A Manuscript Mystery: The Fragment Within Browning’s “Colombe’s Birthday”

By Timothy Gress, Coordinator
October 27, 2020

Robert Browning as a young man, engraved by J. C. Armytage. Pforzheimer Collection.

Guest post by Timothy Gress, an MA student of English at New York University and an MSLIS student at the Palmer School of Library and Information Science.

The English Victorian poet Robert Browning, best known today for his mastery of the dramatic monologue (and his marriage to fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett) was, by the time of his death in 1889, one of the most famous people in the English-speaking world. His early life and work were greatly influenced by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Browning became so inspired after reading Shelley as a teenager that, following in Shelley's footsteps, he became (for a time) both an atheist and a vegetarian. Though Browning's opinion of Shelley changed later in life, a friend once said that during these early years, "Shelley was his God."

Victorian writers were not the particular collecting specialty of the 20th century New York financier and book collector Carl H. Pforzheimer, but his penchant for Shelley, and disciples of Shelley, led him to collect books and manuscripts by Browning, all of which are now a part of the NYPL's Pforzheimer Collection. Mr. Pforzheimer acquired several key Browning items, such as the rare first edition of Browning's first book, Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession (1833), in its original binding, at the 1920 sale of the Shelley bibliographer and literary forger Harry Buxton Forman.

Arguably Mr. Pforzheimer's most important Browning acquisition at the Buxton Forman sale, however, was the manuscript of Browning's early dramatic work Colombe's Birthday. First published as the sixth number of the Bells and Pomegranates series in 1844, Colombe's Birthday focuses on the misadventures of the fictional Duchess Colombe on the anniversary of her coronation. The colorful history of this vellum-bound manuscript is best illustrated in a letter (Pforzheimer Manuscript MISC 0811) that Browning wrote to Buxton Forman after the latter purchased it at auction in June of 1877. Browning wrote:

. . . So, you brought my Manuscript the other day. I made it for the use of [the actor] Charles Kean and his wife—to whom I read it. They would have acted the play—but in perhaps two or three years to come, and in the mean time I was to keep it unprinted—an arrangement which did not suit me: whereupon I withdrew it and included it in my  'Bell and Pomegranates.' It was never in the Prompter's hands, I think: the excisions were my own, –also the pencil marks which emphasize any word in a passage. When it came back from the Printer, my father caused the [manuscript] to be bound, and I have no notion how it passed out of his or my possession. It is the single poem in the series that I copied with my own hand . . . .

Detail of Playbill for Performance of Colombe's Birth-day. Pforzheimer Collection.

Browning's letter helps explain how and why the manuscript was produced. Another important resource on the subject is the later unpublished essay on Colombe's Birthday by Buxton Forman, a copy of which was provided to me by the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Butxon Forman's essay, like Browning's letter, points out the manuscript's "numerous words underlined in pencil to show where the weight is to fall in delivery, some words being doubly underlined for special emphasis." These unique markings, not preserved in any other form, could be very useful to scholars of Browning and of historical drama alike, and could potentially provide stage managers and actors with what Buxton Forman termed an "invaluable service."

One curious aspect of the Colombe's Birthday manuscript  was left unaddressed by either Browning or Buxton Forman. On the last three pages, written upside down, we find the beginnings of another play, titled "Otho, or The Last Day," dated June 13, 1847. These pages, in an unidentified hand, are only described in the Buxton Forman auction catalog as "pencil notes at the end." Surprisingly, "Otho" isn't mentioned at all in modern scholarly assessments of the Colombe's Birthday manuscript.

I wondered: could it be a fragment by Browning himself, somehow neglected by Browning scholars? Might it be the beginnings of a work by someone else? I set myself the task to try to identify just who wrote this curious fragment. 

Detail from "Otho" fragment within Colombe's Birthday manuscript. Pforzheimer Collection.

COVID-19 and the temporary closure of NYPL's research centers prevented me from taking photographs of the "Otho" fragment myself. Recently, after Charles Carter of the Pforzheimer Collection provided me with a digital copy of the manuscript, I started contacting specialists intimately familiar with Browning's hand. I hoped that someone, upon seeing the sample images I sent, might be able to help me unravel this little mystery.

The first three scholars I consulted assured me that "Otho" was not in Browning's hand, though they couldn't identify in whose hand it was. They did all acknowledge, however, that the handwriting exhibited some similarities to that of the poet.

Philip Kelley and Edward Hagen, editors of the Brownings' published correspondence, also saw similarities to Browning's hand, but were able to explain why: the "Otho" fragment, they told me, was in fact written by Robert Browning, Sr. (1782-1866), the poet's father,  a clerk at the Bank of England. Browning, Sr. helped to fund three of his son's first four poetical publications and, as mentioned in the Browning letter excerpt above, was the one responsible for having the Colombe's Birthday manuscript bound.

Otho, the Roman emperor who ruled for three months in 69 A.D., is the subject not only of this dramatical fragment, but also of Shelley's poem, "Otho," and John Keats's verse drama, "Otho the Great." It's unknown if Browning, Sr. was familiar with or influenced by these Romantic works; it is of course very possible that Otho's story came to him directly through the study of ancient history. Regardless, "Otho, or The Last Day" (along with another Pforzheimer Collection item made by Browning, Sr.: an album of amusing character sketches, drawn about a decade after his 1851 retirement) provides us an interesting—and unexpected—insight into the life of this father of a literary giant, and how he spent his leisure time.