Exploring the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning while a diehard fan of Margaret Fuller, I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention their eventual meeting in Florence, Italy in the fall of 1849.
Plus, their connection adds another thread to our web of women writers: women writers throughout time supporting each other and benefitting from one another’s presence and contributions.
Check out a couple of our posts on American journalist, editor, critic, translator, and women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller:
Also, our posts on English poet Elizabeth Barrett’s life:
A Meeting Deferred
Margaret Fuller, finally on a long-awaited trip to Europe in 1846, had hoped to meet poet Elizabeth Barrett while in London, but missed out due to the timing of Elizabeth’s shocking elopement with Robert Browning.
The women knew of each other and were well-acquainted with one another’s writing and literary success. Margaret, at the time a journalist writing for the New-York Daily Tribune, was the first to introduce both English poets’ work to the U.S. by way of a review in the widely read Tribune:
“By a nice ironic touch it had been Margaret’s reviews that introduced the poems of both Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett to American readers”(Deiss 288).
Once the news broke, Margaret also covered the Brownings’ unexpected escape in the Tribune as well:
“Margaret reported the news to New York at once, but factually and not as gossip”(31).
Although their meeting in London was not to be, Margaret and Elizabeth’s opportunity to connect “was only deferred, as the lovers had chosen Italy for their idyll”(Deiss 31).
But none of this was apparent at the time. Who knew where the Brownings would land and stay and who knew where Margaret’s European adventure would ultimately lead her?
Also, that their eventual bond would include being mothers was, at that time, unimaginable. Elizabeth never thought that in her frail health and at her age she’d be a mother and Margaret had resigned herself to perpetual singlehood, with the accompanying likelihood that she’d never have a child of her own.
But life, especially for the creative and courageous, is full of unknowns, twists and turns, and miraculous surprises!
As a result of her uncharacteristic love affair with the much younger, strikingly handsome Italian, Giovanni Ossoli, Margaret, age 38, gave birth to their son, Angelo Eugene Philip Ossoli, Nino, on September 5, 1848.
Following their abrupt departure from England in 1846, Elizabeth Barrett and her husband Robert Browning settled in Florence, Italy. At age 43, Elizabeth gave birth to their son Robert Weidman Browning, Pen, on March 9, 1849.
The children they never imagined they’d bear were to become young playmates through the friendship forged in Florence.
Ossolis on the Run
After the defeat of the Italian uprising in the late spring of 1849, Margaret and Giovanni were forced to flee Rome. They immediately retrieved their son Nino from Rieti, and made their way to Florence where it appeared they would be safe for a time.
“And when, in the fall of 1849, Margaret, now Marchesa Ossoli, had retreated to Florence with husband and child from the defeat of the short-lived Roman Republic they had fought for together, she finally met Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a woman who matched her both in erudition and in ardor for the cause of Italian unification” (Barolini 8).
First Impressions Are Just That
After their first interaction, Elizabeth penned in a letter to a friend that Margaret had:
“taken us by surprise at Florence, retiring from the Roman world with a husband and a child above a year old. Nobody had even suspected a word of this underplot, and her American friends stood in mute astonishment before this apparition of them here. The husband is a Roman marquis appearing amiable and gentlemanly, and having fought well, they say, at the siege, but with no pretentions to cope with his wife on any ground appertaining to the intellect”(288).
Elizabeth also remarked: “she [Margaret] being one of the out and out Reds and scorners of grades of society”(294), noting Margaret’s comparatively radical political stance to her own more moderate one.
After meeting Elizabeth, Margaret shared that she “seems too gentle and faded at first sight to excite prospective feeling of any kind”(294).
Where Elizabeth found Margaret a bit too extreme, Margaret found Elizabeth a bit too retiring. Despite their initial assessments, these notable women easily established mutual ground. They had more in common than not.
Both had overcome barriers and discovered refreshing personal freedom in Italy. Elizabeth, with the help of Robert, had escaped her father’s unrelenting clutches and Margaret had made the decision to break from her travel companions, who often acted as chaperones. At the time, Italy provided passage to personal and professional liberation, as described by Helen Barolini (who adds another woman to our web by describing the impact of both Elizabeth and Margaret on Emily Dickinson):
“Why Italy? Because it was synonymous with genius and there one could live more openly, freed for self-expression from convention; there the arts were appreciated, and life being free from moralizing hypocrisy in a way unknown to more politically and industrially advanced nations, was more suited to women of artistic talent”(Barolini 20).
Once the initial shock and obligatory first encounter was over, a natural friendship began to develop between the women, along with a strong overall family connection.
Joseph Deiss in his book, The Roman Years of Margaret Fuller says, “They came to know very well the Brownings, with whom they were particularly friendly”(Deiss 294).
Megan Marshall in her biography of Margaret states:
“The Brownings…welcomed Margaret and her family to their spacious rooms at Casa Guidi near the Pitti Palace, happy to have their own year-old son acquire a playmate and eager to test Margaret’s powers of conversation”(Marshall 361).
No doubt Margaret passed that test with flying colors!
The Ossolis’ Departure
After six months of in-person friendship, it seemed their connection would need to continue, at least until the Ossolis returned to Italy one day, by way of letters. Both Elizabeth and Margaret were ardent letter writers, so no doubt this would have been the case.
It was a difficult decision to leave Italy, but for their roles in the short-lived Roman Republic, Giovanni and Margaret were under surveillance, plus their finances were strained. Margaret hoped she’d have luck publishing her manuscript of the Roman Revolution once home in the United States.
So, despite premonitions of disaster, they determined to make the trek in May of 1850, scheduled to arrive in New York in July. The fear associated with travel by ship at the time was understandable. Shipwrecks happened frequently.
“Margaret and Giovanni spent their last night in Florence with the Brownings, Margaret almost giddy with anticipation…In the Brownings’ handsomely furnished parlor, the couple joked nervously about a prophecy in the Ossoli family that the sea “would be fatal” to Giovanni, that he should “avoid traveling” by water. Then Margaret turned to Elizabeth Browning, “with that peculiar smile which lighted up her plain, thought-worn face,” the poet would recall, and told her hostess, “I accept as a good omen that our ship should be called the ELIZABETH”(Marshall 371).
Before they departed, Margaret “made as a parting gift of a Bible for the little Robert. On its flyleaf she inscribed: “In memory of Angelo Eugene Ossoli”(Deiss 307).
Tragically, as many know, Margaret and her family did not make it home: the Elizabeth wrecked off Fire Island in the early morning hours of July 19, 1850. This horrific event delivered another shock to the family, friends and followers of Margaret Fuller.
The Brownings were deeply saddened by the loss of the Ossoli family.
Not long after Margaret’s passing, Elizabeth seriously set to work on her epic poem Aurora Leigh, which is on my reading list. This crowning work of Elizabeth’s is said to invoke the spirit of Margaret, who she was and how she lived her life, and echo Margaret’s plea for the rights of women. It seems to bear the stamp of their mutual admiration, friendship and call for change.
Searching for Solace
Some of Margaret’s friends attempted to make sense of such devastation by believing that in some way not making it home spared Margaret the hostile reception she may have experienced for what some viewed as her indiscretions, and even sins, in Italy. But Margaret would have fared well, despite the harsh judgements of others. She had weathered such sentiment before.
It does deliver a modicum of peace and comfort to know that between the heartbreaking loss of the Roman Revolution, where Margaret and Giovanni had placed such hope, energy and put their lives on the line, and the shipwreck that took their lives, the Ossolis enjoyed a connection with another family, with whom they had such a fulfilling exchange.
Margaret Fuller and Elizbeth Barrett Browning are Nasty Women Writers.
© Maria Dintino 2023
Barolini, Helen. “The Italian Side of Emily Dickinson.” The Virginia Quarterly Review. vol. 70, no. 3, Summer 1994.
Deiss, Joseph Jay. The Roman Years of Margaret Fuller. Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1969.
Marshall, Megan. Margaret Fuller: A New American Life. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.