Elizabeth Browning

Elizabeth Browning

NAME Elizabeth (Moulton) Barrett Browning. Elizabeth and her siblings all had nicknames - Elizabeth's was "Ba".

WHAT FAMOUS FOR English poet famous for her love poetry.

BIRTH 6 March 1806 Coxhoe Hall, nr Durham (demolished in 1980s.)

FAMILY BACKGROUND Elizabeth's parents were Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett and Mary Graham Clarke, who married at St Nicholas Church, Gosforth (Tyne and Wear). His family, some of whom were part Creole, had lived for centuries in Jamaica, where they owned sugar plantations and relied on slave labour. Her mum came from a wealthy Newcastle family, also derived in part from slave labour. Liz lost her mother when she was 22.
Elizabeth was the eldest of their 12 children (eight boys and four girls). All the children lived to adulthood except for one girl, who died at the age of four when Elizabeth was eight. In 1840 her oldest and favorite brother Edward was tragically drowned.

CHILDHOOD Elizabeth was baptized at the age of 3 at Kelloe Parish Church, though she had already been baptized by a family friend in the first week after she was born. Later that year, their father bought Hope End, a 500-acre estate near the Malvern Hills in Ledbury, Herefordshire. Elizabeth had "a large room to herself, with stained glass in the window, and she loved the garden where she tended white roses in a special arbour by the south wall". (1) Liz lived a privileged childhood riding her pony round the grounds visiting other families in the neighbourhood and arranging family theatrical productions with her 11 brothers and sisters. She was a lively child until she suffered a spinal injury at the age of 15.
Liz's first known poem was written at the age of six or eight, On the Cruelty of Forcement to Man. As a present for her fourteenth birthday her father underwrote the publication of her epic Homeric poem entitled The Battle of Marathon .

EDUCATION Liz was educated at home and attended lessons with her brother's tutor. This gave her a good education for a girl of that time. She was an intensely studious, precocious child and had read passages from Paradise Lost and Shakespearean plays, and the histories of England, Greece and Rome before the age of ten.
In her teen years went through the principal Greek and Latin authors in their original languages and learnt enough Hebrew to read the Old Testament from the beginning to the end.

CAREER RECORD 1820 Elizabeth's first published work, The Battle of Marathon.
1825 The Rose and Zephyr is published in the Literary Gazette.
1838 The Seraphim and other Poems is the first volume of Browning's poetry to appear in her name.

APPEARANCE Elizabeth (see left) was pretty and personable. Mary Russell Mitford wrote of her about the time she'd turned 20, "A slight, delicate figure, with a shower of dark curls falling on each side of a most expressive face; large, tender eyes, richly fringed by dark eyelashes, and a smile like a sunbeam." Her Creole ancestry gave Liz a slightly exotic look. Anne Thackeray Ritchie described her as, "Very small and brown" with big, exotic eyes and an overgenerous mouth.

FASHION Browning forced her 12 year old son to wear frilly knickerbockers and shoulder length ringlets.

CHARACTER Large minded, intelligent, quietly sympathetic manner, neurotic, emotional.

RELATIONSHIPS By 1844 Elizabeth had been an invalid for many years, spending most of her time in her upstairs room, spending much of her time writing. Her 1844 Poems made her one of the most popular writers in the land at the time and inspired well known poet Robert Browning to write to her, telling her how much he loved her poems. A family friend Kenyon arranged for Robert Browning to meet Elizabeth in May 1845, and so began one of the most famous courtships in literature.
The courtship and marriage between Robert Browning and Elizabeth were carried out secretly. Six years his elder and an invalid, she could not believe that the vigorous and worldly Robert Browning really loved her as much as he professed to. After a private marriage at St. Marylebone Parish Church, making her Bobby's girl, Browning imitated his hero Shelley by spiriting his beloved off to Italy in September 1846, which became her home almost continuously until her death. Elizabeth's loyal nurse, Wilson, who witnessed the marriage, accompanied the couple to Italy.
Her father disinherited Elizabeth, as he did each of his children who married. She repeatedly sought a reconciliation with her father but he returned her letters unopened.
As Elizabeth had some money of her own, the couple were reasonably comfortable in Italy, and their relationship together was harmonious. The Brownings were well respected in Italy, and even famous. Elizabeth grew stronger and in 1849, at the age of 43, she gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, whom they called Pen. Their son became an artist, got married but had no legitimate children, so there are apparently no direct descendants of the two famous poets.
"I love thee with a love, I seemed to lose with my lost Saints
I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears of all my life!
And if God chose I shall but love thee better after death." from Sonnets from the Portuguese "Portuguese" was a pet name her husband used.

MONEY AND FAME Elizabeth's extraordinary poems brought admirers (including Browning) to the room where she languished in her bed after her spinal injury. In her day she was more highly regarded poetry wise than Robert and was the most highly regarded female poet of her day. However her 1860 Political Poems Before Congress injured her popularity as many disapproved of the Browning version of Italian political matters.

LITERATURE Liz's first known poem was written at the age of six or eight, On the Cruelty of Forcement to Man. As a present for her fourteenth birthday her father underwrote the anonymous publication of her epic Homeric poem entitled The Battle of Marathon .
1838 The Seraphim and other Poems is favourably reviewed.
1844 Poems An important collection in Victorian literature. So highly regarded that when Wordsworth died she was tipped by many to be the next Poet Laureate.
1850 Sonnets from the Portuguese. (From Robert Browning's pet name for her "The Portuguese".) Elizabeth's most famous work was inspired by her love for her husband. At the time she was still in a hot flush over the mere mention of his name.
1857 Aurora Leigh, her verse novel about the subjection of women to the dominating male.
1861 The North and the South. The last poem she wrote before her death. An admirer of Hans Christian Anderson, her last poem was written for him shortly before her death.
In 1913 500 letters written by Elizabeth and Robert were sold for £32750 at an auction.

NATURE Flush, a red cocker spaniel was the only companion allowed to the invalid Elizabeth by her tyrannical father. The first time Robert visited Elizabeth at Wimpole Street, Flush bit him. She took Flush with her to Italy with Robert and the mutt was immortalised by her the poem To Flush my Dog. Virginia Woolf later wrote his life story.

PHILOSOPHY & THEOLOGY Elizabeth was bought up by a family that attended services at the nearest dissenting chapel and her father was active for years in Bible missionary societies. Liz herself went through an evangelical ?phase? and it is not clear how much she retained her faith as she developed an interest in spiritualism. However, she wrote a number of pieces about social injustice including the slave trade in America, the labor of children in the mines and mills of England and the restrictions placed upon women. Paine, Voltaire and Rousseau influenced her concern for human rights.
Elizabeth was fascinated by Italian politics and she supported (theoretically) Italian unity.

SCANDAL During her time as an invalid, Elizabeth became addicted to opium due to the pain of her spinal condition. She knocked back laudanum, a cocktail of opium and alcohol to help her to sleep. Robert Browning used Chianti to wean and cure his Elizabeth of her addiction to laudanum.

HEALTH AND PHYSICAL FITNESS I've touched on Elizabeth's invalid condition previously in this trivial biography, but here's her full medical bulletin.
At the age of 15 Liz fell from a pony and injured her spine. She was slow to recover so a Dr Coker prescribed opium for a nervous disorder and she carried on taking it for the next 25 years. However it only made her worse and for much of the time she was bedridden, especially after 1838 when a burst blood vessel made her seriously ill.
Elizabeth's health forced her to move to Torquay on Devonshire coast, where her brother Edward accompanied her. His death by drowning was a massive blow and she returned to Wimpole Street and became a permanent recluse seeing only a few people.
In 1846, in preparation for her elopement with Robert, Elizabeth began to free herself of the habits acquired as an invalid practising standing without help and then walking where she had previously been carried.
She finally got better in Italy away from her oppressive father.

HOMES Elizabeth was brought up at the 240 acre Hope End, Herefordshire, near the Malvern Hills, which inspired some of her early poetry.
1832-37 The family moved three times due to Mr Barrett's financial losses, first Sidmouth, then 99 Gloucester Place, London, then 50 Wimpole Street, London.
1838-41 Due to her illness, Elizabeth moved back to Torquay (1 Beacon Terrace), and the sea air.
1846 Browning eloped to Italy, at Casa Guidi, Florence, now a home available to be rented. She lived in Florence until her death.

DEATH At the death of an old friend, G.B. Hunter, and then of her father, Elizabeth's health faded again, centering around deteriorating lung function. When news of the death of Elizabeth?s sister Henrietta reached her, in 1860, she became weak and depressed. Her faithful husband never left her bedside and she spent the last day of her life asleep in his arms. Elizabeth died on 29 June 1861 at Casa Guidi, and was buried in Florence's Protestant Cemetery.
She became gradually weaker and died on 29 June 1861
Died 1861 in Florence. Shortly after hearing of her father's death she suffered a complete physical collapse. Her faithful husband never left her bedside & she spent the last day of her life asleep in his arms. (2) She fell ill and died at Casa Guidi, and was buried in Florence's Protestant Cemetery.

APPEARANCES IN MEDIA 1. The classic Hollywood movie 1936 The Barretts of Wimpole Street was based on a 1930 play by Rudolf Besier of the same title. Norma Shearer who played Elizabeth was Oscar-nominated, while Charles Laughton portrayed the formidable Mr Browning. In 1957 it was Jennifer Jones and John Gielgud's turn to portray the same twosome.
2. John Lennon & Yoko Ono were inspired by the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Browning. They often joked they were the reincarnated spirits of "Bob and Liz". Two tracks, "Let Me Count The Ways" and "Grow Old with Me" on the Milk and Honey album were inspired by the poetry of Bob and Liz.

ACHIEVEMENTS A plaque in Kelloe church, where she was christened describes Elizabeth as "a great poetess, a noble woman, a devoted wife."

Sources (1) Rosalie Mader Mrs Browning: The Story of Elizabeth Barrett
(2) Wikipedia

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