- Born: March 6, 1806, Kelloe, Durham, England
- Died: June 29, 1861 (aged 55), Florence, Kingdom of Italy
- Notable Works: “How Do I Love Thee?”, Aurora Leigh
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (née Moulton-Barrett) (6 March 1806 – 29 June 1861) was an English poet, famous both in the United Kingdom and the United States during her time. She was the wife of writer Robert Browning and is considered one of the greatest writers of the Victorian era, even being considered for poet laureate on the death of Wordsworth.
Elizabeth is remembered for experimenting with both her style of writing and her subject matter, choosing to compose poems around social issues such as slavery and child labour. Some of her most famous works are “How Do I Love Thee?” (Sonnet 43, 1845) and Aurora Leigh (1856).
Elizabeth suffered from ill health throughout her entire life and was prescribed laudanum for the pain from an early age, which is likely to have contributed to her fragile state. She and Browning moved to Italy shortly after they were married, where they remained for the rest of Elizabeth’s life. She died in Florence in 1861, aged 55.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning – Early Life
Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett was born on 6 March 1806, in Coxhoe Hall, between the villages of Coxhoe and Kelloe in County Durham, England, to Edward Barrett Moulton-Barrett and Mary Graham Clarke. The couple had twelve children (eight boys and four girls) and Elizabeth was the oldest of her siblings. Eleven of the children lived to adulthood; one daughter died at the age of three, when Elizabeth was eight.
In 1809, Elizabeth was baptised at Kelloe parish church, although she had already been baptised by a family friend in her first week of life. She had a happy childhood, participating in family activities such as walks and picnics, horse riding and theatrical productions. She was nicknamed “Ba” by the rest of her family.
Also in 1809, the family moved to Hope End, which was a 500-acre (200 ha) estate near the Malvern Hills in Ledbury, Herefordshire. Her father converted the Georgian house into stables and built a new mansion in Turkish design. This house, with its extravagant design including ponds, grottos, and an ice house, became the inspiration for some of Elizabeth’s later poetry, including Aurora Leigh (1856), which is arguably her most ambitious work.
Elizabeth was an intelligent and precocious child, reading novels and studying Greek and Homer by the age of ten. She was educated at home and tutored by Daniel McSwiney with her oldest brother and wrote her earliest verses at the age of four. At eleven, she started writing her own Homeric epic, The Battle of Marathon: A Poem. She had also read Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) by 1821, and become a passionate supporter of Wollstonecraft’s ideas.
Elizabeth was encouraged to write by both of her parents. Her father referred to her as the “Poet Laureate of Hope End” and her mother compiled her poetry into collections of “Poems by Elizabeth B. Barrett”. This encouragement and acceptance from her parents has resulted in one of the largest collections of juvenilia of any English writer.
Elizabeth’s father also wrote, and privately published The Battle of Marathon, an epic-style poem, in 1820. However, all the copies remained within the family.
Some of Elizabeth’s family had lived in Jamaica since 1655, which is where their wealth derived from. Edward Barrett (1734–1798) owned 10,000 acres (40 km2) in the estates of Cinnamon Hill, Cornwall, Cambridge and Oxford in northern Jamaica, and Elizabeth’s maternal grandfather owned sugar plantations, mills, glassworks and ships that traded between Jamaica and Newcastle.
Despite having business enterprises in Jamaica, Elizabeth’s father decided to raise the family in England. Elizabeth’s mother also owned several plantations in the British West Indies.
The family wished for their name to be carried down through generations, and the last name Barrett was often used when dealing with inheritance — inheritance was sometimes given on condition that the name was used by the beneficiary. Because of this, Elizabeth used “Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett” on legal documents and before she was married often signed herself “Elizabeth Barrett Barrett” or “EBB”, which were initials which she was able to keep after her wedding.
Mother’s Death and Loss of Home
Elizabeth’s mother died in 1828, and is buried at St Michael’s Church, Ledbury, next to her daughter Mary. Elizabeth’s aunt, Sarah Graham-Clarke, helped to care for the children following her mother’s death, but their personalities clashed, particularly due to Elizabeth’s strong will.
In 1831 Elizabeth’s grandmother, Elizabeth Moulton, died. Following lawsuits and the abolition of slavery, Mr Barrett incurred great financial and investment losses that forced him to sell the house at Hope End. Despite this, the family wasn’t poor — the sale was more to satisfy creditors.
Elizabeth and her family moved to Belle Vue in Sidmouth between 1833 and 1835. In 1838, the family finally settled at 50 Wimpole Street.
Around 1820, Elizabeth began struggling with illness. It was undiagnosed at the time, and her two other surviving sisters also came down the illness, however it lasted with Elizabeth. She had intense head and spinal pain with loss of mobility, which could have been linked to a riding accident she had, although this has never been confirmed.
Elizabeth was sent to Gloucester spa to be treated for her spinal issues, which she continued to struggle with for the rest of her life. She began to take opiates for the pain — laudanum (an opium concoction) followed by morphine — which were commonly given during the time. She developed an addiction and was reliant on the drugs for most of her life. This may have contributed to her ill health later in life, but may have aided her wild imagination that helped to produce her poetry.
In 1837–1838, Elizabeth became ill again and was ordered by her physician to move to Torquay. It is thought that she was suffering from tuberculosis, although it was not diagnosed at the time. However, in February 1840 her brother Samuel died of a fever in Jamaica, and in July of the same year, her brother Edward died in a sailing accident in Torquay in July.
Both of these tragedies had a serious effect on her already fragile health, particularly as she felt guilty as her father had disapproved of Edward’s trip to Torquay. Therefore, the family returned to Wimpole Street in 1841.
Before Elizabeth had even reached adulthood, she had written extensive poetry and had some of it published. Her first known poem was written at the age of six or eight, “On the Cruelty of Forcement to Man”, and protests against impressment. The manuscript is currently in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, but the exact date it was written is controversial because the “2” in the date 1812 is written over something else that is scratched out.
Elizabeth’s first independent publication was in May 1821 with “Stanzas Excited by Reflections on the Present State of Greece” in The New Monthly Magazine. Two months later, “Thoughts Awakened by Contemplating a Piece of the Palm which Grows on the Summit of the Acropolis at Athens” was published.
In 1826, Elizabeth’s first collection of poems, An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, was published. These poems reflected her passion for Byron and Greek politics, and received attention from scholars which she remained in contact with for the rest of her life. One, Hugh Stuart Boyd, later suggested she translate Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, which was published in 1833 and retranslated in 1850.
Elizabeth’s health began to improve when the family moved to Wimpole Street, although she spent little time outside of her room and socialised with very few people outside of the family. One of the people she did socialise with was John Kenyon, a wealthy friend of the family and patron of the arts. He introduced her to literary figures including William Wordsworth, Mary Russell Mitford, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alfred Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle. This inspired Elizabeth to continue writing, contributing “The Romaunt of Margaret”, “The Romaunt of the Page”, “The Poet’s Vow” and other pieces to various periodicals.
She also received a dog, a cocker spaniel named Flush, as a gift from Mary Mitford. Virginia Woolf later fictionalised the life of the dog, making him the protagonist of her 1933 novel Flush: A Biography.
In 1838, The Seraphim and Other Poems appeared, which was the first volume of Elizabeth’s mature poetry to appear under her own name.
During 1841 and 1844, Elizabeth began to write more and more poetry and was met with success. The poem “The Cry of the Children”, was published in 1842 in Blackwoods and condemned child labour and helped bring about child-labour reforms by raising support for Lord Shaftesbury’s Ten Hours Bill (1844). At about the same time, she contributed critical prose pieces to Richard Henry Horne’s A New Spirit of the Age.
Elizabeth published the two-volume Poems, which included “A Drama of Exile”, “A Vision of Poets”, and “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” in 1844, along with two substantial critical essays for 1842 issues of The Athenaeum. This work made her a potential rival to Tennyson as a candidate for poet laureate in 1850 on the death of Wordsworth.
Elizabeth was heavily against slavery, and published two poems highlighting this: “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”; and “A Curse for a Nation”. It is unclear when these poems were published, but it is thought between 1844–1848. The poems caused a rift between her and her father; Elizabeth was vocally glad that the slaves were “virtually free” when the Slavery Abolition Act passed in the British Parliament, whereas her father believed that the abolition would ruin his business.
Elizabeth’s publication of Poems made her one of the most popular writers in the country. They also inspired poet Robert Browning to write to her, and Kenyon arranged for the two to meet on 20 May 1845.
Browning and Elizabeth’s courtship and marriage was carried out in secret, as she knew her father would disapprove. They married in St Marylebone Parish Church and had their honeymoon in Paris. Elizabeth’s father disinherited her when he found out about the marriage, as he did with all his children who married.
Throughout their life, Browning and Elizabeth both had a great influence on each other’s writings. Two of Elizabeth’s most famous pieces were written after she met Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese and Aurora Leigh, while Robert’s Men and Women is also a product of that time.
Browning and Elizabeth moved to Italy following their honeymoon, where they stayed for the rest of her life. Elizabeth’s loyal nurse, Wilson, who witnessed the marriage, accompanied the couple to Italy.
While Elizabeth had been disinherited by her father and rejected by her brother, she had money of her own and the couple lived comfortably. They were also well-respected due to their fame. Elizabeth’s health improved and, in 1849 at the age of 43, she gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, whom they called Pen. Their son later married, but had no legitimate children. Elizabeth had four miscarriages during this time.
Elizabeth continued to write, and, at her husband’s insistence, her second edition of Poems included her love sonnets. Thanks to this, her popularity increased again and she began to socialise with an even wider circle of literary figures, including William Makepeace Thackeray, sculptor Harriet Hosmer and Harriet Beecher Stowe. She also met Margaret Fuller in 1849.
Sonnets from the Portuguese was published in 1850. There is debate about the origin of the title. Some say it refers to the series of sonnets of the 16th-century Portuguese poet Luís de Camões. However, “my little Portuguese” was a pet name that Browning had adopted for Elizabeth and this may have some connection.
Elizabeth’s most ambitious and most popular poem, the verse-novel Aurora Leigh, appeared in 1856. It is the story of a female writer making her way in life, balancing work and love, and was based on Elizabeth’s own experiences. Aurora Leigh was an important influence on Susan B. Anthony’s thinking about the traditional roles of women, with regard to marriage versus independence.
Following the death of close friend G. B. Hunter, and then of her father, Elizabeth’s health began to decline again. The Brownings moved to Siena, and Elizabeth, engrossed in Italian politics, issued a small volume of political poems titled Poems before Congress (1860). This caused upset in England and she was labelled as a fanatic, but dedicated the poems to Browning. Her last work was A Musical Instrument, which was published posthumously.
Elizabeth’s sister Henrietta died in November 1860, and Elizabeth’s health continued to decline. She spent the winter of 1860–61 in Rome with Browning, before they returned to Florence in early June 1861.
She died on 29 June 1861 in her husband’s arms and was buried in the Protestant English Cemetery of Florence. It is still uncertain what illness she was suffering from, but modern day scientists speculate it may have been hypokalemic periodic paralysis, a genetic disorder that causes weakness.
Following her death, Browning published a collection of her last poems.
Elizabeth was heavily influenced by religion, particularly by works such as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno, which showed especially in her early work, such as the sonnets. She was also interested in theological debate and had learned Hebrew and read the Hebrew Bible.
Elizabeth was widely popular in the United Kingdom and the United States during her lifetime, and greatly influenced many poets that came after her. She continuously pushed boundaries in terms of both style and subject matter and her popularity was heightened by her stands against social injustice, including slavery in the United States, injustice toward Italians from their foreign rulers, and child labour. Her work has also be studied and examined by feminist critics in the second half of the 20th century, who have found her views of love in the Victorian era very interesting.
- 1820: The Battle of Marathon: A Poem. Privately printed
- 1826: An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems. London: James Duncan
- 1833: Prometheus Bound, Translated from the Greek of Aeschylus, and Miscellaneous Poems. London: A.J. Valpy
- 1838: The Seraphim, and Other Poems. London: Saunders and Otley
- 1844: Poems (UK) / A Drama of Exile, and other Poems (US). London: Edward Moxon. New York: Henry G. Langley
- 1850: Poems (“New Edition”, 2 vols.) Revision of 1844 edition adding Sonnets from the Portuguese and others. London: Chapman & Hall
- 1851: Casa Guidi Windows. London: Chapman & Hall
- 1853: Poems (3d ed.). London: Chapman & Hall
- 1854: Two Poems: “A Plea for the Ragged Schools of London” and “The Twins”. London: Bradbury & Evans
- 1856: Poems (4th ed.). London: Chapman & Hall
- 1856: Aurora Leigh. London: Chapman & Hall
- 1860: Poems Before Congress. London: Chapman & Hall
- 1862: Last Poems. London: Chapman & Hall
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