By virtue of our own forthcoming Robert Browning exhibition at Eton College Library I was kindly invited to join the Browning Society on their trip to Balliol College, Oxford, to see the Balliol College Browning exhibition and something of Browning’s Oxford. The collections at Balliol have a wonderful Browning collection and some of the highlights recently on display in their store in the beautifully restored and converted St Cross Church.
The most exciting item for me was the ‘Old Yellow Book’ – yes, it doesn't actually sound very exciting, does it? Nor is it to look at. However this book was the inspiration for Browning’s magnum opus, the four volume The Ring and the Book, based on the true story of a late 17th century Roman murder story. Browning found this book of contemporary pamphlets recounting the trial of Count Guido in the market in San Lorenzo, Florence. Discouraged from using it as a basis for a poem by his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning because it was too sordid (Victorians, tut), he kept it both physically, and in the back of his mind, until nearly a decade later. At Balliol it was open at a page which is newly discovered to be the only one annotated by Robert Browning.
Balliol has come to have this treasure, among many others (one of which that clearly should be mentioned is a ring, thought for a long time to be the ring of the poem. Instead it is a ring given to him by his closest friend Isa Blagden, and partnered with one given to Elizabeth.), through Robert’s vow to do right by his son Pen, after Elizabeth’s death in 1861 and his move back to London. He tried to get Pen into Balliol (he failed, Pen did get into Christ Church but this was also short-lived, Pen was more interested in rowing and hunting than academic pursuits), and ended by himself becoming an Honorary Fellow. He also became a great friend of Benjamin Jowett. Browning loved Oxford and respected the honours bestowed on him at Balliol, perhaps they gave him a purpose after Elizabeth had died. More likely he was pleased with the recognition after he had been derided by the British public for most of his writing career. Whether this be true or no, Balliol seems a fitting resting place for all that wonderful Browning material. Research at the Balliol College Collections can be conducted by prior appointment.
The Eton College Library exhibition Robert Browning: Places and poems will run from 17 November 2012 - March 2013 and will include highlights such as Robert Browning manuscripts and letters, including one recounting Elizabeth's death, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sofa, with newly restored upholstery, from which she received Robert during their courtship. It is open by appointment, see link for contact details.