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Monday, April 4, 2011

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) was born in northern England to parents who owned Jamaican plantations.  She was the oldest of 12 children, 11 of which survived to adulthood.  Even as a young girl she was well-read and studied Greek while writing poetry.  Her favorite novelists at the time were George Sand and Sir Walter Scott.  During her middle teen years, she developed a serious respiratory illness that nearly caused her to become an invalid and troubled her the rest of her life, forcing her to to treat her ailment with opium.  She also had to deal with the death of her mother in 1828, which caused deep regret that she could not be with her in her last moments, as well as the death of a brother.

She was jealous of her brother Edward (whom she called 'Bro')  because he attended school while she stayed at home.  Nevertheless, during this time she published her first poem, "The Battle of Marathon," in which she attempted to imitate the style of Alexander Pope.  Her first work of critical significance was The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838).  Her reception of criticism placed great significance on the ability to be recognized rather than on the positivity or negativity of reviews.  The Barretts moved to London in 1835, moving in 1838 to the Wimpole street residence, where her father would live the rest of his life. 

During the 1840s, Elizabeth became impressed by the poetry of Robert Browning, a fellow English poet who she refused to meet due to shyness.  Nevertheless, a mutual friend (John Kenyon) put the two in contact and they developed a lengthy and increasingly intimate correspondence during 1845-6.  During this period Elizabeth wrote her Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), "Portuguese" being Robert's pet name for the dark-haired Elizabeth.  The sonnets describe the development of their friendship and eventual engagement.  The couple secretly married in 1846 and immediately left for the Continent, eventually settling in Italy.  Upon the revelation of this deed, Elizabeth's father disowned and disinherited her.  After two miscarriages, Elizabeth had a son in 1849, which she named Penini.

She and her son adopted the Italian cause and showed great enthusiasm for the Italian independence movement.  During this time in Italy Elizabeth published the works Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems Before Congress (1860), both of which in support of the movement.  Elizabeth died in Florence in June 1861 in her husband's arms, after which Robert and Pen left Italy to live in London.

Aurora Leigh (1857), a novel in verse, is at times autobiographical and describes a female writer's pursuit of a career while also dealing with women's issues and social responsibility.  The title figure ultimately chooses between marriage and independence.

Source:  Elizabeth Barrett Browning:  The Life and Loves of a Poet by Margaret Forster.

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