Sophia May Eckley (1823–74)
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 24, 241–252.
This wealthy American woman, whose brief but intimate friendship with EBB continues to attract scholarly interest, was born on 9 July 1823 in Boston, the fourth child and only daughter of Edward Francis Tuckerman, III (1775–1843) and his second wife, Sophia (née May, 1784–1870). In addition to three older brothers, there was a half-sister, Hannah Parkman Tuckerman (afterwards Mason, 1805–59), from her father’s previous marriage to Hannah (née Parkman, 1777–1814). Sophia Eckley descended from two distinguished Massachusetts families. On her maternal side, the Mays traced their ancestry to England, the original American ancestor, John May, having arrived in the New World in 1640. Members of the family served in the American Revolutionary War and were involved in business, shipping, manufacturing, and philanthropy. Several were temperance and anti-slavery activists; some were affiliated with Old South Church in Boston, where Rev. Joseph Eckley (the grandfather of Sophia’s future husband) served as minister from 1779 to 1811. Abigail May, a cousin of Sophia’s mother, became the wife of educator and transcendentalist Bronson Alcott, and their second daughter was the novelist Louisa May Alcott (1832–88). Sophia’s mother was the daughter of John May, a member of the patriotic group known as the Sons of Liberty and an active participant in the Boston Tea Party. His wife was a founder and director of the Boston Female Asylum, an orphanage for girls. On Sophia’s paternal side, the Tuckermans also originated in England. Two Tuckerman brothers left their native Devonshire about 1649 for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where their descendants fought in the American Revolutionary War and associated with the founders of the young nation; Sophia’s paternal grandfather was a business partner of Paul Revere. Her father, the richest of the Tuckermans, made his fortune through investments and established the first mutual savings bank in America.
Thus Sophia, her half-sister, and her three brothers were provided with a luxurious childhood and, after their father’s death, a substantial inheritance. All the Tuckerman children were ambitious and gifted. Among the sons, Edward, professor of botany at Amherst for nearly thirty years, was a recognized authority on North American lichens. The youngest, Frederick, just two years older than Sophia, gave up his law practice to devote himself to writing poetry, becoming an ardent protégé of Alfred Tennyson in 1855 after a three-day visit to his home on the Isle of Wight. Hannah, the half-sister, married Cyrus T. Mason, professor of political economy at New York University (then known as the University of the City of New York), and their only child, Edward Tuckerman Mason (1847–1911), became an author and critic who in 1883 edited Lyrical and Dramatic Poems: Selected from the Works of Robert Browning.
Sophia married David Eckley, Jr. (1820–95) on 12 January 1848. David, born 21 November 1820 in Boston, was the son of David Eckley (1786–1848) and his wife, Caroline Staunton (née Amory, 1798–1866). Both his mother and paternal grandmother, Sarah (née Jeffries), descended from successful, long-established merchant families of Massachusetts. David received his early education locally, then entered Yale in 1841, though he did not advance beyond his freshman year. In the 1850 U.S. census, David and Sophia Eckley were listed as residing in suburban Boston at Brookline with their one-year-old son, David Eckley, III (1849–81), born 24 April at nearby Roxbury. Brookline was also the birthplace of their second son, William Hickling Prescott (on 8 August 1851). Soon, however, the Eckleys moved back into Boston, where their infant son died on 31 March 1852. Afterwards, little is known of their whereabouts until 1855. By 21 November of that year, they were living in Florence in Via Valfonda, according to the subscription records of Vieusseux’s reading rooms. They remained in Europe, visiting Switzerland, Venice and Rome before returning in May 1857 to Florence, where they stayed at 4253 Piazza Santa Maria Novella Nuova.
In June 1857, the Eckleys took up residence at the summer resort of Bagni di Lucca, where they met the Brownings, probably before mid-August (see letter 4025). EBB and Sophia were immediately and deeply drawn to each other, as revealed in EBB’s first letter to her: “How can you write such things to me? You are too good to me, & too humble for yourself. Was I not interested, do you think, in all you said to me? … Let me be more & more affectionately yours” (letter 4040). And “more” she soon became. A month later she referred to Sophia as “one of the sweetest creatures I ever knew,—& pious & pure” (letter 4064). Less than a month after that, shortly before the Eckleys left Italy for a tour of Egypt and the Holy Land, EBB expressed her growing attachment in a brief note: “I write this line my dearest Sophia to tell you … that I love you & shall always love you, .. & that I thank God for all your pure loving kindness such as I have received out of your heart” (letter 4084).
This seemingly excessive fondness, bordering on infatuation, can be partly explained. EBB had lost, within the space of five months, three people very dear to her: John Kenyon, Mary Trepsack, and last and dearest of all, her father, with whom she never reconciled after her marriage. Then Sophia appeared, with much to commend her: beauty, happiness, wealth, and privilege. Sophia, too, had lost her father; she, too, had one eight-year-old son to spoil. And she threw herself at EBB’s feet: flattering the older woman (though the nature of the flattery is never explained), showering her with gifts, and exploiting her weakness for anything to do with spiritualism. EBB wanted desperately to communicate with family members who had died. What is probably the first mention of Sophia in EBB’s correspondence is in connection with “spiritual hands” (letter 4025). Writing of the “discerning of spirits” in letter 4051, EBB tells Sophia: “Dear, you interest me very much– Tell me more, more, as you know it,—for there is nothing to me of such grand &, at the same time, intimate significance, as this subject.” EBB believed Sophia was a medium, as indicated in a letter to her sister Arabella: “I know & love a most interesting woman who is a medium … only too timid, & afraid of being known as a medium” (letter 4064).
After Isa Blagden, Annette Bracken, and Robert Lytton, all of whom had been staying in a hotel opposite the Brownings’ house, left Bagni di Lucca and returned to Florence, EBB began seeing Sophia frequently. Drives together in the Eckleys’ carriage, tea-time visits, and excursions into the countryside offered many opportunities for sharing confidences. When Pen came down with gastric fever on 20 September, the number of such opportunities declined, but the illness gave Sophia the means to further endear herself to the boy’s mother. Meanwhile, Pen was becoming fast friends with young David (also known as “Doady”), and RB with the elder David. The latter two shared an adventure on 19 September that nearly cost RB his life. On an excursion to Gallicano, they had ridden ahead of their wives and children in order to scale a mountain, but an ill-chosen shortcut led to an unstable part of the mountain-side, where RB’s horse fell to the valley below, the rider saving himself by way of a tree branch (see letter 4054).
The Eckleys returned to Florence at the end of September, but before they did, EBB and Sophia may have experimented with a psychograph, an instrument for contacting spirits (see letter 4057). A precursor of the Ouija board, it involved the use of disks (see letter 3340, note 12). EBB wrote to Arabella of a spiritualist session with Sophia: “The spirits came the other evening in a strong wind (a very frequent mode) which first gutted the candle & then blew it out. … Robert believes in her truth absolutely. Not that he believes yet in the spirits” (letter 4064). Considering remarks RB would later make about Sophia, it seems doubtful that he believed anything she said: “I cried ‘poison’ at first sniff—and suffered more, from maintaining it, than from any incident in my whole life” (letter to Emelyn Story, 26 November 1863, ms at KS).
Not long after the Brownings’ return to Florence, EBB apologized to Sophia for being occupied on two successive evenings but asked her: “Come to me at least in the mornings when you can” (letter 4071). In order to talk about the spirits, the two women needed to be alone, a difficulty for EBB in Florence, where there were other friends and acquaintances, including her closest friend, Isa Blagden, who did not hide her dislike of Sophia.
On 25 October 1857 the Eckleys embarked from Leghorn for Egypt and the Holy Land. They had asked the Brownings to accompany them, but EBB declined, fearing for Pen’s health and her own. At the end of EBB’s first letter to Sophia after the Eckleys had sailed (letter 4092), she signed herself “Ba,” the pet name reserved for family and closest friends. She and Sophia did not meet again until the latter’s return from the Middle East in early May 1858. They then had only five weeks to see each other before the Eckleys left to spend the summer at Bagni di Lucca, but the brief period served to further intensify their friendship. Along with a parting note of goodbye on 11 June, which caused her to “write with such pain,” EBB sent a lock of her hair in a locket, asking Sophia “to let it hang among your more precious memorials at the end of that chain” (ms at Berg). This keepsake was prompted by a flurry of gifts from Sophia, including a travel bag, of which EBB wrote on 23 June: “My voyage-bag is in time to replace one given to me by my sister Henrietta soon after my marriage, & now dropping to pieces– This bag also is from a sister-- How I thank you, darling” (ms at Berg). EBB named this and the other gifts from Sophia in a letter to Arabella: “A broach, a ring, Damascus slippers, a rosary from the Holy Sepulchre, a travelling bag—Maltese collar, sleeves, &c. It has been overpowering” ([12 June 1858], ms at Berg). In addition to these presents, Sophia had earlier sent flowers from Palestine, which EBB acknowledged in a letter of mid-February 1858 (ms at Berg) and which she later placed in an album (see Reconstruction, H511). Another gift from Sophia (meant for a future presentation) was the portrait she had commissioned Michele Gordigiani to paint of EBB. Begun probably in June 1858, his first effort proved unsatisfactory, and he repainted it the following summer, at which time he painted RB’s portrait, also commissioned by Sophia. She would bequeath both portraits to Pen (see below).
The Brownings spent the summer of 1858 at the seaside in northern France. On the eve of their departure, EBB again referred to Sophia as a sister: “Love me, pray for me, you who are to be (it is settled) my ‘sister’ of the spiritual world .. sweet & precious then as now, there as here, & ever, here or there” (30 June , ms at Berg). EBB used the word “sister” many times in her correspondence with Sophia that summer. In a letter dated [19 August 1858], EBB called her “my tender-hearted dearly loved sister,” “darling friend!—my sister,” and “my sister Sophie” (ms at Berg). Evidently, during this same period, EBB received letters from Sophia that contained accounts of her communications with spirits. Responding to one such letter, EBB wrote: “The E may represent one very and ever dear to me” (13 July , ms at Berg). EBB probably had in mind her brother Edward (“Bro”), whom she never named in her correspondence after his death in July 1840. In this and later references, it is clear that Sophia attempted her “communicating” through automatic writing, as would EBB. The latter, however, found it less than reliable: “I dont think that the writing is satisfactory– If we could attain to writings without human agency (as has been done in Paris & elsewhere) we attain to proof– But it seems to me scarcely possible to be sure that the brain of the writing medium does not work inconsciously through his fingers” (15 September , ms at Berg).
After returning from France towards the end of October 1858, the Brownings made plans to winter in Rome for the sake of EBB’s health. The Eckleys decided to go as well and offered their friends a closed carriage with springs and cushions. The Brownings accepted but insisted on paying for the horses. EBB reported to Arabella that the Eckleys had tried to persuade the Brownings “to be brought to Rome without paying a sou—but as we were imperative on this head, the next thing was to push things into our hands at every turn—mine especially, I being more easy to deal with. As an instance, .. she brought in her bag a beautiful, I dare say most expensive pair of fur cuffs, to force upon my hands the moment she had an opportunity of saying ‘Your hands are cold.’ Heaps of things in the same way” ([25 November 1858], ms at Berg).
At Christmas in Rome the Eckleys continued their lavish generosity with presents for Pen, a bronze inkstand for RB, and an expensive cameo brooch for EBB from Sophia. The brooch was one of three she received at Christmas, and the only one she could accept “without absolute vexation” (EBB to Arabella, 24–25 December , ms at Berg). The same day, she complained to Sophia that it was “too much … to give– There’s excess dear, & extremity. … But I accept it out of your hand & for the love’s sake between us” (ms at Berg). With this and many other not-so-subtle hints, EBB tried in vain to stem the flow of gifts. An earlier, more direct approach had failed because of Sophia’s hurt reaction. Finally, however, there was one excessive present too many: “But now, dear dearest Sophie, let this be the very last thing of this kind that you overwhelm me with, because you give me pain. … I wont say any more” ([18 April 1859], ms at Berg).
In Rome, Sophia called on EBB nearly every day, and if the weather was nice enough, she would take EBB out in the Eckleys’ carriage. There must have been ample opportunity for the two women to experiment with automatic writing, though privacy was sometimes a problem. In a letter of February 1859, EBB worried that someone, might return to the Brownings’ apartment before she and Sophia could do a mysterious something: “Will not this be a cross upon our schemes? Because, you see, if we shut the door, there would be suspicions, & a revelation at the end” (ms at Berg). EBB’s concerns about the reliability of automatic writing may have led Sophia to invent aural evidence of spiritual communication. In a letter to Arabella of 30 April 1859, EBB wrote: “Sounds follow Sophia at church to the very communion table—so loud, that she is afraid of the congregation being disturbed– She thinks there must be another medium there which, doubling the power, makes them louder” (ms at Berg). Nevertheless, the automatic writing continued. In a note to Sophia of 13 May, EBB made a point of saying that she had “not ‘written’” (ms at Berg).
While EBB and Sophia were in each other’s company almost daily during the Brownings’ 1858–59 stay in Rome, the same could be said of their husbands and sons. Pen and young David played together on the Pincian Hill and often visited each other at their parents’ apartments. The boys’ fathers shared a daily routine, as described by RB: “I get up every morning in the dark at ¼ 6. & go out with Eckley for a good hour before breakfast—we go all about Rome, up & down, in & out, the worst & best of it, so that I see it thoroughly on the outside & like it so much” (letter to Isa Blagden, [7 January 1859], ms at ABL). RB had earlier presented the elder David a photograph of himself, along with a separate inscription: “Robert Browning to David Eckley, with more love by far than ought to accompany so poor a gift. / Nov. 26. 1858. / Rome” (the photograph and inscription are now at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library). On 26 April, the two families made an excursion outside of Rome to the villas and temples of Tivoli.
The Brownings and Eckleys returned to Florence at the end of May 1859, again travelling together in separate carriages. But this time the Brownings declined the Eckleys’ carriage and hired their own in order to accommodate their luggage, which on the trip south had been sent with Ferdinando by steamer. Three weeks after their return, the Eckleys left to spend the summer in Bagni di Lucca. On the day of their departure EBB reaffirmed her love for Sophia but asked to be adored less: “I will not try even to say here what my feeling has been & is for all your dear goodness & affection to me during these many months of our being so near one another. You would exclaim at my telling you that I have felt humiliated often, while touched always—and yet this is the simple truth—you have done too much for me, thought too much of me” ([?20] [June 1859], ms at Berg). EBB and Sophia met that same day, presumably the day before the Eckleys left Florence. It was the last time EBB and Sophia met as friends.
In the correspondence over the next six weeks, there is no hint of the estrangement to come. On 4 July EBB reported that Gordigiani had finished repainting her portrait (commissioned by Sophia): “I have worked for you—sate well … &, on his part, he has been energetic– Robert is very contented” (ms at Berg). Four days later EBB tried to comfort her friend with spiritualistic expressions after hearing of the death of her half-sister, Hannah: “She is nearer you, you know, than she would be if alive … ‘nearer & nearer’” (ms at Berg). EBB wrote again the next day, to accompany the gift of a fan, and signed herself: “In true love & close sympathy, your Ba” (ms at Berg). At this point, two events interrupted the flow of letters. The first was the armistice signed at Villafranca on 11 July, ending the second war of Italian independence. About a week later EBB explained to Sophia: “You will wonder at my silence. … But I have been miserable about public affairs, could’nt keep the tears from my eyes for days & days, was’nt fit to write or sleep or eat or do anything– I was in despair in fact– Now I feel better again” (ms at Berg). The second was a serious breakdown in EBB’s health a few days later. Again, to Sophia: “It has been a very bad attack on the chest,—partly from cold, I dare say,—& partly from late excitements acting on the circulation during the extreme heat. For two nights & days I suffered almost strangulation” (ms at Berg). The “excitements” were the armistice, which left Venice in Austrian hands, temporarily dashing EBB’s hopes for a united, independent Italy, and the unbalanced mental state of EBB’s former lady’s maid Wilson (Mme. Romagnoli), who had been raving about the end of the world since the Brownings had returned from Rome. EBB’s health deteriorated in the days prior to the Brownings’ removal to Siena on 30 July. Consequently, the next two letters to Sophia came from RB, apprising her of his wife’s condition. EBB herself wrote on 9 August, and the manner of the closing suggests that she had not altered her feelings for Sophia: “May God bless you & love you … I do from my low plane—only that helps so little. Lovingly yours Ba” (ms at Berg). Another indication of EBB’s abiding affection is that of the six letters written in the month after the armistice, when she was the most emotionally and physically unwell, three of them were to Sophia.
But sometime in the next few weeks, EBB’s warm thoughts about her friend began to chill. When EBB next communicated on 30 August (ms at Berg), she replied to various questions that Sophia had evidently put to her in letters. One reply explained EBB’s silence: “I yet remain so languid as to be unwilling & indolent about writing,—I, who am by nature an active correspondent.” And yet, EBB had resumed her “active” correspondence, especially with Isa Blagden. EBB responded vaguely to Sophia’s question about the Brownings’ winter plans: “For the future—ah no, you must not calculate on us this winter. We are more than usually uncertain …(—you may put Rome out of the question—)” (ms at Berg). But the Brownings did spend that winter at Rome, and the Eckleys did not. Addressing the hardest question (“do you still love me?”) last, EBB declared: “When I said I loved you, I meant it and felt it, .. I was ‘faithful’.. though the spirits never called me so—who am only Ba” (ms at Berg). EBB’s use of the past tense is revealing, though Sophia would have needed the abilities of a real clairvoyant to see that the friendship was over. The break was confirmed the following week. Sophia had asked Isa if she had heard from EBB. Isa relayed this information to EBB, who responded: “You could not have done better—not at all. Anyone but you, would have said, ‘Why, I hear from her till I’m sick—therefore I can assure you she is’nt so utterly bad.’ … Except in heart. … If you ever observe me grow colder to others … dont set it down as a caprice of temper or affection on my side—&, rather pity than blame me” (ms at Fitzwilliam).
The exact circumstance that brought about EBB’s change of heart is unknown. EBB explained to Arabella that it had nothing to do with the mediumship: “I have dreadful reasons for doubting Sophie Eckley– I mean her truth. It has given me great pain. It has not been on mediumship grounds that I began to doubt—but, of course ..now I doubt her all through (7–8 February , ms with GM-B). To Fanny Haworth six months later, EBB was more specific: “You know, what I valued her for, was precisely that singleness & purity of moral nature, in which I have discovered her deficiency: so I have paid a heavy price (not for the first time) for my want of discernment. … She is not malignant—she means harm to no one: her fault, I always saw was vanity—but I did not see that the vanity was monstrous enough to present a large foundation for an extraordinary falseness of character– She is utterly false—her life is one ‘manière de poser’” (25 August , ms at Fitzwilliam).
That EBB discovered some moral deficiency is supported by her poem “Where’s Agnes?” (Last Poems, 1862), a veiled portrait of Sophia and her fall from grace, written in the autumn of 1859. The poem at times compares Agnes to St. Agnes, virgin martyr and patron saint of chastity. The speaker implies that before Agnes sank to “mere dirt,” she was even more chaste than the saint:
My Agnes false? such shame?
She? Rather be it said
That the pure saint of her name
Has stood there in her stead,
And tricked you to this blame.
But when Agnes, who could not bear the name of a sin, becomes that sin, the speaker laments:
O my Agnes! O my saint!
Then the great joys of the Lord
Do not last? Then all this paint
Runs off nature? leaves a board?
Evidently, an earlier version of the poem was less veiled. But as RB later told Isa Blagden, it was “disguised in the circumstances for my sake—who always said, ‘For the husband’s sake,—and because you really deserve some punishment in the matter, don’t make an explosion’” ([19 March 1868], ms at ABL).
It would seem that Sophia lied and dissembled with disturbing frequency. RB thought her “inventions about spirits &c were not at all more prodigious than the daily-sprouting toadstools of that dunghill of a soul,—lies about this, that & the other” (letter to the William Wetmore Storys, 2 May 1863, ms at Texas). When Sophia published her travel book that chronicled the Eckleys’ voyage to Egypt and the Holy Land, The Oldest of the Old World (1860), she sent the Brownings a copy (Reconstruction, A845). EBB’s letter of thanks was lukewarm in its compliments and critical of the author’s use of second-hand information about “Ægyptian & Greek theologies & philosophies,” believing that it would “destroy the air of freshness while suggesting superficialness” ([3 July 1860], ms at Berg). EBB also thought that Sophia should have omitted her off-topic excursions into “Christian dogma & the controversies on it, unless there is something new to say, new in essence or form at least, silence is better– People hear with impatience from a traveller what they hear at home every sunday.” Undeterred by these negative comments, Sophia soon began telling everyone that EBB admired the book, though she had only admired the binding and the frontispiece. In a letter to Fanny Haworth, EBB reported this positive spin and gave her unvarnished opinion of the work: “Have you read this book? It is of the calibre of a school-girl’s exercise—(& not a clever school-girl)” (25 August , ms at Fitzwilliam). EBB later complained that Sophia “told people that she could’nt show the letter I wrote to her about her book, I had said of it such intensely flattering things” (letter to Isa Blagden, [30 April 1861], ms at Fitzwilliam). In April 1869 RB called on Sophia in Paris and told Isa about the visit: “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. I asked about a story I knew she had told Ba—and myself too—and she at once said—at the mere mention of a name and before hearing what it referred to, ‘Oh I never heard the story before,—somebody else told her, not I!’” (19 April 1869, ms at ABL).
Since EBB doubted Sophia “all through,” the communications with spirits were doubted as well. As noted above, Sophia had told EBB of communicating with a spirit whose name began with an “E.”—and there were other alleged communications with members of EBB’s family. But EBB now wondered whether they had ever really taken place. On 27 September 1859, she wrote again to Sophia: “In all cases in which long messages were written distinctly from spirits pretending to belong to me, the form of expression was distinctly unlike those beings—in fact, I should say, impossible to them! Again & again, for instance, there have been slight Americanisms,—turns of phrases, which are not usual among the English” (ms at Berg). EBB went on to reiterate that automatic writing had not confirmed the presence of spirits, adding: “The sounds are twenty times more satisfactory to me, as I have often told you—but the sounds never occurred with us—never; though, with you alone, you said they were always occurring.” EBB closed the subject with finality: “There is no sort of proof that any spirit connected with myself ever intimated his or her presence through your mediumship, either to you or to me. In fact, I grieve to say that the proof is the other way, as I apprehend it. … There is nothing to regret in having tried a long series of experiments,—but there would be, if ever I began it over again, after once seeing them to an end.”
The next letter from EBB to Sophia, written nearly three months later, was perfunctorily newsy and signed “EBB” instead of “Ba” ([15 December 1859], ms at Berg). The recipient took it hard, to the point of illness, that the relationship had so altered, but she clung to whatever was left of it. This seemed inexplicable to EBB, who confided to Isa Blagden: “I had a letter from her the other day—from York– Is it not wonderful how a human being with nerves, not to say sensibility, should go on in that way?– I feel inclined to grind my teeth & stamp– She sticks, dear, like treacle,—or dissolved lollipop– Once I praised the sweetness—now I feel very sick at the adhesiveness. … But ‘my cooled love’ is the cause of the illness which necessitated that change of air” (10 May , ms at Fitzwilliam).
Apart from the aforementioned letter of [3 July 1860], in which EBB criticized Sophia’s travel book, there is only one further known letter to her from EBB, though it is not extant. It was written in the first few months of the Brownings’ last visit to Rome (1860–61), the Eckleys also being there that winter. EBB gave a glimpse of the letter’s contents to Isa: “I have seen Mrs. Eckley once. And written to her once. Such ‘a kind note.’!– May God keep me from such– She wrote for forgiveness, oblivion & the rest—& I answered that if there had been cause for such things I shd. forgive of course—but that one could not feel the same ‘confidence’ after a departure from the straight line, as before– Think of my saying that to you! Would you think it ‘kind’?” ([21 January 1861], ms at Fitzwilliam). Years later, RB informed Isa that he had read this letter (misremembering its date) and predicted accurately its exclusion from Sophia’s album of EBB’s letters ([19 March 1868], ms at ABL).
But the “kind note” did not discourage Sophia from wishing to remain friends with EBB. During a visit from Sophia sometime later, EBB said much the same thing she had written. She wrote to Arabella that despite this further “kindness,” Sophia “asked me to kiss her & say God bless her—and I did both– Afterwards she conducted herself precisely as if nothing wrong was between us– The fact is (its horrible to say—but you know me & that I could’nt on such an occasion speak out of vanity) she wants to pass for being my friend, & would eat much dirt for that poor distinction. I never was more deceived in a woman” (15 March , ms with GM-B). There is no evidence that EBB and Sophia ever met again.
The last time Sophia is mentioned in EBB’s extant correspondence, the once-loved friend is compared to a reptile: “[Mrs. Eckley] begs me to write to her. I shall not write; & she will be just as devoted as ever … the ‘winding’ & ‘clinging’ of the serpentine nature is a thing to mark” ([30 April 1861], ms at Fitzwilliam). Although EBB did “not write,” Sophia went on with her act just the same. In a letter to her brother Frederick Tuckerman, who had recently published his poems, she declared that the Brownings were “full of interest to see them” (2 May 1861, ms at Harvard). After EBB’s death on 29 June 1861, Sophia continued to refer in society to their brief friendship, not without embellishment. In a diary entry of 23 November 1863, fellow Bostonian Annie Adams Fields, wife of RB’s American publisher, James Thomas Fields, wrote caustically of a new neighbor named Sophia May Eckley: “She seems one mass of pretention and affectation yet Mrs Browning wrote to her she says two hundred letters and received her as a friend during four years. She wears a dog upon her arm[,] dresses à l’anglaise and rails at her native city as though she had never seen so outlandish a district before. She says she has a ‘literary niche’ in England. I can’t help wishing she would then step up into it and stand there” (ms at MHS). There were 126 letters, and EBB considered Sophia a friend for two years. But Sophia may indeed have had a “literary niche,” however small. By the time of Mrs. Fields’s comments, she had published, presumably at her own expense, her travel book, Oldest of the Old World (1860), a book of meditations on Lent, Light on Dark Days (1863), and Poems (1863). The last contains four poems addressed to EBB, though she is not named, all entitled “To--” (pp. 109–110 and 112–114). The poems’ speakers (yearning or bereaved lovers) differ markedly from the injured and sarcastic speaker of “Where’s Agnes?” One of the poems (the second of three sonnets) clearly indicates the identity of the beloved:
So leave the darken’d room to wait its turn,
The dear remembered chair, the books—the time
When lifted hearts shall welcome thy return,
And “Casa Guidi’s” life and light once more
Shall cheer the loving on life’s changeful shore.
Another poem carries the refrain “My Poet-friend,” and its speaker declares, with unintended irony: “I wear thee like an orient jewel.” RB chanced upon a review of Sophia’s Poems in The Press of 4 July 1863 (p. 643) and was appalled to see quoted a translation of a poem by Heinrich Heine, “Aus meinen großen Schmerzen” (“Out of my own great woe”), the same one EBB had translated and RB included in Last Poems: “It strikes me as more repulsive than any instance of Eckleyism even I ever came across—and really completing, by one black touch, the picture of that remarkable lady” (letter to Isa Blagden, 19 July 1863, ms at Yale). Sophia had asked RB for help in the publication of her poems. His reply was not encouraging: “As for a publisher, none can ever be found for poetry by a new author, of whatever pretension it may be; that is certain” (28 March 1862, ms at Berg).
In 1863 Sophia accused her husband of infidelity, and the couple separated but never divorced. RB heard of the accusation through the William Wetmore Storys and responded: “Of the story you tell me,—that is, of her charges against the poor fellow; I do not believe one syllable, nor that the ‘paper’ is other than either a forgery or, just as likely, an acknowledgement extorted on false pretences from his miserable folly—which thus meets its punishment—some punishment being proper enough. … I am sure he has never been ‘false’ to her—except in suppressing the grain of common sense which, as I say, at bottom of his heart, led him to disbelieve in her” (27 March 1863, photocopy at Berg).
With her son, Sophia sailed back to Boston in July 1863, but they returned to Europe the following year and eventually settled in Paris. Her address in January 1869 was 224 Rue de Rivoli, also listed in RB’s address book of that period (AB-5). In December 1868 she was in London to publish her second book of poetry, Minor Chords (1869), which contained two sonnets to EBB under the heading “In Memoriam.” The first sonnet is dated Florence, 29 June 1861. Sophia gave RB a copy of Minor Chords, inscribed in an unidentified hand on an inserted page: “With Mrs. Eckley’s sincere regards.” (This copy sold as part of an unspecified lot in Browning Collections and is now at Southern Illinois University.) While in London, Sophia called on RB at 19 Warwick Crescent. He had heard of her showing EBB’s letters to people, but when he told Sophia of the accusation, “she denied it indignantly” (letter to Isa Blagden, 17 December 1868, ms at ABL). At the same time, she reassured RB that after her death the letters would be returned to him or Pen. Such a gesture led RB to conclude that “this particular devil is not quite so black as she was painted—by myself, amongst others.” The following April, RB visited Sophia in Paris to see the album that held the letters. On the first leaf, Sophia had written: “At my decease this collection of Letters is to be returned to Robert Browning– I say returned because I consider them to be his own, when I am done with them. In case of the death of Robert Browning they must be given to his Son, Robert Wiedemann Browning / Signed by me / Sophia May Eckley / June 29th. 1862” (ms at Berg). Sophia similarly left the Gordigiani portraits of EBB and RB to Pen in a memorandum dated 3 January 1869 (ms at NPG).
Aged fifty-one, Sophia Eckley died on 15 September 1874 at Arques, Dieppe, France, and was buried in the Cimetière du Père Lachaise in Paris. Along with the above-named bequests and the nine letters RB wrote to Sophia, she left him various other mementos of her friendship with his wife: stanzas 27–32 from “Isobel’s Child” (see Reconstruction, D405); translation of Heine’s “Die Jahre kommen und gehen” (“The years they come and go”), inscribed “Ba for Sophia” (see Reconstruction, D1220); EBB’s pencil sketch of the Brownings’ drawing room at 43 Via Bocca di Leone (see Reconstruction, H46); and a pencil used by EBB to correct the fourth edition of Aurora Leigh (see Reconstruction, H634). The last two direct references to Sophia in the Brownings’ correspondence concern the Gordigiani portraits, which had been for some time on display in the Boston Athenaeum. On 1 March 1875, RB wrote to George Stillman Hillard, Sophia’s executor, asking for his help in fulfilling her bequest (ms at Yale) and enclosing a copy of the memorandum that promised the portraits to Pen. A letter in October 1875 to Stillman’s niece Katharine Hillard indicates that Sophia’s husband now had the portraits and was reluctant to give them up (ms at Kentucky). A year later, however, they were in RB’s hands (see letter to George Murray Smith, 24 October 1876, ms at Eton).
We know little of David Eckley, Jr.’s whereabouts in the first dozen years after his separation from Sophia. He may have spent some of that time travelling in Europe. In 1876 he moved to Buffalo, New York, where his elder brother, Joseph Stiles Eckley, already resided. In 1882, seven years after Sophia’s death, he married May Belle Anderson, daughter of John A. Anderson, of Buffalo. In his adopted city, David was well respected as a man of letters and “an enthusiastic yachtsman,” called “The Commodore” by his close friends (Memorial and Family History of Erie County, New York, 2 vols., New York and Buffalo, 1906–08, II, 291–293). David died at Buffalo on 29 November 1895. As for Sophia’s son, he married in 1880 at Vevay, Switzerland, Annie Brunton (b. 1855), daughter of George Campbell Brunton, of Scotland and London. The younger David died without issue at Vevay the following year.
Sophia May Eckley, based on the references to her in the Brownings’ correspondence, was a vain, deceitful poseur. But was she so thoroughly bad? Had she no regrets about the lies she told? EBB wrote of her: “I dont think she knows what truth is, & why it shd. be cared for” (letter to Isa Blagden, [21 January 1861], ms at Fitzwilliam). In Sophia’s letter to her brother Frederick, referred to earlier, she appears to struggle for self-understanding: “How is it that you & I so near as we were in Childhood, ever lost the keynote of each others hidden strings. … Was it the way we were brought up, to hide our feelings, to be insincere, or was it the crushing atmosphere of Boston influences. … But truth will break through all in time & all the flimsy false unrealisms melt away” (2 May 1861, ms at Harvard). And what of her love for EBB? Was it all an act? The following is from Sophia’s last sonnet to EBB in Poems (1863):
For in thy love I live, and life were dead
To me, were thy sweet presence from me gone,
And the soft breathings of thy love were fled,
And I sate watching, waiting, and alone,
To count the loves that have been given to me,
Yet cry in anguish,—“Dearest! only thee!”
Sophia’s ambition to be EBB’s intimate friend at any cost was something RB could not help but sympathize with. Recalling a visit from Sophia that took place around the end of 1861, he wrote: “Well, when she called on me in London … bathed in tears and so on—I could not, for the life of me, feel angry … I rather thought—‘After all, you thought she was worth damning your soul for, and I agree with you!’” (letter to Isa Blagden, [19 March 1868], ms at ABL).
1. The extant correspondence between Sophia Eckley and EBB consists of 126 letters, all from the latter. There are also nine letters from RB to Sophia and other manuscripts and memorabilia, as noted below. The letters were bequeathed to RB after Sophia’s death, and they were in turn passed on to his son, Pen. Following Pen’s death, the letters were turned over to the Moulton-Barrett family, who held them out of the 1913 Browning sale. They were later offered at auction by Sotheby’s in the summer of 1937 and purchased by Quaritch, who bought them on behalf of Walter M. Hill, a Chicago book dealer, who was acting for William T.H. Howe, a well-known collector of nineteenth-century books and manuscripts. His entire collection was acquired by Albert Berg, who included it in the collection he donated to the New York Public Library, known as The Henry W. & Albert A. Berg Collection.