Elizabeth "Ba" Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

Elizabeth Barrett was born 6 March 1806, eldest daughter of Edward and Mary Moulton-Barrett. She grew up in a secluded little place called Hope End with her ten brothers and sisters1. She was a fairly precocious child, reading voraciously, writing odes at age nine, and learning Greek along with Bro, her favorite brother. At 15, Elizabeth, along with her sisters Henrietta and Arabel, contracted some sort of disease. Elizabeth was much slower to recover for some reason, and it was around then that she started talking about her chronic ill health and a myriad of strange symptoms2. She went to a spa in Gloucester, becoming addicted to laudanum (prescribed to help her sleep) and staying a little over a year, long past the point when her doctor was telling her to go home3. But she never let anything stop her from reading and writing. In 1826, she had a poetic "Essay on Mind" published, at family expense, along with 14 shorter poems. By this time, she had firmly decided that marriage was awful and not for her; her life would be completely devoted to poetry.

Her mother died suddenly in 1828, which really shook Elizabeth4. She pulled even further away from society. In 1832, when the family finances sank too low5, Hope End had to be sold and the family moved to Sidmouth, Devonshire. This house was along the seashore, which tempted Elizabeth into walking, which improved her health noticeably6. She also published (again at family expense, which couldn't have been easy to manage) a translation of Aeschylus' Prometheus plus 19 more short poems of her own. When, in 1835, the Barretts moved to London, Elizabeth saw her chance. She began meeting (with great nervousness) several of the literary giants of the day, such as Wordsworth and Mary Russell Mitford7. A year later, Elizabeth read Paracelsus by the distinctly un-famous Robert Browning. She loved it8, but was too shy to even think of meeting him.

The Seraphim and Other Poems was printed in 1838, the first volume to have Elizabeth's name on it, and it was generally well received. Elizabeth's health had taken a turn for the worse, and she was ordered to winter someplace warm. Bro and Henrietta went with her to Torquay that same year9. In 1840, brother Sam died of fever in Jamaica, followed a few months later by Bro's death in a boating accident. Elizabeth was devastated. It took about a year, but it was eventually the prospect of writing that pulled her out of her depression. She returned to London in 1841 and took up literary criticism.

In August 1844, the two-volume Poems was published, containing a work in which Elizabeth paid homage to those she considered the great poets of her time: Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Robert Browning. He was in Naples when the book was published, but as soon as he could, he wrote to Elizabeth to thank her. Well, you can guess the rest. Robert eventually got her to agree to a visit, which was soon followed by another, which was soon followed by a proposal of marriage, which Elizabeth turned down cold10. Robert soon figured out that the surest way to Elizabeth's heart was through her work, so that was the way he went. They were married, secretly, on 12 September 1846, and acted like nothing had happened until they set off for Italy a week later11.

Six months later, Elizabeth had decided she was an Italian at heart and was writing poems on Italian politics. On 9 March 1849, Robert Wiedmann Browning12 was born, a very healthy child, which surprised Elizabeth a great deal, since she was still taking laudanum13 and had already had two miscarriages. Robert's mother, whose maiden name had become Pen's middle name, died without knowing about her grandson, and in order to cheer Robert up, Elizabeth presented him with the "Sonnets from the Portuguese" that she had written during their courtship14.

Her health was continually fluctuating during these years, but she still managed to write Aurora Leigh, the epic poem that made her reputation then and has just recently been discovered to be on women's rights15. Elizabeth started dabbling in spiritualism about now, possibly because she sensed her health failing, or maybe just because Italy sometimes got a little boring during the off-season. This dabbling increased somewhat after Mr. Barrett died in 1857, never having forgiven his daughter. Elizabeth became convinced that she'd actually seen spirits, in spite of Robert's efforts to talk her out of the whole thing.

It was becoming more and more difficult to pretend that the warm weather of Italy was helping Elizabeth's health anymore. Writing was the only thing that really made her feel any better, though the publication of Poems Before Congress in 1860 got her into a little trouble back home with what the reviewers called her anti-British sentiment16. In November of that year, Henrietta, who had actually run off and married her beloved Surtees back in 1850, died of cancer. Elizabeth herself now felt so ill that she was taking far too much morphine and eating almost nothing. She fretted constantly that she was holding Robert and Pen back, though neither one seemed to mind.

In June of 1861 Robert finally called in a doctor, somewhat against Elizabeth's wishes. The doctor diagnosed an abcess on the lung as the cause of her respiratory distress and increased her dose of morphine. On 29 June 1861, Elizabeth died in Robert's arms, probably from paralysis of the breathing caused by the excessive morphine. Robert took it very well at first, handling most of the necessary details calmly and more capably than usual, but he broke down a week or so later. Like his wife, he got through the sadness by working. Elizabeth's Last Poems, edited by Robert, were published in 1862.

Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1988.

  1. A twelfth child, Mary, died very young and was never spoken of. The other siblings and their nicknames were: Edward (Bro), Henrietta (Addles), Samuel (Sam), Arabella (Arabel), Charles (Stormie), George (George), Henry (Henry), Alfred (Daisy), Septimus (Sette), and Octavius (Occy). Elizabeth was, of course, Ba.
  2. There was some story going around about how Elizabeth had injured herself in a fall from a horse and that was what made her an invalid. Truth is, she just liked studying and writing by herself and it was easiest to be indisposed as much as possible. Early 19th century society positively encouraged that sort of thing in women. When you were ill, you rested. And rested, and rested some more.
  3. Elizabeth was reportedly desparate for a diagnosis of all her weird symptoms and was enraged at any suggestion that it was all in her head.
  4. She seems to have developed symptoms of anorexia around this time, which couldn't have helped.
  5. The family fortune was mainly based on sugar plantations in Jamaica. I'm afraid it was due to a slave rebellion that the Barrett finances failed, and when slavery was later made illegal, well, that was it.
  6. But if a stranger knocked on the door, you can bet she was sick again.
  7. Trust me, she was a giant back then. Besides, she knew everybody who was anybody.
  8. The poem was obscure and rambling, just the way Elizabeth's poems were.
  9. Torquay is a resort town on the southern coast of England. How warm could it be?
  10. She had, after all, promised herself that she would never marry, and that plus her social inexperience meant Robert had his work cut out for him.
  11. Mr. Barrett was infuriated, and so, surprisingly, were Elizabeth's brothers. The Barrett women were firmly with the elopers, though, especially Henrietta, who was secretly, madly in love with a distant cousin named Surtees Cook. No, that isn't a typo.
  12. He was always called Pen or Penini. No one seems to know why.
  13. Laudanum is actually opium dissolved in alcohol. Everyone took it for everything back then - it was the melatonin of its day. (See also Keats).
  14. "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," etc. They were called "Sonnets from the Portuguese" when they were published because Elizabeth didn't want anyone to know how personal they really were.
  15. Elizabeth knew that all along. She was famous both in America and England by now. Robert was finally getting some recognition, too. He was known far and wide as "Mrs. Browning's husband."
  16. She also sent a poem to William Makepeace Thackeray for his new literary magazine. He turned it down on the grounds that it was too shocking "an account of unlawful passion." Elizabeth was rather proud of that.

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