Throughout history women have made their mark in a wide variety of ways. Each Saturday I plan to highlight one of these remarkable women. There will be no limit to the areas of history that I may include; however as a guide I will look to the month of their birth, the month of their death or the month associated with their mark in history when I select them. Is there an outstanding women in history you would like me to include? I welcome your suggestions. You can access all the previous postings of these remarkable women from the menu at the top of my site.
Today an outstanding woman from the world of poetry. Meet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a prominent English poet of the Victorian era. Her poetry was popular in both Britain and the United States.
“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.”
Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett was born on 6 March 1806, in Coxhoe Hall, between the villages of Coxhoe and Kelloe in County Durham, England. Her parents were Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett and Mary Graham Clarke. The eldest of twelve children and like all her siblings, she participated in all the social activities accorded their family. Unlike her siblings, she immersed herself in the world of books as often as she could get away from the social rituals of her family.
In 1809, her father bought Hope End, a 500-acre (2.0 km2) estate near the Malvern Hills in Ledbury, Herefordshire. Her wealthy father converted the stately Georgian home into stables and built a new mansion of opulent Turkish design. The interior’s brass balustrades, mahogany doors inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and finely carved fireplaces were eventually complemented by lavish landscaping: ponds, grottos, kiosks, an icehouse, a hothouse, and a subterranean passage from house to gardens. Life at Hope End would inspire her in later life to write Aurora Leigh (1857), an epic poem in nine books.
She was educated at home and attended lessons with her oldest brother. She began writing poetry at the age of four, encouraged by her father. She writes that at age six she was reading novels, at eight she was entranced by Pope’s translations of Homer, studying Greek at ten and writing her own Homeric epic The Battle of Marathon: A Poem. Her mother compiled early efforts of the child’s poetry into collections of “Poems by Elizabeth B. Barrett”. The result is one of the largest collections of juvenilia of any English writer.
I don’t think she looks like a youth. Do you?
During childhood, 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. Elizabeth was sent to recover at the Gloucester spa, she was treated—in the absence of symptoms supporting another diagnosis—for a spinal problem. She went on to delight in reading Virgil in the original Latin, Shakespeare and Milton. By 1821 she had read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and she became a passionate supporter of Wollstonecraft’s ideas. I wrote about Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in a previous WOW.
The Barretts attended services at the nearest Dissenting chapel, and Edward was active in Bible and Missionary societies. Elizabeth was close to her siblings and had great respect for her father: she claimed that life was no fun without him, and her mother agreed. 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 the 1830s, Elizabeth was introduced to prominent literary figures of the time: William Wordsworth, Mary Russell Mitford, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alfred Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle. She had her first adult collection published in 1838, The Seraphim and Other Poems. Her continued health issues included possibly tuberculosis at this time in her life. She wrote extensively between 1841 and 1844 which included poetry, translation and prose. She was involved in the abolitionist movement and worked for reform in the child labor legislation. Her prolific output made her a rival to Tennyson as a candidate for poet laureate on the death of Wordsworth.
Elizabeth’s volume Poems (1844) brought her great success. During this time she met and corresponded with the writer Robert Browning, who admired her work.
Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The courtship and marriage between the two were carried out in secret, for fear of her father’s disapproval. Following the wedding she was disinherited by her father and rejected by her brothers. The couple moved to Italy in 1846, where she would live for the rest of her life. They had one son, Robert Barrett Browning, whom they called Pen. Towards the end of her life, her lung function worsened, and she died in Florence in 1861. A collection of her last poems was published by her husband shortly after her death.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her son Robert Barrett Browning, nickname Pen