John Kenyon (1784–1856)
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 3, 316–318.
Without the existence of this mutual family friend, RB and EBB might never have been brought together, nor would EBB have met Mary Russell Mitford (q.v.). So, it seems, Browning enthusiasts owe him a substantial debt of gratitude. A year older than EBB’s father, Kenyon was—like the latter—born in Jamaica. In his first letter to EBB—no. 237, dated 12 July 1826—he claimed “a cousin-ship in some degree or other.” To be exact, his great-grandmother was the sister of EBB’s great-grandfather. Kenyon came to England with his father and younger brother, Edward, when five or six years old. At an early age he was a schoolmate of RB’s father, probably at the Rev. A. Bell’s school, Cheshunt, though Kenyon also studied in Bristol and at the Charterhouse in London. He attended Trinity College, Cambridge, in the early 1800’s, and EBB’s father was there briefly at the same time. A wealthy and generous dilettante, Kenyon wrote verse, supported literary and philanthropic endeavours, and moved within a wide circle of influential friends among the English intelligentsia, with whom he made frequent trips at home and abroad. His generosity toward such people caused Crabb Robinson to call him “a feeder of lions.” In a letter to Mary Russell Mitford dated 13 June 1842, EBB wrote of him: “He lives the surface of life: & the glare & the crowd & the eternal conversation without communion, I lament exactly in proportion to the degree in which I admire & esteem him.” Kenyon is not much remembered for his literary works, though they included A Rhymed Plea for Tolerance (1833), Poems (1838), and A Day at Tivoli (1849), the last dedicated to the Brownings. He contributed verse to Findens’ Tableaux, the annual which Miss Mitford edited for several years. Kenyon was married twice, and it was through his second wife, who died in 1835, that he became acquainted with Miss Mitford. In later years, Miss Mitford and EBB were continually speculating on whether he would again marry (and whom); he never did, although a Miss Sarah Bayley became a steady companion. The previously-mentioned letter of 1826 indicates that Kenyon was in touch with the Moulton-Barretts at that time. He visited them frequently after they moved to London, saw EBB from time to time in Torquay, and was one of the few persons—outside the immediate family—allowed to enter her room after she returned to Wimpole Street. He dragged the reluctant EBB into an introduction with Mary Russell Mitford on the afternoon of 27 May 1836, and introduced her to William Wordsworth and Walter Savage Landor on the night of the 28th. At some time, at the home of Thomas Noon Talfourd (q.v.), Kenyon approached RB and ascertained that the latter was, indeed, the son of the Robert Browning he had known in school. Note RB’s letter to Kenyon (no. 569, dated 26 May 1837), looking toward a reunion of the old schoolmates.
EBB, by the time of her 1841 return to Wimpole Street from Torquay, had long been an admirer of RB’s works. So, in the following year, Kenyon tried to persuade her to meet their author. She, in her shyness, refused. Soon afterward she plunged into the putting together of her Poems (1844), a task in which Kenyon gave her much help. A last-minute addition to this book was “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” which—in stanza xli—contained a complimentary reference to Browning. RB left for Italy on 12 August 1844, two days before Poems was published. Upon returning in December, as he later explained to EBB in a letter of 16 November 1845, he saw the reference to himself in a copy of Poems that Kenyon sent to Sarianna Browning (Reconstruction, A348). At that point, with Kenyon’s encouragement, RB started writing to his future wife. “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett …” so began the letter postmarked 10 January 1845. Kenyon, catalyst of the RB-EBB courtship, became a problem as it developed; he seemed aware of too much. EBB on 12 April 1846 wrote to RB of how Kenyon “with those detestable spectacles … full on my face” had mused aloud about RB’s visits. Whatever he may have suspected, Kenyon was among those who were shielded from the wrath of EBB’s father by being kept ignorant of the wedding plans. The grateful Kenyon, like many other friends, promptly sent best wishes to the newly-weds. He also went to EBB’s father on a mission of reconciliation, but was rebuffed. He showed his friendship and generosity in countless other ways from then on: he helped to manage the Brownings’ business affairs, just after the marriage; was a trustee of their wills; and after the Brownings’ son was born in 1849, undertook to give them £50 every six months (although sometimes he forgot to send the payments). They saw him, of course, during their visits to England in the 1850’s. He was desperately ill on the Isle of Wight when they came in 1856, but he made available to them his house at 39 Devonshire Place, London. There, EBB put finishing touches on her Aurora Leigh and wrote its dedication—to John Kenyon. Then they went to the Isle of Wight, where they visited Kenyon at West Cowes. He died there on 3 December 1856, but he lived long enough to see Aurora Leigh in print (in November) and to send out numerous gift copies (including Reconstruction, M16, 18–19). An entry in the diary of William Surtees Cook, husband of EBB’s sister Henrietta (Reconstruction, L4), comments on Kenyon’s legacies: “Thursday. Dec. 4. Mr. John Kenyon … died, worth £180.000—he had no near relations none nearer, I believe than the Barretts. He has left Ba—£4500, Robert B. £6500, and his poor cousin Henrietta only £100!!” Another beneficiary was Kenyon’s companion Sarah Bayley, who received £5,000 and his cottage at Wimbledon. Genuinely distressed by Kenyon’s death, the Brownings were likewise distressed to receive numerous letters congratulating them on his final gift.