Few poets and their relationship are more enveloped in mystery than Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. In particular Elizabeth: the “Victorian” poet confined to the sofa with her beloved dog Flush, dashing off love sonnets to her future husband, one being #43 with its iconic opener: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
I wanted to know more about this woman, especially before reading what is considered her most impressive and controversial work, Aurora Leigh, “a novel in verse,” that covers a wide range of relevant social issues. Searching biography options, I discovered one by Margaret Forster, simply titled Elizabeth Barrett Browning: a biography. From the reviews I read, I expected it to be good, but it delivered more than that: it proved to be a page turner!
As I read the details of Elizabeth’s life, I noted distinct events that seemed to shape her as the person and poet she became. I share some of these significant situations in this post, which will be a two-parter, and even then, humans, their lives and works, cannot be captured in a couple of posts! I’m sure even Forster in her 375-page biography was not able to include and elaborate on every event and relationship in Elizabeth’s complex life.
“Her legacy is a remarkable body of work, not only 25 novels (including Georgy Girl, made into a film in 1966) and 14 biographies, but social history, memoir, journalism. Her reputation as a writer had grown rapidly. She wrote intensely and her output was prodigious, but it was with Georgy Girl in 1965 that her reputation was secured.
“But perhaps Forster’s most enduring work will be that based on fact. The publisher Carmen Callil once said that Lady’s Maid (1990), the story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s runaway romance told from the angle of the lady’s maid, was the best thing she had ever done. The book was not Forster’s own favourite, although she addressed the same subject in her brilliant biography Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1988), which won her the Heinemann award”(Gorb).
Elizabeth’s early years
On March 6, 1806 in Coxhoe, England, Mary Graham-Clarke and Edward Moulton-Barrett welcomed their first child, Elizabeth, ultimately the oldest of twelve Barrett children, three daughters and nine sons. While growing up, Elizabeth was naturally closest to her brother next in line, Edward, known as Bro, only 15 months younger than her.
From the start, Elizabeth showed herself as an intelligent and active child. She loved the outdoors and interacting with her many siblings. As biographer Forster says:
“Her precocious intellectual gifts, it is clear, never prevented her from having a great deal of fun. The child who reported reading Racine at ten also confessed to exhaustion after romping in the hay”(12).
More and more Elizabeth displayed exception in her desire and interest to learn and her parents encouraged this:
“Both parents were proud of her intellectual taste and did all they could to foster them”(19).
Elizabeth’s hours spent reading, contemplating and writing, led to her first formal publication in the New Monthly Magazine at age 15, setting her determinedly on a writing and publishing track that would span the rest of her life.
Wait, I can’t go and he can?
Elizabeth and Bro were tutored together, learning in unison, until abruptly and shockingly it was announced that Bro would be going to London to continue his schooling and Elizabeth would remain at home in their rural setting. The injustice and feeling of being trapped and left behind was devastating to Elizabeth.
“The day Bro entered Charterhouse School, in the spring of 1820 when Elizabeth was fourteen and he was thirteen, the difference between them was exposed for what it was. Sam was still at home, there were plenty of other brothers coming up behind him, but for Elizabeth an era had unmistakably ended: she was being left behind, treated differently”(19).
This hurt and infuriated Elizabeth who knew she was as intelligent, if not more, than her brother and certainly more motivated, and that none of that mattered was a slap in the face.
This isolating event contributed to, “Elizabeth being a profoundly happy child to becoming an increasingly unhappy adolescent”(20).
Yet, it also spurred Elizabeth’s lifelong advocacy for women’s rights and motivated her to double-down on her own studies and to seek out established poets and writers who could mentor her and provide feedback and criticism of her work. She craved intellectual and artistic interaction, knowing how valuable it was to her growth as a poet.
“I always imagine…I was sent on the earth for some purpose,”(28) recorded Elizabeth, and by age 21 “she knew what it was to which she wanted to devote herself: poetry”(35).
Bro departed for school and life continued to shift for Elizabeth.
“At about age 15, Elizabeth began to experience health issues that were never formally diagnosed and seemed to be exacerbated by the treatment which required bedrest, adding to the weakness and depression that consumed her mind and body. It was at age 15 that Elizabeth was prescribed opium too and she continued to take it the rest of her life for sleep purposes”(27).
Told she needed bedrest, calm and quiet may have exacerbated her weakness and depressive tendencies, BUT it also provided space and time and a valid reason to say no to invitations and visits from those she did not want to engage with, especially suitors and annoying neighbors. Elizabeth, from the security and privacy of her room, was able to manage her life and take the time she desired to pursue her passion, something that would have been viewed as unacceptable if she had not had health issues.
But the illness that plagued her for the rest of her life was worrisome, especially to those who loved her most: her father, siblings, and eventually Robert.
Elizabeth’s symptoms were described as:
“incapacitating weakness, heart palpitations, intense response to heat and cold, intense response to illnesses as mild as a cold, and general exhaustion in bouts that lasted from days to months or years”(PennState).
Some of these bouts confined her to bed and a wheelchair for long stretches at a time. It was unclear what Elizabeth was dealing with health-wise, but more recently it has been speculated she may have suffered from hypokalemic periodic paralysis (HKPP) which can be triggered by:
“anything that increases secretion of insulin — alcohol, hunger or high carbohydrate foods — table salt, excessive heat or cold, sudden temperature change, illness, sleep, exercise or some medications. Symptoms of HKPP generally first appear at puberty”(PennState).
At the time, doctors informed Elizabeth “she could recover completely,” which, although faulty, was good news, and “the only activity they cautioned her against was intellectual: excessive reading and writing were announced to be too exhausting for her debilitating constitution”(27).
“Elizabeth never believed this. As far as she was concerned, reading and writing were what made life worth living”(27).
As can be the case at times, from the darkest, most challenging periods in a person’s life can emerge their most precious gifts and greatest joys.
“Her own growth and development and an illness which left her weak and depressed made the period from fourteen to twenty a difficult one. But it was out of this “difficulty” that her poetry was born”(20).
Grief and its lasting impact
In 1828, when Elizabeth was 22, her mother died and the grief was crushing. Although Elizabeth, after reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, clearly rejected the life her mother lived, she was devastated by the loss of this loving, generous, and supportive matriarch.
Ultimately, the more significant change that emerged from this family loss was the way it altered their father who became much more involved in the running of the home and his children’s lives, to the point of oppressive control, especially over the lives of his daughters. Mr. Barrett was hellbent on keeping his family together and Elizabeth, at the time, agreed with this determination because she needed the cohesiveness too.
Mr. Barrett especially hunkered down on his oldest daughter, Elizabeth, the frail, precious one. From this time forward, Elizabeth and her father’s relationship became one of Elizabeth striving to protect and please him and his mission to protect and control her. This intensified over the years and led to one of the most painful aspects of Elizabeth’s life.
A welcome move to London
Much to Elizabeth’s delight, the Barrett family moved to London in 1835, eventually settling on Wimpole Street, where she was able to establish more connection with the literary and wider world, although she still was not able nor interested in venturing out very often. Letter writing was a lifeline she would always depend upon.
“But in her room in Wimpole Street Elizabeth did not feel as cut off from the real world as some people thought her. She followed not only artistic and literary concerns, but also politics”(121).
Elizabeth’s poetry, which often addressed social and political issues, was being published more and more and she longed for feedback and criticism. She may have struggled with physical frailty, but she was stronger than most when it came to taking and ingesting criticism for the betterment of her work, especially since formal schooling and training was not available to her. She was also becoming more confident and settled into who she was as an artist:
“Now, as she entered a prolific period in her writing life, she was beginning to see that what people called her obscurity was her and that she should not be afraid of herself. There was no arrogance in this attitude. On the contrary, she was unfailingly modest, but nevertheless she recognized her own voice and was preparing to go on speaking in it”(84).
To add to this sense of self, finally Elizabeth was allowed to put her name to her work, which for many women writers at this time still was not fully embraced.
“She was tired, at the age of thirty-two, of having no clear literary identity. Fortunately, her father, who had before forbidden her ever to put her name to her work, was so proud of “The Seraphim” that he agreed to let Elizabeth B. Barrett appear on the title page”(87).
Grief upon grief
In 1840, when Elizabeth was 34, her brother Sam died of fever while in Jamaica managing the family business and soon after that her beloved brother Bro drowned in a boating accident. Elizabeth and her family were hurled into a spin and the depths of grief were deeper than ever.
It’s important to note that the family business in Jamaica consisted of sugar plantations:
“Both sides of [Elizabeth’s] family owned slaves with her grandfathers on each side being slave-owners. The knowledge that her ancestors had taken part in the trade of enslaved Africans deeply affected her and she called their complicity in the slave trade a ‘curse’”(National Portrait Gallery).
Elizabeth was recognized for her anti-slavery poetry, especially “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” as well as her vocal support for the abolition of slavery. Yet she partially subsisted on lasting profits from that business, creating a murkiness that can be a challenge to reckon with.
After at least a year of intense, debilitating depression from the loss her brothers, Elizabeth emerged. As Forster writes:
“She was not going to die. Even more, she no longer wished to die though she had difficulty admitting it. “Once I wished not to live,” she confided in Boyd, now in London and to whom she still wrote occasionally, “but the faculty of life seems to have sprung up in me again, from under the crushing heavy foot of grief.” It surprised her, as she reflected “the poetical part…is growing in me as freshly and strongly as if watered every day”(103).
Once again, the poetical, creative part of Elizabeth rescued her. With her “highly developed and useful talent for living vicariously”(133), she was able to satisfy her social needs. Her sisters visited others and attended social situations she could and did not want to attend and reported back to her all she needed and wanted to know.
The poem that lights a spark
In 1845, Elizabeth decided to pay homage to several poets in her poem, “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship.” One of these poets was Robert Browning who was not as well-known as the others, Wordsworth and Tennyson, and not as well-known as Elizabeth herself. She knew Browning would see the reference to him in her poem and not long after he did, he sat down to write Elizabeth a thank you letter.
This began a relationship that would become one of the greatest love stories of all time. More about this in our next post on this distinguished woman.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a Nasty Women Writer.
(The image at the top of the post is a chalk drawing by Field Talfourd, created in 1859 and now in the National Gallery, London.)
© Maria Dintino 2023
Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. Doubleday, 1988.
Gorb, Ruth. “Margaret Forster Obituary.” The Guardian, 8 Feb 2016.
“Mystery of Victorian-era poet’s illness deciphered after 150 years.” PennState, 19 Dec 2011. https://www.psu.edu/news/research/story/mystery-victorian-era-poets-illness-deciphered-after-150-years/
National Portrait Gallery. Explore Our Collection. https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp00601/elizabeth-barrett-browning