Many people have listened to one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most familiar sonnets which begins: How do I love thee/ Let me count the ways… These words are often recited as a part of wedding celebrations. The sentiment expressed is just as relevant for couples today as it was when the sonnet was written more than a century ago. Barrett’s picture may look old-fashioned, but her ideas live on. All the little-girl curls and flowing skirts mask a very modern woman.
Today is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 216th birthday. She was born on March 6. 1806 in Durham, England. Her father, Edward Moulton-Barrett came from a family that had lived for several generations on the island of Jamaica, which was then a British colony. The family became wealthy by producing sugar on plantations that relied on the labor of enslaved people. Like many other families who lived in the West Indies, there was considerable mingling and sometimes marriage among the European settlers and their African workers. Elizabeth Barrett, like her siblings, had dark skin and eyes and she always considered herself to be of mixed-race. Although there is no evidence to prove this one way or the other, the fact that she believed it had an important influence on her life.
Many of Barrett Browning’s poems express feelings and ideas that speak to readers now as clearly as they did when they were first written. But the times during which Elizabeth Barrett lived, meant that she had to struggle to become a poet. She lived in a society where women were supposed to be readers, not writers. Fortunately, Elizabeth’s parents did not entirely agree with this idea and they provided her with a good education and encouraged her writing.
Elizabeth was the oldest of the twelve children and they formed a close-knit family group. Each child had a nickname—Elizabeth was known as “Ba”, a name she used all of her life. Like her siblings, Elizabeth never had to look far for companionship. The girls in the family were educated at home while the boys were sent to schools to be trained for business. Living on a country estate, the children turned to books and writing for entertainment. Elizabeth started writing poetry at the age of four, and when she was 14, her father had some of her poems privately published for distribution within the family.
Life at the Barrett’s was not without hardship though, especially after Elizabeth fell ill with a spinal disorder during her early teens. From that time on, she was an invalid and led a very restricted life. She took opiates to ease the pain of her spinal injury, but this medication led to further deterioration of her ability to live normally. On the other hand, being an invalid meant she was relieved of the household duties that kept her sisters busy and allowed her to work diligently at becoming a poet.
Almost everyone who has read and studied English poetry knows the story of EBB’s adult life. After living in seclusion with her family until she was almost forty years old, she eloped with the poet Robert Browning. Her father disowned her when she married, and the two were never reconciled. For the rest of her life, EBB lived in Italy, although she often visited London and kept in touch with many old friends. Her life centered around her poetry and her family. She and Robert had one son, but family life never kept her from being a dedicated writer. She wrote about current social issues such as child labor, the abolition of slavery, and the right of every woman to have a life of her own. Her reputation as a poet grew steadily after her marriage, culminating with the publication of her novel in verse, Aurora Leigh, which the critic John Ruskin called it “the greatest long poem of the nineteenth century”. This poem was an immediate best seller and is still read and studied.
In 1861, a year after the publication of Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning died at the age of 55.
During the late 19th century and down to the present day, EBB has been famous more for her life than for her work. Thousands of people have seen the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street either on stage or in one of several movie versions. But this presentation concentrates on the romantic elopement of Elizabeth and Robert and downplays her long career as a writer. For all of her crinolines and curls, EBB was a serious poet who worked steadily at becoming a great writer. Her husband and child were important in her life, but she never gave up her artistic ambitions.
There have been several biographies of EBB and last year the British scholar Fiona Sampson gave us a new one that sheds a great deal of light on Barrett’s life. Two Way Mirror: the Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Norton 2021) shows us Barrett as a social activist and a thinker. I highly recommend the book and as an introduction you might watch the video webinar that Fiona Sampson made for the National Library of Scotland.
You may not want to read Aurora Leigh. Few people today have the patience to read a novel in verse, but we all should remember the poet who was perhaps the first woman to be recognized as a professional poet. She was even nominated to be Poet Laureate when that post became empty, although that honor finally went to Tennyson. EBB is often pictured as a frail, semi-invalid, which she certainly was, but she was much more. Rather than being defeated by her physical weakness she used it as a springboard into a successful career as a professional artist.