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A Handbook to the Works of Browning (6th ed.)

Canon Caponsacchi throws comfits at Pompilia in the theatre


Mr. Browning wrote "The Ring and the Book," his mind was made up on the merits of the Franceschini case; and the unity of purpose which has impressed itself upon his work contributes largely to its power. But he also knew that contemporary opinion would be divided upon it; and he has given the divergent views it was certain to create, as constituting a part of its history. He reminds us that two sets of persons equally acquainted with the facts, equally free from any wish to distort them, might be led into opposite judgments through the mere action of some impalpable bias in one direction or the other, which third, more critical or more indifferent, would adopt a compromise between the two; and he closes his introductory chapter with a tribute to that mystery of human motive and character which so often renders more conclusive judgments impossible.

"Action now shrouds, now shows the informing thought: Man, like a glass ball with a spark a-top, Out of the magic fire that lurks inside, Shows one tint at a time to take the eye Which, let a finger touch the silent sleep, Shifted a hair's-breadth shoots you dark for bright, Suffuses bright with dark, and baffles so Your sentence absolute for shine or shade." (vol. viii. p. 55.)

The three forms of opinion here indicated appear in the three following chapters as the respective utterance of "HALF-ROME," "THE OTHER


HALF-ROME has an instinctive sympathy with the husband who has been made ridiculous, and the nobleman who is threatened with an ignominious death; and is disposed throughout to regard him as more sinned against than sinning. "Count Guido has been unfortunate in everything. He is one of those proud and sensitive men who make few friends, and who meet reverses half-way. He has waited thirty years for advancement in the church, is sick of hope deferred, and is on the point of returning home to end his days, as he thinks, in frugality and peace, when a pretty girl is thrown in his way. Visions of domestic cheerfulness and comfort rise up before him. He is entrapped into marriage before he has had time to consider what he is doing, and discovers when it is too late that the parents reputed wealthy have little left but debts; and that in exchange for their daughter's dowry, present and prospective, he must virtually maintain them as well as her."

"He is far from rich, but he makes the best of a bad bargain--takes the three with him to Arezzo, and lodges them with his mother and his youngest brother, in the old family house. He is repaid with howls of disappointment. Pietro and Violante want splendour and good-living. They haven't married their daughter to a nobleman and gone to live in his palace, to be duller than they were at home, and have less to eat and drink. They abuse the mother, who won't give up her place in the household, and try to sneer the young brother-priest out of his respect for old-fashioned ways. They go back to Rome, trumpeting their wrongs: and, once there, spring a mine upon the luckless Count. They refuse to pay the remainder of Pompilia's dowry, on the ground that she is not their child. Violante Comparini has cheated her husband into accepting a base-born girl as his own, and a well-born gentleman into marrying her, but was ready to have qualms of conscience as soon as it should be convenient to tell the truth; and now the moment has come."

"Count Guido, left alone with his nameless and penniless wife, still hopes for the best. Pompilia is not guilty of her mock parents' sins. She has been honest enough to take part against them when writing to her brother-in-law in Rome.[26] He and she may still live in peace together. But now the old story begins again--that of the elderly husband and the young wife. Canon Caponsacchi throws comfits at Pompilia in the theatre; brushes against her in the street; has constantly occasion to pass under her window, or to talk to some one opposite to it. He, of course, looks up; Pompilia looks down; the neighbours say, 'What of that?' The Count is uncomfortable, but he is only laughed at for his pains; the fox prowls round the hen-roost undisturbed. He wakes one morning, after a drugged sleep, to find the house ransacked, and Pompilia gone, and everyone able to inform him that she has gone with Caponsacchi, and to Rome. He pursues them, and overtakes them where they have spent the night together. She brazens the matter out, covers her husband with invective, and threatens him with his own sword. He gives both in charge, and follows them to Rome, where he seeks redress from the law. But he does not obtain redress, though the couple's guilt is made as clear as day by a packet of love letters which they had left behind them. They swear that they did not write the letters, and the Court believes them. 'They have done wrong, of course, but there is no proof of crime;' and they are let off with a mere show of punishment."

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