Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The uncompassionate poet and mother

Another extract from Margaret Forster's biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Wilson was her personal maid for many years, from just before she was married. She took on the arduous task of maintaining the household in Florence, but also in other places on their travels, taught herself Italian from a book, and spent a great deal of time babysitting the Brownings' only son (known as 'Pen.') In spite of this, when she finally asked for a rise in her meagre pay after many years, the Brownings (who were not badly off) rejected her request. In this extract, some years later, she had fallen in love with the household cook, whose sleeping accommodation was even smaller than Wilson's - and Wilson's private room was smaller than Robert Browning's dressing room. Forster's irritation with the selfishness of the Brownings often shows through in the book, not only in this passage.

Wilson and the cook, Ferdinando, had had intercourse sometime prior to the events described here, resulting in Wilson becoming pregnant. By this time the two servants were married (a crisis in itself for the Brownings) and all four were in London for a few months.

Wilson, unable by the end of August to hide her condition any longer, told Elizabeth she was expecting a baby in a few weeks' time. Elizabeth was appalled. She wrote to Henrietta [her married sister] on September 6th that she was not only 'shocked' but 'pained.' Clearly, the baby had been conceived in the Casa Guidi [the Brownings' longstanding rented accommodation in Florence] by the unmarried couple. She does not appear, for all her acknowledged recognition of the power of sexual attraction, to have thought back to the living accommodation in Casa Guidi, to that room of Wilson's next to the even smaller one where Ferdinando slept. The proximity for two people in love was irresistible.
As usual, it was not only the immorality which shocked Elizabeth, that admirer of George Sand [infamously known for her many lovers], but the deceit. She hated to think Wilson had not confided in her. She had never given Wilson the least cause to be sure of her sympathy and tolerance in such a situation but she was angry that she had not been naturally trusted. But at least her affection for, and gratitude to, Wilson was sufficient to make her try hard in this crisis to 'think chiefly of her many excellent qualities and of what she has done for me...' as she put it to Henrietta.
Quite what she was prepared to do for Wilson in this hour of her need was not at first clear. Obviously, Wilson would have to go somewhere to have her baby: she certainly could not give birth in her employers' lodgings. It was arranged that she would go to her sister's who lived in East retford (her mother had died two years before). Equally obviously, Elizabeth would need a new maid: managing on her own during Wilson's annual two week holiday was one thing, managing for six months another.
But these were trivial decisions compared to the underlying major one: would Wilson come back after the birth of her baby? Could she come back? Could she bring her baby with her? The Brownings' answer to that last question dictated all else: No, Wilson could not take her baby back to Casa Guidi. The apartment was too small, they could not afford another mouth to feed and Wilson would be unable to perform her duties properly. So they gave Wilson a choice: either she remained in their service, leaving her baby with her sister, or she left their service and kept her child. Where her husband Ferdinando fitted into this choice was for Wilson to work out. If she stayed in England, she lost him, unless he could miraculously find employment and support her and her child; and if she went back to Italy, she kept him but lost her child. She left for East Retford with no illusions, still undecided.
Nobody had offered her the only truly compassionate alternative: to keep both husband and baby, return with them to Italy, board the baby out nearby and continue working. Victorian employers though such magnanimity absurd. Elizabeth was a creature of her time in sharing what they saw as an entirely justifiable viewpoint: her peers would not have expected her to behave in any other way. But the author of Aurora Leigh [ie, Elizabeth], so concerned with the plight of poor working women, so close to a servant who had proved her loyalty over and over again at considerable personal risk, cannot be judged by conventional standards. Elizabeth failed Wilson as Wilson had never failed her. To take Wilson and her baby back to Italy would have been impractical, inconvenient, unreasonably charitable - but it would have not been impossible for people as resourceful and courageous as the Brownings.  [pages 302/3]

The saga continues some pages later. Another maid went back to Italy with them for an interim period, until they returned to London again. 

There was one farewell Elizabeth was thankful not to have to make: Wilson was coming with them. She had at last made her 'choice'.  A year alone with a baby in East Retford had most effectively decided her. (In fact, she had made her decision within two months of the Brownings' departure for Paris the year before and had told them so but they had said they considered they were bound to her replacement, Harriet, until they returned to London.)
After the return from the Isle of Wight and Somerset, Wilson had her baby Oreste brought down from East Retford for a final leave-taking before committing him to her sister's care. Elizabeth described him as 'a pretty, interesting baby...with great black Italian eyes.' His parents proposed sending part of their wages back to East Retford each month to support him until they could be reunited. When that would be, or how it would come about, nobody was optimistic enough to speculate.
Nowhere in Elizabeth's correspondence at the time did she express any compassion for Wilson's agony. The mother who adored her own child and had been overwhelmed by the violence of maternal feeling, and the poet who was about to publish a poem full of the tenderness of women for children, and a defence of the exploited working-class girl [Aurora Leigh], both seemed untouched by her own maid's anguish. This was a severely practical matter. Nobody had exploited Wilson, nobody had forced her into marriage or motherhood. She was a servant, she had married, she had had a baby: the rules of the game were laid down and Elizabeth abided by them.
But it is not, strictly speaking, true that she was obliged to do so. It was not even true that no Victorian family could take in a servant's baby. Josephine Butler, soon to be famous for the campaign she led against the Contagious Diseases Acts, wife of an Oxford don, had already done so: she took in an unmarried girl who had been seduced by a Balliol man and had borne his child. There are enough isolated examples of that kind of courage, that sort of deliberate flouting of social convention, to suggest that Elizabeth could have taken Wilson's baby home with them if she had really wanted to, if her compassion had been large enough. [pages 315/6]

There is something of a 'happy ending'.  After leaving the Brownings' service, Wilson eventually set up a boarding house in Florence, where she looked after the painter, Walter Savage Landor, among others. He had stayed with the Brownings in Florence some time before, after his wife left him. Wilson's son, Oreste, joined her at the boarding house when he was seven. (He had a younger brother by then, as well.)  Later, she abruptly left Italy and returned to England, setting up another boarding house there, but this venture failed. She returned to Italy, destitute except for ten pounds a year Robert Browning had allowed her for old times' sake. When the Browning's son, 'Pen', brought the Plazzo Rezzonico, he remembered the old servant and took her in. She lived with him there, then went to Asolo with him, where she died in 1902. Her husband Ferdinando seems to have parted company with her in the late 1870s, but turned up later and was also taken in by Pen. Plainly the son had more compassion than either of his parents. 
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