My Interview With Elizabeth Barrett

9 December 1843

Today I was lucky enough to get a short meeting with one of my favorite poets, Elizabeth Barrett.

I had to disguise myself so she won’t recognize me when we next meet and I interview her ten years from now. (Twenty-six years ago for me.) I doubt she will remember me, for I don’t have a memorable face. Still I put talc in my mustache and hair so I would look older. Of course I was 26 years younger then, so I suppose already look older. I decided it was best to be on the safe side.

I had hoped Elizabeth would go to church with her family, but no luck. Her father, Edward Barrett, is a very domineering man who would disinherit any child who dared to get married and leave home. Elizabeth is the oldest of twelve children, eleven of them actually reaching adulthood.

I waited outside their residence at 50 Wimpole Street here in London. Unfortunately when the family came out, Elizabeth did not appear to be among them. I knew she seems to be having health problems now. I suppose she decided not to come accompany the family to church.

I decided to try a more daring ploy. I went up and knocked on the door. A servant answered and I asked if I could get Miss Barrett to sign her book of poems for me. It was to be a present to my wife. I didn’t mention she was imaginary.

The servant frowned, but took my book and shut the door leaving me on the stoop. A few minutes later he reappeared and said that Miss Barrett would give me a couple of minutes. I thought the “present for my wife” might arouse the curiosity of a romantic!

I was led upstairs. A woman met me at the door. “I’m Miss Wilson, the nurse. You will only stay a few minutes. Miss Barrett is not well.”

I came into the room, while the nurse watched me carefully. Miss Barrett was sitting in a chair with a blanket throw over her legs. A cocker spaniel laying on the floor beside her raised it’s head and growled.

“Shhh, Flush! It’s all right,” Miss Barrett reprimanded the beast.

The gold haired dog snorted and plopped it’s head back down.

I held out me hand to Elizabeth, careful to leave my gloves on. It’s not proper for a gentleman to touch a lady with his bare hands. “Hello, Miss Barrett. My name is Professor Howe. I really must thank you for this honor.”

Elizabeth gives me a weak smile. “To be honest, the life of an invalid can get a little tedious. If it wasn’t for my poetry and Flush, I don’t know what I would do.”

“Would it be too forward of me to ask what your malady is, Madame?”

Elizabeth shrugs. “I wish I could tell you, sir. I first fell ill when I was twenty, about the time my mother died. The doctors don’t know what it is, but they have me on medicine.”

I noticed a sicky sweet smell in the room--Opium: the Victorian “wonder drug”. Physicians are too generous with it. One can buy it at any Chemist Shop cheap. It’s excellent pain killer. It’s also highly addictive. This could well be part of her problem. Blasted quack doctors!

“My health seems to have declined even more since…since…” Elizabeth looks over at an etching of a young man by her bedstead.

“I’m so sorry. Was he a fiancee?”

“My brother, Edward. Five years ago the doctors insisted I get out of London and get some fresh sea air. I went to Torquay, my brother Edward offered to go with me, to watch out for me. Father wasn’t happy, but he allowed it. Edward and I had a lovely time. Then three years ago, Edward died in a sailing accident.” Tears welled in her eyes. “He was only there because of me.”

“You can hardly blame yourself, Miss Barrett. It was not you fault.”

“Yes, it was. I was the one that wanted Edward there with me. It was all my idea.”

Opium and depression. No wonder she has locked herself in her room.

“I’m sure if you had never asked your brother, he would have insisted on going. It’s a brother’s duty to watch out for his sisters. I would have done the same.” I don’t tell her I am an only child.

I pull out a copy of The Seraphim and Other Poems. “Would it be too much to ask you to autograph your book for me?”

“Yes. You said it was a present for your wife? Birthday?”

“No, wedding anniversary. Mary and I will be married twenty-six years next Tuesday. I thought she might like a book of your poems. She so enjoyed your poem “The Cry of the Children” condemning child labour.” I don’t add what social impact that poem will have, helping bring about reform.

Elizabeth takes the book and opens it. The nurse brings over a pen and inkwell for her. Elizabeth signs the book, then holds it to let the ink dry. “I take it you love your wife, Professor Howe?”

I would if I had one. “Yes! I love Mary to the depths of my soul.”

Elizabeth looks thoughtful. “Depths of my soul?…Breadth?…Height?…Hmmm?”

Ooops. I quickly change the subject. “Erm, yes! Mary is quite the woman. She’s put up with an absent-minded professor all these years.”

“It must be nice,” Elizabeth large dark eyes were wistful. “Having someone to love. It’s something I will never have.”

“Now, now, Miss Barrett. I’m sure your Prince Charming will show up any day.”

“Sir, I’m not a child. I’m thirty-seven years old. I’m an old maid and an invalid. What man would want me?”

“Perhaps some dashing young man might read your poems and fall in love with the inner you…the real you.”

Elizabeth actually smiled at that. “My dear Mr. Howe, you are a romantic! And they say poets have flights of fancy!” She hands me back my book.

I decide I better get out of there before I say too much. “I do not wish to fatigue you too much. I cannot thank you enough, Miss Barrett. This will mean the world to Mary.” I give her a slight bow. “It was indeed an honor to meet you.”

“It was nice to meet you, too. It’s nice to meet someone who still believes in fairy tales.”

I wish I could tell her that she will soon be the princess in a real life fairy tale. Next year she will publish another book of poems, and another poet will read them and fall in love. In three years time, the dashing Robert Browning, six years her junior, will whisk her away to Italy where they will live happily ever after.

Well, happily enough until Elizabeth dies at fifty-five. At least the dear lady will have fifteen years of happiness. I remember how the Brownings will look at each other some day.

How can I tell her that she inspires me, that it’s never too late to find love that lasts forever?

I can’t even tell her to never give up hope, that I know love will find her. The Institute of Time Travel would have my license for breaking the rules. So I just give her a sphinx-like smile. “May you find another soul as vast as your own, Miss Barrett.”

Elizabeth Barrett’s love poem to Robert Browning:
How do I love thee?


My First Photograph?

Today I stopped at the train station of Reading on my way back to London. There on Baker Street, at the "Reading Establishment," I hoped to find Mr. William Henry Fox Talbot, the photography pioneer. Not only did he develop the process of negatives and photographic paper, but he is probably even better remembered as the first serious photographer.

When I reached his studio, I was told he was out, but was given the location. When I got there I saw a ladder standing in front of a door leading up to a second floor window. A man stood at the top of the ladder and another stood at the bottom. What was odd, was that neither of them spoke or moved. I walked up and asked them what they were doing.

"That's it!" yelled a voice behind me. I turned my head and saw a balding man with a small wooden camera.

"I beg your pardon?"

"You balance the picture! You are what we needed. Please sir, just stand there and do not move, if you do not mind. Please, turn your head back like you are watching. Oh, and would you mind removing your top hat? It's a little distracting."

I humored the fellow and stood very still for a long time. The photographer turned out to be Henry Fox Talbot himself. (He always dropped the William.)

Later I looked over some of Talbot's hundreds of surviving photos that he took. I ran across this one:

I'm not certain, but I believe that is me on the left. I have had my picture taken thousands of times in the 27th century and dozens of times in the 19th, but I don't recall having my photo taken before 1843, so this may well be my "first" photograph.

I do hope I don't get in trouble with the Institute of Time Travel for this. I was only trying to be polite.


Happy Easter

I wish all of you a Happy Easter...and if you don't celebrate Easter, then Happy Spring.


Association of Temporal Anthropologists’ Annual Meeting and Ball

I thought I would tell you all about yesterday. I had planned to tweet you, but it’s a bit hard when people keep walking up and saying hello and shaking your hand or bowing or thumping their chests or what ever the greeting is in the culture they are studying.

I think I have mentioned that I don’t even own a 27th century suit. I’ve been so entrenched into the Victorian age, I such don’t feel quite right wearing anything else but Victorian clothes. I’m not unique among Temporal Anthropologists. And now we have them all in one spot. Imagine if you will, over one hundred Temporal Anthropologists running about in attire from various periods.

We try to hold the Ball at a different location every year. This one was held on the RMS Titanic VII, the sixth replica of that ill-fated ship. So far every other Titanic has had an impeccable safety record, since the owners go out of their way to make sure there can be no problems. I don’t think the builders of any of these Titanics ever imagined Egyptians or Celts running about an Edwardian ship.

We are all sent invitations and tickets for ourselves and a guest The second ticket is in hope that we will bring more woman to the ball since, male Temporal Anthropologists outnumber female Temporal Anthropologists. I once again failed this year to help with this lopsided ratio. I brought instead the student who passed last year’s Annual Temporal Anthropologists Candidate Endurance Test. Archibald Cocker actually liked living in a cabin with no running water and thought chopping wood was fun. He’s already gotten a Master’s in history and a bachelor’s in anthropology. He just needs to finish a doctoral in both and then he’ll be eligible to attend the Institute of Time Travel’s training school to acquire his Time Travel License.

I have high hopes for Archie. He’s bright and he’s eager, and somehow he looks right in a Victorian sack suit and a bowler. (He plans to study 19th century Britain, too.) So I brought him to introduce him around. He tried not to stare, but it’s hard when a Cavalier is pumping your hand.

I had fun watching Archie watching the crowd. On deck, the barbarians were having sword fights. They used rattan swords and wore padding to avoid fatal blows, but not bruises. Bit odd watching a Viking fighting a Mongol. Hard to remember all these men have double Ph.D.s when they are hitting each other with sticks.

In the saloon there was another “fight” between a Buddhist monk, a Muslim scholar from Timbuktu, a Byzantine Christian, a pagan from ancient Athens and a Cheyenne shaman as they discussed their beliefs. Pity all religious “wars” aren’t this cordial.

I did run into Dr. Matilda Warwick, dressed in her medieval tunic and veil. She was with Dr. Henry Darrel wearing his usual cowboy outfit. He was happy to finally meet Archie. Archie wants to study the working man like Henry does, only he wants to study the British Industrial Revolution and not the American one. I have a feeling both Henry and I will both be taking Archie out into the Field his first few trips. Archie began plying Henry with all kinds of questions, and Henry was happy to find someone with similar interests. We traded and I took Matilda for a stroll on the deck. She had something she wanted to show me back in her room. We had a very pleasant time.

At lunch they had the “Meeting” which is the Association President getting up and speaking for fifteen minutes on the latest news. We of course will hear all this in emails, but it’s an excuse to get together for lunch. No sense having a real meeting ruin a perfectly good function.

That afternoon Archie attended a class with all the other guests to learn the waltz and other dances that will be featured at the Ball. The female guests did outnumber the male guests this year. I found myself recruited to help rectify the numbers. The ladies all thought it was special to be dancing with someone who had waltzed in Vienna while Johann Strauss played. I rather enjoyed the female company. It was worth the wounded toes.

That evening the ballroom was beautiful. The chandeliers glistened and showed off the decorations. I wore my tuxedo. Everyone else wore their period’s equivalent. Henry was in a sack suit. I asked him why he wasn’t wearing a tuxedo, since he was from the 19th century, too. He said this was as fancy as he got.

Matilda had shed her usual simple brown tunic from a lovely 14th century gown she called a Houppelande. I told her she looked like something out of King Arthur. She reminded me Arthur was from the Dark Ages. I told her she looked like something out of the pre-Raphaelites then. She couldn't argue with that.

Matilda saved a waltz for me. I noticed Henry got the tango. No one asked me to tango. I can tango quite well. It’s Victorian, you know. All my waltzes were filled though, so I shouldn’t complain too much. (Still I am a very good tango dancer!)

The party went on into the wee hours. We Temporal Anthropologists can be a wild bunch. All right, we are a rather tame wild bunch, but we had fun. Rather sorry I had to miss it last year.

Archie survived the culture shock and wants even more to become a Temporal Anthropologist. Nice lad, I do hope he makes it, but I think he will.

So now it’s back to work until the next Annual Assocaition of Temporal Anthropologist Meeting and Ball. I like to think that Dr. Serendipity Brown, the inventor of Time Travel, would be pleased that we chose the 1st of April, the anniversary of her birthday, as the date for the event. Seemed appropriate since none of us would be Temporal Anthropologists without her. Here’s to you, Dr. Brown. You will always be remembered.