Dressed in his formal evening attire complete with top hat and cane, Jasper Strong stepped out of the carriage and offered his hand to his wife Eliza Julia who was elaborately dressed in her evening gown. It shimmered in the lamp light as she descended from the carriage. Tonight they were attending a performance in Florence, Italy on the last evening of their European vacation. They had thoroughly enjoyed their time together and this was a perfect highlight with which to complete their holiday. The theater was a beautiful example of historic architecture for which Florence is famous.
The Strongs made their way through the ornate lobby and soon found their theater box entrance. As Eliza Julia and Jasper entered, a man rose to greet them as his wife remained seated.
“Good evening,” said the gentleman extending his gloved hand.
“Good evening,” replied Jasper shaking the gentleman’s hand.
“This is my wife Elizabeth Browning and I am Robert Browning.”
“How do you do?” responded Jasper. “This is my wife Eliza Julia Strong and I am Jasper Strong.”
The couple in the theater box was none other than Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning — two of the most acclaimed poets of the Victorian era. Although they were British subjects, the Brownings made their home in Florence, Italy due to the fragile health of Elizabeth. Mrs. Browning was at the height of her fame at the time of the Strong’s meeting. She was in the process of writing one of her most ambitious works, Aurora Leigh — a nine-part poetic novel. It would be completed and published in 1857. Her poetry was critically acclaimed in both England and the United States. Robert Browning at this time was not as widely read as his wife, but his acclaim would come later. They had only been married a few years at the Strong’s meeting and their son, Robert Barrett Browning, was just a few years old.
Before the performance, the two couples conversed about the Strong’s holiday in Europe and how they were from the balmy state of Florida. They also discussed the tumultuous political rumblings going on in the United States indicating the possiblity of the southern states seceding from the Union. If this happened Jasper interjected, then they would plan to move back to Jasper’s home state of Vermont. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was also inclined to an interest in political “rumblings.” Her poem Casa Guidi Windows was itself an ode to Florence and its vie for independence. The Strongs inquired about her poetry and how wonderful it must be to live in Florence.
Many of Elizabeth’s works are beloved, but perhaps her most famous work was the poem, Sonnett 43 (How Do I Love Thee?)
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
As their conversation continued, Mr. Browning became fascinated with the resemblance of his wife Elizabeth and Eliza Julia. Through this chance meeting the two couples evidently became friends, for a few years later in 1861, Mr. Browning would write to the Strongs back in New England letting them know of the death of Elizabeth. He also wrote that he and his son would be moving from their beloved Florence back to London.
This letter from Robert Browning was given to Charles Matthew Strong by his father Jasper. Charles would relate this “vignette” to his children many times over showing them the letter each time. The vague address on the letter always amused Charles –
“Esq. & Mrs. J. Strong, Quechee, New England, America”
But the address was evidently accurate enough to reach the Strongs at their home in Quechee, Vermont. It was always a cherished possession of the family, but the location of the letter today has not been determined. Since the successive generations of the Strong family lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, it is feared that it washed away in one of the devastating storms of the last one hundred years.
Jasper and Eliza Strong are my third great-grandparents.
(This story was discovered in a written oral history of Louise Christine Frere Strong, wife of Charles Matthew Strong. The oral history was transcribed by her daughter, Eliza Julia Strong Hymel (Bessie) and compiled by Louise and Charles’ grandaughter, Beatrice Elizabeth Hymel. A copy of this handwritten transcription is found at the Hancock County Historical Society in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.)