George Barrett Hunter (1798–1857)
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 3, 315–316.
The Rev. George Barrett Hunter was not related to EBB’s family—a fact that should have caused the Moulton-Barretts no lasting regret. Minister of the Marsh Independent Chapel at Sidmouth, he attracted EBB’s attention after the Moulton-Barretts arrived there in 1832. Soon she was praising his eloquence, his feeling for poetry and literature, and his gentleness. “Oh!” she wrote to Julia Martin, “—I wish you knew Mr. Hunter!——” (See letter 481.) The minister and his daughter, Mary (born 11 September 1826), soon were spending a great deal of time with EBB and her family. EBB’s attachment to him is reminiscent of her earlier one toward Hope End neighbour Hugh Stuart Boyd. Hunter, like Boyd, was married—though his wife never appeared on the scene. Her absence is explained in a letter from EBB to Mary Russell Mitford dated 12 November 1842. Referring to Mary Hunter, she wrote: “Her mother is removed from her by a stroke worse than death .. madness! & there is no hope of a restoration.” Despite reputed eloquence, Hunter failed to stay long as a minister in any one place. In 1834 he left Marsh Chapel, settling in nearby Axminster, to act as itinerant preacher to neighbouring places of worship. Contacts between him and EBB continued, and he became an increasingly insistent admirer. His feelings are evident in the pleading tone of a letter from Axminster written on 26 September 1838 and addressed to EBB at Torquay. Meanwhile, Mary continued as a special favourite of the Moulton-Barretts. Hunter’s above-mentioned letter indicates that she was currently enjoying life with the family in London. Earlier, on 2 May 1837 (letter 565), EBB had mentioned her to Mary Russell Mitford as “just ten years old & a great darling of mine.” There is also EBB’s delightful poem of 29 April 1837 (letter 562), allegedly written by one of EBB’s doves to Mary’s canary. Hunter himself, while struggling along as a minister, endeavoured also to take pupils into his home for tutoring, and here again he seemed not to have been very successful. By early 1844, he was in London, disappointed and bitter, and was to remain there during the RB-EBB courtship period. But while his fortunes were declining, EBB’s literary career was in the ascendant. After her 1841 return from Torquay, sizeable amounts of her writing appeared not only in The Athenæum but also in American periodicals. Then came the publication of her Poems (1844). Hunter, one of the few outsiders allowed to visit EBB at Wimpole Street, became jealously contemptuous of her achievements. In a letter dated 19 February 1845, she wrote to Miss Mitford: “Ever since my last book has brought me a little more before the public, I can do or say … nothing right with him—and on, on, he talks epigrams about the sin & shame of those divine angels, called women, daring to tread in the dust of a multitude, when they ought to be minding their clouds. All this, not a bit in joke—but gravely & bitterly.” On 26 February she wrote: “… everyone who praises me, he anathematizes. … I assure you he quite detests America ever since they began to praise me there.” Yet when Miss Mitford expressed indignation, EBB scolded her, and defended Hunter’s “good & great qualities” (5 April 1845). Hunter’s jealous reaction to RB’s friendship with EBB is not hard to imagine, but perhaps his presence worked to RB’s advantage: the latter could have had many faults and eccentricities of his own, and still have shown up favourably in comparison with Hunter. EBB, in a letter to RB dated 16 August 1846, finally reported that Hunter was “going away to live in a village somewhere.”
Ten years later, in a letter from EBB to her sister Arabella dated 10–18 December 1856, there were indications that Hunter was in some sort of mental hospital. EBB commented too that “uncle James has … the same affection.” James Graham-Clarke (see vol. 1, 299) is believed to have been suffering from severe paranoid tendencies. Hunter died shortly thereafter, on 13 January 1857, at Charshalton, Surrey, in a hospital for the mentally ill. In a letter dated 14 February 1857, EBB wrote to Arabella: “Oh, Arabel—so our dear friend, dear Mr. Hunter, with all his morbid sensitiveness & many high qualities, is at rest from the turbulence of this world at least!– ... [Mr. Hunter], to whom, through the peculiarities of his nature, life never was other than trouble, & melancholy, & exasperation. … So unhappy a life! so unhappy a creature! his own child not much worse off for losing him—even better, perhaps! … Still, he was the Lord’s, & struggled towards the Lord’s light … I wish you would tell me what you hear from Mary. … It is strange that within these two or three days I had thought much of dear Mr. Hunter—thought of Axminster, thought of Sidmouth, .. my thoughts seemed beckoned back.”