Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry rarely receives the same critical attention given that of her husband Robert. The fourth edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature (1979) devotes two pages to her work, eighty-five to his. The 1986 edition of the New Oxford Anthology of Victorian Verse includes only four of her poems and an excerpt from Aurora Leigh (1856). Seventy-six years passed between the 1902 edition of this title, often considered Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s masterpiece, and its next reprinting.
Her work was not always slighted thus. When Robert Browning came to visit her at 50 Wimpole Street on Tuesday, May 20, 1845, she was the more famous of the two. For her fourteenth birthday, March 6, 1820, her father had privately printed fifty copies of her first book of poetry, The Battle of Marathon. Its subject matter revealed her interest in classical literature (she studied Greek first with her brother Edward’s tutor, and later she became so fluent as to translate Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound). In its form, this early publication demonstrated a familiarity with eighteenth century verse—it is essentially an imitation of Alexander Pope—and its very creation indicated Elizabeth’s devotion to writing. The next year, she published in the New Monthly Magazine, and subsequently four more volumes of her work appeared, culminating in the well-received 1844 edition. Robert had published, too, but he was generally regarded as a literary dilettante overly fond of obscurity.
Elizabeth had been one of his few admirers, relishing the passion she detected in his writing. In 1836, she had written a poem praising his Paracelsus, and in her “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” Bertram reads to Lady Geraldine from William Wordsworth, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Robert Browning. Browning gets more lines than either of the other, more famous poets. This compliment prompted Robert to write to Elizabeth on January 10, 1845, and that letter, in turn, led to their momentous meeting four months later.
The transition from epistolary to personal encounter was not made easily. Robert and Elizabeth had already met in public, but Elizabeth was reluctant to grant him a tete-a-tete, claiming that her father objected to her receiving guests at home. Forster does much to rehabilitate Elizabeth’s father, who in his later years certainly was a domestic tyrant, objecting to the marriage of any of his children. In her letters to Robert, it was this possessive side of her father that Elizabeth stressed, but Forster reveals that the portrait is biased. At the same time that she was complaining to Robert about her father’s nightly visits to her room to pray, she was writing to Mary Russell Mitford how much she enjoyed those sessions. To Mitford she complained of her father’s frequent absences; to Robert she complained of her father’s overbearing presence. Elizabeth had written a loving dedication to her father in the 1844 collection of her poetry—one wishes Forster had included it in the text—and was torn between her love for him and for Robert. Her decision to elope did not come easily, and Forster suggests that Elizabeth deliberately kept the two men apart so that she would not have to choose between them. If Robert had forced the issue, Forster suggests, he would have lost.
Elizabeth’s isolation was actually as much her own decision as her father’s. For years she had...
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