"Ignorance Is Not Innocence But Sin"
Context: Like most of the psychological studies of villainy that Browning produced, The Inn Album is based to some extent on actual occurrences. In the present instance his chief inspiration was the story of Lord De Ros, a friend of the Duke of Wellington; it had been recounted in Greville's memoirs. Browning adapted this material and added some ideas deriving from the case of the Tichborne Claimant. The plot involves two men. One is a young man who has just inherited a fortune, but who lacks the aristocratic polish and knowledge of the world which would enable him to move easily in a sophisticated society. The other, with whom he has become friendly, is a man of fifty; he has all the refinement and sophistication the young man lacks but is virtually penniless. The young man wants his companion to teach him how to behave in the company to which wealth will admit him; the older man sees the younger as a potential source of funds. As a step toward acquiring the youngster's money, he allows the latter to win at cards and thus indebts himself to the extent of ten thousand pounds. He intends to use the debt as a lever with which to swindle twice its amount from the boy. In an exchange of confidences each man tells the other he has been unhappy in love; the older admits he once seduced and then abandoned a woman, and the younger tells of his love for a girl who would not have him but took a middle-aged rake instead. The drama reaches its climax when the boy discovers that both have been involved with the same woman. She has encountered the older man and is reacting bitterly when the boy intrudes and recognizes her. He denounces both. She tells the boy to renounce his corrupt companion and to marry the cousin who loves him; and she begs the older man to leave, never letting the other girl know "How near came taint of your companionship!" The rake replies ironically that for innocence to be crowned with ignorance is desirable but difficult. She replied:
"Ignorance is not innocence but sin–Witness yourself ignore what after-pangsPursue the plague-infected. MercifulAm I? Perhaps! the more contempt, the lessHatred; and who so worthy of contemptAs you that rest assured I cooled the spotI could not cure, by poisoning, forsooth,Whose hand I pressed there? Understand for onceThat, sick, of all the pains corroding meThis burnt the last and nowise least–the needOf simulating soundness. I resolved–No matter how the struggle tasked weak flesh–To hide the truth away as in a graveFrom–most of all–my husband: he nor knowsNor ever shall be made to know your part,My part, the devil's part,–I trust, God's partIn the foul matter. Saved, I yearn to saveAnd not destroy: and what destruction likeThe abolishing of faith in him, that's faithIn me as pure and true? . . . 'Tis God. . .Must bear such secrets and disclose them . . ."