A brief introduction to Barrett Browning’s life
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) was one of the most popular poets of the Victorian era, and although her achievement is now eclipsed by that of the man she married in 1846, she was the more popular poet of the two of them during her lifetime and only narrowly lost out to Tennyson for the position of Poet Laureate in 1850. Here we offer a very short biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, taking in her secret elopement, her Victorian verse epic, and other highlights from her interesting life and work.
Elizabeth Barrett was born in County Durham, England in 1806 and spent much of her childhood in Herefordshire, and although she received no formal education, she read widely at home and was well-versed in the classics. She was plagued by health problems and spent much of her life inside the family home, with her father unwilling to let her see many people. She would, however, begin a celebrated correspondence with the young poet Robert Browning in 1844, following a fan letter he sent her declaring his admiration for her volume Poems. The Barretts’ family life, and Mr Barrett’s hostility to Robert Browning, would be dramatised in the Rudolf Besier play The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1930), after the name of the London road where they lived. (The play did well, despite Dorothy Parker’s withering review which declared, ‘The only thing I didn’t like about The Barretts of Wimpole Street was the play.’)
In 1846, Elizabeth Barrett secretly eloped with Robert and married him, despite her father’s wishes to the contrary. The couple went to live in Italy and had several children. Their son, known as ‘Pen’, later stated that despite his parents’ earlier romantic correspondence, after his mother and father were married they never wrote to each other again, because they were never apart.
Barrett Browning’s major achievements are the long verse-novel Aurora Leigh (1857), about a young orphan girl who goes to live in Italy and becomes a successful writer, and the sonnet sequence about her love for Robert, Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850). This volume contains her most widely anthologised poem, the sonnet which begins ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’ (This was later used, with the word ‘love’ altered to ‘hate’, as the tag-line for the film Ten Things I Hate about You, which, confusingly, was based on a Shakespeare play.) The title Sonnets from the Portuguese was an in-joke: ‘Portuguese’ was Robert’s pet name for her. The sonnets aren’t, in fact, translated from Portuguese originals.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in 1861 in Florence, aged 55. Her poetry had, by this time, attracted an international readership, including, notably, Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe (whose most famous poem, ‘The Raven’, was inspired by Barrett Browning’s poem ‘Lady Geraldine’s Courtship’).
And yet it was her husband, who survived her by 28 years, who became the famous poet named Browning in the later Victorian era, and that’s the way it has remained ever since. In the twentieth century, Barrett Browning’s readership continued to decline, though her work has received more scholarly attention in recent decades, thanks in part to the rise of ‘women’s studies’. In 1933, that early champion of women’s writing, Virginia Woolf, immortalised Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pet cocker spaniel in her comic ‘biography’, Flush, which is more fiction than fact. The biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning herself, though, is just as interesting.
Image: Portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (The Roycrofters, 1916), Wikimedia Commons.