Elizabeth Barrett Browning is probably best remembered today for her stirring love poetry, inspired by her secret relationship with fellow poet Robert Browning. But there was far more worth remembering about her life and work than just romance. The writer battled chronic illness and the suffocating restrictions placed on her gender to become one of Victorian England’s most influential poets, who advocated for women’s freedoms, child labour reforms and the abolition of slavery.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning: quick facts
Born: 6 March 1806
Died: 29 June 1861 (aged 55)
Spouse: Robert Browning, married 1846
Parents: Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett and Mary Graham-Clarke
Children: Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning (known as “Pen” Browning), born 1849
Most famous works: Aurora Leigh, Sonnets from the Portuguese (including the famous lines ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’), The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point, Casa Guidi Windows, A Curse for a Nation
Born on 6 March 1806, Elizabeth was the eldest child of Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett and Mary Graham-Clarke. When she was three years old, her father acquired Hope End, a 500-acre estate in Herefordshire, and set about building a large, unusual house of his own design there for his wife and 11 surviving children. Edward’s substantial wealth – which came from his family’s slave-worked Jamaican sugar plantations – saw Elizabeth insulated from several of the constraints placed on girls at the time. Known to her family as ‘Ba’, she enjoyed running riot in the grounds, fishing, riding and playing with bows and arrows.
Elizabeth’s love of writing was clear from a young age. Her father encouraged this passion, allowing his so-called “poet laureate of Hope End” to read voraciously in his extensive library and commissioning her to write. He even had one of her poems, The Battle of Marathon, privately published when she was still a teenager. As this poem demonstrates, the precocious young writer had a great love of the classics, as well as being influenced by the Romantics – especially Shelley and Byron (the subject of her teenage romantic fantasies). These writers had a profound influence on Elizabeth’s discovery of her own voice, as she reflected as a teenager: “At nine I felt much pleasure from effusions of my own imagination in the adorned drapery of versification… At ten my poetry was entirely formed by the style of written authors and I read that I might write.”
After this idyllic early start, the fortunes of the Barrett family changed. In 1828, Elizabeth’s mother Mary died, and in 1832 the family took another hit: Edward was forced to sell Hope End after financial difficulties and a protracted legal case in which a distant relative challenged his inheritance. After moving to Sidmouth in Devon, the family settled in London’s Wimpole Street in 1838. Soon after, Elizabeth’s writing career began to take off, with her work receiving ever more attention (more below). Meanwhile, devastated by the loss of his wife and his beloved family home, Edward’s relationship with his children grew increasingly complex. While he was in many ways loving, he could also be needy, controlling and domineering. This desire to keep his children close created an often claustrophobic atmosphere.
What illness did Elizabeth suffer from?
Aged 15, Elizabeth fell ill with an unknown illness, leading to a debilitating chronic condition that lasted for the rest of her life. While an exact diagnosis is impossible, it’s thought that a post viral syndrome could have led to a persistent lung condition such as bronchitis. Recurring waves of ill health frequently left Elizabeth confined to her bedroom for weeks or even months at a time, subject to doctors’ orders and sent away from the capital to convalesce in Torquay. Isolation made Elizabeth ever more reliant than ever on the imagined worlds she conjured on the page, but she often found it intensely frustrating. At points her ill health was so severe she was left unable to work at all.
Since she was largely confined to staying indoors, Elizabeth remained something of an enigma to the literary circles of Victorian London who so admired her work. Letters became her portal to the outside world – as she wrote in 1845: “I have done most of my talking by the post of late years – as people shut up in dungeons take up with scrawling mottos on the walls.”
Listen: Fiona Sampson speaks about the extraordinary life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who battled chronic illness and family troubles to write ground-breaking poetry, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
Relationship with Robert Browning
In January 1845, Elizabeth received a letter that was to alter the course of her life – and bring an end to her isolation. Sent by fellow poet Robert Browning, it was a gushing expression of admiration for Elizabeth’s newly published Poems. Despite the fact that the pair had never met or corresponded before, Robert was effusive in his praise: “I love your verses with all my heart Miss Barrett… Into me it has gone, and part of me has it become, this great living poetry of yours, not a flower of which but took root and grew… I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart – and I love you too.”
This bold opening gambit signalled the starting gun for a passionate epistolary relationship, and before long the pair’s correspondence moved beyond literary discussion to new levels of intimacy. As Elizabeth told her confidante: “Don’t let us have any constraint, any ceremony. Don’t be civil to me when you feel rude”.
At the time, Robert was very much the junior partner in the relationship. He was six years younger than the 38-year-old Elizabeth, and while she was a well-established literary celebrity, his initially promising career was now stuttering. Robert was well aware of this dynamic, writing to Elizabeth on 13 January 1845: “Your poetry must be, cannot but be, infinitely more to me than mine to you – for you do what I always wanted, hoped to do, and only seem now likely to do for the first time, you speak out, I fear the pure white light.”
Thirty letters down the line, the pair finally met in person in May 1845. Soon afterwards, Robert was declaring his love, and over the course of the next year, they continued to meet regularly at Wimpole Street. The entire affair was concealed from Elizabeth’s father, with Robert’s visits carefully timed for when he would be out at work. As Edward had grown ever more controlling over the lives and emotions of his children, it had become clear that any suggestion of marriage would be rejected. Knowing that her father would never allow her to leave his side, Elizabeth faced a stark choice – give up hope of a life with Robert, or risk being cast off by the father she loved deeply.
In this dilemma, Elizabeth had a valuable asset up her sleeve. A personal inheritance from both her uncle and grandmother afforded her a degree of financial independence unusual for women at the time. After 18 months of meeting Robert in secret, things reached a breaking point in September 1846. The pair had hoped to meet up in Italy, but these plans had been scuppered by Edward’s continued hesitations in arranging Elizabeth’s trip. When he decided on a whim that the family should leave London for the countryside, Robert saw their opportunity for escape slipping away, writing: “We must be married directly and go to Italy – I will go for a licence today and we can be married on Saturday.”
On 12 September 1846, the pair married in secret at St Marylebone’s Church – leaving the church in separate carriages. After a tense week back at her father’s house keeping up a pretence of normality, the pair headed for Pisa. Although their careful planning meant that this was not technically an elopement (as they kept things honourable by tying the knot before heading abroad) Elizabeth was nevertheless disinherited by her father, just as she had feared.
After decades of an insulated and isolated existence, Elizabeth’s life with Robert in Italy signalled a new beginning. They settled at Casa Guidi in Florence, where Elizabeth enjoyed the Mediterranean climate, culture and cuisine. She and Robert both continued writing – sending their work back to London for publication. And after several unsuccessful pregnancies, in 1849 Elizabeth gave birth to a much-adored child, Robert Wiedeman Barrett – known to his parents as Pen.
While Elizabeth’s health had seemed to improve in Italy, she nonetheless continued to suffer from serious bouts of illness. On 29 June 1861, after being confined to her bed for several days, Elizabeth died aged 55 – possibly from pneumonia developed out of her long-term condition. The Edinburgh Review wrote on her death: “such a combination of the finest genius and the choicest results of cultivation and wide-ranging studies has never been seen before in any woman.”
Did Elizabeth Barrett Browning have mixed heritage?
One aspect of Elizabeth’s life that has remained unclear is the question of her ethnicity. Generations of her father’s family had been slaveowners in Jamaica, and Elizabeth was well aware of the sexual exploitation that frequently occurred on West Indian plantations. She also knew that several of her family members had had relationships with enslaved women. As such, she deemed it likely that her own bloodline also contained mixed heritage. While academics have not been able to definitively confirm that this was in fact the case, Elizabeth herself clearly believed it to be true. She wrote to Robert of her wish to “own some purer lineage than that of the blood of the slave! – Cursed we are from generation to generation!”. The curse Elizabeth speaks of here is her ancestors’ deplorable involvement in the slave trade, and in a bold rejection of the slave trade her family wealth was built upon, she became a staunch abolitionist.
This abolitionist viewpoint can be found in her poetry, such as The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point, which lays bare the horrors of the slave system. First appearing in the abolitionist fundraising publication The Liberty Bell in 1848, the poem recounts the tragic story of an enslaved woman forced to resort to infanticide. Meanwhile, in the controversial A Curse for a Nation, Elizabeth condemned a nation (America) for “standing straight/ In the state/ Of Freedom’s foremost acolyte/ Yet keep calm footing all the time/ On writhing bond-slaves”, again echoing the idea that slavery was a curse on all those involved in it.
What poems did Elizabeth Barrett Browning write?
Known for the modern, informal style of her lyric poetry, Elizabeth broke away from the more abstract Romantic poets that had preceded her, grounding her work in tangible themes and narratives.
The first collection of work bearing her name to be published (in 1838) was The Seraphim and Other Poems, which established her as an emerging talent. She cemented her reputation as one of England’s great writers in 1844, with the release of the first part of her two-volume Poems. In the preface, Elizabeth made her passions clear, writing: “Poetry has been as serious a thing to me as life itself.”
In 1856, the poet completed what is now considered to be her Magnum Opus – Aurora Leigh. Written in blank verse, this nine-volume epic poem stretches over more than 11,000 lines, and follows a young heroine who aspires to become a writer despite a multitude of obstacles. Elizabeth used the narrative to reflect a number of contemporary social issues, such as poor education for women, and the potential pitfalls of marriage. While Aurora Leigh was not widely acclaimed by contemporary critics, the narrative poem proved immensely popular and is celebrated today for its bold feminist themes.
Women’s issues were not the only social problem that Elizabeth commented upon in her work. She wrote against slavery (A Curse for a Nation, The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point), condemned child labour (The Cry of the Children) and highlighted the plight of children in poverty (A Plea for the Ragged Schools of London). Later in life, she became invested in Italian politics, arguing for freedom and unification of Italian states (Casa Guidi Windows).
Although her work was wide-ranging in its scope and content, Elizabeth is perhaps best remembered today for her love poetry, much of which was inspired by her own romance with Robert Browning. Most famous is the collection Sonnets from the Portuguese and its Sonnet 43, which opens with the line “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”. Although it would go on to become her most recognised work, Elizabeth was initially hesitant about publishing the volume, due to its personal nature. This explains its title, which Elizabeth hoped would infer that it contained translations of Portuguese poems rather than original compositions.
Her work influenced many later writers, from Oscar Wilde and Rudyard Kipling, to Emily Dickinson – who had a framed portrait of Elizabeth hanging in her bedroom – and Virginia Woolf, who argued that her work should be more widely read.
Ellie Cawthorne is section editor at BBC History Magazine, and editor of the HistoryExtra podcast