Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s life can easily be divided in two: before she meets Robert Browning and after. Life is never the same for either of these humans once their connection is established. Many of us can delineate our lives according to pre-someone and post-someone significant we met, but the difference here may be the dramatic nature of the events that followed and their all-around lasting legacy.
Again, I’ll highlight some of what I view as the more significant life events that contributed to the continuous shaping of Elizabeth Barrett Browning: her person, life and poetry. There are many events I must omit, so if you find yourself drawn to Elizabeth and her poetry, please read Margaret Forster’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography, and/or some of the many works that exist by and about the poet.
If you missed Part I, read it here: The Distinction of Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Part I
A Meeting that Rocked Their Worlds
From the usual safety and comfort of her quarters, Elizabeth wrote a poem in which she recognized three poets: William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, and Robert Browning. Robert, at that time being the lesser known of the three, sat down on January 10, 1845 to pen a thank you note to Elizabeth Barrett.
One wonders who should be credited with sparking this extraordinary and historic relationship: Elizabeth by mentioning Robert in her poem, which she knew he’d notice and appreciate, or Robert responding with a heartfelt thank you for including him…
“His first letter was written on 10th January 1845. It did not read liked a letter of obligation, with its extravagant use of flattering phrase…it was not Robert’s custom to write stiff, stilted notes even to ladies he did not know. But to Elizabeth, who had no way of knowing this, his letter was startlingly unusual”(Forster 143).
Although his unbridled emotion both surprised and excited Elizabeth, she, true to form, was most interested in Robert’s input and feedback on her poetry, on their shared craft.
“The most significant passage in this letter [her letter back to him] was the central part in which Elizabeth took Robert up on a passing reference he had made to having thought at first of offering her advice “as a fellow-craftsman should.” She seized upon his offer and urged him to “tell me of such faults as rise to the surface and strike you as important”(144).
As Elizabeth steered their letter writing’s focus and tone, the correspondence blossomed to her liking and perhaps beyond her expectation.
“Three letters from him, three letters to him, all in the space of three weeks, and the basis of this new friendship between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning had been most satisfactorily and speedily laid…She has at last the correspondent she had been looking for all her life, a true kindred spirit who was a poet after her own heart, able to understand not just what she was trying to do but how she was trying to do it. They were to write to each other about their work, to comment on each other’s efforts and to encourage each other to great things”(144-145).
This written communication soon morphed to include more about themselves, which seemed acceptable to Elizabeth. Finally, Robert insisted on a visit, and after convincing Elizabeth, no easy task, they set to meet on May 20, 1845.
The days and hours up to this first visit were torture for Elizabeth who approached it as a death sentence, imagining he would not like her at all in person and it would be the end for them.
Yet, the visit turned out to be mutually enjoyable.
“She had felt an instant rapport with Robert. It was a connection he had felt too and unfortunately he allowed it to carry him away. He moved much too fast after what he had felt, correctly, was a successful visit”(152).
Robert’s letter after this meeting satisfied Elizabeth and she wrote back with permission that he could visit again. But his follow up was:
“a passionate love letter in which he appears (though we only know from her anguished reply because his letter was destroyed) to have asked her to marry him at once. She told him it made her “recoil by instinct” to get such a letter. At one blow he had destroyed the whole delicate balance of their relationship; …She told him she had destroyed his letter and now made it a condition that if ever he referred to it again, or referred even to her reply to it, “I will not see you again.” He could come next Tuesday if he so wished but he must come as a critic, ready to help her improve her poetry. That was his role”(153).
Elizabeth meant what she said and he knew she meant it: her boundaries were clear. Robert back pedaled and admitted he “had learned a great deal about Elizabeth and gained from it. He knew, now, how mistrustful she was, and how sure she needed to be of people before they could become close”(154).
Robert’s understanding and patience in terms of Elizabeth’s needs served their budding relationship well.
Over time even her health started to improve as she acted on Robert’s advice, to the great gall of others who had been recommending some of the same lifestyle changes for years! The only change Robert could not convince Elizabeth of was eliminating or at least reducing her opium intake. Yet, increased fresh air, exercise and dietary changes did indeed noticeably strengthen Elizabeth’s health (156).
Two Who Would Never Meet
Having met and befriended her siblings, Robert patiently awaited the opportunity and invitation to meet Mr. Barrett, king of the busy Wimpole Street household. But Elizabeth’s fear of her father’s extreme disappointment and subsequent anger at her involvement with Robert, or any man for that matter, paralyzed her in this regard. She would not allow for the meeting and no amount of cajoling or reasoning would change her mind.
Shockingly, the two never met.
Since there would be no meeting of Elizabeth’s father and future husband, Robert insisted on and carefully planned a secret marriage ceremony. This would allow them to flee England together legitimately as husband and wife, hopefully mitigating the fallout from what was sure to be viewed a scandal.
The wedding was scheduled for September 12, 1846. Robert orchestrated the details and Elizabeth didn’t waver on her commitment to trust and follow his lead. Elizabeth’s devoted ‘lady’s maid’ Wilson escorted the fragile bride to the church on time.
“The service, restricted as it was, was over in minutes. Husband and wife at last, Robert and Elizabeth left the church at half past eleven on the morning of Saturday 12th September, 1846. They parted at once. The same verger [church caretaker] who had watched them go in stood in the doorway, his mouth wide open in mute surprise as the bride got into one cab and the bridegroom into another and they went their separate ways”(180).
One week later, September 19, 1846, the newlyweds escaped to Italy.
The day after the wedding, Robert “was full of energy and threw himself enthusiastically into preparations for their journey”(181).
While Robert dived into planning the next phase of their plot, Elizabeth set forth to write letters to her many siblings and most difficult, to her father.
“She had first started writing this crucial letter to her father the day after she was married. She had had to abandon that attempt. Three days later, she tried again but told Robert, “I am paralysed when I think of having to write such words as…Papa I am married; I hope you will not be too displeased.” It was grotesque, she could not do it”(183).
This paralysis seems the result of a dysfunctional relationship, one where Mr. Barrett demanded control, the kind of control another man in her life would usurp, and Elizabeth’s deep desire to make him happy and do her part to maintain the status quo on Wimpole Street, fulfilling his need to keep his brood together. Her enormous fear stemmed from realizing:
“She was the only person in the world who understood him and at one blow she would rob him of this sympathy. Never, at any moment, did she delude herself into thinking that what she was doing was less terrible than she knew it was”(184).
But nothing was going to keep her from abiding Robert’s plans. He had earned her absolute trust and she was wildly in love with her husband! There was only moving forward now.
“Wilson and Elizabeth, carrying Flush, left 50 Wimpole Street just before dinner time on the afternoon of Saturday, 19th September, while the family were gathered in the dining room…It was still her habit to dine alone most evenings and then receive visitors; she knew she would not be missed for a couple of hours at least”(185).
As meticulously planned:
“Robert was waiting, as arranged, at Hodgson’s…Elizabeth and Wilson walked along sunny Wimpole Street and turning the corner were soon in sight of Robert. Elizabeth looked near to fainting but once in a cab with Robert she revived”(185).
Elizabeth’s two sisters, once she contacted them from abroad, responded immediately:
“They identified totally with her and what she had suffered from the overbearing masculine pride rampant in their family; they were glad to see it hurt”(190).
This understanding and support added to the surprisingly smooth transition into her new life with Robert and in Italy. It was exuberant liberation for Elizabeth. That her brothers didn’t respond or reach out was painful, but Elizabeth set it aside with hopes they’d come around, and eventually they did.
“Elizabeth’s sisters and her friends had not failed her. She was surprised and disappointed to find that all of her brothers had done so, but she showed great firmness in not letting this destroy her new happiness. If necessary, she would trade the love of all five of them for Robert. Her father had reacted as she had expected”(190).
At age 40, Elizabeth Barrett Browning had the courage to begin an entirely new existence. This total shift delivered great happiness. Like a bird escaping a cage, there were risks, but being able to soar was worth it. And the true love shared between her and Robert enabled her to fly higher than she ever imagined.
“Like many a nineteenth-century woman she had had to fight for her freedom, freedom from being regarded as having no will or rights of her own. Her biggest triumph had been over herself. She did not intend to waste her new liberty and happiness: she knew it was up to her to make it all she could”(191).
Elizabeth was a changed woman: she experienced better physical and mental health than she had for years, since a child:
“The more pleasure she took, the sharper her senses seemed and the greater her appreciation of life. Death no longer had “a pleading tongue.” For the first time in her life she was not disposed to think of it at all”(202).
Casa Guidi: Home in Florence
Italy agreed with the newlyweds, its weather, culture and connections. After moving around during their first year there, they settled in Florence, and ultimately Casa Guidi became their long term home “for thirteen years except for long holidays”(221).
In this home of theirs, Elizabeth wrote some of her best and well-known poetry. During the Roman Revolution of 1848-49, she composed Casa Guidi Windows, “a reportage in which she saw herself becoming politically engaged…she was fulfilling her own aim that poetry should be a form of action”(215).
Years later, in 1857, she published Aurora Leigh, a nine-book novel in blank verse. Popular and controversial, this feminist work drew “attacks for its sympathetic treatment of a woman as independent, an artist, and an unmarried mother”(The Victorian Web).
Aurora Leigh was the crown jewel of Elizabeth’s lifetime of writing. (More about this work in a future post!)
Their Son: Robert ‘Pen’ Browning
On March 9, 1849, between several miscarriages, Elizabeth, age 43, gave birth to a very healthy boy. Named after this father Robert, he was soon known by his nickname Pen.
Elizabeth and Robert agreed on the majority of things, but parenting was not one of them! Elizabeth allowed Pen’s beautiful hair to grow long and dressed him in attire she preferred, regardless of his gender. Robert objected to this, but until her death, Elizabeth prevailed in this matter.
“But she had no desire to make him girlish, nor was she trying to pretend he was a girl because she wanted one (as people have alleged ever since). Some hundred years ahead of her time, she was rejecting accepted concepts of what was feminine and what was masculine”(238).
It seems Elizabeth didn’t want to restrict her son, and she didn’t, not as a baby, nor a child.
“She also had other unconventional ideas on the upbringing of children, such as her belief in freedom of movement. She liked her baby to have total liberty to roll around: she was always putting him on the floor or the ground and delighted in his uninhibited acrobatics. Robert found them a little too boisterous. Once, when the baby rolled too hard and banged his head, he remonstrated with the words, “really, Ba, I can’t trust you.” Elizabeth laughed in his face and retorted that babies’ heads were not made of Venetian glass”(238).
A Comforting Surprise
Robert’s mother passed just after Pen was born, so closely after that the good news didn’t reach her in time. Robert was despondent at the loss of his mother. His family had always been very close.
Elizabeth attempted to soothe and cheer Robert, but his grief was intense and put him into a depressive state. Finally, Elizabeth thought of something that might help. She had written over forty love sonnets when she and Robert were secretly courting and she brought them with her when they fled. Now seemed a good time to share them with him.
“She had kept them secret for three years after their marriage without once hinting at their existence…she took them everywhere as a talisman of her love…forty-three sonnets tracing the whole course of their love, marking her hesitation, her doubt, her disbelief before she moved on to rejoice in the glory and wonder of the reciprocated love”(237).
These poems and the timing of her presenting them to Robert worked their magic: “The depth of her love finally healed the inner as well as the outer man”(237).
The sonnets were subsequently published in 1850 under the title Sonnets from the Portuguese, in an attempt to conceal their personal nature. The title of the collection came from Robert’s pet name for Elizabeth, “my little Portuguese” referring to her darker countenance. The sonnets are in no way a translation or have anything to do with the Portuguese at all!
Sorrow and Peace
On April 17, 1857 Elizabeth’s father died having never forgiven her. She had always hoped in the recesses of her heart that he’d reach out one day. She was also informed he had never even opened one of the many, many letters she had written him over the years. Deep sorrow set in.
“There had been no opportunity for death-bed reconciliations or last words if forgiveness…Elizabeth, when she received the news, was, said Robert, “sadly affected at first; miserable to see and hear.” As on all other occasions of devastating loss, she did not cry. She lay on her sofa, silent and deathly pale, with Robert struggling to comfort her”(321).
The next heart break was her sister Henrietta’s terminal illness. Because of her own ailing health, Elizabeth was not able to go to England to help care for her sister.
“She longed to go to Henrietta, if just to hold her hand. Lying under the fig tree in the garden of the Villa Alberti, surrounded by beautiful countryside, her mind was full of memories of how Henrietta had nursed her years ago. It struck her as one of fate’s most cruel twists that Henrietta, “the strong one,” should be dying first, instead of her feeble self, unless a miracle happened”(349).
There was no miracle. Henrietta died in November of 1860, leaving two small children and a grieving husband behind.
At this point, Elizabeth’s health was deteriorating significantly and she didn’t try to hide it anymore. Rather, she seemed to accept it.
“Robert and Pen’s health and energy were strange and marvelous to her. She was not depressed by their vitality, did not contrast it enviously or bitterly with her own apathy, but on the contrary gloried in it. Their obvious closeness pleased her too: it meant she need not worry about them because they could sustain each other”(353).
Elizabeth believed her beloved husband and son “would recover together” after her passing and this soothed her soul.
On June 29, 1861, age 55, Elizabeth died peacefully in Robert’s arms:
“He looked at her face, held against his own chest, and saw her forehead contract in a spasm of pain, then clear. All at once, she looked like a young girl.
“The last word she uttered, in response to Robert’s question, “Are you comfortable?” was “Beautiful”(366).
Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Florence, Italy. Her poems and amazing life story live on and on.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a Nasty Woman Writer.
© Maria Dintino 2023
The featured image, Clasped Hands, was created by sculptor and friend Harriet Hosmer in Italy, 1853. They are the actual casts of the poets’ hands, representing their equitable marriage.
Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. Doubleday, 1988.
The Victorian Web: Literature, History and Culture in the Age of Victoria. https://victorianweb.org/authors/ebb/ebtl.html