Portrait of a lady - Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett

It is one of the most famous courtships of the 19th century. Robert Browning, then a struggling young poet, writes a fan letter to the much better-known Elizabeth Barrett, a housebound invalid. He begins a passionate correspondence with her, marries her secretly, against the wishes of her tyrannical father, and elopes with her to Italy. Until Elizabeth's death in 1861 they enjoy a life of married bliss and increasing professional success as expatriate celebrities. After Elizabeth's funeral (there were obituary notices in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic), her heartbroken widower returns to England to become one of the most lionised and popular poets of his age. It's a touching story of poetic and personal virtue rewarded. Or not? When Henry James met Browning in the 1870s, he was perplexed and not a little horrified at the apparent difference between Browning's personality and the sophisticated, finely tuned sensibility he'd been led to expect from the poetry. The Robert Browning whom James encountered was loud and cheerful and garrulous; his opinions were clichéd and his health strapping; he ate well, chattered undiscriminatingly and told boring jokes. Where was the subtle dissector of human passion? Where was the shrewd wit? Where, above all, was the suffering and sensitive Browning everyone had come to know about and looked forward to meeting, the Browning of the public romance? Shocked, James put Browning into one of his stories as the bafflingly bluff - or insufficiently "subjective" - writer Clare Vawdrey: "He never talked about himself; and this was a topic on which, though it would have been tremendously worthy of him, he apparently never even reflected."

Had he but known it, James had already put his finger on the answer to the mystery. If Browning was not "subjective" enough, this was entirely deliberate: long experience of having his most intimate feelings made public property had taught him not to refer to his private life if he could help it; if possible, not to reveal anything personal at all. His resistance to exposing his inner self to the public gaze extended to his poetry - throughout his career he made a technical virtue out of never speaking in his own voice on the page. We don't go to Browning for confession, for what Sylvia Plath (who is, poetically, Browning's polar opposite) called "the big strip tease": he is, quite simply, the most unsubjective poet who ever wrote. Forget the Full Monty; Browning doesn't take off so much as his cravat.

Where does the Victorian poet afraid of exposure to the peanut-crunching crowd go to conceal himself? To the dramatic monologue, of course. Tennyson was the forerunner, but Browning perfected the form. His dramatic monologues are masterpieces of irony which depend on the principle of triangulation. A single person, who is not the poet, utters the entire poem in a specific situation and usually at a critical moment, and in doing so may address other people (who don't, however, reply: we know what they say or do only from clues in the discourse of the single speaker). The twist is that, while blithely holding forth in this way, the speaker unwittingly lays bare his or her true character. Browning hides behind the scenes, in cahoots with the reader, inviting us to supply the missing parts of the speaker's one-sided account.

The gold standard of all dramatic monologues is Browning's "My Last Duchess", published in 1842. Set in Renaissance Italy, the poem reflects the Victorian fascination with the period - with its sumptuousness, its dynamism, its unparalleled belief in the human animal. Browning drew on an actual episode in Tuscan history for his donnée, but the interpretation, and the glittering diction, are his own. The scene is the grand staircase of the ducal palace in Ferrara, in northern Italy, in the the mid-1500s. The speaker is the lusty, avaricious Duke of Ferrara, and as the poem opens he is brokering a marriage deal with the envoy of the Count of Tyrol, whose daughter he intends to acquire as his second duchess - Ferrara's "last" duchess, we realise, is dead. Rather like a modern aristocrat planning some calculated PR in Hello! magazine ("To celebrate his engagement to the stunning Barbara, Ferrara welcomes us into his charming home"), the duke offers the silent envoy, and the reader, an access-all-areas tour of the art he has amassed.

Sequestered behind a curtain which only he is allowed to part hangs the jewel of his collection: a portrait of his late wife. By his own account, the young duchess was not only beautiful but girlish, unaffected, tender and spontaneous. She blushed easily, was warmly appreciative of small acts of kindness, and was clearly utterly lacking in vanity. Without ever having laid eyes on the girl, we feel as if we, too, have savoured "the depth and passion of her earnest glance", the "spot of joy" in her cheek, and "the faint half flush" tinting the delicate skin of her throat. Yet it's soon clear that the duchess's very freshness made her irksome to her authoritarian husband: he found her altogether too impulsive, too unpredictable and therefore too threatening - too human, in other words. So he had her killed. But no matter: "There she stands / As if alive." Ferrara in fact prefers the image to the original because the image is inert, and therefore easier to control."

None of this is said in so many words: because the self-satisfied Ferrara utters the whole poem, his loathsomeness and megalomania have to be inferred. They seep out at the edges of what he says; he is unaware of his own repulsiveness. And yet he is perversely vital: we are mesmerised by his fluency. As a whole, the monologue is a profoundly human picture that is simultaneously a celebration of art's power - because art, after all, is a peculiarly human undertaking.

Though the poem was written before his marriage, Browning republished "My Last Duchess" in 1849, three years after his escape to Italy with Elizabeth Barrett, or EBB as she thenceforth signed herself. Their only child, a boy they nicknamed Pen, was born the same year. By then Browning had some experience of the stresses of a mature sexual, as opposed to an epistolary, relationship. He and Elizabeth quarrelled frequently about politics, about her interest in spiritualism, about how to bring up their son. Robert wanted Pen to wear trousers and short hair; Elizabeth preferred him in velvet pantaloons and candle curls. Elizabeth won. Awkwardly, her money supported the entire household: husband, servants, dog, child, clothes, food, pet rabbits, the writing of poetry, holidays abroad in the hot months, and her addiction to laudanum, which she took daily for pains in her spine and chest. She never complained. We all know the temptation to kill our spouse (especially a saintly one). In fact, Browning's poems often feature husbands who kill or resent their wives, or men who do away with their mistresses: along with Ferrara there is the murderous Franceschini in The Ring and the Book; Porphyria's homicidally possessive lover; and an exasperated Andrea del Sarto, who feels that his other half, the high-maintenance Lucrezia, has stopped him from becoming another Leonardo, Raphael or Michelangelo by making him paint commercial trash. It's a curious fact that Browning himself hardly wrote any poetry during the 15 years of his marriage. Did he, one wonders, sometimes have a Ferrara-like urge to rid himself of EBB?

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