‘He was a rich banker, he was a perfected butler’

  • Julian Hawthorne


My appointment-book for that week mentions ‘Smalleys, 5 p.m.’1 It had become a pleasant and profitable habit to go to afternoon tea there Thursdays. … The room was spacious, with a large bow window, in which, on these afternoons, Robert Browning was often to be found philandering with Mrs Smalley’s pretty daughters and telling them fairy-tales. How different from when I had first seen him in Siena and Florence twenty years before! Then he was a man of five-and-forty, but still a boy, leaping across the narrow Siena street, apparently over a waggon that was passing, both hands outstretched, his vivid face alight in his brown jungle of bushy hair and beard, buoyant, impetuous, torrential in speech, greeting my father and mother, and even the urchin with them. ‘Fine boy! Kindling eyes!’ — marshalling us to his ‘studio’ — for he was to be a painter then as well as poet — unveiling on an easel a large canvas, with an heroic figure, life size, scrawled on it in black chalk. Or, later, in our Montauto villa on Bellosguardo, overlooking Florence, he and his little black-haired wife, like a witch etching by Dulac, both intent upon the performance of our plain little American governess, who happened to be a ‘writing medium’. But Browning was scoffing and sceptical, while his wife vibrated with faith, as before a Divine epiphany; and our poor governess, who was also a sceptic, in spite of her endowment, was acquiring a bad headache.


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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2000

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  • Julian Hawthorne

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