It may have been the most famous—and wildly romantic—elopement since Romeo and Juliette. The bride was a lovely but disabled spinster who happened to be perhaps the most famous living English poet at the time. Her dashing beau was six years younger, of an inferior social class and just establishing himself as a poet of note in his own right. They courted in secret—he contrived to visit her in the sick room to which she was mostly confined—and on September 12, 1846 ran off to be wed at St. Marylebone Parish Church in London then fled to sunny Italy in imitation of two of their mutual heroes—Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Her father disowned her. Her beloved brothers shunned her. But the couple lived happily and productively—each writing some of the best verse of their lives—until her frail health gave out at age 55.
Such is the tale of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning who celebrated their love in poetry—she in Sonnets from the Portuguese which included Number 43 beginning with the lines “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” and he in the poem One Word More with which he concluded his collection Men and Women.
The story also inspired literary work. Virginia Woolf’s Flush: A Dog’s Life saw the story through the eyes of Elizabeth’s beloved spaniel. The hugely successful play The Barretts of Wimpole Street by Rudolf Besier became the signature vehicle for American actress Catherine Cornell and was made into a popular 1934 MGM film starring Norma Shearer, Fredric March, and Charles Laughton. In 1957 the director of that film, Sidney Franklin, remade the movie in Britain with Jennifer Jones, Bill Travers, and Sir John Gielgud using the original film script.
Fredric March and Norma Shearer were the lovers in MGM's 1934 release of The Barretts of Wimpole Street.
Elizabeth was born on March 6, 1806, the eldest of twelve children, to a family that had made an enormous fortune in Jamaica in sugar, mercantile trade, manufacture, and slaves over the previous 150 years. She personally believed that she had some Black ancestry although none was ever documented. She was raised at Hope End near Malvern Hills in Ledbury, Herefordshire, the country estate of her father, Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett. She was educated at home and benefited by sharing a tutor with her oldest brother, giving her access to education beyond most girls. She was extremely precocious reading novels at six and learning Greek to read The Iliad shortly after.
Her love of all things Greek led her, at age ten, to write her own epic in the style of Homer, The Battle of Marathon which so delighted her father that he had 50 copies privately printed. She became a prolific, even compulsive, poet and her mother carefully preserved all of her work in scrapbooks which are said to represent the largest collection of juvenilia of any English writer.
Elizabeth’s interests as a child were wide. She took religion seriously both as a matter of faith and philosophic speculation. Her family were devout Dissenters and reading of sermons and tracts exposed her to the most liberal opinion in England. In her early teens she had absorbed Mary Wostoncraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women. She was entranced by Lord Byron and the Greek Revolution which inspired her first published poems, Stanzas Excited by Reflections on the Present State of Greece in The New Monthly Magazine and Thoughts Awakened by Contemplating a Piece of the Palm which Grows on the Summit of the Acropolis at Athens in 1821.
But about this time her happy adolescence was dealt a severe blow—she came down with a serious illness inflicting excruciating pain in her brain and spine and sometimes rendering her incapable of walking. Two of her sisters had the same condition, but ultimately recovered. Elizabeth would regain some strength but be a semi-invalid the rest of her life.
The exact cause of this condition has never been diagnosed with certainty. Speculation has run wild. Polio was suspected. In the early 20th Century it became fashionable to dismiss her ailment as female hysteria, a form of hypochondria said to affect creative women with “over active imaginations.” But those who knew or observed her had no doubt her suffering was real.
She began to rely on laudanum for the pain and later graduated to morphine making her a life-long addict. Some believe reveries from the drug contributed to the vivid imagination she employed in her maturing poetry. On the other hand, dependency contributed to her general weakness and after she developed a separate respiratory ailment—likely tuberculosis—in her twenties would have made that condition worse.
Still, she was an extremely attractive young woman as recorded in portraits made of her at the time and descriptions of family and friends. She was small and delicate with large, expressive brown eyes and a dazzling smile readily offered. She wore her nearly black hair in long ringlets divided by a center part which framed her heart shaped face. She maintained that hair style through her life, long after it had gone out of style.
When she was 22 she lost her devoted mother. An aunt moved in to supervise the children, including the now adult Elizabeth. Where her mother had encouraged her literary career, the aunt found it unseemly. They clashed. The family left beloved Hope End and moved three times in the next few years before settling in a London town house, first in Gloucester Place and ultimately to that famous address, 50 Wimpole Street.
Elizabeth’s condition relieved her of the domestic duties expected of her sisters, as well as the sometimes demanding social obligations of a wealthy young woman. She spent much time in her room devoting herself to wide ranging reading and study, voluminous correspondence, and, above all, writing. But she was hardly a recluse. She could, and did leave the house, and regularly received visitors, including many admirers of her growing literary reputation. She was witty and charming between bouts of serious illness.
In fact in London she was able to meet—and impress—a wide circle of the English literary establishment, introduced by her cousin and close friend John Kenyan, including William Wordsworth, Mary Russell Mitford, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle.
Through the 1830’s and early ‘40’s Barrett’s literary output was astonishing. Much of her work was social commentary. Unlike other popular female poets of the era, she had little patience for art-for-art’s-sake poetry. She meant to instruct and uplift, not merely to decorate. In the early 1830’s she became a passionate abolitionist and her popular poems like The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point and A Curse for a Nation were said to have helped swing public opinion behind the Emancipation Act of 1833 which abolished slavery in the colonies.
But this activity put a strain on her relations with the father she adored, whose income relied on slavery. And indeed after emancipation, the family’s fortunes waned dramatically. Her father was forced to sell his country estates. While the family was never reduced to poverty, their circumstances were reduced—and the income from Elizabeth’s literary output was surely welcome.
Later in the decade she turned her attention to child labor in The Cry of the Children published in 1842 and actively—by pen—campaigned in support of the Ten Hour Bill advanced by Lord Shaftsbury. In addition to her original verse Barrett also contributed translations and essays to popular magazines.
The Seraphim and Other Poems in 1838 was her first mature collection of poetry followed by Poems in 1844. She was one of the most popular, and widely respected poets in England, and the American edition of Poems re-titled A Drama of Exile, and other Poems was just as popular and influenced Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickenson whose life in some ways echoed hers.
It was that 1844 edition of Poems that led Robert Browning to write a fateful fan letter.
Robert Browning as a young man.
Browning was born less extravagant circumstances than his beloved on May 7, 1812 in London, but it was hardly poverty. His father, also named Robert had a sinecure at the Bank of England that paid £155 a year—a very comfortable middle class income. Other than class Robert and Elizabeth shared remarkably similar backgrounds and upbringings.
His father was also a scion of a land and slave holding colonial Caribbean family with holdings in St. Kitts, but youthful experience on the plantation left him revolted by slavery. He became an abolitionist, which cost him his inheritance on his father’s side. There was also rumored to be slave ancestry in the family. Robert’s mother was the daughter of a German ship owner and a Scottish mother who brought a modest income of her own to the family and was a devout Dissenter.
The elder Browning was a bibliophile who filled his home with a library of over 1000 volumes. When his son rebelled at the tedium of school, the library became his education. He was literary almost by osmosis. At age 12 he completed a manuscript of poetry which he angrily destroyed when he could find no publisher for it. He was soon fluent in Greek, Latin, French, and Italian. He entranced by the Romantics, especially Shelley in imitation of whom he dramatically renounced his mother’s fervent Protestantism for a noble atheism.
Barred from Oxford or Cambridge by his family’s non-conformist religion, Browning entered University College London at age 16 to study Greek. He left after one year and refused all entreaties by his father to pursue some remunerative career. He declared his intention to dedicate himself to literature. His noble sacrifice to this end was to remain in his father’s household until he was 32 and eloped with Barrett. His indulgent father accepted the situation and even underwrote some of his largely unsuccessful publications.
In 1833 he privately published—on the largess of his aunt and father—Pauline, a fragment of a confession, a long poem in appreciation and imitation of Shelley. The book attracted a few positive reviews but sold almost no copies. Only anonymity spared the author deep public humiliation. Years later, in 1850, Dante Gabriel Rossetti stumbled on the work in the British Museum and connected it the by then established Browning. The author heavily revised the poems for inclusion in his later collection.
He fared better with Paracelsus published in 1835 after a brief visit to St. Petersburg as the companion to a French/Russian aristocrat and diplomat. The poems were cast as monologues of a 16th Century alchemist and sage and were meditations on an intellectual trying to find his role in society. The esoteric subject matter did not sell well with the general public, but found an appreciative audience among the London literati including Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, John Stuart Mill, and Tennyson. At least it gained him admittance to the fringes of literary society.
After turning his hand unsuccessfully to playwriting, Browning went to Italy for the first time in 1835 where he found the inspiration for his ambitious Sordello, a long poem in heroic couplets, the imaginary biography of the Mantuan bard spoken of by Dante in the Divine Comedy. The book was both dense and obscure. Tennyson complained he could only understand the first and last lines. The effort was ridiculed in the literary press, and an abject failure that nearly sank Browning’s reputation.
From 1841 to ’44 Browning slowly recovered his reputation with the modest publication of a series of eight pamphlets—we would call them chap books today—assembling work that had been published in various journals as well at the texts of his plays. The plays impressed no one, but the poems which he styled dramatic lyrics, drew admiration.
Such was the modest state of Browning’s career and reputation when he eloped with the far more celebrated Barrett.
The couple first resided in Pisa where they weathered the anticipated storm created by their scandalous elopement. Of course they expected her father’s reaction. He disinherited his daughter, as they knew he would. But he went further, severing all connection to what had once been a close and loving relationship. When the press painted Browning as a cad, seducer, and fortune hunter, even Elizabeth’s beloved and once supportive brother turned against her. None would ever deign to receive or acknowledge her husband.
Italy in those days was something of a paradise for exiled Brits. The climate was salubrious, the people warm and friendly, the food a delight and adventure to English palates raised on boiled beef, and the expenses low. The couple and the nurse Elizabeth had brought with her were able to live simply but comfortably on her independent income derived from her mother’s estate and her earnings as a writer. Better yet, the sunshine and fresh air—not to mention happiness—improved Elizabeth’s heath.
The following year the couple settled into apartments in Florence, which they would make their home the rest of their time together. Both were writing productively—Elizabeth completing the love poems that became known as Sonnets from the Portuguese. The title had a double meaning—the sonnets were composed in a somewhat unusual Portuguese style and Browning had made a pet name of calling her My Portuguese for her dark hair and eyes. Barrett was contributing poems to London journals, the notoriety of the elopement probably helping to gain interest in more popular publications. Yet the critical reception of these pieces was wildly divided.
After suffering miscarriages Elizabeth, now 43 years old, successfully gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, whom they called Pen. Their joy was unbounding and the boy doted on.Elizabeth with her beloved son Pen when he was about 11 years old.
Meanwhile Elizabeth was preparing a new edition of her Poems. Robert insisted that she include Sonnets from the Portuguese which she had considered private. When the new edition was published in 1850 it created a sensation. Whatever fame and admiration Elizabeth had enjoyed previously, it was now magnified. And so was the public view of the story of her and Robert’s elopement—it was transformed almost immediately to the stuff of high romance. Victorian audiences were thrilled.
When Wordsworth died that year so high was her star that she was seriously in the running with Tennyson to be named successor as national Poet Lauriat.
While in Florence the couple regularly socialized with the large English expatriate community there and entertained a stream of distinguished visitors from Britain and the United States which included William Makepeace Thackeray, sculptor Harriet Hosmer, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Margaret Fuller, and the female French novelist George Sand.
In 1855 Browning finally had a breakthrough in his own career with the publication of the two-volume Men and Women, a collection of dramatic monologues in verse, the form for which he would become best known.
Elizabeth was even more active. She produced Casa Guidi Windows in 1851 and her 1857 epic novel in verse, Aurora Leigh which was considered by many critics the greatest long form poem of the Victorian era.
Elizabeth also took note of social developments in England, and as she had done with abolitionism and child labor, composed poetic commentaries including Two Poems: A Plea for the Ragged Schools of London and The Twins.
Meanwhile Elizabeth became passionately involved in Italian politics, casting her lot with Giuseppe Garibaldi, his Red Shirts and their ambition to drive foreign influence out of Italy and create a unified kingdom. She composed a short book of poems, Poems before Congress in support of the cause. Back home in England these created an uproar in the Tory press, which denounced her as a fanatic.
In 1860 Elizabeth’s health began to collapse. After winter in warmer Rome, the couple returned to Florence. There on June 21, 1861 she died in her husband’s arms “smilingly, happily, and with a face like a girl’s. … Her last word was … ‘Beautiful.’” So beloved was she in her adopted homes that shops closed down for her funeral. She was buried in the famed Protestant English Cemetery of Florence, last resting place of several notables.Elizabeth's elaborate tomb in Florence still attracts pilgrims.
Grief stricken Browning and his son returned to London, although he frequently visited Italy. He edited and supervised a posthumous collection Last Poems published in 1862.
In subsequent years Browning’s own reputation as a poet soared with the long blank-verse poem The Ring and the Book based on a Roman murder-case from 1690s. Later works included Balaustion’s Adventure, Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day and Asolando, coincidentally published on the day of his death. Perhaps his best loved individual poem was his re-telling of The Pied Piper of Hamlin.
Robert Browning in maturity--at long last a revered poet in his own right.
Browning died full of honors, at last one of the most admired English, poets on December 12, 1889 at his son’s home in Venice. He was laid to rest in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey next to Tennyson.