[The following excerpt comes from the author's history of EBB's critical heritage in Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1995). — George P. Landow formatted the text and added links to other material in the Victorian Web]

Illuminated initial G

. K. Chesterton eschews gender-inflected essentialist distinctions between Barrett Browning and other Victorian writers. On the contrary, he explicitly rejects the 'false sex philosophy' that would see her strengths as masculine and her weaknesses as feminine: 'we remember all the lines in her work which were weak enough to be called "womanly", we forget the multitude of strong lines that are strong enough to be called "manly"; lines that Kingsley or Henley would have jumped for joy to print in proof of their manliness.'

Chesterton also trenchantly dismisses the idea that Barrett Browning imitated her husband: 'As to the critic who thinks her poetry owed anything to the great poet who was her husband, he can go and live in the same hotel with the man who can believe that George Eliot owed anything to the extravagant imagination of Mr. George Henry Lewes' (179-81).

Chesterton is particularly refreshing in emphasizing Barrett Browning's cosmopolitanism, rather than her 'hysterical' un-English sympathies with Italian liberation. Browning, with 'all his Italian sympathies and Italian residence ... was not the man to get Victorian England out its provincial rut', Chesterton suggests. 'His celebrated wife was wider and wiser than he in this sense ... She is by far the most European of all the English poets of that age; all of them, even her own much greater husband, look local beside her. Tennyson and the rest are nowhere' (178). He also praised her wit and the 'powerful concentration' of her rhetoric (181), in contrast to the conventional critical emphasis on her diffuse and feminine expansiveness: 'She excelled in her sex, in epigram, almost as much as Voltaire in his. Pointed phrases like: "Martyrs by the pang without the palm" ... came quite freshly and spontaneously to her quite modern mind' (177-78). Chesterton's own strength in the epigram makes his witty survey of Victorian literature engaging reading. [211/212]

Bibliography

Chesterton, G (ilbert) K(eith). The Victorian Age in Literature. London: Butterworth: 1913. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1913.

Stone, Marjorie. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. London: Macmillan, 1995. [full text in the Victorian Web].


Victorian Overview G.K. Chesterton Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Last modified 14 June 2014r