The Ring and the Book, Robert Browning, 1869
Forgive me, ghost of Robert Browning, for what I am about to say.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do sometimes pretend that Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband, Robert, are watching me from beyond the grave. Just for fun. Because I love them and want them to be my guardian angels. Even though I don’t believe in angels or in any concept not supported by good data. Sometimes it’s comforting to let go of logic and just pretend.
I cannot, however, pretend that I enjoyed Robert Browning’s verse novel The Ring and the Book. It was a chore to read. Quite frankly, I skimmed parts of it.
Once upon a time, Robert Browning bought a Yellow Book, as he called it, from a street vendor in Italy. The book contained records of the 1698 trial of Guido Franceschini for three murders. The tale captivated Browning. After his wife’s death he set to writing a verse novel about the trial. Browning is famous for writing dramatic monologues: poems comprised entirely of a speech by the narrator. He sometimes chose figures from history and wrote speeches for them that revealed intimate psychological quirks and motivations. So, he naturally composed The Ring and the Book in a set of dramatic monologues in the voices of the characters involved in the trial.
This is a true crime verse novel, so I must tell you the sordid details of the crime. Guido Franceschini was an aristocratic Italian nobleman whose family was out of money (which is what happens when you don’t work, dummies). The age old answer to this problem is to marry someone rich, but far beneath your station. In his search for someone stupid enough to marry a broke, evil, 50-year-old Count, he found Pompilia who is twelve. Twelve. He married a twelve-year-old girl. 1698 not 698. Post-Enlightenment. Not the Dark Ages. Twelve. Here is a link to a charity dedicated to ending child marriage.
Pompilia and her parents move in with Count Guido. They discover that he is poor and cruel. He abuses them. Pompilia’s parents run away back to Rome. In an attempt to rescue their daughter or their money from Guido, they reveal that Pompilia is not their daughter by birth, but the adopted daughter of a prostitute. Theoretically, this will nullify the part of the contract that entitles Count Guido to all their money. Optimistically, perhaps they hoped that this information would cause Guido to annul the marriage and give them their daughter back. Instead, he took them to court on the grounds that they were lying and still owed him their money. Meanwhile, he tortured Pompilia to avenge himself on her unforthcoming parents.
Pregnant Pompilia convinces a priest, Giuseppe Capponsacchi, to help her escape her abusive husband by taking her back to Rome and her parents. Guido catches them enroute. Husband and wife plead their case to local authorities. They decide to send Pompilia away from her husband to a convent. They send Capponsacchi away as well.
Months later the nuns at the monastery decide to send Pompilia back to her parents “for her health,” meaning to give birth. Guido hears of this. A clause in his inheritance mumbo jumbo and his marriage contract entitles Guido to a rack of money if he has an heir and if Pompilia and her parents are dead. So, Guido enlists some friends to find the three of them and stab them to death. They are caught and arrested, tried and convicted. They appeal to the Pope. The Pope refuses to save Guido. He is executed.
This is a horrible story. It is true and it is sad. This might seem like quite a lot of plot. Trust me, it isn’t. Browning rehashes the entire story ten times. Ten. He tells the story in the intro, then we hear it again from the perspective of eight different people, twice from Guido makes ten. Ten times over the same details. We hear from the half of Rome that sides with Guido. Yes, half of Rome sided with him because…well because a husband has a right to murder his wife, if she’s unfaithful. (I am snarling at my computer screen as I type this.) Then we hear it from the half of Rome that sides with Pompilia, then a neutral third party, Guido, Capponsacchi, Pompilia on her death bed, two lawyers, the Pope, and Guido again on the verge of his execution.
This is hard stuff to read. Not just because reading 21,000 lines of poetry is arduous. I read Bryon’s verse poem, Don Juan, and loved it. It’s hard to read people justify murdering women because of adultery. Men can’t be legally murdered for this reason. Not that they should be. Just an example of the violent forms sexism can take. It’s hard to read that the only reason some people did not consider the murders justified is that they didn’t believe that Pompilia slept with Capponsacchi. They believed her when she claimed that he only helped her escape an abusive husband. It’s hard to read about domestic violence and spousal rape perpetrated against a teenager. It’s hard to read about a teenager treated as a pawn in a game for money. It’s hard to see her appeal to the religious authorities around her to rescue her from her abuser and have them reject her appeals, because she is not noble and he is. It’s a truly wretched story to read ten times over.
Browning, being the poetic genius that his is, of course reveals in each book psychological elements unconsidered in the previous books. It is chilling to hear Guido state that he could have mutilated his wife for her faults against him, but he was too kind. Pompilia’s testimony is sympathetic. Capponsacchi, under interrogation by church elders, correctly points out that the church knew Pompilia was in danger and did nothing to help her, so he did. And why should he be blamed? Browning’s poems are complex and deep. I prefer them in smaller more digestible chunks. There is a limit to the amount of philosophizing on one murder trial that I can personally stand. That limit lies somewhere between a Jack McCoy closing argument and The Ring and the Book. Much closer to Jack McCoy.
You might like The Ring and the Book if:
- you’re a rare combination of Italian history expert, verse novel adorer, and true crime addict.
You might not like The Ring and the Book if:
- your attention span has been shortened by television. Is that a real thing? Show me the data.
Final thoughts: I so often pretend the Brownings can hear me that I now must convince myself they cannot. If what Robert Browning wanted to do was bury himself so completely in a complex project that he lost sight somewhat of his grief over his wife’s death, I think he may have succeeded. This is a complex and profound book, if you find legal and religious waffling to be profound. I do not. To give him his due credit, I assume that Browning’s criticism of religion seemed cogent and relevant at the time. I don’t need to be convinced that religious men of power are hypocrites. I didn’t get much out of this text, except sadness for all the child brides who have lived, are living and will live in this world.