Sarah Bayley (1783–1868)
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 10, 325–327.
On 25 August 1841, in letter 845, EBB wrote to Mary Russell Mitford: “Mr. Kenyon, I understand, is expected here [at Torquay] today, with Miss Baillie & another lady.” EBB thought perhaps Kenyon’s guest was to be the Scottish dramatist and poetess Joanna Baillie, but she was wrong. The lady was Sarah Bayley, who became Kenyon’s close friend and companion and was to remain so for the rest of his life. She and her “niece” Anne Thomson (later Mme. Braun) (q.v.) soon also became friends of EBB, whose letters are sprinkled with references to them—especially Miss Bayley. The latter was mentioned humorously in letter 1634, for instance, when EBB cited Kenyon as seeming “depressed & jaded, .. worse than if Miss Bayley had beaten him in a syllogism.” On 26 November 1845, EBB wrote to RB from Wimpole Street: “I have been interrupted by the coming in of Miss Bayley, & here she has been sitting for nearly two hours … & I like her, do you know. Not only she talks well, which was only a thing to expect, but she seems to feel .. to have great sensibility .. & her kindness to me .. kindness of manner & words & expression, all together .. quite touched me.– I did not think of her being so loveable a person.” Earlier, in letter 860, to Miss Mitford, EBB had indirectly quoted John Kenyon as calling Miss Bayley “the deepest thinker for a woman, he ever met with!”
EBB never discontinued her expressions of friendship and gratitude toward Miss Bayley, but the latter did cause distress during the RB-EBB courtship period. The reason: while Miss Bayley knew that the two poets were seeing each other, she did not know about the the depth of their involvement, or of their plans for going to Italy. Therefore she kept insisting on taking EBB to Italy herself. On 16 June 1846 EBB wrote to RB: “At half past six came Miss Bayley, talking exceeding kindnesses of Italy, & entreating me to use her .. to let her go with me & take care of me & do me all manner of good.” On 14 September, two days after the secret wedding, EBB reported hearing “from Miss Bayley, who begs me, if I cannot go to Italy, to go to Hastings & visit her.” John Kenyon was informed of the marriage at about the time of the Brownings’ departure from England; and through him, presumably, Miss Bayley learned of the true situation. Miss Bayley commented (as reported by EBB in a letter to her sister Arabella, dated [24–25] December ), that the Brownings’ marriage surely “was made in Heaven.”
Another source of distress, or at least of concern to EBB, was Miss Bayley’s refusal to believe in a hereafter. In a letter to RB on 7 May 1846, EBB wrote: “Miss Bayley … told me with a frankness for which I did not like her less, that she was a materialist of the strictest order, & believed in no soul & no future state. In the face of those conclusions, she said, she was calm & resigned. It is more than I could be, as I confessed.”
As to the closeness of Miss Bayley’s relationship with John Kenyon, there seems to have been surprisingly little Victorian eyebrow-raising. EBB showed a somewhat amused attitude, as in her letter of 28 December 1842 to Miss Mitford. After commenting on Miss Bayley’s being present just about everywhere—Hastings, Torquay, etc.—that Kenyon went, she concluded: “But it’s in the nature of woman, they say, to gossip—& I have nothing to gossip about except Mr. Kenyon & Flush—& so they take the consequences.” On 22 May 1845, again to Miss Mitford, she wrote of Kenyon’s being at Bath or Clifton or in Devonshire “with his attendant Muses, Miss Bayley and Miss Thomson.”
Three years later (in a letter dated 1 May ) EBB noted Miss Bayley’s interest in the Brownings’ political orientation. “Miss Bayley,” she told John Kenyon, “asks if Robert and I are communists, & then half draws back her question into a discreet reflection that I, at least, was never much celebrated for acumen on political œconomy.” Miss Bayley’s interest in EBB and her circle extended beyond the Brownings themselves. EBB’s sister Henrietta (in a letter dated 1–2 May ) told EBB: “Miss Bayley was very kind to me in London, seemed to take so much interest in Baby &c Of course it was for your sake …” She also told of a gift—a frock—“perhaps manufactured by her own hands.”
Sarah Bayley was with Kenyon during his final illness, on the Isle of Wight, in 1856. The Brownings visited there, and on 12 September 1856 EBB wrote to RB’s sister Sarianna: “Miss Bayley is an excellent nurse,—at once gentle & decided—and if she did but look further than this life & this death, she would be a perfect companion for him.” Kenyon died on 3 December 1856. From his large estate, Miss Bayley received £5,000 and Lime Cottage at Wimbledon. This inheritance angered at least one person, William Surtees Cook (afterwards, Altham), husband of EBB’s sister Henrietta. At the time of Kenyon’s death Cook observed in his diary that Henrietta had received only £100. Some years later, after Miss Bayley herself had died, he made this annotation to a letter which EBB had written to Henrietta on 10 January 1857: “This strange woman has now passed to a world she did not believe in. She was in a good social position, highly educated, very clever; but unhappily she was so convinced her existence would be snuffed out like a candle, that any attempt to controvert her theory, only, as too often happens, induced malice and hatred.... Her evil influence over the testator [Kenyon] was unbounded. Not only ‘might she have done anything’—but she did anything and everything—dictated the will in question—and boasted that all was settled as he would have liked—her own likes and dislikes of course.”
Evidently, Miss Bayley had an “adopted son,” Watkin William Lloyd. However, in a letter to Isa Blagden on 19 October 1869, RB wrote: “do you remember a mild little doubt of mine, once, as to his being the ‘adopted son’ of Miss Bailey: did he prove so, and duly inherit, I wonder?” In her will, dated 19 December 1864, Miss Bayley left Lloyd £500; however, in a codicil, dated 9 November 1866, she reduced the sum to £100. To Edward Thomson—“brother of my late friend Anne Braun”—she bequeathed the sum of £300. There are few extant pieces of direct correspondence between Sarah Bayley and the Brownings. A letter was written jointly by her and John Kenyon, from the Isle of Wight, on 6 February 1856. Among other subjects, she wrote very unfavourably of the spiritualistic medium Daniel Home, in whom EBB was deeply interested. The poets wrote jointly to Miss Bayley on 11 July 1858, and EBB wrote on 17 June 1860. After EBB’s death, a copy of her Last Poems was inscribed: “Miss Bayley, with RB’s affectionate regards. London, March 26. 1862.” (See Reconstruction, C45.) Miss Bayley’s own death, aged 84, came on 27 July 1868, at Kingston.