Perhaps all human courtships follow narrative precedents, but few make for such a satisfying story as that of the Brownings. The slightest imaginative pressure can transform the familiar facts of the case into a myth or fairy-tale, with each of the principals in the affair behaving wonderfully true to type: the spellbound maiden, mysteriously immobilised by an unnamed curse; the patriarchal ogre, who keeps his daughter locked away in a darkened room and turns aside all suitors; the lover who arrives with spring to break the spell and carry the heroine south, restoring her to health, happiness and fertility. Though luck must receive some credit for the happy ending of the tale, Daniel Karlin emphasises that theirs was doubly a writer's story, and that much of its narrative potential should be attributed to the participants themselves. Subject to many subsequent redactions, the love story on which they first collaborated would ironically become the two 'obscure' poets' most popular and accessible work. Rather than offer yet another retelling of the myth, Karlin's book seeks to analyse the process of myth-making, and the psychological and literary needs that process served.
LRB 7 November 1985 | PDF Download