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A Romantic Notion: One Scholar’s Lifetime of Devotion to the Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

By Nicholas A. Basbanes | HUMANITIES, September/October 2015 | Volume 36, Number 5

If ever there was an understatement in four simple words, it is on a small plaque in the Winfield, Kansas, offices of an eighty-year-old man who is editing and publishing the complete correspondence—11,601 letters and counting—of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, two of the most celebrated poets of the Victorian Age.

“Nothing daunts a scholar,” the inscription reads, though Philip Kelley, founder and proprietor of Wedgestone Press, says that he, personally, isn’t a scholar, and that the little sign was a gift from some admirers. While not disputing the premise—that perseverance is central to what he has accomplished—the self-effacing perfectionist suggests he is more an enabler of those who profit from his highly specialized bibliographic efforts, which historians, biographers, textual editors, and literary critics on both sides of the Atlantic have called indispensable. If these beneficiaries call him a “scholar”—and many do—then so be it.

Since 1984, twenty-two volumes known collectively as The Brownings’ Correspondence have appeared between hard covers and online, with eighteen more projected over the next twelve to fourteen years, to finish the series at a hopeful rate of one volume every nine or ten months. That’s forty volumes of letters, complete with deeply researched annotations, footnotes, contemporary articles that provide essential context, family papers, detailed biographical profiles of every important person mentioned, and all of it fully indexed, impeccably illustrated, and elegantly published by the very person responsible for the editorial work itself. Yet it is just one phase of a larger mission that has opened windows onto Victorian life that would otherwise be shrouded in obscurity.

As major publishing efforts of this nature go—be they the papers of America’s Founders, of Mark Twain, of four generations of the Adams family, or the legendary commitment to produce the Oxford English DictionaryThe Brownings’ Correspondence stands apart in that it is not affiliated with, nor funded, staffed, or assisted by any academic or research institution. For over six decades, Kelley has been flying solo, supporting the project on a rolling basis with lifesaving grants, primarily from NEH but others as well. “I do all of my own typesetting and layout, too,” he adds.

Kelley’s efforts have gone well beyond textual editing. He has personally found and acquired many Browning artifacts, objects that have since gone into institutional collections and been featured in notable exhibitions in England and the United States. An international campaign he launched in 1969 under the aegis of the New York Browning Society saved the apartment in Florence, Italy, where the Brownings lived from 1847 to 1861, from being converted into office space. Restored and authentically furnished, the eight-room suite, christened Casa Guidi by its famous occupants, has been owned by Eton College of Windsor, England, since 1993, and maintained as a museum for the last twenty years.

Oddly enough, Kelley’s grand adventure did not begin with the poetry of either Robert or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, though he does recall being exposed to “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” as a boy growing up in Arkansas City, Kansas. “I went to a little country school where we had the same teacher for the first, second, third, and fourth grades,” he says. “Apparently, this woman really liked that poem a whole lot, because she read it to us in class year after year.”

While an undergraduate at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s, Kelley acted on a suggestion from one of his two older brothers, both of whom had also attended the school, to seek part-time work with Mary Maxwell Armstrong, a dynamic woman who with her husband, Andrew Joseph Armstrong, had assembled for Baylor an extensive collection of books, letters, manuscripts, and memorabilia relating to the Brownings. To house it all, the Armstrong Browning Library, a highly focused single topic research center, was established at the university.

“I had been working in the school cafeteria, and I was complaining one day to my brother Warren how my new blue suede shoes had just been ruined by a can of green beans that had exploded in the kitchen,” Kelley says. Warren Kelley, when taking the Browning class at Baylor, had impressed both the Armstrongs as the only student, in over thirty years, who was able to discuss Robert Browning’s use of caryatids in Sordello. On his recommendation, Mrs. Armstrong hired Philip as her personal assistant.

“I went to work three hours a day for Mrs. Armstrong at nineteen cents an hour. I would drive her to her appointments, Dr. Armstrong to get his hair cut, I would go to their house to cut flowers—whatever I was told to do.” One of his assignments was to process requests from researchers such as William C. DeVane, a prominent Browning scholar at Yale, who, in time, recommended Kelley for the first of three awards he would receive from the Guggenheim Foundation. “Mainly, they wanted to know if we could tell them where various Browning letters were located, and very often we would get another query a few weeks later asking the very same question. I started compiling a census of the letters so I wouldn’t have to go through the same steps again and again. That was the beginning of the checklist.”

By the time Kelley left Baylor in 1959 to take an unpaid apprenticeship in England at an antiquarian bookshop, just three thousand pieces of correspondence written by the literary couple were accounted for. Today they are best known for the 573 “love letters” (or “courtship letters,” as their owner, Wellesley College, calls them) exchanged between January 10, 1845, and September 18, 1846. “During my off hours I continued developing the census; I wrote to various institutions back in the states, I visited British libraries, I had photocopies of originals made. My goal at that time was to finish the checklist, nothing more sophisticated than that.”

One nettlesome problem was that a great deal of Browning family property had been scattered to the four winds following the death in 1912 of the couple’s only child, Robert Barrett Browning, known as Pen. His dying prompted sixteen cousins and an estranged wife to make claims on the estate, forcing a massive sale to be held the following year at Sotheby’s. But a fortuitous introduction to Edward R. Moulton-Barrett, the great-grandnephew of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, occasioned an invitation to examine a trove of papers that no one outside the family had seen. In fact, these papers had been rescued just a few years earlier in Jamaica, where the Barrett family had owned properties since the seventeenth century.

“Edward’s father lived there and died there, and had decided one day to burn all these family letters for one reason or other,” Kelley relates, marveling yet again at how one little twist of fate could have changed everything for him. “The father piled everything into the fireplace, but there were no matches to be found anywhere in the house, so he went out to get some from a store.” While he was gone, Edward—who by pure luck happened to be visiting—frantically pulled the letters off the grate and replaced them with other papers of little importance. “He rescued something like two thousand sheets of paper. He was a barrister with impeccable connections, and he became a great champion of what I was trying to do. He gave me unlimited access to everything that he had brought back to England, and got his numerous Moulton-Barrett cousins to give me access to all their material, too. It just started to snowball from there.”

One of Kelley’s first great discoveries came about in 1961 when he was allowed to examine a sealed box containing a cache of papers entrusted to one of the cousins. Kelley was hoping to find eight letters known to have been written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861) to her estranged father after she had clandestinely married Robert (1812–1889) and left 50 Wimpole Street in 1846 for Italy. Only the first was read and replied to. The rest were never opened by her father, and were generally thought to have been destroyed in 1913 by Pen Browning’s widow. These were not in the box—they remain unaccounted for to this day—but an important manuscript was. Wrapped in paper, it was annotated in Robert Browning’s hand with the words “Diary of E. B. B.”

Allowed to take these materials back to his London flat, Kelley was integrating the documents into his census one day when Gordon N. Ray, a prominent American scholar, made an unannounced visit to see for himself what a colleague had told him Kelley was doing with all this newly found Browning material. Duly impressed, Ray urged Kelley to abandon the checklist and concentrate on producing an authoritative edition of the correspondence. As an inducement, he suggested Kelley apply for a grant from the American Philosophical Society, and to include his name as a reference. He also recommended that Kelley apply for a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, which Ray had just joined as associate secretary general, and would direct as president from 1963 until shortly before his death in 1986.

“I had never heard of either institution before, but I took Dr. Ray’s advice and applied for both. I remained committed to doing the checklist, which I finally did finish, but I also realized that I had already gathered all this other information, and that since no one else was going to publish the letters, then I had to be the one to do it.”

By the time the first grant came from the American Philosophical Society in 1962, the number of letters located by Kelley had doubled the total to six thousand. Returning to the United States that year, he learned that he had just been awarded a Guggenheim, which enabled him to go back to England and resume the task in greater earnest. He began by transcribing a passel of letters Elizabeth had written to her sister Arabella that had remained with the Moulton-Barrett family. “A family member who lived in Cadogan Square invited me over to dinner one night and he produced, in a paper bag, these 119 letters. He said, ‘go ahead, take them, study them.’ I took them with me on the bus and almost fainted on the way home, I was so excited.”

During this period he also began editing the diary that he had uncovered the previous year; it would be published in 1969 by Ohio University Press. The entries were written between 1831 and 1832 when Elizabeth was living with her family in Hope End, near Ledbury in Herefordshire. To flesh out the material, Kelley made several trips there, visiting every place mentioned by Elizabeth in the diary. Getting a “feel” for the material, he says, and learning the identities and roles of everyone she named, became essential to understanding the entries, and would become standard operating procedure for him.

An appeal for other unrecorded Browning letters—published in August 1963 in Victorian Poetry, a scholarly journal—was accompanied by the formal announcement that Kelley and his coeditor, Ronald Hudson, were officially embarked on producing a definitive edition of the correspondence, which by then had mushroomed to eight thousand letters. Hoping to secure institutional support, Kelley moved his entire operation to the United States. A letter to then Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson seeking government support—the National Endowment for the Humanities was still two years away from being established—brought a cordial but nonetheless disappointing “unable to assist” response from the soon-to-be president, prompting Kelley’s decision in 1964 to “edit and publish the letters myself.”

To teach himself the rudiments of book design and production, he took a job with a New York printing and editorial firm that specialized in preparing formal bids for electric and engineering companies. In 1967, Kelley formed his own company—Browning Editorial Services —that offered design, typesetting, layout, editing, and indexing; the business was so successful that within a year Arno Press, a subsidiary of the New York Times, acquired a majority share. Kelley managed the operation through 1978 before deciding to devote himself full time to the Browning project.

Making a clean break, he moved back to his native state of Kansas, setting up the company he called Wedgestone Press about forty miles south of Wichita in Winfield, where he has been based ever since. It is a compact operation run from a converted stone-sided house he owns adjacent to his home, with two full-time employees—his coeditor for the past sixteen years, Edward Hagan, and himself—three part-timers, and independent contractors as needed for programming and Internet support. Printing and binding is done to Kelley’s exacting specifications by Thomson-Shore, Inc., of Dexter, Michigan, which specializes in job work for academic presses, and distribution is handled on-site in Winfield from an annex to the editorial office, which also serves as a meticulously cataloged repository for all the research material.

The first book to be printed under the Wedgestone imprint was the long-awaited census, The Brownings’ Correspondence: A Checklist, which led to the recovery of even more letters, bringing the total to about ten thousand. The widely praised effort also led directly to Kelley’s first grant from NEH in 1979, which helped him finalize work on the first four volumes, covering the years 1809 to 1840 and comprising 783 letters, along with the comprehensive array of annotations, supplementary documents, and pertinent illustrations that would become a hallmark of his work. Next up was The Browning Collections: A Reconstruction, an 800-page distillation of notes Kelley had kept from the beginning of his efforts and an annotated catalog of the 1913 Sotheby’s sale that he used as a guide to track down about half of the items that were sold in the six-day auction.

“Once I had done all of that, I had to finally keep the blinders on and publish the letters.” That same year, 1984, the first two volumes of the Correspondence were issued, and they have been forthcoming with regularity ever since. “The key to all of this is that I produce. You don’t continue to get grants unless you show results.”

Volumes 1 and 2 were devoted exclusively to the letters of young Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Reviewing the books in the New York Times, William S. Peterson, an English professor at the University of Maryland, who himself had edited a volume of Robert Browning’s correspondence, declared the effort to be “brilliantly conceived and—so far—executed,” and offered some interesting background on the project itself. “The story of Mr. Kelley’s venture is remarkable. He is a quiet, low-key person, almost hypnotic in the intensity of his vision, who prefers to work alone. Though he has established warm friendships with a small group of Browning scholars, the academic world as a whole, as it became aware of his work, has distrusted him as an outsider. . . . Now, in a move that is either foolhardy or heroic (or both), Mr. Kelley has launched an edition of the Browning letters, destined to be one of the largest of all literary correspondences even by the ample standards of the Victorian age.”

Whatever misgivings the “academic world” may have had, they were set aside as later volumes appeared, each one as “brilliantly conceived” and “executed” as the last. Reviewing Volumes 9 and 10 in the Times Literary Supplement in 1993, Ian Jack, an esteemed professor of English at the University of Cambridge and editor of five volumes of The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, pronounced that Kelley and Scott Lewis, who had come aboard as coeditor following the death of Ronald Hudson, “are assembling material to which all future students of the life and work of the two poets will be indebted.”

Daniel Karlin, a professor of English at the University of Bristol in England who has written and edited several books on the Brownings, told me by e-mail that he judges The Brownings’ Correspondence to be “one of the greatest achievements of modern editorial scholarship,” and that he “can’t imagine my own work, or that of any other Browning scholar or student for pretty much half a century, without the fruits” of Kelley’s “ambition and energy.” Others have echoed Karlin’s admiration. Rita S. Patteson, director of the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor, works closely with Kelley and says that she has “never known such a singularly focused individual.” Marjorie Stone, a professor of English and women’s studies at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, who edited three of the five volumes of The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Sandra Donaldson, general editor of that project, were similarly enthusiastic. Stone opined that Kelley’s “indefatigable work on this project will benefit scholars, students, and members of the wider public for years to come.” Donaldson stressed that she and her colleagues “could not have—indeed would not have” undertaken their massive project without the material Kelley had made available.

Kelley’s uncommon set of skills has inspired several descriptions, but “literary detective” seems best. “Provenance,” he tells me more than once during the two days we discuss his relentless quest of all things Browning, “is the means to finding everything.”

One of his most dramatic finds along these lines began with a gnawing hunch that important material might be found in the ancestral home of Joseph Milsand (1817–1886), a French philosopher, critic, and avid Anglophile who was one of Robert Browning’s closest friends and confidants. Twenty-six years would elapse from the time Kelley knocked on the front door of the old homestead in the Burgundy city of Dijon to the day in 1997 when he was finally granted access to a gloomy garret in the attic where scores of family artifacts had remained untouched for more than a century.

The sole occupant in 1971 had been Milsand’s reclusive granddaughter, an elderly woman who lived with no electricity or modern plumbing in the sixteenth-century house. She had died just a few weeks before Kelley arrived. In 1991, Kelley located the woman’s nephew and wife in a nearby village; they became interested in his project, and showed him a few tantalizing items during several brief visits they made together to the building—an inscribed book, a piece of silver, sketches by Browning’s father—but no letters, and no forays into the attic. In 1995, the couple modernized the second floor of the old landmark and moved in as full-time residents.

“When I returned in the autumn of 1996, the nephew’s wife greeted me at the door, clutching seventeen documents in her hand,” Kelley recalls. “She said to me, ‘Are these what you have been searching for?’. . . I replied in the affirmative and asked if there were more. We climbed the stairs to look; unfortunately, she had misplaced the attic keys.” She told Kelley to take the letters with him and return the following year, assuring him she would have found the key by then.

She had given him fifteen letters sent to Milsand between 1853 and 1875, several of them from Robert Browning, a few discussing various aspects of writing and translation, others including postscripts in the hand of Elizabeth. There were, in addition, two sheets of manuscript Kelley determined were “extremely important” as well. “I brought them all back to London with me, and took them over to Sotheby’s for a formal appraisal. They said seventeen thousand American dollars, about a thousand for each document.” When Kelley returned to Dijon the following year, he was greeted at the front door once again by the nephew’s wife; after exchanging pleasantries, he held out both hands, the seventeen documents cradled in one, $17,000 in crisp banknotes that he had borrowed from one of his brothers in the other.

“I said, ‘take these’—the letters—‘or this’—the cash. She looked at them, and she said, ‘I’ll take that’—the cash—and then she said, ‘I have the key to the attic, there is more upstairs.’”

Lighting the way with a flashlight—there was still no electricity on that level—Kelley sensed immediately that he had come upon what promised to be a mother lode of fascinating material, and expressed a sight-unseen interest in having an independent appraisal done, and acquiring everything. The following year he spent ten days poring through a maze of crates and faded possessions, zeroing in finally on a dusty area beneath a dormer window in the back of the attic, where he found a massive concentration of documents that had been packed away in boxes, presumably by Milsand’s widow. He arranged for their removal to London, where everything was cleaned and meticulously inventoried. In 2004, the Armstrong Browning Library purchased what it calls on its website the Joseph Milsand Archive, describing the contents as containing more than fifty thousand items that relate not only to the Browning and the Milsand families, but also to the Anglo-French literary scene of the 1860s to 1880s.

The materials included 4,138 letters, fully a quarter of them with a Browning reference that either involves Robert or Elizabeth directly, or mentions them prominently. Among the latter is a correspondence of more than 160 letters between Milsand and Browning’s sister, Sarianna, which provides a wealth of fresh insights on her brother and sister-in-law. “I’ve codified every one,” Kelley says, and he expects in time they will be integrated into the online edition of the Correspondence.

“One has to have patience when you come to these things,” says Kelley. Yet there is also the question of whether or not Kelley will be able to see his magnum opus through the next twelve to fourteen years, which would bring him well into his nineties by the time the Correspondence reaches Volume 40. To that end, he notes that he has a trained professional in Edward Hagan, who has been working alongside him now for thirty years, sixteen as his coeditor. “Ed is fully worked into the fabric of it all, so if anything happens to me, he can pick up the pieces,” Kelley says, before quickly adding that his own health remains excellent and his determination unchanged.

Hagan, sixty-one years old, says, “My loyalty to the mission is really a loyalty to Philip, because he trained me how to do so many things. I’m definitely in it for the long haul, and I enjoy doing it.” He agrees with Kelley that the edition is more an “encyclopedia” than just a collection of correspondence. “We try to fill in all the blanks, we try to make it interesting for everybody. I know what to do. Philip has done so much work already, the organization is the really amazing thing, a stranger could probably come in here and figure it out because of the structure he has created.”

Unmarried, Kelley travels when necessary for his work, but stresses he finds the routine endlessly stimulating. “I studied music when I was younger, and I enjoyed it, but I gave it up,” he admits, having decided long ago there could be room for just one consuming passion in his life. “I arrive in the office at 7:30 in the morning, seven days a week, and I remain until seven at night. But I don’t regard this as work. The truth is that the Brownings have given me a very exciting and satisfying life. I am constantly learning something new about them and their period—and they never bore me. So in the end, yes, time—time is the factor. Do you have the time to do this? My feeling is—what else would I do with my time? The Armstrongs wanted the collection they started so many years ago at Baylor to be something that would continue the Browning legacy in the public imagination for generations to come. What I am doing is continuing what they started.”

About the Author

Nicholas A. Basbanes is author of On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History, and the recipient in 2008 of an NEH research fellowship.

Funding Information

The Browning Correspondence Project has received nineteen grants from NEH since 1979, totaling $2.96 million. NEH has also made two grants totaling $330,000 to Sandra Donaldson of the University of North Dakota to support The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a five-volume scholarly edition. In 1994, NEH awarded a research fellowship to Julia Markus as she worked on Dared and Done, a biography of the Browning marriage. NEH has also supported many volumes of The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle at Duke University, which is now up to volumes 40 to 42.