Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography

by Margaret Forster

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1422

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.

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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.

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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 claimed to be ill, even though the best doctors could find no physical ailment. As a young woman she had said, “What is called GOING OUT is the greatest bore in the world”; much as she welcomed exchanges of letters, she dreaded personal encounters. She had needed much time and prodding to visit a Herefordshire neighbor, Hugh Boyd, even though he was blind and married and shared her enthusiasms for poetry and Greek literature. For years she had assured her father that she had all she wanted or needed within the confines of home. Small wonder, then, that he sought to protect his daughter, who had cast herself as a reclusive invalid. His behavior after her marriage, refusing to read any of the letters she sent him, trying his best to keep her siblings away from her, refusing even to see her when she was visiting London, is inexcusable, but in opposing the marriage he was behaving as he thought a rational Elizabeth would want him to act.

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Like Elizabeth’s life, Forster’s book is divided into two parts, the first half treating the forty years before she became Mrs. Browning, the second half dealing with the last fifteen years of her life. A revisionist in her treatment of Elizabeth’s father, Forster is a traditionalist in describing the Brownings’ marriage. She does not deny that they differed on many subjects. Elizabeth believed in spiritualism and table-rapping, which Robert recognized as hoaxes. Elizabeth believed that Napoleon III was a true democrat who would free Italy from Austrian rule. Robert saw him more clearly as a self-serving politician. They also disagreed on how to rear their son. Still, this biography paints the Brownings’ relationship as a marriage of true minds. Elizabeth repeatedly put Robert’s happiness before her own, encouraged him to enjoy the social life of Paris or Florence when she was too ill to join him, and pressed him to write even more than she drove herself.

This image of Elizabeth may give pause to feminists, the group most likely to champion her resurrection as a major Victorian writer. Forster maintains that in her work as in her life, Elizabeth found that work and female companionship were not enough to confer happiness. Forster does not say enough about the poetry, but she offers an incisive analysis of Aurora Leigh. The poem tells of Marion Earle, a poor girl whom Romney, Aurora Leigh’s cousin, wants to marry. Marion, however, is abducted, raped, and abandoned. Here Elizabeth expresses the same negative view of men that informs such poems as Void in Law” and “Bianca Among the Nightingales”: Men are treacherous and unworthy of love. Aurora Leigh does not end here, though. Aurora finds Marion, and together they go to Florence, where Romney joins them. Aurora marries him—Marion has rejected his proposal—because she decides that she needs his love to make her happy, just as Elizabeth had discovered that she needed a husband and child to complete her life.

As Forster demonstrates the limits of Elizabeth’s feminism, so she reveals the boundaries of her liberalism. Elizabeth opposed the Corn Laws that kept food prices high in England and so hurt the poor. She supported the English Chartists, who sought more political power for the working class, rejoiced at the liberal revolutions that swept across Europe in 1848, and objected to the unequal distribution of wealth in her native land. Yet Forster shows that Elizabeth’s treatment of her own maid, Wilson, was heartless. She underpaid her, and after Wilson had her first child, the Brownings refused to allow her to bring him with her to Florence. If Wilson wanted to continue working for them, she would have to leave the boy in England. Later they thought nothing of leaving Wilson in Florence while they kept her husband, another of their servants, with them in Rome for months at a time. Wilson’s marriage eventually foundered, and one may assign to the Brownings at least some of the responsibility for that occurrence.

On a personal level at least, the Brownings’ son, Pen, comes off better than his mother. Here again Forster contradicts the conventional view, which sees the young Browning as a wastrel, a womanizer, and an artistic mediocrity. She claims that he was “a good artist and a popular, kind man.” He provided a home for Wilson and her husband, and he was considerate of his illegitimate daughter.

Elizabeth died on June 29, 1861, and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Florence, on July 1. Though plagued with imagined or real ill health for much of her life, and though her elevated literary reputation did not long survive her, she was a lucky woman. She had wanted to devote herself to literature and had been free to do so. She had wanted to write poetry that would endure, and however sentimental the Sonnets from the Portuguese are, their popularity is guaranteed. William Butler Yeats claimed that one could have the art or the life but not both. Elizabeth proved him wrong. She had her art, and she had a wonderful life with Robert. As she wrote in one of her last poems, “Well enough,/ I think, we’ve fared, my heart and I.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 52

Contemporary Review. CCLIII, July, 1988, p.53.

Guardian Weekly CXXXIX, July 10, 1988, p.26.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, December 1, 1988, p.1715.

Listener. CXIX, June 23, 1988, p.32.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, May 7, 1989, p.32.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, December 16, 1988, p.65.

The Spectator. CCLXI, July 23, 1988, p.26.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 19, 1988, p.829.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, February 19, 1989, p.6.

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