing to Claire from Warwick Crescent on [22] April 1878, Milsand reported that Sarianna and RB were disappointed in Pen for persisting in his affair with the Dinant girl and for running up “extravagant expenses” such as treating her to “breakfast with champagne.” A few days later Milsand wrote again: “Pen has come yesterday, I hope I may be of some use to prevent unpleasant frictions. From a word he said he considers himself as ayant plié [having submitted], and is consequently displeased that his father should object to his going to Dinant.” In a letter to Claire, dated 21 April 1879, Milsand indicated that the affair was over.

In January 1882, Pen began spending the cold months of the year working and studying in Paris, and although he and Milsand met from time to time, it was not frequent. At one point the latter complained that Pen was “a dreadfully lazy fellow” after not seeing him for a month after a dinner party at the Milsands’ house (letter to Claire, 16 December 1882). Pen may have avoided the older man at times. Milsand could be severe in his judgment of character, as EBB had discovered long before in the case of George Sand. During Pen’s trials at Oxford, Milsand had described him to Philibert as “a spoiled child who likes his pleasure” (12 March 1870). Nevertheless, there seemed to be a genuine affection between the two. In 1882 Pen painted Milsand’s portrait in oil, and the result was one of his best works. The subject described the picture to Laure: “Pen has done my portrait—which seems to me extremely well executed. But I really don’t know what you will say of your man. … In my portrait I bear a strong resemblance to a drunken puritan, with the expression of a scared cat. Pay no attention to my metaphors, however, it looks very much like me I imagine” ([May 1882]).

Turning to Milsand’s relationship with Sarianna Browning, it should be noted that after 1861 she was present during all of the previously described London visits and meetings on the continent. Furthermore, she made five trips on her own to Paris and one to St. Aubin for the main purpose of seeing him. Certainly by 1861, when RB left Italy, she and Milsand had already formed their own friendship. They had met not long after she and RB, Sr. had moved to Paris in July 1852. EBB’s frequent mention of Milsand in her letters to Sarianna in the early 1850’s indicates that they were seeing each other fairly often. By June 1855, they had begun writing to one another. There are 143 extant letters from Sarianna to Milsand; 14 from him to her. Sarianna’s letters reveal an easy, teasing familiarity and contain numerous details and anecdotes about her brother. For instance, on 30 May 1862 she wrote:


Only fancy Robert the other night, returning home from a dinner party at a late hour, haranguing a mob of the lowest description on Paddington Green! Two men were lecturing in favour of Atheism, daring anyone to answer their arguments. Robt. stayed to listen, and then thought it was his duty to reply; he did so; and not only silenced his antagonists but came off with the honours of the field; for the crowd, who listened with the deepest attention, called out ‘very true! very good! you’re quite right.’ We were all much amused at his account of it next morning.


Through Sarianna, Milsand met and became friends with one of his own countryman, Gustave Dourlans (1841–99), a slightly neurotic young man with artistic aspirations who had studied to be an architect. Sarianna and RB had met him at Audierne in 1868, and within a year he was appearing regularly in the Milsand correspondence.

In the previously mentioned letter to Philibert, announcing the death of RB’s father, Milsand gave a clear indication of the extent of his friendship with Sarianna: “It goes without saying that I had scarcely left the Brownings and now I still spend a good part of my time with the lady [Sarianna] … she will soon leave Paris … it will create a terrible void for me.” Aside from minor differences of opinion, including the degree to which Sarianna should spoil Milsand’s grandchildren, the friendship never seemed to be seriously threatened.

In September 1879, Milsand’s daughter Claire gave birth to her second son, naming him Robert, after the poet. It has been reported that RB was the boy’s godfather. But we have found no recorded evidence of such a fact. A letter dated 7 August 1879 from Claire to her father, however, indicated that her husband’s brother, Gabriel Blanc, would stand as godfather. Still, RB was attached to his namesake, and at the beginning of 1883 sent him a silver cup engraved with the inscription: “Robert Blanc from Robert Browning.” Describing this gift in a note to his brother Philibert, Milsand wrote: “Browning … is smitten by the little Robert” (21 January 1883). In the spring of that same year, during Milsand’s visit, a photograph was taken of the two friends as they studied one of Pen’s paintings displayed on an easel. The photograph is reproduced at left.

In 1881 the Browning Society was formed in London, and Milsand was made an honorary vice-president of it and became a subscribing member that same year. He attended meetings through 1884 and evidently delivered brief addresses to the society on each occasion. His remarks at the 27 April 1883 meeting were recorded in Browning Society Papers: “Mons. J. Milsand thought that Browning’s love for life—or, as he might express it, his greediness for life—was the common source of the delight he took in analyzing villains, as well as any other sort of characters, and of what was called his optimism, which did not seem so theological as it was represented” (I, 72*).

There is little extant correspondence from the 1880’s between the two friends. Milsand wrote letters of thanks and praise for Jocoseria in 1883 and Ferishtah’s Fancies in 1884. These were the last of RB’s presentation copies to Milsand. Beginning with Dramatis Personae (1864), he received a copy of each of RB’s primary works. Other presentation copies included Sordello (1840); the 1865 Selection, published by Moxon; and the 1868, six-volume collected edition. All of these are inscribed by RB and are now at ABL/JMA or in private hands.

The French philosopher paid his last visit to Warwick Crescent in July 1885, being too unwell the following year to make the journey. In the late spring of 1886 Sarianna planned a stay in Paris to see her ailing friend, with her brother coming afterward to take her home, but she had also become ill. RB wrote three letters in June to Milsand, keeping him abreast of her health. In August, as RB later reported to various correspondents, the Brownings received a letter from Milsand in which he complained of “increasing bodily weakness.” Then, on 4 September, a telegram from Laure Milsand announced the death of her husband.

A few days later, Sarianna sent her condolences to Laure: “The beloved friend we have lost is beyond my praise—he did not suspect his own worth. It was for me a bitter disappointment this summer, to miss his visit to us, and not to be able to go and see him in Paris. But, if God wills, we shall see each other again in a better world” (9 September [1886]).

RB wrote the next day: “For us—as for you—the loss we feel is immeasurable and irreparable. Accept, dear Madam, my assurance that I will always associate you with the memory of the friend whom, in all my life, I most loved” (10 September 1886). RB dedicated his next work, Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day, to the memory of his friend and closed with a motto from Virgil: “Absens absentem auditque videtque” (“The absent one hears and sees him who is absent”).


National Endowment for the Humanities - Logo

Editorial work on The Brownings’ Correspondence is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This website was last updated on 2-07-2017.

Copyright © 2017 Wedgestone Press. All rights reserved.