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In Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1868), the narrator buys an ‘old yellow book’ at a street market in Florence, containing documents from a seventeenth-century murder trial at Rome. He considers writing a poem based on the book, and tries to discover more about the case:

I took my book to Rome first, tried truth’s power
On likely people. "Have you met such names?
“Is a tradition extant of such facts?”

The response he receives is discouraging:

“Content you with your treasure of a book,
“And waive what’s wanting! Take a friend’s advice!
“It’s not the custom of the country. Mend
“Your ways indeed and we may stretch a point:
“Go get you manned by Manning and new-manned
“By Newman and, mayhap, wise-manned to boot
“By Wiseman, and we’ll see or else we won’t!”

What exactly are the ‘likely people’ saying here? The named individuals are English and Irish Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church, that is, Henry Edward Manning, John Henry Newman, and Nicholas Wiseman. Is the suggestion that the narrator needs to convert to Catholicism before he can expect anyone to help him?

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Cook summarizes these lines as follows:

The Roman authorities, before allowing Browning to ‘rove and rummage’ among their records, required, he says, that he should ‘mend his ways’, that he should be ‘manned’, ‘new-manned’, or ‘wise-manned’, i.e. that he should become a convert. It was not enough that one of the eminent Catholic priests upon whose names he puns should certify that he was a genuine student, or even that he should promise to refrain from attacks upon the Church.

Arthur Kemble Cook (1920). A Commentary Upon Browning’s The Ring and the Book, p. 15. Oxford University Press.

Fictionalization

Did something like this actually happen to Browning when he tried to research the Franceschini murder trial in Rome, or are these lines a fictional account of what he thought might have happened had he done so? The editors of the Oxford edition of Browning’s poems think that there might be some truth in it, quoting the following letter of Browning’s in support:

I should be glad of any scrap of information respecting the principals above mentioned […] It may be useful to mention while making enquiry, that the action of the Church in the whole matter was wholly laudable, and that it opposed the prejudices and passions of the time, for once, with success.

Robert Browning (no date, but c. June 1865). Letter to William Cornwallis Cartwright. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. Quoted in Stefan Hawlin and Tim Burnett, eds. (1998), The Poetical Works of Robert Browning volume VII, pp. xx–xxii, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Their argument is based on the resemblence between the letter to Cartwright and the corresponding section of The Ring and the Book:

The last paragraph of the letter is closely echoed in the poem at I.433–8, which suggests that Browning’s report there of his enquiries in Rome is likely to be substantively true, and that, as a Protestant and supporter of Italian nationalism, he had met with some suspicion in the winter of 1860–1 in asking about such a long-forgotten legal case. The Romans he consulted had assumed he was digging around for some anti-Catholic or anti-Papal propaganda.

Hawlin & Burnett, p. xxii.

But since both letter and poem are by Browning, this resemblence does not seem to me to require or justify this explanation. I prefer the skeptical position of Browning’s biographer Alexandra Orr:

Had Browning really gone to Rome and “tried truth’s power” in the manner supposed—if he had even done it while spending his last winter there—we should have had letters, fragments of conversation, a whole chapter of biography. Every friend of his in London who was interested in his work would have heard of it; I could not have failed to do so.

Alexandra Orr (25 March 1897). Letter to W. H. Griffin. Griffin Collections, vi. 62. Quoted in Hawlin & Burnett, p. 28.

Orr points out in her biography that the autobiographical details in The Ring and the Book are highly fictionalized:

It has often been told, though with curious confusion as regards the date, how Mr. Browning picked up the original parchment-bound record of the Franceschini trial, on a stall of the Piazza San Lorenzo [in Florence, in 1860]. We read in the first section of his own work that he plunged instantly into the study of this record; that he had mastered it by the end of the day; and that he then stepped out on to the terrace of his house […] and saw the tragedy as a living picture unfold itself before him. These were his last days at Casa Guidi. It was four years before he definitely began the work. The idea of converting the story into a poem cannot even have occurred to him for some little time, since he offered it for prose treatment to Miss [Anne Charlotte] Ogle, the author of ‘A Lost Love’; and for poetic use, I am almost certain, to one of his leading contemporaries.

Alexandra Orr (1891). Life and Letters of Robert Browning, p. 138. London: Smith, Elder & Co.

If Browning fictionalized the timetable of conception of The Ring and the Book in this way, he likely also fictionalized his account of its research.

Anti-Catholicism

So why did Browning think the Catholic Church might have objected to his researching the Franceschini case in their archives? The reason must be that Browning was well aware that he had a reputation as a critic of Catholicism, due to the fact that many of his poems feature hypocritical or corrupt clerics:

The general impression left on the mind by his Catholic allusions is, that he regards the Church and her ministers as in the main an organisation of ambitious and self-seeking imposters. Rarely, and perhaps even with the exception of Pope Innocent in The Ring and the Book, never, is an avowed Papist introduced into a poem in a creditable rôle; while not infrequently the subject-matter is some sordid tale of moral delinquency on the part of a priest or monk. The uniform unfavourableness of the poet’s handling of Catholic themes and the occasional asperity of his tone gives evidence, which cannot be mistaken, of his contempt for the creed of Rome.

‘J. B.’ (1913). ‘Robert Browning and the Catholic Church’. The Irish Monthly 41:477, p. 119.

Examples of these ‘sordid tales’ include ‘The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St Praxed’s Church’ (a dying bishop’s main concerns are decorative art, classical learning, and rivalry over a woman); ‘The Confessional’ (a corrupt priest violates the seal of confession); ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’ (one monk expresses his hatred for another); ‘Holy-Cross Day’ (the reaction of Jews on being forced to attend a Christian sermon); ‘The Heretic’s Tragedy’ (the burning of Jacques de Molay); and ‘The Pope and the Net’ (a cleric dissimulates piety until he been elected Pope).

The longest of Browning’s works in this tendency is ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology’ (1855), in which the bishop of the title (a light disguise for Cardinal Wiseman)

is at heart indistinguishable from the sceptic or the infidel, but has thrown in his lot with the Church for the material advantages which a high position in it can confer on him. […] The whole of this diatribe is, we fear, intended to be taken not as applicable merely to an individual, to wit, the Cardinal, but as equally serviceable to portrary the attitude of the Catholic hierarchy in general.

‘J. B.’, pp. 124–5.

Whether these poems are in fact motivated by anti-Catholicism as ‘J. B.’ claims, or whether Browning’s fascination with Renaissance Italy and the potential for dramatic irony in the character of a hypocritical churchman was too tempting for him not to return to the subject again and again, is hard to say. Browning defended his approach to the Catholic Church in a conversation with the Irish nationalist Charles Gavan Duffy:

I found throughout his poems the Catholic Church so habitually disparaged that I should have expected him […] of condemning it to perpetual subjection. Browning replied that the allusions to the Catholic Church, which I complained of, were mainly attributable to local circumstances. He had lived in Italy, and he took his illustrations of life from the facts which fell under his notice there; had he lived in England he would probably have taken them from the [Church of England]. I said I had always assumed that one of his illustrations from the Catholic Church which was English and certainly unfriendly, Bishop Blougram was intended to suggest Cardinal Wiseman. Yes, he said, Bishop Blougram was certainly intended for the English Cardinal, but he was not treated ungenerously.

Charles Gavan Duffy (1898). My Life in Two Hemispheres, vol. 2, p. 261. London: Unwin.

But even if you accept Browning’s defence, the accounts of ‘J. B.’ and Duffy show how he was perceived by Catholics, and hence what kind of reception he might have had if he had approached the Church in Rome during his research for The Ring and the Book.

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