Dr. Shelton's Literary Library

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning(1806-1861), Victorian English poetess, best known for her romantic The Sonnets from the Portuguese, a series of poems detailing her relationship with her husband, poet Robert Browning.

Browning was born in Durham, England, the eldest of 12 children. Her family was well-to-do, both parents were from wealthy families. Her father owned sugar plantations in Jamaica established by his grandfather. Browning was educated at home by private tutors and learned French, Greek, and Latin, which was rare for a young women of her time.

Browning’s family encourage her interest in writing. Her father published his daughter’s The Battle of Marathon when she was only 14. At age 20, Browning wrote “An Essay on Mind” which was also privately published by her father. By this time, Browning was suffering from a chronic lung infection, possibly tuberculosis. Her illness kept her an invalid, but allowed her to focus on her writing. Also, her father had forbidden any of his children to marry, contributing to her isolation. In the 1830s, with the abolition of slavery and property disputes regarding the plantations in Jamaica, her families fortunes declined somewhat, though they still remained wealthy. They moved, first to Sidmouth and then London, where Browning came into contact with many of her contemporaries in English poetry, including William Wordsworth and Mary Russell Mitford.

It was in London that Browning was stricken with illness again. She was sent to the seaside town of Torquay to recuperate. While there, in 1838, her favorite brother, Bro, drowned, and as a result Browning further withdrew from society. This same year, her The Seraphim and Other Poems was published. As Browning recovered and regained her strength she continued writing. Her works from the early 1840s include The Cry of the Children, and two volumes of Poems. By this time, she was critically acclaimed and her reputation as a writer of both delicate language and deep thought secured.

Her life changed dramatically in 1845, when she first met fellow-poet Robert Browning, whose work she had admired for some time. At the time, she was the better known writer of the two. The poetess was 39 years old and still forbidden to marry, yet she began a secret courtship with a man six years her junior. The couple married privately in September of 1846 and secretly left England for Italy, where they settled in Florence. Browning’s father never forgave her for the marriage.

During their courtship, Browning had written a series of sonnets, telling the story of her relationship with Browning. In order to disguise the identity of the lovers, the sonnets were published in 1850 as Sonnets from the Portuguese. The title was meant to indicate that the work was a translation, when in truth “Portuguese” was Robert Browning’s pet name for his dark-haired wife. Contained in these verses, are the famous opening lines “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” The couple’s only child, a son, Robert Wiedemann (called Penini) was born in 1849.

Although the couple traveled extensively, Florence became their home. It was in Florence that Browning was able to blossom, experiencing better health than she had in several years, and also producing some of her best known work. Casa Guidi Windows, published in 1851, was inspired by her adopted country’s struggle for independence. This work, along with The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point, and Poems Before Congress, indicates a political awakening as well as Browning’s maturation as a writer. These works also demonstrate that, while Browning was a frail-looking, often ill woman, her intellect and character were as strong and passionate as her male contemporaries. In 1856, she published Aurora Leigh, an autobiographical novel in blank verse and her largest work. While well-received by the public, her critics would note find fault in the structure and form of her verse. In her male-dominated age, this was considered “proof” of the inadequacy of women writers.

After the publication of Poems Before Congress in 1860, Browning’s health again deteriorated, but this time, she would not recover. She died, fittingly enough, in her husband’s arms on June 29, 1861. Her grave is in the Cimitero Degli Inglesi in Florence. Her husband continued his career as a poet and became one of the icons of the era, along with Lord Alfred Tennyson. Robert Browning died in 1889 and is buried in the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey in England.

Browning’s frequent illness and delicate appearance, her secret courtship and happy, lasting marriage, and her lyric and intelligent voice as a writer have made her an ideal romantic image of the Victorian era. However, beneath the image was a woman who felt passionately about the mission and responsibilities of artists to the larger world as well as believing that women -- as wives, mothers, and as individuals -- can and should influence society as much as men.