Tuesday, 22 April 2008

The Brownings and Florence

At the age of 43 year old Elizabeth Barrett Browning gave birth to her first and only child, her son Pen, in the bedroom of the Casa Guidi in Florence. The most celebrated woman poet of her time had found new reserves of stamina since her departure from the life of a quasi-invalid in the stuffy bedroom at Wimpole St. And she had, at the age of 40, found love. Husband Robert whose devotion seems never to have wavered called her “A soul of fire in a shell of pearl.”


A visitor who rents the Brownings’ Italian home from the Landmark Trust can sleep in that bedroom (where Elizabeth was to die 12 years later) though not in the original bed. The furnishings were all sold at auction at Sothebys in 1912. Only the efforts of the Browning Society of New York saved the apartment itself from being converted to offices in the 1970s.

When I was spending a winter in Florence in the early 90s, I attended a rather forlorn cocktail party at the Casa Guidi just opposite the Palazzo Pitti. The rooms were almost empty except for portraits of the poets. The American hosts from the Browning Institute served us sherry and spoke in that valiant American way of their plans to retrieve or replace all the furniture so that the place would look the way it had in the Browning’s day. I didn’t think they had much hope of success. The restoration plan did prove difficult but help came in 1993 when ownership was transferred to Eton College. The Landmark Trust was brought into act as agents and in July 1995, the restored Casa Guidi was reopened for rent to up to six people.

Anybody who has looked for a flat in London will find comfort in reading of how Robert Browning traipsed around Florence “returning in despair,” in Elizabeth’s words, when he was looking for a cool summer place for them to rent. He finally found the Casa Guidi and for that first summer they replaced a Russian prince and lived among his luxurious furnishings. When they returned the following year they bought their own furnishings and drapes. Although a lot of the original furniture has been lost, one of their favourite pieces an exuberant rococo mirror with very plump cherubs clutching candlesticks, still hangs on the drawing room wall. Elizabeth’s mother-of- pearl tea caddy is displayed on a table. The portrait of her father, who never forgave her for marrying, still hangs in the bedroom.

In our driven workaholic age, I found it refreshing to read that in their early years at Casa Guidi, these two great poets didn’t bother writing much poetry. Robert sculpted and painted. He confessed to a friend that he could “with an unutterably easy heart, never write another line.” He went out a lot in the evenings and was very popular with women although he seems to have remained devoted to his wife. Elizabeth wrote to a friend that “being too happy doesn’t agree with literary activity.” More reclusive than her husband she was content to lie around on one of her eight sofas reading “wicked” French novels. Most of all and hard to believe in our cynical times, they seemed happy just to be together, walking on the narrow terrace in the evenings, going to Doney’s café for an ice cream or sitting on the Ponte Vecchio. When they did venture out, for example to hear “Signor Verdi’s very passionate and dramatic new opera “Il Trovatore” at the Pergola theatre, the low cost of living in Florence meant that they could do it in style and rent a box and order champagne. When they stayed home they ordered in from the trattoria across the road.

A lot of what the Brownings did in Florence is not that different from what a contemporary visitor would do today. Doney’s café only disappeared a few years ago. Nowadays the Pergola theatre tends to concentrate on prose with the Teatro Communale providing the operas. A visit to the Casa Guidi is a good opportunity to discover the “Oltrarno” district of Florence. Traditionally the poorest district of Florence, it is earthier, less fashionable, more of a neighborhood than the other side of the river. Conscious of the traffic problems in the cramped, narrow streets, the city has introduced electrical “Bussini ecologici “- little ecological buses. Line D will take you round the Oltrarno district with frequencies every eight minutes. On the second Sunday of each month a flea market is held just a block from Casa Guidi on Piazza Santo Spirito.

Elizabeth Browning is buried in the Protestant Cemetery, situated these days in the middle of the Viale, the ring road that circles central Florence. I tried to cross and pay her a return visit but the traffic was too frenetic. I retreated gratefully to the peace of my 21st century hotel.

For further information:http://www.landmarktrust.org.uk

Saturday, 19 April 2008

HG Wells, The War of the Worlds and Woking

Stephen Spielberg and Tom Cruise in Woking? It was never going to happen. Woking is a very ordinary town, an hour's train ride south of London. It lacks the drama that Americans have the ability to confer on their dullest destinations. So Tom Cruise flees those spindly monster tripods as he travels from Athens, New York to his inlaws' house in Boston.


But walk out of Woking station, turn right and head along the diagonal street towards the precinct. And there he is at the end of the street. Wells' weird and wonderful Martian on his tripod watching over the Saturday shoppers in the precinct. Wells himself lived in Woking and would wander the nearby heathlands with his brother Frank discussing the great questions of life. They, like us, were living at the birth of a technological revolution: telegrams, electricity and fast news were new arrivals on their scene. "Suppose" Frank once asked "some beings from another planet were to drop out of the sky suddenly" and thus the 1898 novel was born.


The Martian cylinders land in familiar suburban locations: Horsell Common, Addlestone Golf Links, Pyrford. The narrator's journey takes him not through Cruise and Spielberg's contemporary New York and New Jersey but along the hedgerows of southern England to a devastated London. The book is a fast, exciting read, worth revisiting and making the Spielberg film look clunky and sentimental in comparison.