It has been relatively easy to place Moulton Barrett, the poet's father, on the furthest side of the Victoiian view of the patriarch as the voice of God in the family. Yet a man who had sired twelve children of a desirable wife, and then refused permission for these adult children, male or female, to pursue romantic attachment and marriage was obviously an enigma in his own time.
Why didn't Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett want his children to marry? One reason given has been that he desired to keep his children at home and under his control. This was certainly true. Another has been that he had an unease about his children's sexuality. A father who insists on his daughters purity is not an unfamiliar type. One who insists that his sons not marry is a unique type.
The absolute consequence of not allowing your children to marry is having no legitimate grandchildren, no legal heirs. Eleven chirdren reached adulthood. Had each had half the number of children his or her parents bore, there'd be the possibility of sixty-six grandchildren. It seems that what Edward did not want to do was to carry on the Moulton Barrett line. What we have by the time the children were adults is the singularly peculiar fact that a Victorian father and the surviving heir of Edward of Cinnamon Hill not only wished his daughters to be spinsters, but wished all of his sons to remain bachelors. He did not want them to have, in terms of his grandfather's will, legitimate heirs "out of their own bodies."
Why? Moulton Barrett might very well have either learned after his children were born or become increasingly concerned with the possibility that he had mixed blood. Certainly, during the long years of the contested will, Edward was brought in daily reminders of the mixed blood in the Barrett line, the underside of the system that brought him wealth. Yet it was the lineage of his father, Charles Moulton, that affected his own.
Jeanette Marks concluded that although there was some possibility of African blood in Robert Browning's line, there was no official documentation that Charles Moulton, Edward's father, Elizabeth's grandfather, had black blood. She tells us that Elizabeth's inclusion among the writers who have such blood, in What the Negro Thinks (1929) by Robert Russa Morton, for example, was erroneous. Then she quotes a section from the love letters, one that has been there to read since the end of the nineteenth century. Where is the scholar or historian or biographer who has not read these words- including this writer. Jeannette Marks quotes them in order to overlook them once more, but what they say is quite clear. In the passage, Elizabeth Barrett tells her future husband what he must know. He must know what's in a name. She called herself Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, often signed her letters EBB. The oldest legitimate grandchild of Charles Moulton did not use "Moulton."
The poet herself believed she had African blood through her grandfather Charles Moulton. And she linked that fact to being "cursed from generation to generation" a sentiment of her fathers. Rather than being her grandfather's theoretical heir, she would prefer "to own some purer lineage than that of the blood of the slave!"
Jeannette Marks described the Creoles of mixed blood as often particularly larly attractive, unusually intelligent, and of a high nervous susceptibility. The irregularity of Elizabeth Barrett's features, seen clearly in verbal and photographic pictures, is notable - what she herself called her lack of nose, her overgenerous mouth. One can consider the effect of the face, dominated by those deep, searching eyes, as quite exotic. There was nothing in her features to mitigate her own belief in her African blood. One doesn't see in portraits the dark complexion she and others often described, a complexion she had in common with her father. "I am `little and black,'" she told Haydon. Anne Thackeray wrote, "She is very small, she is brown..." Thomas Chase described her "dark complexioned face" compared to Robert's "rather dark complexion." She was not proud of this lineage "of the blood of the slave." She was much too close to its ramifications, both in moral and in family matters. Yet in the high pitch of her creative intelligence and her nervous susceptibilities, she may have left the world a body of poetry that to some extent merged disparate cultures into a unique and increasingly radical voice.
The founder of the London Browning Society and Browning's friend, Frederick James Furnivall, wrote in a footnote to a paper he had delivered to the society after Robert>'s death, "It is possible that this colour business may have had something to do with Mr. Barrett's unjustified aversion to his daughters marriage to the poet. He wasn't referring to Elizabeth Barrett's "Moulton" grandfather, he was referring to Robert Browning's "Tittle" grandmother. "A few months after Browning died in 1889, Furnivall investigated family records and tombstones to find out if Browning had Jewish blood as rumored. He found instead much circumstantial evidence that Margaret Tittle, Browning's grandfathers' first wife, had black blood. "In colour the poets father was so dark that when, as a youth, he went out to his Creole mother's sugar-plantation in St. Kitts, the beadle of the Church ordered him to come away from the white folk among whom he was sitting, and take his place among the coloured people." Robert's grandfather favored the children of his second, highborn wife, and left his children by Tittle out of his will. Some of his children by the second wife, as well as certain unnamed old friends of the family, concurred on this issue of blood, according to Furnivall. This report infuriated Browning's sister, Sarianna, and his son, Pen. They both denied vehemently that the Brownings descended from a butler, another Fumivall assertion. Yet neither saidone word on the issue of mixed blood on their Creole side.
If Robert Browning's grandmother, as well as Elizabeth Barrett's grandfather, had had African blood, one person who would have known it would be their Jamaican cousin John Kenyon (who himself had a "half-sister of color Hannah Kennion") - that dear friend who Elizabeth passionately insisted would not want any responsibility for her union with Robert Browning before the fact.
One can disregard these accounts - "His peculiarities and defects are obvious," Browning said of Furnivall, a respected scholar. One can keep all mention of Jeannette Marks' careful genealogical research in footnotes forever, but Elizabeth Barrett Browning might have had, not only on her Moulton side but on her husband's side, powerful motivation for writing a poem on her honeymoon about a black mother who suffocated her mulatto child because of his white skin. She might have even had secret reasons for fearing John Kenyon's magnified eyes discerning courtships between the children of his two Creole classmates. Certainly she would not be the only child of planters in England who might have had secret preoccupations about the color of their skin. <
While she wrote her poem on her honeymoon, she herself was pregnant. She wouldn't believe it, even after she had been pregnant for five months.
"I have been stupid beyond any stupidity of which I ever, that I know of, was thought capable, by me or others - and the consequence has been a premature illness, a miscarriage, at four o'clock last Sunday morning, and of five months date, says Dr. Cook, or nearly so." This she wrote to Henrietta from Pisa in late March 1841.
At the time of this unacknowledged pregnancy, she wrote to Mary Mitford, "In the day of writing I have not done much yet ... just finished my rough sketch of an antislavery ballad and sent it off to America, where nobody will print it, I am certain, because I could not help making it bitter."
Racial concerns, patriarchal rejection, family secrets, may have played a part in what she called her "stupidity," and what she described as an incredible, headlong denial of a pregnancy that ran five months. Her whole life, her whole world, had been turned upside down in the last six months.
Now not only had she married against her fathers wishes, but she was immediately pregnant with the legitimate grandchild that was never meant to be.
For that first pregnancy, that concrete flesh-and-blood betrayal of her father's wishes, for that child who might be born with skin as dark as, or darker than, her own and Robert's, she was not prepared.
Copyright of Ebony is the property of Johnson Publishing Company and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.
Back to the top
Robert Browning Magazine/Journal Articles
The Browning Main Page