Decorative Initial Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett was born March 6, 1806 in Durham, England. Her father, Edward Moulton-Barrett, made most of his considerable fortune from Jamaican sugar plantations, and in 1809 he bought Hope End, a 500-acre estate near the Malvern Hills. Elizabeth lived a privileged childhood, riding her pony around the grounds, visiting other families in the neighborhood, and arranging family theatrical productions with her eleven brothers and sisters. Although frail, she apparently had no health problems until 1821, when Dr. Coker prescribed opium for a nervous disorder. Her mother died when she was 22, and critics mark signs of this loss in Aurora Leigh.

Elizabeth, an accomplished child, had read a number of Shakespearian plays, parts of Pope's Homeric translations, passages from Paradise Lost, and the histories of England, Greece, and Rome before the age of ten. She was self-taught in almost every respect.  During her teen years she read the principal Greek and Latin authors and Dante's Inferno — all texts in the original languages. Her voracious appetite for knowledge compelled her to learn enough Hebrew to read the Old Testament from beginning to end. Her enjoyment of the works and subject matter of Paine, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Wollstonecraft was later expressed by her concern for human rights in her own letters and poems. By the age of twelve she had written an "epic" poem consisting of four books of rhyming couplets. Barrett later referred to her first literary attempt as, "Pope's Homer done over again, or rather undone."

In her early twenties Barrett befriended Hugh Stuart Boyd, a blind, middle-aged scholar, who rekindled Barrett's interest in Greek studies. During their friendship Barrett absorbed an astonishing amount of Greek literature — Homer, Pindar, Aristophanes, etc. — but after a few years Barrett's fondness for Boyd diminished.

Her intellectual fascination with the classics and metaphysics was balanced by a religious obsession which she later described as "not the deep persuasion of the mild Christian but the wild visions of an enthusiast." (See Methodism for the connotations of "enthusiasm.") Her family attended services at the nearest Dissenting chapel, and Mr. Barrett was active in Bible and Missionary societies.

From 1822 on, Elizabeth Barrett's interests tended more and more to the scholarly and literary. Mr. Barrett's financial losses in the early 30s forced him to sell Hope End, and although never poor, the family moved three times between 1832 and 1837, settling at 50 Wimpole Street in London. In 1838, The Seraphim and Other Poems appeared, the first volume of Elizabeth's mature poetry to appear under her own name. That same year her health forced her to move to Torquay, on the Devonshire coast. Her favorite brother Edward went along with her; his death by drowning later that year was a blow which prostrated her for months and from which she never fully recovered. When she returned to Wimpole Street, she became an invalid and a recluse, spending most of the next five years in her bedroom, seeing only one or two people other than her immediate family.

One of those people was John Kenyon, a wealthy and convivial friend of the arts. Her 1844 Poems made her one of the most popular writers in the land, and inspired Robert Browning to write her, telling her how much he loved her poems. Kenyon arranged for Browning to come see her in May 1845, and so began one of the most famous courtships in literature. Six years his elder and an invalid, she could not believe that the vigorous and worldly Browning really loved her as much as he professed to, and her doubts are expressed in the Sonnets from the Portuguese which she wrote over the next two years. Love conquered all, however, and Browning imitated his hero Shelley by spiriting his beloved off to Italy in August 1846. Since they were proper Victorians, however, they got married a week beforehand.

Mr. Barrett disinherited her (as he did each one of his children who got married without his permission, and he never gave his permission). Unlike her brothers and sisters, Elizabeth had inherited some money of her own, so the Brownings were reasonably comfortable in Italy. In 1849, they had a son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning.

At her husband's insistence, the second edition of her Poems included her love sonnets.  They helped increase her popularity and the high critical regard in which the Victorians held their favorite poetess. (On Wordsworth's death in 1850, she was seriously considered for the Laureateship, which went to Tennyson.) Her growing interest in the Italian struggle for independence is evident in Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems before Congress (1860). 1857 saw the publication of the verse-novel Aurora Leigh,  

It is still unclear what sort of affliction Elizabeth Barrett Browning had, although medical and literary scholars have enjoyed speculating. Whatever it was, the opium which was repeatedly prescribed probably made it worse; and Browning almost certainly lengthened her life by taking her south and by his solicitous attention. She died in his arms on June 29, 1861.

No female poet was held in higher esteem among cultured readers in both the United States and England than Elizabeth Barrett Browning during the nineteenth century. Barrett's poetry had an immense impact on the works of Emily Dickinson who admired her as woman of achievement. 

Barrett's treatment of social injustice (the slave trade in America, the oppression of the Italians by the Austrians, the labor of children in the mines and the mills of England, and the restrictions placed upon women) is manifested in many of her poems. Two of her poems, Casa Guidi Windows and Poems Before Congress, dealt directly with the Italian fight for independence. The first half of Casa Guidi Windows (1851) was filled with hope that the newly awakened liberal movements were moving toward unification and freedom in the Italian states. The second half of the poem, written after the movement of liberalism had been crushed in Italy, is dominated by her disillusionment. After a decade of truce, Italians once again began to struggle for their freedom, but were forced to agree to an armistice that would leave Venice under Austrian control. Barrett Browning's Poems Before Congress (1860) responded to these events by criticizing the English government for not providing aid. One of the poems in this collection, "A Curse For a Nation," which attacked slavery, had been previously published in an abolitionist journal in Boston.

Aurora Leigh also dealt with social injustice, but its subject was the subjugation of women to the dominating male. It also commented on the role of a woman as a woman and poet. Barrett's popularity waned after her death, and late-Victorian critics argued that although much of her writing would be forgotten, she would be remembered for "The Cry of the Children", "Isobel's Child", "Bertha in the Lane", and most of all the Sonnets from the Portuguese. Virginia Woolf argued that Aurora Leigh's heroine, "with her passionate interest in the social questions, her conflict as artist and woman, her longing for knowledge and freedom, is the true daughter of her age."  Woolf's praise of that work predated the modern critical reevaluation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and today it attracts more attention than the rest of her poetry.


Victorian Overview E. B. Browning Aurora Leigh

Created 1987; last modified 6 April 2002