Chances are, you don’t need me to introduce you to Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861). In the Victorian era she was famous, a literary superstar whose first poems were published when she was just fourteen, and a serious candidate to succeed William Wordsworth as Britain’s poet laureate upon his death. Unless your heart is made of stone, you know her most popular piece, one of the best-known love poems in the English-speaking world from Sonnets from the Portugeuse (1850):XLIII How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight For the ends of Being and ideal Grace. I love thee to the level of everyday’s Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light. I love thee freely, as men strive for Right; I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise. I love thee with a passion put to use In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith. I love thee with a love I seemed to lose With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath, Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.
Chances are better that you know more about Elizabeth Barrett’s life than her work. But the story’s appeal goes beyond the rescue fantasy that’s become legend. True, Elizabeth Barrett was an invalid in her thirties living in her father’s house, forbidden to get married (as were all her siblings–Edward Barrett’s rather extreme reaction to his wife’s death), when Robert Browning entered her drawing room and made romantic history. After reading Barrett’s two-volume edition of poems, he wrote his now-famous letter to her: “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett … and I love you too.” If ever there were a letter to sweep a woman off her feet, that might be it — and I’m as cynical as the next gal. But it’s the perfect letter to sweep a writer off her feet, too. Who doesn’t want a reader to fall in love with her writing?
The story usually stops there, but that leaves out half of the equation. As feminist critics like to note, Elizabeth Barrett, like every other fairy tale heroine, had to be ready to sail off to Italy when Browning proposed. And it wasn’t easy. After living a reclusive life well into adulthood, she had to leave her family behind forever to pursue a future with Browning. At the time, she was the more successful poet of the two and six years his elder. Browning was penniless. The couple’s flight to Italy couldn’t have taken place without the annuity that an aunt had left Elizabeth.
It’s not difficult to imagine why the details that gibe with traditional gender ideology ended up in the legend, while the ones that didn’t fell to the wayside.
But I’m not just here to rescue Elizabeth Barrett Browning from the big old patriarchal conspiracy. She’s a figure that challenges and exposes feminist assumptions, too. I remember feeling a slight burning of the cheeks at a conference when a prominent Barrett Browning scholar admitted that most feminist literary critic types assume that Barrett Browning’s writing career suffered after she got married. Sound familiar? It goes something like: independent career woman trades in creative fulfillment and personal autonomy for the thankless subordinate role of wife and mother. Only in this case, the opposite is true. Barrett Browning had the most prolific years of her life during her marriage to Robert Browning. By all accounts, especially Barrett Browning’s, he was a doting and supportive husband. So along with all the many other reasons I adore Elizabeth Barrett Browning, her marriage is a helpful reminder about what happens when you assume … and about what it really means to marry well. Money and social standing are a lot less crucial than mutual respect and understanding.
The couple lived an active and adventurous life among the expatriate community in Italy. One of their compatriots, American sculptor Harriet Hosmer — another favorite of mine, who will be profiled later this week — made a cast of their clasped hands that has become an iconic image of their relationship. Hawthorne wrote that the piece symbolized “the individuality and heroic union of two, high, poetic lives.” Despite years of ill health and the opium use that had been prescribed to treat it, Barrett Browning had a son, Penini, or Pen, defying expectations in her own era as she continues to do in our own.
A few more reasons to love EBB:
- She wrote a poem to her dog Flush, who was later immortalized in Virginia Woolf’s fictional account of his life.
- While sonnet XLIII is the best-known poem from Sonnets from the Portuguese, other sonnets in the collection portray a much less traditionally self-effacing speaker. (Check out V and X.)
- She wrote poems condemning slavery even though her family made its fortune from sugar plantations run on slave labor until its abolition in 1848.
- The story that circulated about Barrett Browning’s reluctance to show her sonnets to Robert or have them published is another case where a stereotypically feminine fiction took root over the facts.
Jodi is a freelance writer and recovering academic with more enthusiasm for sports than athletic talent and a prodigious taste for the health food known as dark chocolate.