Excerpt from How Do I Love Thee?
“I will die soon.”
My brother Edward leaned to an elbow on the company side of my bed. “Oh posh, Ba. You’ve been dying for
years and you are still with us.”
He was right. Although I had celebrated a childhood of good health, the journey through my teen years, my
twenties, and now my thirties had been greatly spent in a position of recline. And decline.
Bro popped a grape into his mouth and sighed. “No one can die here, Ba. Torquay is the happiest place in
southern England. The sea will not allow such talk. So I must insist you desist.” The grape met its demise and
another was plucked as Bro’s next victim.
I pulled my shawl closer, leaned back against the pillows, and gazed out the window at the sea sparkling in the
May sunshine. We had come here in 1838, and though our initial intent was to stay only one winter here, we had
spent nearly two years away from our family’s home in London, partaking of the salt air that was supposed to
make me well. The situation had transpired due to an ultimatum from Dr. Chambers. He had informed Papa that
if I were kept in London—with its soot and fog and unhealthy air—he would not be held responsible for the
consequences. And so Papa had relented.
But unfortunately, in requiring such attention, two of my siblings had to accompany me: Henrietta as my helper
and Edward as our chaperon. Other family came and went, and at times there was more family here than in
London. I knew the situation was the subject of much tension back home—which was unfortunate—but I was
not in charge. Papa was. It was regrettable that propriety forced three of us to be pulled from the family home,
but in truth, neither of the others seemed to mind as much as I.
Henrietta—who, unlike me, found books and learning a bore— always discovered friends and society no matter
where she was planted. And Bro . . . he was quite willing to lounge with me at Torquay if it prevented his being
sent to our family’s plantation in Jamaica, where he would be forced to do more than paint a few watercolors
and see to his poor sister’s happiness. As the Barrett heir, much was desired from Bro, although, alas, much
was not expected. Bro took no interest in and had little aptitude towards carrying on the family business. It
was as though he were waiting for Papa to make him interested and able. I loved him dearly, but I knew he
was not distinguished among men. His heart was too tender for energy.
When Papa had made murmurings that it was time for Bro to leave Torquay and take on some business
responsibility, I, in a rare moment of assertiveness, had insisted he be left with me. To gain my own way, I had
even sobbed, begging that Bro be allowed to stay. On his part, Bro, as a true alter ego, had declared that he
loved me better than anyone and he would not leave me till I was well. But Papa . . . I never forgot Papa’s
reply: “I consider it very wrong of you to exact such a thing, Ba.”
I mourned his harsh words, but my desire—yea, my need—for Bro’s company allowed my shame only a short visit
and was far outweighed by my delight in his presence.
And all had worked out well. Our brother Charles—Stormie—had gone to Jamaica in Bro’s stead. So for now, we
had received a reprieve. Jamaica . . . the thought of that awful place forced me to pull my eyes away from the
calming view of the sea. For my most recent decline had been caused by the news that our brother Sam had
died of fever there not three months previous—dead for two months before we even received word. Funny
Sam, six years younger than I, boisterous and witty, though admittedly, a bit too fond of drink.
Bro sat upright and pointed at me, making his finger dance an accusatory spiral. “And what is this? Sorrow in my
sister’s eyes? I will not have it.”
I adjusted the cuff of my mourning dress. “I was thinking of Sam.” He used the moment to state his case. “Do
you see why I do not wish to go to Jamaica? If Sam succumbed to its temptations, I most surely would—”
Temptations? I had only heard talk of fever. “What temptations?”
I watched regret and panic play upon my favourite brother’s face.
“I misspoke. Sam died of fever. That is all.”
“Apparently that is not all. As the eldest I demand to know the truth.” My bluster was for show. I did not really
want to hear the details. I was well aware of the peculiarities of my eight brothers and two sisters and loved
them dearly, but in response to my familiarity with their characters, I oft preferred to turn a blind eye to their
In turn, Bro, who knew me too well, gave me only partial disclosure. “Papa has warned us boys of the lures that
dwell in Jamaica. So far from home, with great responsibilities and no family close to offer support and
guidance . . .” He sighed with great drama—as was his way. “Sam was . . . Sam.”
“Ah.” I would let it remain at that. I pulled a volume of Balzac’s Le Père Goriot close. “I do long for the day
when we can all be together again, under one roof. Although I may have found benefit in Torquay at one time,
now I am too weak to bear being away. I find it dreadful. Dreadful,” I repeated. “I am crushed, trodden down,
and death nips at me from afar, but also from far too near.” I sat upright to gain Bro’s full attention. “What is
there to recommend this place when my own doctor has died here?”
Bro looked confused. “Dr. Barry died months ago.”
“Which makes his death from fever acceptable?”
“It happens, Ba.”
“He was the only doctor I liked as a person. Back in London, Dr. Chambers may be the doctor of the queen
dowager, but I do not much like him. Nor others with fewer credentials. Only Dr. Barry was amiable enough for
me to call friend.”
Bro offered an incredulous look. “But wasn’t Dr. Barry the doctor who scoffed at your habit of not rising until
noon? Didn’t he command you to get up at an earlier hour and force you outside in the afternoon?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “And I hold to my feelings that rising at such an early hour is barbaric, and the fresh air made
me fit for nothing.”
Of this I could offer dispute. “He declared my lungs better, yet I felt far worse. I was in such lowness of spirits
that I could have cried all day were there no exertion in crying.” I thought of Dr. Barry’s greatest sin against me.
“He was aggravating in that he forbade me from deep study. As a result I was forced to bind my Plato to appear
as a novel so he wouldn’t ban it from my room. And as for writing my poetry, he claimed the toil of it was too
much of a strain. Toil? Writing is my life. It is not toil. And he cannot stop me.”
“No. Now he cannot.”
Bro could be so . . . so . . . concise. But I would not let him enjoy the victory. I had a point to make. “As I said,
Dr. Barry moved me, and now that he has died, his passing grieves me.”
Bro crossed his arms and gave me a look of smugness.
I feigned ignorance, though I felt my cheeks grow warm. “Why do you look at me so?”
“This doctor, whom you fought at every ford, moves you, and is mourned by you?”
“In spite of our disparate views, he was the most amiable doctor I have ever employed.” I thought of another
point. “And for him to die when he had a wife who was with child . . .”
“’Tis a tragedy, I do not dispute that,” Bro said. “But it should not cause you to fear for your own demise . . .
all this talk about death nipping at you.”
He did not understand. The actual deaths of Sam and Dr. Barry reinforced the shortness of life. I thought of
another example to add to my argument. “Then there is the death of Mrs. Hemans, a poetess like me—though
of far further renown—dead at the age of forty-one. I am already four and thirty. The longest years do not seem
available to writers of poetry.” (continued)
Copyright 2009 Nancy Moser