Author: Gilbert, Katherine Anne
Date published: October 1, 2011
Journal code: PVCP
In his 1869 review of Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book, Robert Buchanan wrote that "at last, the opus magnum of our generation lies before the world. . . .The fascination of the work is still so strong upon us, our eyes are still so spell-bound by the immortal features of Pompilia (which shine through the troubled mists of the story with almost insufferable beauty), that we feel it difficult to write calmly and without exaggeration; yet we must record at once our conviction, not merely that The Ring and the Book is beyond all parallel the supremest poetical achievement of our time, but that it is the most precious and profound spiritual treasure that England has produced since the days of Shakespeare."1 Such effusive praise for Browning's newest work was not rare, and Victorian readers were in surprisingly uniform agreement that the young wife, Pompilia, was one of Browning's greatest figures and gave the poet credit for aesthetic greatness on the basis of his crafting of this beautiful character.2 Yet while readers sang the praises of Pompilia, as if she were a living Victorian angel in the house, they suggested that readers could simply skip over the lawyers' monologues completely, and that nothing would be lost in doing so. One reviewer wrote that "few of his [Browning's] readers will not feel a little resentment at Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis, and Juris Doctor Johannes-Baptista Bottinius. These characters ought to have acted (and are intended to act) as a foil to the deep tragedy of the piece. . . . They are, however, too irredeemably silly, and that not with a humorous but with a wearisome silliness."3 Another reviewer, typical in his reaction to the lawyers, "suggests that, having written them, the poet should have suppressed them."4 And yet another that "the two lawyers we could dispense with; they constitute the marked blemish of the whole piece."5 At the time of publication, and for a good century afterwards, the arguments of the lawyers as a whole were considered to be a distraction from the book, an aesthetic problem, something that could, and perhaps should, be avoided by readers, and something whose exception would not harm readers' abilities to grasp the plot, themes, and meaning of the work.
What a survey of readers' responses also suggests is that Pompilia and the lawyers represent two starkly contrasted poles of moral and institutional experience. The angelic Pompilia is in the world of the domestic, the private, and the pure. She is a victim, and all the more likable for her unbelievable suffering. Pompilia's passionate but surprisingly forgiving monologue, for example, is delivered while she lies dying from the twenty-two sword wounds inflicted upon her by Guido and his hired thugs. The lawyers, in contrast, are part of the outside world: the professional, the institutional, and the sullied. The lawyers show little compassion for the victims, and, it is argued, are continually distracted by their self-centered concerns which pull them away from their ethical duties as lawyers. Furthermore, their movement back and forth between English and Latin is disorienting to the reader; the intrusion of professional legal language forces the reader to undertake laborious reading exercises to understand what the lawyers are saying. Hence the characters have been divided, since the publication of the Ring and the Book, along the lines of pure/private/domestic and corrupt/public/institutional.6
Now one might expect recent critics to be less absorbed by questions of moral character-to prize the aesthetic or the ironic or the political over a sense of personal honor and appeal-but intriguingly, modern critics have continued to judge and discuss the quality of Browning's characters in ways that depend on the division of public and private, a division that they have largely taken for granted as a natural structuring principle in The Ring and the Book. Many of the more recent readings have attempted to correct Victorian readings of Pompilia by criticizing Browning for an antifeminist construction of Pompilia, or by celebrating the ways in which Pompilia has greater agency than she at first appears to possess, but in either case they have judged Pompilia, in large part, based on their perceptions of her access to the public sphere. That is, a variety of recent arguments respond to the long history of readings of Pompilia as an innocent, one who is simple, na´ve, full of wonder at the world, without anger, maternal, kind, and, importantly, utterly helpless. William Walker, for example, argues that Pompilia really has greater command of language than it may seem, and she makes conscious choices in telling her story.7 In contrast, Candace Ward suggests that Browning's reconstruction of Pompilia, while an advance over Guido's misogynist vitriol, only places her in another box, one that also contains the Victorian angel in the house.8 Susan Brown claims that Pompilia tells the tale of a passive victim as part of her larger strategy as an active agent, and this method has much in common with that used by Victorian feminists.9 And Melissa Valiska Gregory argues that the three previous readings do not take into account Browning's new experiments with form: Pompilia is a kinder, gentler speaker as a result of Browning's attempt to have a speaker who rhetorically seduces, rather than coerces, the listener.10 But crucially, while these critics differ in their conclusions, they presuppose the importance of Pompilia's capacity or incapacity to act in the public sphere as essential to judging her character, and to judging Browning's poetry.
Something similar happens in contemporary responses to the lawyers. To be sure, critics no longer merely dismiss the lawyers; in fact, it is in their monologues, some now argue, that Browning's own larger concerns with truth, language, fact, and fancy most clearly come to the fore. The lawyers and the poet, several recent arguments suggest, have much in common in terms of linguistic craft, and attention to the rhetorical strategies used by the lawyers in constructing their cases sheds light on Browning's own larger creative project. 11 Another set of critics argues that while the lawyers' monologues are in the category of satire, it is satire with a crucial purpose: a critique of the legal system. The value of the lawyers, here, is that they serve to unveil the corruption of the public sphere: one critic suggests that "professionally the lawyer's finer sensibilities have been brutalized by the insensibility and the inhumanity of the legal system which he serves"; another that the "failure to achieve selfhood" we see in the lawyers is not because they are "victims of self-interest . . . but of institutionalism"; and yet another that in the lawyers' books, "it is Browning's intent to show that the machinery of social justice is as prejudiced as public opinion, and no more capable of distinguishing between right and wrong."12 The lawyers are by-products of unjust legal mechanisms. Here, the official, public institution corrodes the individual character; the lawyers are failures because the institutional world has so swallowed the lawyers' selves that it has, essentially, ruined their humanity. Other critics, however, make the opposite claim: that Browning shows how the legal machinery is broken because the individuals who move within it are individually corrupt and thus have contaminated the system. Jerome Wyant succinctly articulates this stance: "the crucial, as well as novel, point set forth in Books VIII and IX [the lawyer's monologues] is simply that law as an instrument of man will finally be as weak, or as strong, as its maker and manipulator."13 Here the public institution is weak because of the private weaknesses of the individuals themselves.
Though modern critics disagree about the characters of the lawyers, then, as they do about Pompilia, here too they routinely base their judgments on assumptions about the proper division between private and public, between individual and institutional: Are the lawyers failures because they are extensions of institutions that are corrupt? Or are the institutions corrupt because of the failure of the selfhood of the lawyers? Are the lawyers' failures of character due to their obsessive professionalism, which translates into a lack of sympathy for their clients' domestic trauma and a mechanical, inhumane form of argumentation, or are the lawyers in fact too distracted from their work by personal concerns-family and food in the case of Archangelis, sexual desire and misogyny in the case of Bottinius-to be good professionals? And finally, is their manipulation of language a sign of legal skill, successful classical training, and professional rhetoric, or is it only a sign of deceit, dishonesty, and failure of ethical character?
I argue that in their own critical judgments, both Victorian and modern critics have missed Browning's crucial and deliberate point about the relationship between public and private spheres: for Browning, the characters of both Pompilia and the lawyers evolve out of the very same logic, a logic that suggests that public and private are in fact never separate and are continually acting upon one another. Rather than insisting on the separation of spheres, Browning helps us to see that character itself grows precisely out of a constant blending of public and private realms.14 Here I will focus on the political implications of Browning's formal strategies. I begin with a discussion of the term character as both a literary and ethical concept and show how character draws our attention to a suturing of the public and private. Browning renders form political again when it comes to the structure of the lawyers' distractions in their monologues: their inability to focus on the task at hand, as they wander from home to work and back again, further draws readers' attention to the fact that the two realms look more and more alike and even mirror each other. We also see that out of the lawyer's distractions are forged their own fictional versions of Pompilia's character: early silencing of Pompilia by institutional figures as a response to her pleas for protection from her husband allowed for a narrative space, one which the lawyers fill with their troubling constructions of Pompilia's character. Yet through Browning's creation of his own version of Pompilia, who speaks aloud to the public in the form her own monologue, Browning rejects attempts to limit women from asserting their rights in the public sphere. While the lawyers do not see Pompilia as a legal person with rights, Browning's literary creation is an intervention in and criticism of legal systems that perpetuate such beliefs, beliefs that depend upon a strict division and gendering of public and private realms. But equally importantly, my analysis of character and distraction reveals that Browning also calls for specific types of intervention by the state in matters of the home. Hence Browning's use of literary form calls for political reform: his use of character and distraction draws readers' attention to the fact that state powers already shape matters of the home, and that its refusal to intervene in domestic violence is a failure of institutional ethics.
While recent critics have clearly taken on complex and nuanced positions in evaluating Pompilia and the lawyers, almost none of those doing this work have put forward explicit theories of character as a conceptual category. Yet an understanding of how character functions as a literary and ethical concept is important to an analysis and reevaluation of Pompilia and the lawyers. After all, the work is made up of a series of literary characters who plead to be heard by judges and readers alike, and central to their arguments are tales of ethical failures. So, what does character mean to Browning? Of what does character consist? In what ways can we think about the term "character" that will help us to better understand the implications of a failed self, a public figure, a professional, and the relationship between the individual and the institutional, or, between the individual fictional character and the reading public? In response to these questions, here I suggest that at the center of Victorian constructions of character was a complex and surprising interrelationship between the private and the public.
William Walker is one of the few critics of The Ring and the Book to offer a definition of character. Walker was the first to argue that critics have misread Pompilia by mistakenly excluding her monologue from the rules of genre that apply to all of the other monologues in the book-specifically, irony and a desire on the part of the speaker to persuade his or her audience of a particular perspective. Walker argues that Pompilia "explicitly acknowledges that motives and aims underlie her monologue and speaks in such a way as to indicate a poignant awareness of her audience. . . . [S]he is intent upon altering the minds of her listeners."15 Walker ascribes to Pompilia a greater sophistication than have earlier critics, and he argues that she is aware of the need to project a public construction of herself that will sway her audience towards a particular position.
In his conclusion, Walker reflects on what it means to think about character in literary studies today. He writes that
It should be noted that one of the assumptions of this constitution of Pompilia, like all other constitutions of her, has been that it is reasonable to speak of a thing which is designated by the word "character." It has been assumed that behind Pompilia's monologue there is some kind of fictional totality of consciousness identical with itself which has certain definite characteristics. And it has been assumed that the name "Pompilia" properly designates this entity. This notion of character as a kind of totality, however, is open to the critiques that Nietszche, Derrida, and others have directed against the notions of identity and totality. The deconstructive critic would not be concerned with describing the qualities of a unified fictional self that can be inferred from a monologue, but with the way in which a monologue points to a multiplicity of fictional selfhood, a fictional consciousness that is discontinuous with itself and perpetually articulating its own lack of identity. Hence, even though the constitution of Pompilia here presented differs significantly from the conventional understanding of her, it remains within the basic assumptions of the conventional view. (Walker, p. 61)
While acknowledging Nietszchean and deconstructive critiques of character, Walker ultimately opts for an understanding of character that "remains within the basic assumptions of the conventional view" of character, the conventional view being one that sees character as a "unified fictional self " (p. 61). Yet the history of the term character suggests that the gap between an older view and more recent arguments about character is not as wide as one might think. Nineteenth-century understandings of character were also invested in questions of "discontinuity." Amanda Anderson's recent work on character is particularly useful here: Anderson points out that for nineteenth-century public figures, morality shaped one's larger public and institutional actions, and such actions in turn shaped one's morality.15 Anderson rigorously engages with contemporary understandings of the term character in literary and political theory and reveals that character cannot, as some argue, be placed at the opposite pole from reason and argument. Thus character is not, for example, a manifestation of what we now think of as personality or behavioral tendencies; rather, character is what has prodded individuals to be mindful of practicing rational, scientific, and theoretical positions in their everyday private lives. Anderson returns specifically to the Victorians to argue for their notion of character as a way of enacting ethical, theoretical, arguments in the social world. For nineteenth-century public figures, she suggests, one's "moral fate," or character, was indelibly inscribed within one's larger public and institutional actions (p. 138).
Anderson's rethinking of what has been cast as an antagonistic opposition between public rationality and private ethos allows us to move beyond the strict separation of spheres to articulate the possibility that character in the Victorian period is actually a meeting ground of state institutions, procedure, and professional practice, on the one hand, and personal and ethical action, on the other. That is, I suggest that character is related to public representations of the self and a juncture of the internal with the social. The concept of character appears in the nineteenth-century texts at moments in which an individual must make decisions in the face of social or institutional constraints, decisions that require individual agency and action in the face of conflict. Character is not about personality, or even ever solely the personal; instead it is about conscious public representations of the self: a meeting of the internal with the social, of the individual with the institutional, and a movement back and forth between the domestic and the public. Character, importantly, is also about judgment: since the Victorian period, we have fallen into the habit of judging a person's character based on our assessment of their actions in the moments when public and private meet. Thus character is not possible without a public space because character, since the nineteenth century, demands an external public realm in which it can act and be judged.
Anderson also argues that contemporary literary theory, while it claims to have rejected concepts of character, has already implicitly embraced character in its "turn to ethics."16 The title of Walker's essay, "Pompilia and Pompilia," already points to the ways in which his own discussion of literary character, which he places within the bounds of the conventional view of character, has much in common with current literary theory: it implies that the private individual, Pompilia, works to portray a public version of herself that will sway the judges and public. In this sense, Pompilia's literary character has not simply to do with private ethics but with the public representation of those beliefs, here in the institutional sphere. That each speaker in the monologues casts his or her actions in the context of what was the right thing to do makes this double register especially clear. Literary character and ethical character in The Ring and the Book are working to produce one another simultaneously; references to one regularly evoke the other.
Lawyers, as literary characters in nineteenth century English works, are particularly useful in helping us to theorize character as both a literary and ethical concept. Nineteenth-century English law was surprisingly similar to its feudal state, both in terms of content and procedure, something that Utilitarians pointed out during their push for wholesale reform and clarification of English law. The success of lawyers, and of solicitors in particular, depended upon their ability to move between families' inner sanctums (often landed families), who were in need of guidance in managing their wealth, and the institutional realm in which lawyers made complex legal arguments. Lawyers appear in Victorian novels when a family is in a bind in regards in particular to questions about lines of inheritance, wills, and marriages. To carry out his work, the lawyer must merge his knowledge of families' private lives (including sensitive details about children out of wedlock, sons who will not inherit, marriages that are made for economic reasons, and so on) with his knowledge of extraordinarily arcane and obscure English law.
We can see anxiety about the ethical character of lawyers, in for example, fears about lawyers' use of Latin in their work: some clients could quite literally not understand what their lawyers were saying or writing. Lawyers were accused of intentionally mystifying their discourse, something that could help them circumvent ethical practices and procedures. But because of this lack of firsthand understanding about an exceptionally arcane field of knowledge, families judged lawyers based upon what we can think of as questions of ethical character: Was the lawyer honest and forthcoming? Did the lawyer's public and private selves match? Was the lawyer who he appeared to be? A judgment about whether a lawyer is a good lawyer might be made then without an understanding of his actual work; instead, the grounds for assessment shifted to those made up of concerns over character, here a transparency in and unity between one's private self and public presentation of that self. While Browning writes about a legal case in Italy and his Victorian literary creations are based on seventeenth-century lawyers, his work raises similar concerns, and we have seen the ways in which these concerns, although not specified as being anchored on questions of character, have arisen in the verse novel's reception history.
While, as I have suggested, modern readings no longer make aesthetic judgments of the monologues based solely on the literary characters' ethics, they do continue to assess the literary characters based on a division of public and private. At the heart of modern readings of their characters is the question of whether Pompilia has access to the public sphere, the claim that Archangelis cares more about his family than work, and the claim that Bottinius only cares for professional advancement. And yet, what may be the most common criticism launched against the lawyers, that they are thoroughly distracted from the task at hand, I suggest, reveals that all three characters cannot be read through the logic of a strict separation of spheres. The connections between the three characters are particularly telling in this respect. The lawyers' wandering minds and self-centered concerns reveal a lack of interest in discovering the facts of who Pompilia was and what she did. The lawyers undoubtedly are indifferent to any truth about Pompilia and in turn smear her through their own creation of versions of Pompilia. In other words, the lawyers' inattention to the job at hand does not leave a vacuum; instead it creates versions of the character of Pompilia. Their apparent psychological absence of mind, then, does not lead to a formal or literary absence: instead, as I will demonstrate, out of their back and forth movement between the domestic and work they create Pomipilia's character, both in the literary and ethical sense of the term.
The Politics of Form: Distraction as Production
The production of character and the mechanics of distraction operate on similar ground here. The genre of the dramatic monologue allows Browning an especially productive means to show how character is deeply embedded in the dynamic between public and private. Famously, Browning's literary characters often reveal their selves to the reader unwittingly. As they speak aloud to a silent listener, they unintentionally give themselves away: we are required to both reread the lines, and read between the lines, in order to gain some sense of who the speaker is. We judge speakers according to what they do not say, as well as what they do say, and precisely how they say it. But while in all of Browning's dramatic monologues readers must work to interpret and evaluate the speaker, judgment in The Ring and the Book is a particularly charged term that has everything to do with the relationship between the personal and the institutional. After all, in a trial narrative, the evaluating audience is, in fact, a real set of judges. Those who listen are not simply the parlor mates of Tertium Quid, but a powerful panel that performs official, institutional judgments. And their judgments must rely on evaluations of persons-of guilty motives and innocent pleas-and of domestic, intimate relationships. Thus the dramatic monologue form of The Ring and the Book highlights the fraught and difficult act of public judgment in relation to character, and the lawyers and Pompilia, who are continually negotiating movements between public and private, serve as crucial conduits for this question.
In the case of the lawyers, we gain access as they are preparing their briefs, while imagining that the official judges are present, in preparation for trial. Critics have routinely condemned the characters of the lawyers-in both aesthetic and ethical terms-for the choices they make in their legal arguments and the seeming distractions that pull them away from their work. Browning's lawyers fail, it is said, partly because they are distracted from their institutional roles and specifically from an ethical work process: they cannot seem to stay on topic, and this inability is read as professional indifference. Thanks to the form of the dramatic monologue, we follow the wandering of their minds but also judge the characters based upon our assessment of these wanderings away from official duty. The two senses of the word character hereby converge: the characters of the lawyers, in the ethical sense that they as individuals negotiate their institutional roles, then prompt us to judge the literary characters of the lawyers. But Browning's literary technique also complicates our understanding of the separation of spheres: it is not simply that distraction shows us ethical problems with the characters of the lawyers, but that it manifests, through form, Browning's social understanding of these spheres as being intimately intertwined.
To see how this works, we need to turn to the technical details of the case first, and connections between the lawyers and Pompilia are particularly important here. While it is Guido who is on trial, in reality, Pompilia becomes the focus of the lawyer's attention. This is partly because of the nature of Guido's case. The trial was described, in the published documents contained in the Old Yellow Book, as "'A Roman case of Homicides about whether a Husband may kill an Adulterous wife'"; the subtitle explains that therein "'it is disputed if and when a husband may kill an adulterous wife without incurring the regular death penalty.'"17 As the question is one of whether a husband should be allowed to escape punishment after murdering a wife who is unfaithful, Guido's future depends upon what the judges will believe about Pompilia's actions in the past. If the judges are convinced of her infidelity, they may decide that Guido was justified in his response and thus can escape capital punishment. If they are convinced of the purity of her past, Guido will be hanged. Because of this, the lawyers move from focusing upon Guido to focusing upon Pompilia, and it is Pompilia who suffers the most for the lawyers' indifference to, and distraction from, their proper professional roles. The distracted lawyers construct whatever character for Pompilia that they believe will best suit their cases. Hence, distraction, here, has life-and-death consequences.
But I want to suggest that distraction, because of its most obviously harmful and unethical consequences, has, ironically, also distracted readers from seeing the larger political implications of the formal technique itself. Critics have suggested that the specific distractions of each lawyer have aligned them with either the public or private sphere; Archangelis is more interested in the domestic than the public and Bottinius in the public and institutional than the domestic. Then, when the lawyers are placed together and against Pompilia in critical discussion, both lawyers become aligned with the institutional and Pompilia with the domestic. Yet distraction is in fact a formal operation that further reveals the ways in which private and public are forever intertwined in The Ring and the Book. The lawyers are indeed distracted by a very specific and repeated set of concerns. While Archangelis constructs his case, he can barely keep his mind off his son's upcoming birthday celebration and education in Latin, his cook's culinary skills, and his domestic life in general. Bottinius, in contrast, appears to be obsessed with professional success and utterly indifferent to the domestic. His own desire to impress the judges, for example, guides and misguides his argument. With Bottinius, hopes for institutional fame dislodge a desire to present the facts of the case; he hopes that an argument that is dramatic, florid, and salacious in its details will win over the favor of the judges, whether or not the details in his argument are factual or fictitious.18 These tendencies in the lawyers are those that critics have suggested most clearly demonstrate the lawyers are affiliated with one realm or another. But Browning ultimately reveals these distractions as reflections: what appears to be a turning away from the institutional realm by Archangelis is in fact a returning to the institutional; what appears to be an indifference to the domestic in Bottinius is really an unhealthy obsession with one particular marriage in the domestic realm. Instead of revealing a division between private and public, distraction reveals their very suturing. Through the use of distraction, Browning suggests that the lawyer is never fully in one realm or another, but instead lives in the place where the two spheres continually blend.
Let us begin with Archangelis' monologue, where thoughts of food and family always, I suggest, lead back to the larger concerns of estate law and marriage law. Since these are precisely the concerns that led to the murder of Pompilia and her parents, Archangelis' distraction actually subtly reinforces the overlapping of public and private. It is important to note that Archangelis makes a legal argument that emphasizes the primacy of public, institutional forces and to remember the roles played by these forces leading up to the murders. The 1698 trial of Guido presented in The Ring and the Book is really the fifth in a series of historical legal and property battles between Guido and the Comparinis that took place between 1694 and 1698. First, Pompilia's parents, Pietro and Violante, after discovering that Guido was not as wealthy as he had suggested, publicly revealed that Pompilia was not really their biological daughter (something that was not known even by Pompilia), and then sued to recover her dowry from Guido.19 In response to Pompilia's flight from Guido's home three years later, Guido filed suit against Pompilia and her companion, Caponsacchi, in Rome (the processus fugae). The court responded to his suit oddly by not declaring guilt or innocence, but by simply deciding that Caponsacchi should enter a monastery for three years and Pompilia be placed in the Scalette Convent for good (Altick and Collins, p. 769). The third case began when Pompilia sued for divorce, and the fourth case, a duplicate case of processus fugae, like that in Rome, was filed in another jurisdiction, that of Arezzo, Guido's home town (pp. 769-770). Importantly, all but the first processus fugae remained open and undecided at the time of the murders. Thus while Browning presents the reader with the final trial, there are a series of unresolved legal battles leading up to the murders detailing the breakdown of the marriage, all of which center upon inheritance and property rights. The trials originated with the Comparinis' demand that Guido return the dowry and relinquish future property rights he acquired through his marriage to Pompilia. Guido, clearly, fought back. In their extensive study of the lawyers' rhetoric, Altick and Loucks argue that while ethically distasteful to modern readers, Archangelis' arguments about Guido's actions are not technically unskilled within a historical context. Archangelis, they explain, unfolds his argument in a number of steps, including the claims that Guido could be defended on the basis of honoris causa: that the murders would restore honor to Guido and his extended family and that there is nothing more important than such a restoration in upholding the social fabric;20 that Guido did turn to the court at earlier stages for a legal resolution and the court did not properly respond to his complaints of adultery;21 and that because different institutions (such as church and state) provide different guidelines, Guido was trapped; in the end, following the law of natural man was his only choice.22 Ultimately, Archangelis' argument continually places the importance of Guido's actions in a social and institutional context, and this context, Archangelis suggests, excuses the actions of the individual (Altick and Loucks, p. 163).
In sharp contrast to this legal defense of domestic violence, Archangelis is noted for his own personal delight in the domestic. He is consumed with his son's upcoming birthday celebration and his family cook's fare. But while the wandering of his mind certainly causes the reader to travel away from an immediate legal point, the logic of the text suggests that we often end up being reminded of what is at stake in the legal trial as a whole. And the effect of such narrative circling back is that the boundary between private and professional, personal and institutional, for the lawyer, and then the reader, becomes less and less clear.
Consider, for example, Archangelis' almost compulsive references to his son as he prepares his legal case. He begins his monologue with an apostrophe: "Ah, my Giacinto, he's no ruddy rouge / Is not Cinone?" (Browning, 8.1-2). While all of the preceding characters begin their monologues by directly addressing the case in some way, the lawyer, whose job it is to do so, begins with a playful description of his son. According to Roman custom, Archangelis and Bottinius deliver written briefs to the court instead of oral arguments, and thus such mental intrusions might be understandable as one cloisters oneself in one's room to write, but Archangelis' references to his son overwhelm his monologue. He uses, for example, seventeen different affectionate nicknames to refer to his son in the midst of writing his legal argument.23 These references are proud and loving, but also oddly obsessive in their repetition.24 Even Archangelis' defense in the immediate case becomes a dedication to his son.25 In what is perhaps one of his more trivializing moments, Archangelis here imagines that he will be able to present his success in the case as a tribute to his son on his son's birthday. But if these moments seem self-centered, domestic, and trivializing, we might also notice that what is at stake here is in fact the family, inheritance, the practice of law, fatherhood and patriarchy: and indeed, the triad of Archangelis/wife/and son Giacinto can be matched to that of Guido/Pompilia/and son Gaetano.26 The domestic bliss of Archangelis contrasts the domestic abuse by Guido: as one father prepares to celebrate his son's seventh birthday another is on trial for murder, Pompilia is (almost) dead, and new-born Gaetano is soon to be orphaned. While Giacinto may be no "ruddy rouge," certainly there is a chance that Gaetano will soon fill the role of street urchin.
In imagining his gift to his son, Archangelis reflects on the need for Giacinto to see a strong rhetorical performance so that he can learn how to be a lawyer himself. Archangelis delights in the work with language that the case demands of him and even thanks God for dropping the case in his lap. In an example of what many critics view as his utter indifference to the victims in the crime, Archangelis delightedly links together his own domestic prosperity with the legal devastation of the Comparinis:
The fact is, there's a blessing on the hearth,
A special providence for fatherhood!
Here's a man, and what's more, a noble, kills
-Not sneakingly but almost with parade-
Wife's father and wife's mother and wife's self
That's mother's self of son and heir (like mine!)
-And here stand I, the favoured advocate. (8.82-88)
While this and similar passages are often read as proof of Archangelis' inability to both focus on his argument and demonstrate compassion for the victims of the crime, as he delights at the publicity generated by such a bold murder and thinks of how it will benefit his own family, the passage also speaks directly to the heart of the case itself. Here Archangelis layers the private sphere of the family onto the legal, the institutional, and the patriarchal. In a crude fashion, he sees the Comparinis' horrific familial loss as his own professional gain. But he then connects his professional gain to the "providence" of "fatherhood" and family as he will be able to offer a lawyerly model to his son as the "favoured advocate." Archangelis, in what seems to be another domestic aside, in fact again shadows the horrors of the case itself: the "blessing on the hearth" grotesquely and inversely mirrors the murder at the hearth of the Comparinis' home; the wife Guido killed was mother to a "son and heir" ("like mine!" Archangelis notes). With every reference to his son Giacinto and his wife, the logic of the text suggests the orphaned Gaetano and dead Pompilia, and the significance played by the role of inheritance in the case. Thus Archangelis' opening line, and other familial asides, can be read as affectionate, and poorly timed, references to his son, or they can remind us of what is at stake in the text and trial-fatherhood, inheritance, an orphaned son, and the institutional structures of property law.
Archangelis does not only think of his son, however, and his mind often drifts to the culinary arts.27 But like his turns to his son, the frequent references to food are symbolic of a larger institutional framework, one that again mirrors the context surrounding Pompilia's death. In the following passage, for example, in the midst of asserting Guido's natural right for revenge, Archangelis is suddenly distracted by the thought of melons.
"Use thou thy natural privilege of man,
Else wert thou found like those old ingrate Jews
Despite the manna-banquet on the board,
A-longing after melons, cucumbers,
And such like trash of Egypt left behind!"
(There was one melon had improved our soup,
But did not Cinoncino need the rind
To make a boat with? So I seem to think.) (8.723-730)
The word "melon[s]" carries over from Archangelis' legal argument into his domestic space, and riding on its back is both the image of Guido's domestic violence (a result of the thinking that revenge is only natural), which ultimately leaves Gaetano an orphan, and the contrasting image of Archangelis'affectionate thoughts of his son making a boat out of a melon's rind. Furthermore, these two images-of the violent domestic space and the paternal and affectionate domestic space-are bracketed by one phrase, which repeats itself, with variation. Archangelis begins his larger argument, of which the above section is a part, with: "Unless Law, Gospel, and the Church subjoin" and then picks up this thread again after returning from the distraction of the melon: "Law, Gospel and the Church." (8.720; 8.731). Thus Archangelis'culinary distraction in parentheses-his thought of his son playing with a melon rind-is not only linked to larger issues of the domestic and of the legal case, but is inscribed by what are referred to in The Ring and the Book as both the most important, and most painfully failing, institutions: Law and Church. He suggests that unless they "subjoin" in their approaches to justice, men like Guido will continue to take matters into their own hands, and rightfully so. Formally, in this passage-what takes place at home-be it a child's play with a melon rind or murder-is bracketed by the failures of, and conflicts between, larger institutional structures that only appear to be separate from the domestic. Institutional failure has led to individual horrors, it is suggested. The thought of a melon, then, is not simply a sign of Archangelis' obsession with food, but instead, as the melon reappears in the passage, it becomes an image that is drenched in references to the failures of the state and violence in the home.
Archangelis is often distracted by food at other crucial points in his legal argument. In one example, when he imagines arguing against the claim that Guido acted against the state, as Pompilia was technically in the custody of the state at the time of her murder, he suddenly becomes concerned over the proper barbequing of a porcupine by his cook.28 We gradually learn, however, that really he is worried about something other than food itself: he is eager to impress guests for the birthday feast who are drafting wills and determining who will inherit their fortunes.29 Thus Archangelis imagines obsequiously offering "lamb's fry" that evening during the celebration to his aging uncle, as "the smoking dish. ...'suits a tender tooth!'" and hopes to make his uncle think of him later as he finalizes his will (8.1100, 8.1102). This uncle "has the reversion of a long lease yet- / Land to bequeath!" (8.1106-07). Yet again, this move is not out of a desire to serve his uncle food that will be easily chewable with aged gums; instead, he hopes to make his uncle think of him later as he finalizes his will. The "reversion" of the lease indicates that the uncle "owns the freehold rights on an estate; when the lease ends, the estate returns to him" (Hawlin and Burnett, 8:351n1106). It becomes increasingly clear that the birthday celebration is one to be held not only in honor of Giacinto but also to provide a platform for flattery of the guests-relatives, it turns out, who hold property and are planning wills. The same concerns that structure the trial are thus layered and repeated in the lawyer's distractions: property, wills, and inheritance.
In his repeated invocations of home, then, Archangelis is not really escaping the concerns of the law, or the legal case at hand.30 What appears to be a continual turning away is, in fact, always a turning to. Archangelis can never get away, fully, from either realm: while he is not in the domestic space, he is fulfilling his institutional and professional role as one who argues about the legalities and illegalities of the domestic space; while writing his legal argument, he cannot help but turn back to home. What Browning suggests is that Archangelis is always and necessarily in both places at once; whichever way he looks he sees a version of both the private, domestic sphere of family and the public, official world of the legal institution. And while one may think that these spaces are in fact separate, what we see is that the family begins to look more and more like an institution: a place of contracts, negotiations, wills, financial exchange, and sometimes, when these transactions do not go well, a place of murder. What we see, too, is that the law is intensely concerned with intimate, domestic matters: relations between parents and children, husbands and wives.
While Archangelis seems unable to keep his mind off his home, Bottinius is often pitted against Archangelis as, in Archangelis' own words, the "ambitious" professional who "harden[s] heart" against "home-sanctitudes" (8.1773-74). Tellingly, for example, if Archangelis opens his monologue with a reference to his son, Bottinius opens with a cry against the stricture of having to submit a written, instead of oral brief to the court. His concern is with institutional fame. If only he could deliver his speech orally, what attention he would command. He thinks not of Pompilia, the woman whose murder he is to prosecute, but of himself in a grandiose professional drama. The courtroom becomes a stage, no less than fifty judges and the Pope his eager audience (9.1-11). Bottinius' tendency to cast his professional role as that of an artist, a poet or a painter, is revealed here, and it repeats itself throughout. He fantasizes that during the trial he will produce a series of initial sketches for his lords, who in turn, gripped by his skill, demand that he produce the real picture. In response, he says, with passion, that he would not then simply mix his paints and begin painting, but instead he must turn from the sketches and while he "broods," piece together an internal image first (9.87). Bottinius is interested not in mulling over and wasting his time with factual nuggets but in painting a pretty picture that he can polish to erase any lines that mark the craft of creation itself.31 Everything factual can be sacrificed to the more important artistic creation; Bottinius sees himself as one who will artistically entertain, and he is motivated not by the hope of crafting a compelling, ethical, and truthful legal argument, but by the hope of praise and professional and institutional advancement.
Critics have succinctly summed up what so many readers have found to be chilling about Bottinius: his overriding concerns with the professional leave him a virtually soulless being and his argument becomes reckless and damaging because of this. William Buckler argues that Bottinius "makes law an enclosed world, a power in itself without external reference points" and that "his idea of Paradise is one eternal, universal lawsuit with himself in the starring role."32 Roma King writes that "beneath his lawyer fašade there is, so far as we can see, only vacuity. He remains the arid bachelor, incapable of self-awareness and affection" (p. 162), and Simon Petch argues that Bottinius "can only see the world as a network of legal and textual relations (p. 128). Again, then, analysis of Bottinius, as of Archangelis, revolves around the relationship between public and private: here, the lack of a domestic life and empathy is matched with Bottinius' focus on the institutional and professional.
My own argument in no way attempts to redeem the fictional Bottinius from such criticisms-to claim, for example, that really, Bottinius is a sympathetic and empathetic bachelor who longs for the world of the domestic. I do, however, wish to suggest that Bottinius becomes oddly and perversely obsessed with the sphere of the home. Bottinius is seen as failing because he is utterly devoid of home, but importantly, this lack of "home" takes shape as a seething misogyny. At first this seems to manifest itself as an antagonism between the two realms, an antagonism that Bottinius projects in the form of disdain for women in general. But, as is so often the case with Browning's lawyers, what he pushes away becomes a central focus. His aversion to home becomes a disturbing obsession with imagining what the breakdown of Pompilia's home life must have been like. Pompilia, he insists, must have been unfaithful, and he details all of the ways that he can imagine that transgression of domestic fidelity unfolding.
Where Archangelis' distractions take the formal shape of asides within parentheses, Bottinius' distractions profoundly shape the choices he makes in crafting his legal argument. Early in his own monologue, Archangelis points out that if he "fail[s] to prove" (8. 427) that Pompilia was unfaithful, it does not matter, since
It is enough, authorities declare,
If the result, the deed in question now,
Be caused by confidence that injury
Is veritable and no figment: since,
What, though proved fancy afterward, seemed fact
At the time, they argue shall excuse result" (8.429-434).
In other words, as Altick and Loucks explain, because "reasonable doubt is sufficient motive for action, the question before the judges is not whether Guido's suspicions were justified but simply whether he had them" (pp. 154-155). Suspicion here is enough; what Pompilia did, or did not do, for Archangelis, is of little importance, even though his case hinges upon the claim that Guido's actions were proper punishment for her actions. However, when we reach Bottinius, Pompilia clearly is the figure on trial. This is a surprising strategy, not only because Bottinius is Guido's prosecutor but also because he actually has Guido's confession in hand. But, bizarrely, as Altick and Loucks point out, since Guido has already confessed, Bottinius decides that the judges would be more interested in sexual fantasies than legal argument (pp. 165-166). As Altick and Loucks put it, Bottinius "with what seems at first to be sheer perversity, concedes almost all the damaging allegations made against Pompilia by others and, most numerously, by himself " (p. 167). In other words, his concessions consist largely of his own imaginings about how Pompilia must have seduced many men. His ultimate defense echoes the logic of Archangelis: Guido acted as a natural man; Pompilia also acted in a fashion that is only natural to women. All women are errant, and such ethical and sexual fallibility is only natural to their sex. Furthermore, it is only natural that a woman in an unhappy domestic situation would use her feminine wiles-her natural defenses-in order to escape the home.
As Buckler claims, Bottinius' repeated fictional constructions of Pompilia are so pervasive that "to catalogue the instances of defamation, variously sly, oblique but patent, clumsy and heavy-handed, would be to belabor the obvious" (pp. 198-199). This is true, but it is worth placing Buckler's observations in the context of questions I have been pursuing here about character to think about what effect these repetitions have on the relation between the public and private in The Ring and the Book. While both lawyers are largely indifferent to who Pompilia is, Archangelis tends to ignore her whereas Bottinius constructs an elaborate figure and hinges his argument upon what her character must be. As he builds his fictional character, he gradually erodes all sense of her personhood. For example, as Pompilia enters marriage and says goodbye to the possibilities of other romances, she becomes an overworked heifer. Bottinius imagines that Pompilia must say "farewell" (9.242) to all of her earlier loves (though we might recall that she is only twelve when she is introduced to Guido) (9.242-257). After marriage she must give up her previous "friskings" as she is now a "heifer" who must work the field while Guido "guides" her "step" (9.246, 9.254, 9.245). With any misstep, Guido bears down on her with a whip as a laborer would an unruly cow. Furthermore, Bottinius suggests that this relationship is "proper" according to "natural law"; Bottinius's "only" complaint is that Guido was not more patient with Pompilia during her change from the old life to the new (9.253, 9.252, 9.255). Bottinius suggests that Guido's abuse of her was normal; it was instead Guido's supposed impatience with her that was criminal, as he should have known that if he had only kept beating her she would have eventually submitted.
Bottinius becomes carried away with his own libidinous picturings: Pompilia, he says, offered herself to anyone who had a "breast to deck" (9.301)-"first come, was first served" (9.306). Bizarrely, it is precisely the indiscriminateness of her actions, he argues, that excuses her behavior: he claims that it was better that she offered herself to whomever crossed her path, as Guido had less to be jealous of; no one person can claim that he was "'preferred to Guido'" (9.312). Her later attachment to Caponsacchi complicates this pattern, he argues, but her connection with him comes from her desire to obtain aid in leaving her home. It is only natural that she would use all "efficacious means" to escape (9.425).
In these examples, Bottinius imagines, first, a failed attempt by Guido to rein in Pompilia, second, Pompilia's sexual dalliances about town, and third, her seduction of Caponsacchi, as she "plied / Arts that allure... / The witchery of the gesture, spell of word," to escape her violent home (9.435-437). Thus if Bottinius is obsessed with professional advancement and institutional fame, he certainly seems unable to get away from the home. What he offers the judges, in hopes of receiving praise for legal skill, it turns out, is nothing but repeated references to an imagined, highly sexually charged, and violent domestic space. We are back in the hall of mirrors, and here it is one that reverses Archangelis' pattern of distraction. We think we are reading a legal argument by a man who only thinks of his own place in the institutional realm, but instead what unfolds is a dark and salacious fantasy about one particular domestic space.
Such distraction has been read as a deep character flaw in the lawyers. While this is not inaccurate, distraction is also more than that; it is a back-and-forth process that reveals the ways in which the public and private continually overlap and converge in one shifting space in the lawyers' rhetoric. But distraction does something else too. It is not only that it tells us something about the characters of the lawyers; it is out of their indifference to any realities about who Pompilia was, and what she did or did not do-the very grounds of their distraction-that the lawyers produce Pompilia's character. The lawyers' indifference to the tragedy of the case and to Pompilia's life and death, leads to the wandering of the mind and a sense of unethical freedom in constructing a fictional representation of Pompilia; and it is out of the wandering mind that Pompilia is created as a public character to be judged. Indifference produces distraction, and distraction produces the public representation of Pompilia's character, which in turn allows us to judge the lawyers' characters as unethical failures. And yet, all the while, as I have suggested, distraction does something else too: it is a constant manifestation of the intertwining of public and private spheres. Since character involves both the private individual and the fact of institutional agency and public judgment-whether we are talking about Pompilia, Guido, or the lawyers-Browning produces a constant blurring of the realms of public and private in such a way that neither realm can successfully dominate or be separated from the other. And thus, while one of the lawyers' worst ethical failures is their indifference to Pompilia, out of this grows a second failure. Their own blurring of the boundaries between public and private does not produce a recognition on their part that Pompilia is in fact, in one sense, like them: unable to be fixed securely in the realm of the private, personal and domestic, on the one hand, nor in the public and institutional, on the other.
The Failure of Institutions
Let us think further, here, about how the character of Pompilia as both a public and a private person matters. First, if the lawyers cared more about her death as a private person, it can be imagined that they would take their professional roles in the case more seriously; Archangelis might not drift to thoughts of an upcoming party, and Bottinius might think twice about the ethics of his portrayal of the victim. Out of this indifference and distraction then, they "give" Pompilia a public character, and I suggest they do this partly because, in her case in particular, they can. They can because Pompilia is limited in her ability to produce her own character, and thus they are given a blank slate with which to work. Character develops out of movement between public and private realms: institutions have refused to allow Pompilia to cross into the public realm (even while law shapes her private life). Each time she asserts herself she is pushed back into the domestic sphere. And in fact, in one of Bottinius's most horrifying moments, through rhetorical acrobatics he completely dismisses her statement in her own monologue as not worthy of public record. In confronting the fact that her own statement of events during her final confession directly opposes his portrayal of her as unfaithful to Guido, he says:
Still, if this view of mine content you not,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
We fall back on the inexpugnable,
Submitting,-she confessed before she talked!
The sacrament obliterates the sin:
What is not,-was not, therefore, in a certain sense. (9.1492-98)
Stefan Hawlin and Tim Burnett explain that "this ludicrous and theologically incorrect argument was not made by the real Bottini, but is used . . . in the pro-Guido anonymous pamphlet."33 The anonymous author, replaced by Browning in The Ring and the Book with Bottinius, cynically suggests that anything Pompilia states after her confession while dying is likely to be false since her confession erases any guilt, even the guilt of lies in future statements. In essence, the religious sacredness of the confession erases the legal validity of the content of the confession. In Bottinius's monologue, this moment serves as a final and complete dismissal of Pompilia: Bottinius's creation of Pompilia's character, he argues to the judges, should be taken as truth over any actual representation of Pompilia by herself. It is as if Bottinius murders Pompilia again, here verbally.
Pompilia's character becomes a sort of ball in the air, one that can be tossed about, painted different colors, and caught by various speakers. In one of Bottinius's surprisingly fair moments, he himself points to a reason for this pattern. Bottinius details how he might respond to Archangelis' (imagined) argument which asks, Why didn't Pompilia trust that God would intervene? Bottinius scoffs that the question is "too absurdly put!" because institutional figures simply ignored her: the Governor, the Archbishop, and the social world of Arezzo did nothing to help her (9.982). In watching institutions fail and the public fail, just this "one . . . man," Caponsacchi, "leapt forth" at last (9.997).In isolation, Bottinius's argument here is right on the mark. Institutional ignoring of Pompilia created a situation in which her sense of personhood was more and more effaced. But, ironically, the moment in which Bottinius critiques the negligence of institutional authorities is inscribed within his larger argument, an argument in which he takes advantage of these very past institutional erasings to erase her personhood again. Anyone, be it Half-Rome, Archangelis, Bottinius, or even Browning, can create a public version of her character.
Indeed there has been a long precedent here. In the multiple trials involving disputes over legitimacy-of Pompilia as daughter and wife-and property transactions between the families, it becomes more and more clear that she is not seen as an individual being, and thus is limited in being able to exert agency in the face of institutional constraints; because of this, she can be given a variety of characters by others. I am not suggesting that Pompilia should be read as she was for so long by Browning's early readers, as frail, weak, devoid of the ability to assert herself. Instead, I am suggesting that Pompilia can be assertive, active, and even engaged with the public realm by approaching institutional powers, but she can only get so far, due to no fault of her own. If the dynamics of character, in the Victorian period, have everything to do with public presentations of the self, and the public wrests the reins from the self, specifically because that self is a woman, then one can only have so much of an effect on the ultimate representation of one's character. In this sense, I want to suggest that Pompilia has agency, but she lacks power.
But why does Pompilia lack power, exactly? In his own monologue, Caponsacchi rails against the ineptitude of the ecclesiastical and civil courts and blames the inefficiency of the law for Pompilia's death. He reminds the court that everything he will say (up to the point of the murders) he has told them before: "I gave place / To you, and let the law reign paramount: / I left Pompilia to your watch and ward, / And now you point me-there and thus she lies!" (6.101-104). Pompilia, notably, takes a very different approach. She does not berate the law but instead laments its failure to help her. In reality, Pompilia did plead for help, at the age of thirteen, from the Bishop of Arrezzo, the Governor of Arezzo, and a friar, and the detailing of these calls for intervention is revealing. When, for example, she pleads her case to the Archbishop he counsels her to return home ("'Since your husband bids, / Swallow the burning coal he proffers you!'"); she states, "My heart died out at the Archbishop's smile" (7.729-730; 7.788). Browning's fictional rendering of her pleas for help, while sometimes told through the romanticizing and overtly sentimental voice of "The Other Half Rome," is nevertheless troubling. The governor explains that he will not act, as Guido is his old friend. Pompilia tries again to obtain help, no less than three times, now from the Archbishop, who, it turns out, is also the friend of her husband. Pompilia is called foolish, told to be silent, and is literally torn away from the Archbishop's body, as she has been gripping him while pleading for his help. Now frenzied and suicidal, she turns to a friar for aid. "As a last resource," Pompilia asks him to write for her a "prayer" or plea, in a letter to Pietro and Violante, that if not out of parental duty (as they are now not, legally, her parents) at least out of love, they come "save" her. (3.1015, 3.1021, 3.1024). Pompilia suggests not simply that they come retrieve her, but they come save her from impending danger, violence, even death. Although he initially promises to help her, the friar also fails in his duty, as he
presently found he could not turn about
Nor take a step i' the case and fail to tread
On someone's toe who either was a friend,
Or a friend's friend, or friend's friend thrice-removed [of Guido].
Although he is not Guido's friend, he worries about stepping upon someone's toes-anyone's toes-if he takes action, and thus: "He threw reluctantly the business up, / Having his other penitents to mind" (3.1037-38). He turns to others in need and does nothing to help Pompilia.
What links past institutional failures in Pompilia's case with the lawyer's creation of Pompilia's character is the fact that those to whom she appealed in the past, and those who are responsible for representing her in the context of the court, do not see her as a character in the sense of an ethical person with agency, and certainly not with rights. Neither of the only two figures in the The Ring and the Book whose very role it is to represent individuals in the face of institutions-the lawyers-view Pompilia as an individual being. Their own troubling ethics that contribute to their characters (self-aggrandizement, a desire for professional advancement, obsession with the domestic, or misogyny) combined with institutional structures that deny her full personhood (laws, legal process, the inexistence of women's rights) lead to their utter erasing of Pompilia as a person, and this is their greatest crime. But their crime is just one of many like it. After all, the central question at stake in the trial is not whether or not Guido committed the murders but whether his acts should be punished. In other words, the question is not only was Pompilia unfaithful, but is Pompilia a human being with a self, agency, and rights?
Her biographical history certainly suggests that she is the property of others rather than a person in her own right. Long before she ever met Guido Pompilia was born out of economic exchange, first through prostitution, and second through an agreement between her biological mother and Violante which involved her secret transfer to Violante and Pietro, presumably for a fee. Within The Ring and the Book, she is repeatedly referred to as an object to be bought and sold. These economic exchanges come through most clearly in the voice of Tertium Quid's distanced, and faintly amused, description of the details leading up to the murder. In imagining Violante ignoring Pietro's wishes that Pompilia not marry Guido, he describes the clandestine marriage ceremony as if it were an open-air market purchase. Her marriage is depicted as an exchange of livestock for money (3.455-469): in becoming "irrevocably his" (3.460) or Guido's, she is like a "lamb" (3.462) who is "brought forth from basket and set out for sale" (3.463). There are noisy negotiations between her seller, a market man, and her buyer, a loud housewife. Each pats her "curly calm inconscious head"-a mingled sign of care and ownership (3.466). As soon as the deal is made, or the "bargain struck" and the "transfer complete" she is marched off to the slaughterhouse (3.468, 3.469). References to Pompilia as an animal or an object are legion in the monologues, be it to a "lamb" by Tertium Quid or a "heifer" by Bottinius. But it is important to note that while the imagery is obviously dehumanizing, it is also always in the context of economic exchange. Even her death is framed in these terms, as Tertium Quid here and others later suggest that Guido specifically waited until Pompilia's child had been born to murder her, as she is only valuable alive as a conduit for transferring property and money to him (3.1546-69). Pompilia was transferred to Guido in hopes of obtaining greater financial security (security for both Pietro and Violante, and for Guido, unbeknownst to each other). She was married to Guido without her full understanding of what was taking place. She is rejected and abused because she is not "worth" what was thought to be her value in the exchange once it is revealed by Violante that she is not their biological daughter. She is sexually violated by Guido, because, as he insists, it is in her "covenant," or contract (7.771). Guido attempts to recover his property when she departs, and once she has produced an heir, her existence is no longer of use, as property no longer runs through her, and thus Guido can eliminate her existence without cost to himself.
Browning was clearly deeply disturbed by the ways in which economic and institutional elements structured, and limited, Pompilia's life. When Julia Wedgewood wrote to Browning that she was agitated by the darkness of his work, in his lengthy response, he referred to what he saw as the darkest acts to come: "Again, the Convertites who harboured Pompilia, are you prepared for what they did, immediately after her death, and continued doing when her innocence had been made apparent to the world? They laid claim to all her wealth, declared themselves her heirs, to the detriment of her child. . . . [T]hey caught at her money with tooth and nail."34 While Browning is confused by some of the details-the convent that filed suit in an attempt to claim her property after her death (the Convertites) was not the same that took her in at the conclusion of the processus fugae (the Scalette), he is right that even the Convertites, an institutional organization of nuns, attempted to take all that was to go to Gaetano, as Pompilia, they claimed, because of her supposed falleness, was theirs.35
In his story, Browning maps many of these stunning attempts at ownership of Pompilia and any property related to her onto the lawyers. In the final monologue, "The Book and the Ring," Browning has Bottinius represent the Convertites in their claim against Pompilia as a dishonest woman. Here the disturbing institutional actions taken by others are attributed to Bottinius (he did not actually represent the nuns in their case) and are portrayed as a natural extension of his heartless professional character, a character that is so perverted that he would gladly accept the position as prosecutor of the very same dead woman whose murderer he had only recently been charged with prosecuting.
Archangelis also figures Pompilia as property after her death. Mary Rose Sullivan points out that in his monologue, Bottinius repeatedly links Pompilia to the image of a pearl, one that is, in various ways, tainted.36 In closing his monologue, Archangelis, in thinking of how to persuade his wife to convince her father to modify his will, imagines that he will reward her "for her pains" with a "necklace"; horrifyingly, it will be "the very pearls that made Violante proud, / And Pietro pawned for half their value once" (8.1802, 1803-04). The "bosom" of his wife, Archangelis imagines, "shall display the big round balls" (8.1808). In this moment of self-congratulating delight, the dead Pompilia figuratively becomes transferred as a property from Pietro and Violante (who "pawned" her for "half" her "value") to the bosom of the wife of the lawyer who defends her murderer. Even as a corpse Pompilia serves a vessel for others in attempts to gain property and as a piece of property herself.
Browning himself resists this model by choosing to give Pompilia a character in the form of a voice in the dramatic monologue, a monologue that underscores his sense that she is not only an ethical individual but one who makes choices in the face of institutional demands and can be judged by her role in the public sphere. If we do not read Pompilia's monologue in the tradition of Browning's other dramatic monologues, with an eye open for linguistic ironies, Pompilia becomes surreally pure, and this simplicity has convincingly been questioned by critics who argue that such flattening out in fact serves to further trap Pompilia. However, reading Pompilia as we would the other monologues, Walker points out, further emphasizes Pompilia's complexity in terms of agency. Yet either way, it is crucial to see that where she is divested of her character by institutions that deny her full personhood in favor of categorizing her as private property, her very existence as a character in the text hints at Browning's strong critique of women as objects. Browning's own authorial decision to have the reader hear Pompilia in her own voice indicates that Pompilia should have agency to speak for herself and represent herself in the world and that she also should be able to make claims on public institutions. She should, he suggests, also have social, institutional, and even political power.
Browning's Suturing of Separate Spheres
Pompilia, and the lawyers who depict her character, have more in common than one might ever guess. Early critics responded emotionally to these characters by identifying them with one realm (the domestic) and another (the public), and later critics reevaluated their worth but continued to discuss them in the context of a domestic/public divide. Yet these characters are only possible because of the logic that binds these spheres together, a logic that causes the two spheres to continually overlap, intertwine, and construct each other in the very same moments that the spheres construct the characters of Pompilia and the lawyers. The lawyers' distractions reveal the ways in which one may think that one is turning away from one sphere, but really, the turning away always becomes a return; the home is not a sacred space, but instead, constructed by institutions, laws, and specifically those related to wills, property, and inheritance. Even more, the institutional, Browning suggests, always thinks back to the home; it is not an isolated sphere that forgets the domestic, but instead, at times, is in fact obsessed with it.
This is a surprising alternative vision to the Victorian public conception of the separation of the private, or the domestic, and the public, here the institutional and the state. Browning raises a series of vexed questions about the role of the state in the home and the disastrous consequences of institutional failure. Furthermore, his concept of the relationship between public and private brings together both liberal and anti-liberal arguments: individuals can have important impacts on institutions and the larger world; where institutions fail, for example, an individual such as Caponsacchi might intervene. But at the same time, an individual really only has so much power in attempting to assert one's agency in the larger world; Pompilia, and even Caponsacchi for that matter, can only get so far. Furthermore, Browning suggests that institutions and the state should, at times, intervene aggressively in the home. This suggestion, one that brings together both liberal and anti-liberal Victorian positions on the relationship between individuals and the state, has origins in Browning's earlier work. While his other poems do not present his readers with images of institutional power run amuck, they do show his readers startling images of unchecked individual power. We might think here of "My Last Duchess" (1842), a sort of psychologically violent version of a blazon in which a self-absorbed duke gradually reveals his suspicions about his recently deceased duchess, who, in all likelihood, he either had murdered or murdered himself. The possibility of domestic violence also surfaces in "Porphyria's Lover" (1836), a dramatic monologue in which the speaker describes what is now the corpse of his lover, Porphyria, sitting on his lap. Once, as he tells us, he believes that she is all his, he decides to strangle her.37 In all three cases, the portrayals of the men who take the lives of the duchess, Porphyria, and Pompilia suggest that individual power which is wholly removed from the auspices of social and institutional intervention can become violent, even murderous. At the same time that Browning champions the power of individual action, such as that by Caponsacchi, he warns his reader of an individual power that knows no bounds. Because these women are so often kept at the periphery of the public, institutional, and legal spheres, institutions have a responsibility to reach into their homes to come to their aid, even if such intervention would be viewed as invasion from a Victorian liberal perspective.
Browning's concept of character thus suggests that neither a reading that reimagines Pompilia as an assertive and wholly triumphant individual, nor a reading that suggests institutions continually act upon the agentless individual can work here; instead, individuals can be assertive but only get so far, and institutions, instead of being overly invasive, can in fact be negligent by not interfering in the private individual's realm. Browning's portrayal of the death of Pompilia and her parents, and the institutional mishandling of the events which both prefaced and followed their ends, tells us nothing if not that such negligence can and will result in the violent destruction of the home, and the erosion of any hope for institutional ethics.
1 Robert W. Buchanan, Review of The Ring and the Book, Athenaeum 2160 (March 20, 1869): 399.
2 A. K. Cook wrote in 1920 of Pompilia's monologue: "no other part of the poem has won so enthusiastic and so unqualified an admiration from the critics, and their judgment has been accepted by all readers, critical and uncritical, now for a full half century" (A. K. Cook, A Commentary Upon Browning's Ring and the Book [Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1966], p. 139).
3 Unsigned review of The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning, Saturday Review 27, no. 701 (April 3, 1869): 460. In discussing The Ring and the Book in his book on Browning, G. K. Chesterton refers to Augustine Birrell, who had commented that "the speeches of the two advocates . . . will scarcely be very interesting to the ordinary reader" (G. K. Chesterson, Robert Browning [New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1903], p. 160). See also Philip Drew , "A Note on the Lawyers," VP 6 (1968): 297-298.
4 Cook, p. 160. (A.K. Cook's own opinion differs from that of this critic, however.)
5 Unsigned review of The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning, Chambers's Journal 4th ser. no. 291 (July 24, 1869): 474.
6 This pattern often includes feminist critics. Ann Brady, for example, in her important feminist work on Pompilia, views the lawyers and Pompilia as being in separate worlds: "The world from and for which both lawyers speak is the world of Guido Franceschini-the world Pompilia will have no part in" (Ann P. Brady, Pompilia: A Feminist Reading of Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book [Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1988], p. 67).
7 William Walker, "Pompilia and Pompilia," VP 22 (1984): 47-63.
8 While Walker's focus is on language and rhetorical structures in Pompilia's monologue, Ward reconsiders Pompilia through the lens of nineteenth-century language about domesticity and argues that a portrayal of Pompilia that represents her as a simple innocent who is incapable of complexity in fact restricts her to damaging "nineteenth-century reasoning that helped to justify, for example, the increasing domestication of women in a society demanding clearly marked and differentiated public and private spheres." See Candace Ward, "Damning Herself Praiseworthily: Nullifying Women in The Ring and the Book," VP 34 (1996): 4.
9 Brown approaches Pompilia from what is very much the same position as that held by Walker, but expands on the implications of his argument by addressing some of the larger cultural and historical issues first noted by Ward. See Susan Brown, "Pompilia: The Woman (in) Question," VP 34 (1996): 15-37.
10 Melissa Valiska Gregory, "Robert Browning and the Lure of the Violent Lyric Voice: Domestic Violence and the Dramatic Monologue," VP 38 (2000): 491-510.
11 See Simon Petch, "Browning's Roman Lawyers," AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 71 (1989): 109-138; Patricia Rigg, "Legal 'Repristination' in The Ring and the Book," Browning Institute Studies 18 (1990): 113-130; and Richard Altick and James F. Loucks, Browning's Roman Murder Story: A Reading of The Ring and the Book (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1968).
12 Craig T. Turner, "Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis: Paternity at Smiling Strife with Law," Studies in Browning and His Circle 9 (1981): 76; Roma A. King, Jr., The Focusing Artifice (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 161, 162; E.D.H. Johnson, The Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1963), p. 124. Philip Drew argues that "the speeches of the lawyers expose and exemplify the inadequacies of the legal mind and the legal system. Lawyers distort truth for money; winning the case justifies any means. . . .These monologues attack the practice of law and the very existence of a legal system which dehumanizes man's relations with his fellow men" ("A Note on the Lawyers," p. 297).
13 Jerome L. Wyant, "The Legal Episodes in The Ring and the Book," VP 6 (1968): 316. In contrast to his earlier thoughts, E. D. H. Johnson also writes: "Social institutions, the Pope sorrowfully concludes, simply consolidate the selfish interests of the individuals on whom they depend" (The Alien Vision, p. 127).
14 While over the past twenty years, the thesis of separate spheres has gradually been rethought in various ways, much of this work has been undertaken from a historical perspective. Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall do so by studying historical documents detailing the lives of families in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the towns of Birmingham, Essex, and Suffolk. See Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987). Eleanor Gordon and Gyneth Nair argue in their historical study of the lives of nineteenth-century families in the Claremont/Woodside estate in Glasgow that "the discourse of separate spheres, while powerful, is not sufficient to explain how middle-class women's experience was shaped and their identities constructed" (Public Lives: Women, Family and Society in Victorian Britain [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2003], p. 7). Elizabeth Langland revises our understanding of the Victorian angel with her investigation of both fiction and non-fiction, including etiquette and home management guides and even cookbooks (Nobody's Angels: Middle-Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1995).
15 Amanda Anderson, The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2006), pp. 7, 138.
16 Anderson, p. 6; see her larger discussion on pp. 5-6.
17 Excerpts of translations from Stefan Hawlin and T. A. J. Burnett, eds. "Introduction," The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, vol. 7, The Ring and the Book, Books I-IV (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), p. ix. See also Charles W. Hodell, The Old Yellow Book; Source of Browning's The Ring and the Book, in Complete Photo-Reproduction with Translation, Essay, and Notes, 2nd ed. (Washington: Carnegie Institute, 1998). Hodell's translation is slightly different: "A Setting-forth of the entire Criminal Cause against Guido Franceschini, Nobelman of Arrezzo, and his Bravoes, who were put to death in Rome, February 22, 1698, The first by beheading, the other four by the gallows. Roman Murder-Case In which it is disputed whether and when a Husband may kill his Adulterous Wife without incurring the ordinary penalty" (p. i of English translation). See also John Marshall, Gest, The Old Yellow Book; Source of Browning's The Ring and the Book (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1927) for another translation of the original legal documents detailing the trial.
18 Altick and Loucks write that Bottinius "assumes that his celibate listeners share his own bachelor's proclivity for contemplating errant womanhood. They would rather entertain lubricious fancies about a woman than hear logical arguments about a man" (pp. 164, 165-166).
19 Richard D. Altick and Thomas J. Collins, "Appendix A: The Law Cases," Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book. ed. Richard D. Altick and Thomas J. Collins (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2001), p. 769; all quotations from Browning are from the Broadview edition, hereafter cited as Browning.
20 Altick and Loucks, p. 154; See also Browning, 8.458-472.
21 Altick and Loucks, pp. 158-159; See also Browning 8.803-804, 838-844, and 8.882-890.
22 Altick and Loucks, pp. 158-159; See also Browning, 8.710-817.
23 Stefan Hawlin and T. A. J. Burnett, The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, vol. 8, The Ring and the Book, Books V-VIII (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), p. 297n2.
24 Furthermore, he has given his son a version of his own name and his reflections on his son, combined with the fact that these reflections often have to do with his hopes for his eight-year-old son's mastery of Latin and future education as a lawyer, are in fact many ways a solipsistic extension of himself. Archangelis' son's name is Giacinto in Italian. The Anglo-Latin form of Giacinto is Hyacinth, and Archangelis' full name is Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis. See Stefan Hawlin and T. A. J. Burnett, The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, vol. 8, The Ring and the Book, Books V-VIII (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 297n1.
25 In one of his many anticipatory comments, Archangelis gleefully announces: "We'll beat you, my Bottinius, all for love, / All for our tribute to Cinotto's day" (Cinotto being another nickname for Giacinto) (Browning, 8.96-7).
26 For more on the various triads in the book, made up by relationships between characters, see Altick and Loucks, "The Eventual Unity: The Poem's Design," in Browning's Roman Murder Story, pp. 37-81.
27 He is famously corpulent, and the anticipation of Archangelis' interest in food produced in Book 1 by the poet-speaker, who describes the lawyer as "Cheek and jowl all in laps with fat and law," bears itself out in Archangelis' monologue (Browning, 1.1132).
28 See Browning, 8.1385-94. Here too his reflections on domestic issues again comment on important motifs within the legal debacle itself. The feast under preparation is one he hopes will impress and please his older relatives, relatives from whom he hopes to inherit wealth.
29 In his argument about the role of the lawyers, Turner points out, but does not explore the larger significance of, the point that "part of Arcangeli's concern for his son centers in the possibility of legacies from grandsire and uncles, and each possibility may be enhanced by a successful feast" (Turner, p. 70).
30 All of Archangelis' domestic concerns-his son, his cook's "fry," and the arrival of family for the birthday celebration, become fully intertwined with inheritance in the closing lines of his monologue. Here Archangelis imagines his son donning a paper hat, like that worn by Archangelis when in professional dress, wrapping himself in his mother's veil as if it were a lawyer's robe, and imitating his father in his institutional role, all for the amusement of the guests. He then fantasizes that he can "coax the good fat little wife / To tell her fool of a father" about her brother's poor behavior at Carnival last year, in order to convince her father that he "modify that inconsiderate gift / O' the cup and cover (somewhere in the will / Under the pillow, someone seems to guess)" (Browning, 8.1789-90; 8.1793-95). Archangelis repeatedly hopes to convince guests to modify their legal wills to his family's benefit. While he suggests that he wishes the soon-to-be inherited cup and plate only be changed, presumably he hopes that the father-in-law will "modify" his will, now hidden "under" a "pillow," in other, more significant ways as well.
31 See Browning, 9.93-110. In what is indicative of how Bottinius sees his professional role, here he reveals that he finds real, material elements and visible process to be "vulgar" (9.88): he shuns the "extern" (9.88), "raw food" (9.96), "gobbets" (9.97), "crudity" (9.98), "fragmentary studied facts" (9.102), "frame and flesh" (9.103), and "studies" (9.108), and instead prefers to unveil the fine results: "smooth comfortable chyme" (9.97) and "a spirit-birth conceived of flesh" (9.106).
32 William E. Buckler, "Wrenching Poetry out of Prose," Poetry and Truth in Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 194, 196.
33 Stefan Hawlin and T. A. J. Burnett, The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, vol. 9, The Ring and the Book, Books IX-XII (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 82n1496-98.
34 Robert Browning to Julia Wedgwood, November 19, 1868, in Robert Browning and Julia Wedgewood: A Broken Friendship as Revealed by their Letters, ed. Richard Curle (New York: Stokes, 1937), pp. 145-146.
35 Altick and Collins, "Appendix A: The Convertites," The Ring and the Book, pp. 772-773.
36 Mary Rose Sullivan, Browning's Voices in the Ring and the Book (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press,1969), p. 114.
37 "Porphyria's Lover," ll. 32-41, Robert Browning, The Poems, ed. John Pettigrew and Thomas Collins, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981).
KATHERINE ANNE GILBERT is Assistant Professor of English Literature at Drury University. She is also the Interim Director of Women and Gender Studies at Drury. Dr. Gilbert is currently working on "Legal Personalities: The Mediating Work of the Lawyer in the Victorian Novel," a book that examines the character of the lawyer in Victorian fiction as one that evokes the tense standoff between advocates of the old feudal order and reformers eager to democratize and rationalize the nation-state.