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Sunday, 9 June 2013

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born on March 6, 1806, in Coxhoe Hall, between the villages of Coxhoe and Kelloe in County Durham, England.

Elizabeth's parents were Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett and Mary Graham Clarke, who married at St Nicholas Church, Gosforth (Tyne and Wear). His family, some of whom were part Creole, had lived for centuries in Jamaica, where they owned sugar plantations and relied on slave labor. Her mother came from a wealthy Newcastle family, also derived in part from slave labor.Elizabeth lost her mother when she was 22.

Elizabeth was the eldest of their 12 children (eight boys and four girls). All the children lived to adulthood except for one girl, who died at the age of four when Elizabeth was eight. In 1840 her oldest and favorite brother Edward was tragically drowned.

Elizabeth and her siblings all had nicknames - Elizabeth's was "Ba".

Elizabeth was baptized at the age of 3 at Kelloe Parish Church, though she had already been baptized by a family friend in the first week after she was born.

In 1809 Elizabeth's father bought Hope End, a 500-acre estate near the Malvern Hills in Ledbury, Herefordshire. Elizabeth had a large room to herself, with stained glass in the window, and she loved the garden where she tended white roses in a special arbour by the south wall. Elizabeth  lived a privileged childhood riding her pony round the grounds visiting other families in the neighbourhood and arranging family theatrical productions with her 11 brothers and sisters.

Elizabeth was educated at home and attended lessons with her brother's tutor. This gave her a good education for a girl of that time. She was an intensely studious, precocious child and had read passages from Paradise Lost and Shakespearean plays, and the histories of England, Greece and Rome before the age of ten.

Her first known poem was written at the age of six or eight, On the Cruelty of Forcement to Man. As a present for her fourteenth birthday Elizabeth's father underwrote the publication of her epic Homeric poem entitled The Battle of Marathon.

At the age of 15 Elizabeth fell from a pony and injured her spine. She was slow to recover so a Dr Coker prescribed opium for a nervous disorder and she carried on taking it for the next 25 years. However it only made her worse and for much of the time she was bedridden, especially after 1838 when a burst blood vessel made her seriously ill.

Elizabeth was pretty and personable. Mary Russell Mitford wrote of her about the time she'd turned 20, "A slight, delicate figure, with a shower of dark curls falling on each side of a most expressive face; large, tender eyes, richly fringed by dark eyelashes, and a smile like a sunbeam." Her Creole ancestry gave Liz a slightly exotic look. Anne Thackeray Ritchie described her as, "Very small and brown" with big, exotic eyes and an overgenerous mouth.

Portrait of Elizabeth Barrett in her youth

Elizabeth was bought up by a family that attended services at the nearest dissenting chapel and her father was active for years in Bible missionary societies. Liz herself went through an evangelical “phase” and it is not clear how much she retained her faith as she developed an interest in spiritualism.

The family moved three times between 1832-37 due to Mr Barrett's financial losses, first Sidmouth, then 99 Gloucester Place, London, then 50 Wimpole Street, London.

Elizabeth's health forced her to move to Torquay on Devonshire coast, where her brother Edward accompanied her. His death by drowning was a massive blow and she returned to Wimpole Street and became a permanent recluse seeing only a few people.

In 1844 her collection Poems was published An important collection in Victorian literature, so highly were they regarded that when Wordsworth died Elizabeth was tipped by many to be the next Poet Laureate.

Elizabeth's extraordinary poetry brought admirers (including Browning) to the room where she languished in her bed after her spinal injury.

By 1844, Elizabeth had been an invalid for many years, spending much of her time writing in her upstairs room. Her 1844 Poems made her one of the most popular writers in the land at the time and inspired well known poet Robert Browning to write to her, telling her how much he loved her poems. A family friend Kenyon arranged for Robert Browning to meet Elizabeth in May 1845, and so began one of the most famous courtships in literature.

Flush, a red cocker spaniel was the only companion allowed to the invalid Elizabeth by her tyrannical father. The first time Robert visited Elizabeth at Wimpole Street, Flush bit him.

During her time as an invalid, Elizabeth became addicted to opium due to the pain of her spinal condition. She knocked back laudanum, a cocktail of opium and alcohol to help her to sleep. Robert Browning used Chianti to wean and cure his Elizabeth of her addiction to laudanum.

In 1846, in preparation for her elopement with Robert, Elizabeth began to free herself of the habits acquired as an invalid practicing standing without help and then walking where she had previously been carried.

The courtship and marriage between Robert Browning and Elizabeth were carried out secretly. Six years his elder and an invalid, she could not believe that the vigorous and worldly Robert Browning really loved her as much as he professed to. After a private marriage at St. Marylebone Parish Church on September 12, 1846, Browning imitated his hero Shelley by spiriting his beloved off to Italy, which became her home almost continuously until her death. Elizabeth's loyal nurse, Wilson, who witnessed the marriage, accompanied the couple to Italy.

Portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning.

Elizabeth took Flush with her to Italy with Robert and the mutt was immortalised by her the poem To Flush my Dog. Virginia Woolf later wrote his life story.

Her father disinherited Elizabeth, as he did each of his children who married. She repeatedly sought a reconciliation with her father but he returned her letters unopened.

As Elizabeth had some money of her own, the couple were reasonably comfortable in Italy, and their relationship together was harmonious. The Brownings were well respected in Italy, and even famous.

Elizabeth grew stronger and in 1849, at the age of 43, she gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, whom they called Pen. Their son became an artist, got married but had no legitimate children, so there are apparently no direct descendants of the two famous poets.

Elizabeth's most famous work her 1850 Sonnets from the Portuguese was inspired by her love for her husband and titled after Robert Browning's pet name for her "The Portuguese".

In her day Elizabeth was more highly regarded poetry wise than Robert and was the most highly regarded female poet of her day. However her 1860 Political Poems Before Congress injured her popularity as many disapproved of the Browning version of Italian political matters.

An engraving of Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, published in Eclectic Magazine

After hearing of her father's death, Elizabeth's health faded again, centering around deteriorating lung function. Her faithful husband never left her bedside and she spent the last day of her life asleep in his arms. Elizabeth died on June 29, 1861 at Casa Guidi, and was buried in Florence's Protestant Cemetery.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono were inspired by the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Browning. They often joked they were the reincarnated spirits of "Bob and Liz". Two tracks, "Let Me Count The Ways" and "Grow Old with Me" on the Milk and Honey album were inspired by their poetry.

Sources (1) Rosalie Mader Mrs Browning: The Story of Elizabeth Barrett, (2) Wikipedia


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