Browning was likely the first woman poet in England to be considered for the post of poet laureate, a reflection of her success in the battle against the marginalized status of "woman writer." Despite popularity and critical acclaim during her lifetime, scholars have tended to remember her as the passionate woman who left home to marry her young poet-lover rather than as the innovative poet who gave voice to women's private and intellectual desires. Browning wrote widely on political and social topics, and she produced some of the world's most famous love poetry in her Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850). She also penned the semi-autobiographical story of a female poet striving for literary success and an equal partnership in marriage; her verse novel Aurora Leigh (1856) has been hailed by feminist critics as a new model of poetry and of womanhood.
Elizabeth Barrett was born March 6, 1806, into a wealthy family of Herefordshire, England, the oldest of eleven children. In addition to the family estate in Herefordshire, called Hope End, her father owned extensive sugar plantations in Jamaica. She began writing poetry at the age of four, a calling to which her father encouraged her. When she was six, her father paid her for a poem with a note addressed to "the Poet-Laureate of Hope End." In 1820 Mr. Barrett privately published The Battle of Marathon, an epic-style poem Browning had written around the age of twelve, though the fifty copies he printed remained within the family. Also about this time, Browning injured her spine in a riding accident, and seven years later she suffered a burst blood vessel in her chest, leaving her permanently weakened. Her family's fortunes also began to suffer. Mrs. Barrett died in 1828, and in 1832 the mismanagement of Mr. Barrett's sugar plantations forced him to sell Hope End at a public auction. The family rented houses in Sidmouth, Devonshire, before settling in London in 1835. By the time Browning arrived in London, she had already developed a reputation as an emerging poetic talent. In 1826 she published An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, and subsequently produced a translation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound (1833). The publication of The Seraphim, and Other Poems in 1838 brought her into the most elite literary society in London, and she was considered one of England's most original and gifted young poets. The atmosphere of London did not agree with her, however; and just as her career began to develop, she was forced to retire to Torquay, another Devonshire coastal town. She spent three miserable years in Torquay in poor health, her misery compounded by the drowning death of a favorite brother. Even upon her return to London, illness and depression kept her confined in a sickroom, where she dedicated her life to literature. She was shy and refused to entertain her friends and admirers, but she did correspond with several literary notables, including Edgar Allen Poe, James Russell Lowell, Thomas Carlyle, and Robert Browning. Browning had appreciated Robert Browning's poetry even before she met him—her room at Wimpole Street contained an engraving of the poet—and she mentioned his name in the poem "Lady Geraldine's Courtship," from her two-volume collection Poems of 1844. He responded to the compliment in a letter claiming, "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett," and later in the letter added "I love you, too." Thus the courtship began, with Robert Browning becoming one of the few visitors apart from family whom Browning would admit. Despite her father's objections—Mr. Barrett preferred to keep his children dependent on him—the couple arranged a secret wedding, marrying September 12, 1846, then moved to Florence, Italy. Although she remained somewhat frail, Browning was invigorated by her love for her husband and for her adopted homeland, and began writing with a new passion. In 1849 the Brownings delivered their only child, Robert Weidemann Barrett Browning, whom they nicknamed "Pen." Browning cared deeply for her new home in Italy and closely followed the political tumult of the 1850s. She was excited at the prospect of the unification of the Italian States in 1861, a movement led by Count Cavour. Cavour unexpectedly died in June 1861, a political and personal blow that drove Browning into seclusion. Two weeks later she was confined to her bed with a severe cough and cold, and on the morning of June 29 she died in Browning's arms, at the age of fifty-five.
Among Browning's poetry collections, The Seraphim, and Other Poems was the first to achieve significant notice, and it established her reputation as an important poet. Through the years, interest in many of the Italian poems has waned—they are generally considered overly zealous—but the poems collected in Sonnets from the Portuguese continue to be the foundation of her standing as a significant English poet. The poems were written to celebrate the courtship of Browning and Robert Browning, although in their initial publication the Brownings styled them as the story of a young girl's love for the Portuguese poet Luis Vaz de Camoëns. The sonnets begin with Browning's disbelief that a middle-aged invalid could find love with a young man and her hesitation to marry because of her age and infirmity. She then wonders if he can fulfill her needs. When she finally accepts his love for her, and hers for him, she expresses her feelings in the famous "Sonnet XLIII," which begins, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." The work of most interest to feminist scholars, however, is the blank-verse novel Aurora Leigh. Ignored by scholars for many years, the advent of feminist literary criticism during the 1970s brought the romance back into the canon. The book is part autobiography and part social criticism, chronicling the life of an English-woman and poet, Aurora, as she pursues a literary career and a marriage that is a true partnership. An important secondary character is Marian Erle, a poor young woman who is repeatedly victimized by the wealthy and powerful people in her life. In a highly controversial section of the story, Marian is discovered in a Paris brothel—having been forced from London by the unscrupulous Lady Waldemar—where she is sexually assaulted and bears a child. The graphic depiction of the abuse and neglect suffered by impoverished women was the severest expression of Aurora Leigh's overarching critique of Victorian society as sexist and classist. Aurora's love interest, Romney, is a wealthy philanthropist who attempts to correct those wrongs, in part by creating a socialist utopian community, but the community eventually collapses and Romney comes to doubt traditional philanthropy as a means for addressing the systemic injustices of society. At the conclusion of the novel, Aurora finally accepts Romney's proposal of marriage—a proposal she had rejected while establishing herself as a poet—and decides that love and partnership are crucial to creativity and self-realization.
At the time of her death, Browning was eulogized in the papers as England's greatest woman poet. Through time, however, the romantic legends of her life began to overshadow the appreciation of her work, and attention to her career as a uniquely female poet fostered a critical emphasis on her femininity over her poetic skill and imagination. Kay Moser, along with other scholars, has argued that by praising Browning specifically as a woman poet, her early reviewers made her an oddity rather than a recognized author, and muted any feminist message in her work. In addition, Dorothy Mermin (see Further Reading) has suggested that the passionate female longing voiced in the poet's sonnets may have presented a mystery or an embarrassment to male reviewers. As a result, Browning's poetry was long undervalued both for its artistry and for its strong statements about women's emotional and intellectual power. The work of remaking her reputation had begun with a study by Alethea Hayter in 1962 (see Further Reading); Hayter labored to wrest the trend of Browning criticism away from the myth of the romanticized lady poet of the sickroom and move it toward a scholarly examination of the poet's writing and ideas. Major studies in the 1970s again asserted Browning's place in the tradition of nineteenth-century women authors who were struggling to create a position from which a woman could express herself with authority. Scholars identify Browning as the matriarch of the family of female poets who followed her, both in England and in America. Browning's originality is a common theme in much of the scholarship; in particular, critics have focused on her innovation in Aurora Leigh, both its unusual story and its unusual form. Critics have suggested that the blending of genres in Aurora Leigh is a reflection of Browning's egalitarian views on gender roles; the poet's creation of a new literary form mirrors her real-life creation of a new kind of marriage and a new status for women in public life. SueAnn Schatz argues that Aurora Leigh attempts to free women from the Victorian ideal of domestic womanhood by suggesting that women could be active and successful in domestic and public roles simultaneously. Similarly, Rebecca Stott's interpretation of Browning's love poetry emphasizes the poet's strong belief that a truly equal marriage grounded in mutual affection would benefit not only the marriage partners, but also the society in which both men and women were free to pursue self-fulfillment.