Browning, Elizabeth Barrett (1806–1861)
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett (1806–1861)
English poet who wrote some of the most exquisite love poems in the English language—the first cycle of Petrarchan love sonnets to be written from the woman's rather than the man's point of view. Name variations: Elizabeth Barrett (1806–1846), Elizabeth Barrett-Browning (1846–1861). Born Elizabeth Barrett Moulton in County Durham, England, on March 6, 1806; died on June 30, 1861, in Florence, Italy; oldest of 12 children of Edward Barrett Moulton (who would change his name to Barrett for reasons of inheritance) and Mary Graham-Clarke; married Robert Browning (the poet), September 12, 1846; children: Robert Wiedemann Browning (b. 1849).
An Essay on Mind and Other Poems (1826); Prometheus Bound and Miscellaneous Poems (1833); The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838); Poems by E. Barrett Browning (1844); A Drama of Exile and Other Poems (1845); The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point (1849); Poems by E.B. Browning (1850); Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850); Casa Guidi Windows (1851); Two Poems (1854); Aurora Leigh (1857); Poems before Congress (1860); Last Poems (1862); and numerous volumes containing her letters to her sister, as well as Mary Russell Mitford , R.H. Horne, Robert Browning, and others.
The marriage of English poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett is one of the great romantic true stories of the 19th century, in which a dashing 34-year-old poet wooed an ailing poet of 40 and wedded her secretly. They became intimate through a huge correspondence of 573 letters, stole away from their respective homes one day in 1846, married quietly, returned home separately without mentioning it, then immigrated together to Italy the following week. In some respects, however, they were characteristic models of Victorian rectitude rather than romantic rebels. They suffered little disapproval or ostracism, except from Elizabeth's inflexible father, and they never aimed to flout public conventions.
Elizabeth Barrett was born in 1806, oldest of twelve children, nine of whom lived into adulthood. She was born in County Durham but moved as a young child to Hope End, Hertfordshire, north of London, where she lived for the next 21 years. She soon proved exceptionally gifted academically and out-competed her brother Edward in all lessons, though she was denied the opportunity to go away to school. She was passionately devoted to Edward, whom she called "Bro"; as an adult he had no career. At the age of four, she began writing poetry and was a master of poetic genres by the time she was ten. She had also read most of Shakespeare, Pope, and even Milton. As a teenager, she contributed poetry to London journals regularly and published her first book, An Essay on Mind with Other Poems (1826), anonymously, at the age of 20. By then, she had learned to read in Italian, French, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew well enough to peruse the Old Testament straight through.
She followed up her initial triumphs with an 1833 translation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound (a less successful venture that she later revised), and a further book of poetry, The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838), which for the first time carried her name on the title page. Until then, her poetic voice had carefully veiled her sex. The main poem, of almost 80 pages, consists of a discussion between two angels in Heaven at the time of Christ's crucifixion. The others are shorter romantic verses, which scored a great hit with English critics. By the early 1840s, Barrett was probably the best-known and most admired woman poet in Britain. After her marriage, she remained the more famous half of the couple, and, when William Wordsworth died in 1850, her name was mentioned among the candidates for poet laureate.
The family's wealth was based on a West Indies slave plantation, much to her shame, but in her father's generation the business went into decline due to serious mismanagement of the estate. In 1832, four years after the death of Elizabeth's mother Mary Graham-Clarke , Edward Barrett was forced to sell Hope End, his country estate, and move to a humbler (though still decidedly affluent) setting. For a while, the family lived in Sidmouth on the Devonshire coast, and then moved to London in 1835 where they lived first in Gloucester Place and then in an elegant townhouse on Wimpole Street. Edward Barrett never discussed his declining fortunes with his children, and they sometimes only learned of problems through the gossip of friends. Like most Victorian patriarchs, he assumed that his sons would later take up work in the world, but unlike most, he did not want his daughters to marry. Instead, he apparently intended that all should remain permanently at home, and as his business and fortune deteriorated he became increasingly autocratic.
Elizabeth developed a serious ailment, a form of tuberculosis, and some biographers have speculated that it was a psychosomatic stratagem, brought on by the tensions of her family life or by resentment at being denied the opportunities granted her brother. She also suffered from a spinal injury incurred in a riding accident. Despite her illness, she worked hard from her sickroom, studied poetry, philosophy, and languages, and enjoyed several close friendships with men. One of them, the Reverend George Hunter, became an ardent suitor, but she turned down cold his frequent marriage proposals in the early 1830s. Her letters show that she was highly critical of gender relations in her world, and disapproved of many marriages that she witnessed because of the men's tendency towards tyranny and the women's lack of education and gravity. She enjoyed a more successful and stable longterm friendship with John Kenyon, a wealthy patron of the arts who first introduced her to Robert Browning's work and helped spark the great literary romance.
At the end of the 1830s, Elizabeth's medical condition was worse than ever and her doctor urged her to spend the winter in the warmer climate of Torquay, a coastal town in southwest England. It took a great battle of wills with her father to be allowed to go, and while she was there in 1840 her brother Edward was drowned in a sailing accident. The loss tormented her with grief, and she convinced herself that she was to blame for his death, since he had come there as her companion. She suffered a complete nervous breakdown as a result, returning to London sobered and subdued a year later. She was so affected by her brother's death that she could never bear to mention it directly for the rest of her life, but only by the most allusive indirection. In the following years, she wrote two more volumes of poetry, which further enhanced her reputation when she published them in 1844. Among the poems in this collection, many of them melancholy, was "The Children's Cry," a protest against the prematurely overworked children in the English coal mines and factories:
Our knees tremble sorely in the stooping,
We fall upon our faces, trying to go;
And underneath our heavy eyelids drooping
The reddest flower would look as pale as snow.
For all day we drag our burden tiring
Through the coal-dark underground;
Or all day we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round.
She also became in those years what would now be described as an opium addict. She was, she wrote a friend, "in the habit of taking forty drops of laudanum a day, and cannot do with less." She spent virtually all her time in her work room, allowing only a small circle of close friends, including Kenyon, to visit her, doing no domestic work, doted on by her siblings, and still studying voraciously.
She and Robert Browning exchanged greetings in January 1845 after he wrote her a letter of admiration for her collected poems (in one of which she had compared him with Wordsworth and Tennyson), and they now began an ardent, 19-month correspondence. He had resolved to have no career except that of poet and had persuaded his baffled but adoring family to go along with his plans and support him financially far into adulthood. He was already well-known and had enjoyed literary acclaim in the 1830s for his long poem Paracelsus (1835) and for a play Strafford (1837) but his complicated poem Sordello (1840) was a flop, and he was still in no position to support himself financially. After that, despite a prolific output, it would be more than a decade before he could enjoy public approval and a decent income from his writing. Robert Browning was excited at discovering a kindred spirit in Elizabeth and told her that until
they met he had despaired of finding a woman his intellectual equal, with whom he could be "love's slave" for life. They met frequently in her room and she wrote him a series of sonnets, the most famous of which, still popular today, is: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." They were later published as Sonnets from the Portuguese to disguise their intensely personal origins, and were the first cycle of Petrarchan love sonnets to be written from the woman's rather than the man's point of view.
The couple slipped away from home and married on September 12, 1846, saying nothing to their families. Still furtive, they set out for Italy on September 19th. Almost at once Elizabeth's health began to improve, and she enjoyed their journey to Italy, apart from getting a furious letter from her father, disowning her for her secret disobedience. For the first six months, they lived in Pisa on money Elizabeth had inherited from her grandmother and uncle, attended by her faithful maid Elizabeth Wilson . In March of 1847, not realizing until the last minute that she was pregnant, Elizabeth Browning had a miscarriage, and her loss of blood terrified Robert that his passion had endangered his new wife's life. She recovered and felt buoyant at the evidence of her fertility rather than depressed by the loss.
Later that year, they moved to Florence and into an apartment in an old stone palace, the Casa Guidi. Their son "Pen," Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, was born there in 1849, when Elizabeth was 43. She doted on him. Though Florence became a permanent home, they moved frequently back and forth across Europe in the following years, spending time alternately in London, Paris, Rome, and the Alps. Elizabeth continued to have a horror of the sea and ships, ever since her brother's drowning, but braved the crossings of the English Channel to visit London. "It was a little mortifying for both Robert and Elizabeth," writes Margaret Forster of their early months together, "to face up to the fact that they were not nearly so well suited to a Bohemian or a gypsy life as they liked to imagine." Elizabeth had always been surrounded by servants and could not cook, sew, or take care of the household. Elizabeth Wilson, who had originally been hired as a lady's maid but was now expected to be housekeeper, dressmaker, and general servant too, served their needs for a modest £16 per year. Elizabeth Barrett Browning never revealed her upper-class origins more clearly than when she indignantly denied Wilson's request for a pay-raise, arguing that she should be grateful for the family's emotional warmth as adequate compensation and claiming, quite unfairly, that she could not afford it. It was all very well for Elizabeth to make impassioned pleas on behalf of oppressed women, American slaves, overworked factory children, and the Italians suffering under the Austrian yoke, political views for which she was renowned, but when it came to her own convenience and comfort the servants were expected to buckle under.
American and British visitors came to see the Brownings in Florence, usually drawn more to Elizabeth than to her husband, whose work at that stage was less widely respected. Margaret Fuller , a leading light among the American transcendentalists, visited her, while back in America Emily Dickinson was one of many American authors to admire her from afar. Elizabeth's biggest writing project of the 1850s was Aurora
Leigh (1857), a blank verse, book-length poem in the form of an autobiography, full of echoes of her own life, emphasizing the heroine's intellectual precocity and loneliness, her travels in Italy and England, and her ultimate marriage to her true love. It has a strong current of feminist sensibility, criticizing the stifling of women's intellect in contemporary England, and an equally fervent denunciation of the suffering workers in the industrial cities. Sub-plots deal with the discrediting of utopian socialism, the melodramatic kidnapping of a poor girl into a Parisian brothel, a good man blinded in a fire (reminiscent of Mr. Rochester in Charlotte Brontë 's Jane Eyre), and several of the startling coincidences favored by her contemporaries, including Dickens as well as the Brontës. The poem was a commercial success despite what was, for its time, an unusually frank account of female sexuality.
The Brownings were both excited by the Italian liberal uprisings of 1848 and dismayed by Pope Pius IX's radical change of political views from liberal to reactionary. Throughout the 1850s, Elizabeth followed the development of the Italian unification movement closely and was jubilant to witness its successes in 1859 and 1860. She wrote poems on these events, praising the French Emperor Napoleon III, whom she idealized as a benevolent strong man, and sometimes criticizing English policy that was less sympathetic to the Italian cause. She was dismayed when another hero, Count Camillo di Cavour, prime minister of a newly unified north Italian kingdom, died in 1861, and it prompted a crisis in her own health. She had been frail throughout much of her life, despite her revival after marriage, and now was unable to regain her strength.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in June 1861 and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Florence where she has an elaborate, elevated stone tomb. Robert Browning abandoned Florence and came back to England where he would live until 1889, publishing her Last Poems in 1862 as a tribute. Obituaries praised Elizabeth Barrett Browning in extravagant terms, with one major journal, the Edinburgh Review, claiming that such a talented female writer had never before lived. "Such a combination of the finest genius and the choicest results of cultivation and wide-ranging studies has never been seen before in any woman." Her reputation went into eclipse between 1900 and 1930 and by the early 20th century critics and literary historians had come to regard her husband as the greater poet. The contradictory and paradoxical aspects of her character have fascinated a new generation of feminist critics, however, and the discovery and publication of hundreds of her letters in the last three decades have made her as fascinating for them as for her poetry.
Karlin, Daniel. The Courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Kenyon, Frederick, ed. "Elizabeth Barrett Browning," in Poetical Works. NY: Macmillan, 1899.
Kintner, Elvan, ed. The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969.
Mander, R. Mrs. Browning: The Story of Elizabeth Barrett. London: Widenfeld and Nicolson, 1980.
Raymond, Meredith, and Mary Rose Sullivan, eds. The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning to Mary Russell Mitford. 3 vols. Baylor University: Wedgestone Press, 1983.
Taplin, Gardner. "Elizabeth Barrett Browning" in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 32. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1984, 53–68.
Dennis, Barbara. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Hope End Years. Dufour, 1996.
The Barretts of Wimpole Street, play by Rudolph Besier, starring Katharine Cornell (opened on Broadway in 1931).
The Barretts of Wimpole Street (110 min.), MGM, 1934, film starring Norma Shearer (who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress), Maureen O'Sullivan , and Fredric March; screenplay by Claudine West , Donald Ogden Stewart, and Ernest Vajda; directed by Sidney Franklin.
The Barretts of Wimpole Street (105 min.), MGM, 1957, film starring Jennifer Jones , John Gielgud, Virginia McKenna , and Bill Travers; directed by Sidney Franklin.
Patrick Allitt , Assistant Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia