One of the big literary projects of the past 20 or so years has been the quest for a new form of biography. Readers and writers have reached the point where a purely linear approach that begins with the subject's birth and ends with their death is, in many cases, boringly predictable, particularly in the cases of canonical writers whose life stories are well known. In reaction to that, contemporary biographers are looking for other points of access.
Pamela Neville-Sington's solution to that dilemma is ingenious without being showy. She uses the death of Browning's wife, Elizabeth Barrett, in June 1861, as her principal vantage-point, much as Browning himself must have done at the time. We learn about Browning's life before meeting her, as well as their married years, but through the filter of Barrett's death. It is a daring stroke, and one that takes us close to the psychology of the poet. It helps explain a good deal about him as a man and a poet.
It places his later productiveness in perspective. Although his married years produced one of his finest volumes, Men and Women , Neville-Sington is right to point out that by comparison with his productivity after Barrett's death, Browning was costive during her lifetime. The implication, which Neville-Sington refrains from making too much of, is that marriage was bad for him, stemming his creativity, making him frustrated and bitter, something that can only have been aggravated by Barrett's success.
Neville-Sington does not go on about it but, if all this was so, Browning might well be expected to have experienced both guilt and relief at his wife's death - relief not least because he suspected it would unleash his creative energies. It also turned him into a magnet for unattached women of all ages. Such things can be difficult to account for, especially when those concerned are long dead. It is clear, however, from the evidence, that even in his 60s Browning was the possessor of a "deep-seated sensuality". This was something he had no difficulty communicating to women, to the extent that, on the basis of very little acquaintance, women could stumble into drawing-rooms declaring: "I thought till today that Mr Browning only cared for me platonically, but such is not the case, I assure you." Women loved him, and he them. Unable to marry him, the wealthier ones settled for being his patrons, giving him shares in their companies, or accommodating him and his sister in Venetian palazzos.
Besides a sure grasp of Browning's qualities as a man, Neville-Sington has a sound understanding of his poetry through which, she argues, much of his personal life was articulated. Unlike other biographies of poets that have nothing of interest to say about the literature, this one is packed with perceptive commentary on the works of Browning's later years.
Neville-Sington is particularly good on The Ring and the Book , which, she argues, broke "the soporific, opiate spell that Elizabeth had, unwittingly, cast over Robert's own poetic genius". She is good, too, on its reception, which was unexpectedly positive, not least from The Athenaeum : "Everywhere there is life, sense, motion - the flash of real faces, the warmth of real breath."
The real breath of the poet too is occasionally felt - as in Neville-Sington's description of Browning's love of animals, which led him to keep an owl and two geese named Edinburgh and Quarterly (after the two main review periodicals of the day). She is alert, too, to his character flaws, most obviously his tendency to subject his son, Pen, first to harsh criticism and then to adoration. And it is hard to warm to Browning's necrophiliac tendencies - the obsession with the afterlife, spiritualism, prophetic dreams and the existence (or not) of God. (He thought at one stage that his dead wife's spirit was making the walls of his house throb.) Neville-Sington never loses sight of the human context of all this, delivering a rounded and sympathetic portrait, placing the poetry in the context of a successful artistic career.
Her book will not be the last word on Browning, and experts will doubtless have reservations. But for those who have yet to engage seriously with him, it will make an excellent introduction to his life and work.
Duncan Wu is professor of English, Oxford University.
Robert Browning: A Life after Death
Author - Pamela Neville-Sington
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 340
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 297 64396 7